A finely milled soap

Before the Ewings and the Carringtons came along, the Forsyte family captured viewers' attention with stories of money, power, forbidden love

Compassion is not the most highly prized virtue among the Victorian England characters of John Galsworthy's riveting century-old "The Forsyte Saga" (Masterpiece Theatre, PBS, Sundays, Oct.6-Nov. 17, check local listings).

Instead, the Forsytes' "family values" have a lot more to do with making money and conventional propriety than they do with goodness, kindness, or selfless love. But don't judge them too harshly because most of them evolve. That evolution is exactly why the story never releases us until the very end.

This is the second time the "Forsyte Saga" has been presented on TV. It first aired 33 years ago. When PBS was still just a fresh new voice on the minuscule TV front, the BBC adapted Galsworthy's novels in a 26-part series which it then offered to America's Public Broadcasting Service.

The saga was so popular stateside, it gave birth to Masterpiece Theatre. Now Granada Television (Britain) has one-upped the BBC and charged the experience with a contemporary feeling despite the whale-bone corsets and stiff collars.

This eight-hour series covers the first two books of the nine-novel series, "The Man of Property" and "The Chancery." But fans will have to wait a year for the next six.

The script is terrific, the costumes and locations exquisite. But the heart and soul of the piece pulsates in the acting.

British actor Damian Lewis played Lieutenant Winters, an American hero, in last year's HBO special, "Band of Brothers," with dignity and understated feeling. He was admirable and generous. But as the protagonist, Soames Forsyte, in this epic, he is smooth as glass – transparent, cutting, and surprisingly fragile.

Soames is a man of property who marries a wondrously beautiful woman. Alas, his wife, Irene (Gina Mckee), does not love him. Because he is so lacking in empathy for others, so selfish, and so arrogant, he thinks he can persuade her to do "her duty" and love him by berating her for failing to love him. The longer they are married, the more belittling he becomes, and the more she grows to hate him.

Meanwhile, Soames's niece, June (Gillian Kearney), falls in love with the handsome architect Bosinney, played by dashing Ioan Gruffudd ("Horatio Hornblower"), who promptly dumps her for an affair with Irene.

Victorian English society must have been a small world indeed for the Forsytes to fall over one another so much.

Narrow in many ways it must have been, yet never boring – at least not as Galsworthy figures it. Certainly ideas about marital life and the relationship between the sexes have undergone many changes since he wrote the first book in 1906. Yet Irene is still an enigma by anyone's standards.

McKee ("Notting Hill") brings Renoir and Mary Cassatt to mind – her person and her performance are as striking and as unfathomable as an Impressionist painting. Does she really hate her husband as much as she says she does? Has she no feelings of responsibility toward him?

No one is guiltless in this complicated story – it's a tad sudsy in that sense. But unlike a soap opera, it both censures conventional propriety and seeks out what is noble in it. The bohemian lifestyle may seem romantic, but there are huge emotional losses in the story associated with it.

Corin Redgrave plays June's grandfather with great delicacy of feeling, first as a tender father (to his misbehaving son, Young Joly), and then as a frail old man in love (with Irene, of course – this girl gets around). And the actor's generosity of feeling is one of the very best things about the entire series. He is the story's center of virtue, and its richest gem.

* * *

Those of us who love both Victorians and science fiction will get a genuine kick out of the four-hour miniseries, The Lost World (A&E, 8-10 p.m., Oct. 6, 7) based on the classic adventure by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It makes a pleasant companion piece to "The Forsyte Saga."

Bob Hoskins stars as the eccentric paleontologist, George Challenge, who believes that somewhere in the world dinosaurs have survived. His scientific theories seem quaint now, but suspend your disbelief, and you can roam gleefully with him and his ingenious associates among the brutal, ancient life-forms.

Challenge sets out with a stuffy rival, Prof. Leo Summerlee (Tom Ward); a daring adventurer, Lord Roxton (Matthew Rhys); a reporter and hero (Edward Malone); and a lovely woman brought up by an eccentric missionary (weirdly performed by Peter Falk) in the heart of the Brazilian jungle. Agnes (Elaine Cassidy) is skilled at nursing, knows her plant remedies, and is nearly fearless in the jungle – and all the men behave as perfect gentlemen around her.

What they face on a hidden plateau in the jungle is more frightening than the dinosaurs themselves.

The rudiments of scientific ethics are challenged by this wild kingdom, as responsible Victorians must decide whether or not to exploit the scientific discovery of a lifetime. The beasts are grand, the acting pleasantly over the top, and the story charming.

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