IT SEEMS we can't get enough of costume dramas on TV. The new ITV adaptation of John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga is proving to be a big hit with critics and audiences alike. Some 40 percent of the audience for terrestrial TV tuned in to watch the first episode last Sunday.
The 1967 version was even more popular. When that series was on TV, pubs were closed and church services had to be rescheduled. But don't let comparisons put you off this new series.
It is not just a heritage drama to satisfy the nostalgia of Middle England. The series shows the wealth and beauty enjoyed by the Victorian upper classes. As one critic wrote, you get to see the money and the Monet on screen. But the most important difference between the old and new series is their changing attitude to class.
This is reflected in the language and accents that the actors use. Gone are the cringingly BBC English 'mamas' and 'papas'. Instead the characters say 'dad' and have faint Geordie accents. One critic called this 'tonguing-down'. But this successfully draws out the central elements of the story-class, power, sexuality and oppression.
The Forsyte Saga is set in the early years of the 20th century, but it is a very modern drama. It is about a family of rich merchants dominated by Victorian patriarchs. They are used to getting their own way.
They think they can buy control of their relatives, especially their wives. The story's central dynamic is the conflict between this world and the free spirits of those who refuse to be stifled.
It reveals the awful consequences of making those choices in a society based on exploitation and hierarchy. It shows how the rich will sink to any depths of brutality to keep their control.
There is violence lurking behind the perfect manners and social rigmarole of high society. The story is fast paced and involving. All the characters are convincingly drawn. They are all part of a complex social and business world.
The Forsyte Saga is about our lives today as much as it is about the posh frocks and big houses of yesterday.
The Forsyte Saga, ITV1, 9pm, Sundays