The Forsyte Saga (1967)

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Paul Hayes
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The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by Paul Hayes »

I suspect you can’t have more than the most casual interest in British television history without being aware of the 1967 version of The Forsyte Saga. I am sure that anyone who’s a member of this forum has some idea of the importance it holds in the pantheon of British television drama. In every history of the genre on this medium, every list of Britain’s greatest shows or dramas, countless interviews and biographies and articles… It’s there, standing like a monolith.

I’d long heard of it, of course, but despite having read the first Forsyte novel some years ago, had never actually got around to watching this series until I bought myself the DVD set for Christmas. I’ve just finished devouring the 26 episodes over the past 10 days or so, and I am very glad indeed that I finally made the decision to watch it.

I’ve always liked stories that have a long timescale and follow a set of characters over a considerable period – it’s one of the reasons why I love Our Friends in the North, for example, a similarly-celebrated BBC drama from a later era. And Forsyte is certainly compelling drama. What’s particularly fascinating, perhaps, is how the character of Soames, who ought to be completely irredeemable after the horrific act he commits at the end of episode six, ought to be totally and utterly unlikeable, and yet… Towards the end, when he’s an old man, I found you could actually have some sympathy for him. It surprised me, after the feelings the earlier episodes generated, and I disliked myself for feeling it, but I couldn’t help it.

That said, by far the most compelling presence on the screen is Kenneth More as Jo, and the serial does lose something when he departs. Susan Hampshire brings some of the star quality needed in his absence, but it’s certainly a story that feels as if it falls into two parts – the first half up to the events of Fleur and Jon’s births in 1901, and then after that it feels more like a coda… But that’s interesting too, as it’s as if you had a great series and the “what happened next” all rolled into one together.

On a technical level, it’s always a treat to see a black and white drama as it originally looked, on videotape. The film inserts that are present look very good as well – I’m assuming they probably weren’t re-transferred and re-inserted for the DVD (if they even still exist), so it just goes to show how much better these things looked when exteriors were done on 35mm in the black-and-white era, rather than the grotty BBC drama 16mm we got used to in the colour era!

Speaking of colour, I know it’s often lamented that it was made just too early for colour, but I think it worked out for the best – we got the absolute epoch of black-and-white studio drama, when everyone knew exactly what they were doing and how to do it, rather than something from the early days of colour VT in the UK when they didn’t have it quite nailed down yet.

It’s intriguing though that even on this most prestigious of productions, with such high production values, the mistakes of pressured studio drama still creep in. There’s the odd camera problem here or there where it hits something; one episode had some audible talkback creeping through somewhere in the background, and most surprisingly of all the occasional cough or two from somewhere in the studio can be heard every now and then.

Here’s an intriguing and pointless one, too, but I know we have people (Bob?) around here who often know about such things. The final episode has a special set of end credits done differently, but on all the other episodes they’re left-justified on a roller… except for episode 19, when uniquely they’re centre-justified, for this episode only. Seems an odd change to make, and I can’t believe they simply forgot what they’d done for the others for one episode…?

There are some superb extras on the DVD, too, especially all the Late Night Line-Up bits. The first one has some nice interview bits and, intriguingly, a snippet of studio discussion featuring Nyree Dawn Porter and (presumably) Donald Wilson – I can’t tell if it’s him or not as despite him being the one speaking, the shot stays on Porter… There’s just a fragment of this, though, among the film interviews – is this all that exists, and if so why…?

The second Line-Up clip, the colour film report, is intriguing to see some of the sets and costumes in colour. But the third, the long studio discussion of Soames vs Irene, is jaw-dropping for its insights into some of the views of the 1967 world – “she was lucky she was only raped!” is one particular woman’s comment which leaves a 2014 viewer slack-jawed in disbelief.

It’s a fascinating treat for a Doctor Who fan to see Donald Wilson interviewed as a living, speaking person, having read so much of him down the years but never heard him talk before. And never having seen Kenneth More outside of characters on the screen before, he was rather camper than I would have expected!

I was also surprised that so many bits and pieces of out-takes and fluffs survive on VT – where did they all come from? Were they taken from surviving studio session tapes that also still exist, or were they collected away at the end of transmission tapes or something?

It’s amazing we have all 26 episodes on VT, of course… I know it was a hugely prestigious production, but I’m sure other prestige dramas were still wiped… I know they’d have been preserved for a possible BBC 1 repeat initially, but do we know how the tapes survived for the best part of a decade after that until the creation of the Film & Videotape library? Were they donated to the BFI or something (I notice that the National Film Theatre did do an all-day showing of all 26 episodes back-to-back in 1972)? Or was there simply always a preservation order slapped on them that was never rescinded…?

Anyway, sorry, this is a very long post. I’m sure most of you have seen it long ago and it’s such a famous piece of archive television you’re probably sick of talking or hearing about it… But I was pleased to find it was as good as its reputation suggested, and wanted to share my enthusiasm for it!

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by Duncan »

An interesting post about a very interesting series

i agree with you about Soames - in fact i'd go so far as to say that he's an anti-hero who becomes something of a hero within his own narrow confines. Michael's father sums him up nicely - no sense of humour etc... Although there is the nice moment with the balloon and when Soames actually seems to have fun at the races

I do prefer the episodes before the birth of Fleur though - with the older Forsytes occasionally making an appearance, and the fun characters of George and Monty - also there's the terrific John Bennett

The later episodes dont appeal so much - partly because Fleur is such an unpleasant character, and the bits with Terry Scully's character and his wife seem sonewhat out of place - great sixties hairstyle for the latter!

It's also a great show to watch for the marvellous character actors - and you can easily see why it was so popular!

I still find myself saying "lawks!" at moments of stress like Winifred's ever reliable maid :)

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by Richard A »

Paul, thanks for a really interesting post. Strangely, The Forsyte Saga seems to have been missing from my mental map of worthwhile 60s drama currently available on DVD. I can't think why - maybe I just forget that some good BBC material from this era has been released.

I was just a little too young to get anything from it when first broadcast, but your post has reminded me what a prestige work it was at the time and I think I'll give it a go, once the current account has recovered a bit.

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by stanbutler »

I started watching it 3 years ago but never did get around to finishing the last 3 or 4 episodes. Enjoyed it but started to lose interest towards the later era and characters and never did go back to finishing it. In terms of period drama I was hoping for more along the lines of Upstairs Downstairs which I'd just watched for the first time and greatly enjoyed. But whereas UD is equally about the period and events as well as great characters, Forsyte just seemed to be about the interpersonal relationships and came across more of a Mills & Boon type story of love and family which isn't really my cup of tea.

However, I must go back to it and try a complete run again, at the very least it's worth finishing.

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by Paul Hayes »

Duncan wrote:I still find myself saying "lawks!" at moments of stress like Winifred's ever reliable maid :)
Ah yes, Smither - there's a lovely moment in the final episode when she and Soames's ancient clerk, Gradman, are briefly together in the same room... These two old faithfuls who've both been with the family all the way through.

On Soames, I'm not sure I'd go as far as you Duncan and describe him as an anti-hero... I just don't think he has the necessary qualities. He becomes more sympathetic almost purely through attrition and outlasting the other characters, rather than anything else.

The balloon bit is nice, though. (And so is the first take on the DVD - I do feel sorry for poor Eric Porter having to faff around so much with it, I can never tie the bloody things either!)

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by Paul Hayes »

stanbutler wrote:I started watching it 3 years ago but never did get around to finishing the last 3 or 4 episodes. Enjoyed it but started to lose interest towards the later era and characters and never did go back to finishing it. In terms of period drama I was hoping for more along the lines of Upstairs Downstairs which I'd just watched for the first time and greatly enjoyed. But whereas UD is equally about the period and events as well as great characters, Forsyte just seemed to be about the interpersonal relationships and came across more of a Mills & Boon type story of love and family which isn't really my cup of tea.

However, I must go back to it and try a complete run again, at the very least it's worth finishing.
I suppose that's true, although there are some nice bits around the turn of the century, with actual newsreel footage of the death of Victoria and Boer War victory celebrations included.

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by stanbutler »

I will finish eventually, if only to get my money's worth. And there are some interesting characters and some great actors, but after such a long gap since I got as far as I did I couldn't just finish the last handful of episodes without reminding myself what came before as I've forgotten most of it now, which means running through the whole thing again which I keep meaning to do but it's still sat on the shelf alongside my TV with other unfinished but started DVDs waiting for the effort!

Susan Hampshire at least is worth the effort though. :)

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by Alice80 »

Thanks for posting this, Paul - you have whetted my appetite for a new (to me) series to get my teeth into. My late mum told me that on this series' original run, I was able to keep her up to scratch with the plot whenever she had to leave the room and that what I said made sense - but I can't think that would be right as I would only have been 2 and a half - far too young to follow a complicated plot. (And since my little brother was born 4 days before the first episode, it seems even more unlikely that she would have followed it...)

But I adored The Pallisers as a child so this type of long serial is very much to my tastes - if only I could get my husband past episode 1 of that... *sigh*...but he gets fidgety at costume dramas (which is odd since he was an historical reenactor with The Sealed Knot) as they '...don't have any monsters, spaceships or tanks in them...'

Cheers!

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by ctraynor »

I caught the programme on its second run, in 1968, which is apparently when it really took off and grabbed a massive audience. I gather that's when all the stories broke about parishioners missing Evensong to catch what Soames, Fleur etc were getting up to. But I think I only caught the last episode; I remember the dramatic denoument, Dud. I'll grab the rest some time (after I've finished Breaking Bad). The extras sound interesting. I'll probably go for them first.

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by stearn »

Alice80 wrote: '...don't have any monsters, spaceships or tanks in them...'
Now that is an English Civil War serial I would like to see!

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by TK-JaKe »

Paul Hayes wrote:It’s amazing we have all 26 episodes on VT, of course…
I'm not so sure about that -

when the ITCA members lobbied for the removal of statutory restrictions on the hours of (television) broadcasting and won the BBC followed suit (with a consequent increase in the Licence Fee).

It was early to mid 70s.

One of the first attempts at 'Daytime TV' on BBC-1 included a re-run of The Forsyte Saga,

most of the episodes were indeed transmitted from 2" quad (VTM-6T-*******)
however
one episode (at least) was transmitted from film recording (35T-******) because the 2" had deteriorated to the point at which it was deemed un-transmittable,

I'm not sure whether I 'did' it or not, but I was certainly there and remember TK30 & TK32 were the chosen pair,
it was very rare to have red lights on over the cubicles during a weekday afternoon
(unless they were substituting for TK24 and its Trade Test duties!)

I've had this box-set for ages but as yet ........ one day I'll see if I can identify 'rogue' episodes.

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by Bernie »

A problem with the Forsyte Saga is the sound, which is very open. The series was made in TC4 which had EMI 203 cameras, most with turrets. The lens changer on those cameras was very positive, with solid clunks on each change. The result is that in many of the scenes you can hear the changes - clunk, clunk, close up next. And you can hear ped rings - the steering wheel which operated a chain running round the wheels. Now you know you'll always hear it.

My first weeks at TC corresponded with about half way through the series, and the corridors at lunch time were full of familiar faces in period costume.

B

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by Paul Hayes »

Interesting Jake - I'm no technical expert, but unless it was VidFIREd to a higher quality than anything else ever has been, there's certainly no film recording-sourced episode on the DVD set.

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by Wakey »

Paul Hayes wrote:Interesting Jake - I'm no technical expert, but unless it was VidFIREd to a higher quality than anything else ever has been, there's certainly no film recording-sourced episode on the DVD set.
It all exists on video according to the latest Kaleidoscope guide. However, that doesn't discount the report that one of the tapes was considered below par in the 70s, and a telerecording used instead. Advances in technology may mean that a tape that had inferior playback in the 70s can be played/recovered just fine now (or when it was transferred to a digital video medium for the archive).

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by ian b »

All the releases of FORSYTE have utilised vt copies of the episodes - the original set edited two episodes together, (or three in the case of the final pair of volumes), but also edited out short sequences where the was tape damage, such as bad scratches, (usually by keeping the sound, but using reaction shots from elsewhere in the episode). The second set, exclusive to WH Smiths for a while), was episodic and straight transfers of the existing tape masters, faults and all.

The dvd set, originally R1 only, is the one that had restoration applied - the out-takes, IIRC, had been spliced onto the end of the original spools.

And Paul, it's the TALKBACK with the studio discussion isn't it? Not a LNLU.

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by ian b »

TK-JaKe wrote:
Paul Hayes wrote:It was early to mid 70s.

One of the first attempts at 'Daytime TV' on BBC-1 included a re-run of The Forsyte Saga.
1974 - two episodes a week IIRC.

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by Paul Hayes »

ian b wrote:And Paul, it's the TALKBACK with the studio discussion isn't it? Not a LNLU.
The full Talkback discussion is present as an extra, but in the first LNLU extra there is a snippet of some sort of studio discussion, featuring Dawn Porter and, I think, Wilson. But it's just a clip in the midst of film material.

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by Simon36 »

I have still never watched it but the excellent original post has made up my mind I really must now!

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by Roll ACR »

I haven't watched it for years. I bought the big VHS box set which was packaged in a green design - IIRC. Must be about 20 years ago though. I did enjoy it and the tapes must be up in my loft somewhere. Although after 15 years of being baked then frozen through the seasons I don't know what state they'll be in now.

I enjoyed it very much and as others have said Kenneth Moore is a particular pleasure.

Bernie is right, I remember very well that the sound was indeed very open. You could not only hear clunk clunk lens changes and ringsteers, including cameramen's rings clanging upon said ringsteer as they grab it, also there was quite extensive use of camera headlamps which, on occasions as the camera tracks, sound rather like a tea trolley clattering along.

It seems odd because ABC amongst others had the same cameras in studio 1 at Teddington and yet on the various productions I've watched from there, the camera noises off are nowhere near as intrusive. It must have been the BBC's or that particular Sound Super's choice of mic that gave such a horribly open quality to the sound.

I'm not sure I agree that it would've been better made in colour. It would have been just another "if in doubt zoom about" drama. At least with primes the fuckers had to move the camera rather than their thumb. Always looks so much nicer and more natural. Part of the reason I much prefer the look of prime lens multi-cam than the zoom happy stuff from the late 60s and 70s colour stuff. Of course it was a new toy and the camera guys at that time weren't being shoddy at all, they were just following the fashion at the time. It doesn't look "nice" though. The human eye can't zoom and IMHO nor should a camera on a drama unless it's almost imperceptibly slow, heavily disguised as part of a move or a crash for particular dramatic effect.

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by didi-5 »

This became my favourite TV series when I first watched it about five years (previous to that I ranked The Jewel in the Crown above everything else). I didn't even notice it was black and white, and it is compulsive viewing with some great characterizations throughout. Best of all, it has plenty of episodes in which to develop the story and to give everyone sufficient television time. It's just a wonderful piece of small screen magic.

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by Bernie »

Roll ACR wrote: It must have been the BBC's or that particular Sound Super's choice of mic that gave such a horribly open quality to the sound.
I wasn't a sound man - well a bit in training for a while - but I'm pretty certain there was a manager who insisted on only particular mics being used. In fact I'm sure I remember stories of him locking the ones he didn't want used in his desk drawer. Anyway, the standard boom mic for many years was the AKG D25

Image

- and definitely not any other type, or you're fired.
Roll ACR wrote:I'm not sure I agree that it would've been better made in colour. It would have been just another "if in doubt zoom about" drama. At least with primes the fuckers had to move the camera rather than their thumb. Always looks so much nicer and more natural. Part of the reason I much prefer the look of prime lens multi-cam than the zoom happy stuff from the late 60s and 70s colour stuff. Of course it was a new toy and the camera guys at that time weren't being shoddy at all, they were just following the fashion at the time. It doesn't look "nice" though. The human eye can't zoom and IMHO nor should a camera on a drama unless it's almost imperceptibly slow, heavily disguised as part of a move or a crash for particular dramatic effect.
I take exception! There was much discussion and experimenting with the zooms in the early days of colour. We didn't want to zoom around on dramas, so we tended to set up the shot boxes to roughly match the 8, 16, 24, 35 of the standard turret, then try to track as much as possible. Of course with a Marconi Mk7, which was very large and long, you didn't have too much leeway, but an EMI 2001 with a K lens and a Falcon ped was as maneuverable as a monochrome camera.

And we all hated headlamps.

B

B

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by TK-JaKe »

Paul Hayes wrote:Interesting Jake - I'm no technical expert, but unless it was VidFIREd to a higher quality than anything else ever has been, there's certainly no film recording-sourced episode on the DVD set.
There's a world of difference between not risking putting a 2" on air that is shedding its oxide and may thus clog heads
and using the same VTR as a 'resource' in a 'restoration activity'.

Remember, in 1974 'daytime' was a very low budget operation and 35mm telerecordings had been pretty much the norm
only 10 years earlier.

To avoid confusion, Jake is my lazy yellow labrador - I am someone else entirely!

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by Paul Hayes »

TK-JaKe wrote:
Paul Hayes wrote:Interesting Jake - I'm no technical expert, but unless it was VidFIREd to a higher quality than anything else ever has been, there's certainly no film recording-sourced episode on the DVD set.
There's a world of difference between not risking putting a 2" on air that is shedding its oxide and may thus clog heads
and using the same VTR as a 'resource' in a 'restoration activity'.

Remember, in 1974 'daytime' was a very low budget operation and 35mm telerecordings had been pretty much the norm
only 10 years earlier.

To avoid confusion, Jake is my lazy yellow labrador - I am someone else entirely!
Oh I wasn't in any way questioning your story about the 1974 repeats, and I'm sorry if I gave that impression. I was just replying to your comment about not being sure the whole thing still existed on VT.

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by TK-JaKe »

Paul Hayes wrote:Oh I wasn't in any way questioning your story about the 1974 repeats .......
I didn't for a moment think you were ---- I'm just trying to give a flavour of decisions made 40 years ago about the security of transmissions, at a time when (video-) editing was expensive, time consuming, and limited in availability;

"restoration" for transmission was virtually unheard of, we're still in the era of limited repeats, by contractual obligation, and wholesale tape wiping.

What I can't really understand is why, according to discussion above, "restoration" involved covering damage of 2" (originals or 1st generation copies) by insertion of stills or bits lifted from elsewhere;
surely all 35mm copies can't have been lost - there were, at the time of production, considered quality transmission versions, not some obscure archiving or sales inferior format!

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by Paul Hayes »

That's an interesting point about the 35mm film recordings. Presumably they would have been made at a point before the tapes became damaged, but why? As safety dubs?

It would be interesting to know whether the BBC1 repeat in the 1960s had been all from VT, or whether they made the 35mm copies then for some reason.

I was under the impression film recordings for export were always 16mm, so they can't have been from Enterprises...?

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by ian b »

Presumably the original vhs release wanted to keep things simple - edit pairs together, replace the opening/closing titles, if tape damage is too obvious replace with pieces from what's to hand.

It's a long time ago, but I'm pretty sure that the one sequence that gave the game away was from the the early mid-point of the serial. Soames and the younger Jolyon are arguing indoors over Fleur and Jon's romance, and while the sound carried on the picture was an obviously slow-mo reaction shot of Eric Porter's face. When compared to the second, episodic, release which seems to be a straight transfer of the episodes, (over eight tapes, not twelve), this was a replacement picture for where the tape was badly scratched. Quad scratches peppered the picture top to bottom for a few seconds. Odd moments of damage like this happened when watching the re-issued set, but not on the original issue. Comparisons between the two showed that the preferred method was to use picture info from the same episodes to cut-and-paste while still using the sound.

Now whether the dvd release was sourced from a different set of tapes, or mix of tapes, or if the damage was repaired by the dvd production team I don't know - though there was certainly was some work done for the R1 release which preceded the R2 issue, (content is the same).

Maybe 35mm recordings were made for the US market, instead of having to convert the tapes? I've only ever come across the usual 16mm copies in circulation.

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by ian b »

Paul Hayes wrote:It would be interesting to know whether the BBC1 repeat in the 1960s had been all from VT, or whether they made the 35mm copies then for some reason.
I'm going from memory here, so without looking it up, you've got the original BBC2 screening plus narrative repeat in the same week in the first half of 1967. Then it debuts on BBC1 in the last quarter of 1968. There's a further BBC1 screening in late 1969, and then the afternoon repeats in 1974. And apart from episode 13 turning up in 1986's TV50 repeat season, that's it in the UK.

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by Paul Hayes »

ian b wrote:
Paul Hayes wrote:It would be interesting to know whether the BBC1 repeat in the 1960s had been all from VT, or whether they made the 35mm copies then for some reason.
I'm going from memory here, so without looking it up, you've got the original BBC2 screening plus narrative repeat in the same week in the first half of 1967. Then it debuts on BBC1 in the last quarter of 1968. There's a further BBC1 screening in late 1969, and then the afternoon repeats in 1974. And apart from episode 13 turning up in 1986's TV50 repeat season, that's it in the UK.
Yes, there is someone complaining at the time in one of the extras that the same-week repeat in 1967 wasn't on BBC1, for the benefit of those who didn't have 2.

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by ian b »

Absolutely bog-standard for the BBC2 Classic slot though - a narrative repeat on the same channel a few day after first transmission.

You can see how FORSYTE fitted into the BBC2 Classic run here...

http://www.mausoleumclubforum.org.uk/xm ... #pid218990


THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY was other one that got one or two outings on the main channel shortly after it's BBC2 run, (in fact like SAGA, one of the repeats got a RT cover).

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Re: The Forsyte Saga (1967)

Post by TK-JaKe »

Paul Hayes wrote:That's an interesting point about the 35mm film recordings. Presumably they would have been made at a point before the tapes became damaged, but why? As safety dubs?

It would be interesting to know whether the BBC1 repeat in the 1960s had been all from VT, or whether they made the 35mm copies then for some reason.
ian b wrote:Maybe 35mm recordings were made for the US market, instead of having to convert the tapes? I've only ever come across the usual 16mm copies in circulation.
As I recall, and this would come from colleagues who actually made the 35mm recordings and those who 'played in' the 35mm inserts into the studio -

the studio output was recorded simultaneously on 2" and 35mm (an operation that would require, if both were 'double-ended', 2 VTs and 4 FRs)

the 'edit' (if any) was made first by the film editor allocated to the FR (I knew one very well and had endless opportunities to gossip, he ended up programming the Cinemascope 'pan&scanning') and that 'EDL' was the guide for the VT editor who, presumably, was still 'cut editing'.

The 35mm recordings were negative, many prints for international distribution and domestic use would have been struck from the cut negative; reduction prints on 16mm made also have been made, I don't know; nor do I know if 16mm recordings were made later from the 2"s.

It wouldn't surprise me at all if the 35mm sourced repeat transmissions in the 60s, or the 2"s, or both - it was down to Programme Planning and what resources were available; the two formats were, to an extent, regarded as interchangeable for transmission purposes.

I saw the 35mm recorders only once - July 21st 1969, my first day induction - they had fallen out of favour,
by the time I started working the 16mm recorders, perhaps 3 years later, they were gone - the first EECO time-code edit suite was built in their cubicles and the relentless march of oxide on plastic continued to kick out the emulsion on celluloid recorders.

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