There’s no role like soames

A LONG, long time ago - well, the Sixties - an epic tale of power, love and strife over three generations of one family gripped the nation. The ground-breaking drama series, The Forsyte Saga, went on to be a huge success around the world.

Around 18 million people in the UK alone tuned into the period drama each week. It featured well known names like Kenneth More, Susan Hampshire and Michael York, but it was actor Eric Porter who dominated as the austere Soames Forsyte.

Granada TV has now re-created the classic production. The task of living up to Porter’s landmark role has gone to Damian Lewis, who was last seen in Steven Spielberg’s highly acclaimed wartime drama Band Of Brothers.

The 31-year-old actor was so keen to play the cold and manipulative Forsyte that he turned down offers from Hollywood so that he could star in the drama.

"They just weren’t right," he says. "There’s so much pressure to get on and be in films in this business. They’re great fun but you’ve still got to keep doing the best material that comes your way.

"I knew very little about the original Forsyte Saga. But it was a fantastic script and they told me the names of the rest of the people they were trying to get involved. I just jumped at the chance.

"I thought it was going to be one of those big TV moments which I couldn’t afford to miss. I also had this feeling of wanting to pit my wits against great actors of yesteryear. The show was a huge success the first time around and I thought ‘Oh they want me to do it’. It fluffs your feathers a bit."

Lewis has only seen excerpts from the original production but feels it looks dated. He thinks today’s MTV generation will be more than impressed by the new version.

"It’s a costume drama which looks sumptuous. It’s a feast to look at. But it’s not just a historical piece. It has all the elements of a modern day romantic comedy combined with soap opera.

"The plot twists and turns. I think people will get swallowed up by all the loves, passions, joys, sorrows and obsessions of the characters. It just happens to be set in Victorian times."

But his part in The Forsyte Saga hardly got off to a flying start. "On the first day of filming I got appendicitis and it screwed the whole thing up. They had to reschedule everything. So when I came back it was all pretty fraught. But I just felt that it was going to turn out to be very good. You just get a feeling when you are making something."

Lewis has enjoyed a steady stream of work in recent years. He starred in Hearts And Bones and appeared as Laertes in a Broadway production of Hamlet starring Ralph Fiennes. This is where Spielberg spotted him and decided to offer him an audition for Band Of Brothers.

The actor was given the full works. He was flown to LA first class, ferried around Tinseltown in a limo and entertained by Tom Hanks and Spielberg.

Lewis was cast as American war hero Major Richard Winters and had to undergo a gruelling ten-day boot camp before filming started. But he had no complaints. "It was a fantastic role," he says. "When we met the men who had been involved in the real thing we realised that we were suffering very little hardship.

"The boot camp took me back to when I was at boarding school and had to share a dormitory. And it was great having no mobile phones for a few days."

Lewis is currently in Hollywood filming Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher which co-stars Morgan Freeman. But this doesn’t mean he is planning on a permanent move to the States.

"I play one of four friends who take an annual holiday together. They have done the same thing for the past 20 years. It’s our favourite weekend of the year. When we are on holiday we get invaded by aliens.

"The film becomes really weird. I get possessed by an alien so I end playing two people - which is great fun. Hollywood has become one of the places I can work but I think it’s no different from working in this country. It’s just that there is where all the money is.

"I could go there, make lots of money and just appear in rubbish. It is more difficult going there and making good things."

And Lewis claims that he turned down the chance of playing this country’s most famous secret agent - 007 James Bond.

"I had heard they were very keen on me," he says. "I did an interview and screen test. They were still really keen.

"But I pulled out because I had to sign something called an option deal. That is where you sign something before the final screen test which means they own you until they have decided who they want for the part.

"You have to forego any other parts which come your way even though they might not pick you for the role. It was a gamble. So I pulled out.

"I grew up with Bond. But I wasn’t sure it would be as exciting as it looks on screen. Maybe I just want to be Bond in real life." he laughs.