This year is the 100th since the 'unsinkable' Titanic did indeed sink in the icy waters of the northern Atlantic in what has now been accepted as one of the largest ever maritime disasters.
On a somewhat equally chilly Thursday afternoon in south London I went to ITV to see episodes one and two of a new, Julian Fellowes written, four-part drama about that fateful maiden voyage. Somewhat lazy HMS Downton jokes have already been tossed around in recent weeks, and although Titanic does have a definite Julian Fellowes hue about it, it is a very different beast - more vital than the sometimes self-indulgent Downton.
From the first snide utterance of "some of them look suspiciously like Catholics" I was onboard, literally. The desperate attempt to uphold early 20th Century English decorum in the midst of such a maritime disaster of biblical proportions mesh brilliantly and appear to sink to the core of the Titanic story. Although the token lines of 'the unsinkable ship' and many references to the fact they didn't many lifeboats stuck out like a sore thumb, they were ultimately necessary and highlighted even more the sheer disaster that the Titanic was.
"They talk about the perfect storm" says Fellowes, just before we watch the first episode, "well this is the perfect disaster because it has everything in a very compact form. This one ship holds every element of this proud and self-confident society that was headed for a smash up. Somehow that's it, you take the world and shrink it into a bottle and that makes it a very potent story to tell." But, with more emphasis on character, one would worry that the directorial gaze might drift from the spectacle of the story. This is certainly not the case with Titanic - fortunately this production cost £11million so gently tilting cameras to get the at-sea feel were safely locked away and we were treated to a much better standard of production to convey this worthy story.
Trying to stay as far away as possible from the famous James Cameron film, ITV have set the narrative within a multi-layered structure where we follow many different groups of people across the disastrous voyage. Each episode ends with the ship sinking, allowing us to be both treated to horror and despair each week and to go back in time at the start of the next episode to follow a different set of characters.
When told of this before the screening there was an audible sigh across the room as hopes for this new series were instantly dashed. However, fear not, the plot device works a treat and at no point is tiresome or confusing - as I had first feared.
Although episode one is slow to get going, stick with it as episode two cranks up the emotion and the tragedy. This is partly due to the stunning performances from both Toby Jones and Maria Doyle Kennedy (who you will recognise from Tinker Tailor and Downton respectively). "Yes, she is very strong and forthright" Maria says of her character Muriel Batley, "she thinks women should have a say and have some form of equality and opportunity." Angered by her husband's subservience to one of his clients (Linus Roache) who is also aboard, and the deeply dividing class structure of the ship, Maria's Mrs Batley is an excellent voice of reason throughout the drama who's troubled yes defiant marriage to Mr Batley (Toby Jones) is one of the most heartbreaking and deeply involving storylines.
Episode one, for me, felt all too quaint for the Titanic and seemed too involved with class politics, which although a key part of the piece (what with people in first class getting first pick of the too few lifeboats), it was by no means the most important. But with the iceberg hit and hysterics ensuing, the whole show got an infection of life into it which seemed to carry through into Episode two, sustaining it until our next dose of peril on the sea. This was perfectly signified for me by the lack of applause after we saw episode one and the cacophony of sniffles and applause that followed the second.
Having spawned from Julian Fellowes, Titanic is filled with the sort of lines which entertained millions in Downton. Witticisms such as, "what a stroke of luck" and "I'd rather freeze to death outside than stand here with these ghastly women" stand out quite prominently in the quiet before the storm. Many of these quips are based in the now contractually obliged Fellowes upstairs-downstairs upper-, middle-, lower-class situation. Although in parts more of the same, Fellowes argued how vital and prevalent this split, defined in the steal of the ship, was.
"The classes were literally split like layers on a steal cake" he said afterwards. He noted that "in first class...they had some of the luckiest people on earth. They had rich aristocrats and movie stars and bankers but in the steerage [third class], they had all these people who desperately wanted to make a new world for themselves. It's all tragic... because a lot of them were emigrating, they took their whole family. In second and first you had people travelling or whatever it was and they weren't necessarily the whole family. Down in the steerage the whole family as wiped out in many, many cases. You almost can't bear to think of it really."
Many of the cast commented how had it not actually happened, the story would be criticised for being unrealistic.
This is certainly of a different pedigree to the James Cameron film and to compare them would unhelpful and irrelevant. This is an excellent piece of television which is definitely worth the watch. Although episode one lacks a little, stick with it as episode two certainly makes up for the lost ground. Titanic is moving, exciting and full of excellent Julian Fellowesisms. HMS Downton, maybe, but Downton was brilliant?
Titanic was written by Julian Fellowes and is a co-production between ITV Studios, Lookout Point, Deep Indigo/Sienna Films and Mid-Atlantic Films and will be shown on ITV1 and ITV1 HD this April. For more information visit www.itv.com/titanic
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