When George Orwell died he was planning a new novel about the class system set aboard a ship: a follow-up to his dystopian masterpiece 1984. It has always felt like a great literary loss that he didn't live long enough to finish it. In that sense, Julian Fellowes has done us a great service with his new ITV series Titanic, in proving just how many pitfalls were inherent in such an idea.
Unlike the iceberg, of course, we could have seen Titanic's problems a mile off. It's clear from Fellowes' most recent creation Downton Abbey that he believes the mere proximity of people from different social classes is enough to make a decent drama. Forget character, story, emotion - as long as one person has a posher accent than another the audience is bound to be enthralled.
Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. Class may well be an integral part of life but you need more than that to keep an audience entertained. In placing this drama in a setting where the characters are quite literally divided into first, second and third class passengers, the temptation to focus exclusively on class has been too great for Fellowes to resist.
Almost every scene in Titanic revolved around some contrived class tension. A second class passenger snipes that she can find her own way to her cabin, noting "nobody stops you going into second class." An Irish aristocrat was at pains to point out she was not Irish "in that way." A waiter in a first class restaurant was sneered at by the men working the boiler room. A lowly maid goes out of her way to advise a group of servants to the upper class passengers that they did not have the same status as their masters.
Meanwhile all those things that actually make television entertaining were overlooked. There was not a single compelling character in the show. The main focus fell on a stuffy aristocratic couple, the Earl and Countess of Manton, with their predictably free-spirited and pseudo-feminist daughter (who was little more than Sybil in Downton Abbey, photoshopped in). However, there were so many other characters introduced in this first episode that none of them had the screen time to rise above the level of stereotype.
The one thing that seemed to unite them all was they had secrets, although there was no reason to think they were interesting ones. Later on, as the ship went down, we learned one of them: the Earl had been enjoying an extramarital dalliance in Dulwich. Even the Countess didn't seem bothered.
The most interesting thing about Titanic was the extraordinary speed with which it shot its dramatic load. It took just 40 minutes before the ship hits the iceberg. This is a four-part series, so we might have expected a much slower build-up before the climax. Instead, each of the first three episodes is going to depict events leading up to the sinking from a different set of perspectives, with the fourth tying everything up at the end.
It is to Fellowes' credit that he has tried something novel. However, his refusal to develop meaningful characters means that that this narrative structure fails in delivery. We simply don't care enough about anyone on board by the time the Titanic meets its frozen foe. Apparently the subsequent episodes are going to introduce yet more characters, rather than putting flesh on the bones of the ones we already have.
Our screens are becoming littered with Titanic nostalgia as we approach the centenary of its sinking, with a number of documentaries, American drama series Titanic: Blood and Steel, and a re-release of James Cameron's epic movie Titanic in 3D. With any other subject matter, Fellowes' follow-up to Downton Abbey was almost certain to be a global success. Perhaps it will be, but with this level of competition from similar offerings, the show doesn't have the quality to stay afloat.
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