Why the Titanic still fascinates us
The centenary “celebrations” of Titanic’s sinking have set sail with almost as much fanfare as the doomed ship. Next week a pounds 100 million museum is opening in Belfast, one of more than 200 around the world. Next month, James Cameron’s epic pounds 120 million, 194-minute film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, is returning to cinema screens in 3D. And for those who can’t wait that long, tomorrow (Sunday) sees the first episode of a much-heralded four-part drama on Britain’s ITV, a relative minnow with a budget of only pounds 11 million.
Not that there is anything corner-cutting about the ITV production of Titanic. Julian Fellowes, the Emmy and Bafta award-winning creator of Downton Abbey, is the writer. A cast of more than 80 includes Linus Roache, Geraldine Somerville, Toby Jones, Sophie Winkleman and Jenna-Louise Coleman. And the rights have been sold to 86 countries.
You’d be hard-pushed to escape the attendant publicity drive. Last summer ITV welcomed a junket of journalists to the giant studios they’d hired on the outskirts of Budapest (the Hungarian government offers generous tax breaks for production companies). Built in 10 weeks, the complex housed a 150ft replica of the ship (including cabins and a dining room plus the crockery), the largest water tank in Europe, and hundreds of actors and extras (one of which was a panting Pekingese) pretending to shiver on the Atlantic deck under the stiflingly hot studio lamps.
Peeking behind the scenes of a film set is a fascinating experience. We learnt, for instance, that the fact that the Titanic sank at night saved the production half its budget, as they could shoot onto a simple black background, limiting the use of expensive CGI equipment. The water was heated and filtered for the actors to comply with health and safety laws. And, because only one side of the ship was filmed (the other wasn’t even built, to reduce costs), the costume department had rapidly to switch items around, including buttons, whenever they needed to make it look as if they were filming from the other side.
“It’s lovely to visit,” says Fellowes, who spent a few days here seeing his script come alive. “I’m not a Titanic maniac, but I’ve always been interested in it.”
Fellowes was originally approached by Nigel Stafford-Clark, the producer, who had been impressed by his work on Gosford Park. Coincidentally, Fellowes had just finished writing the opening scene to the then untested Downton Abbey, in which the heir to the estate dies on the Titanic. He said yes straight away.
“As a disaster, it has everything,” says Fellowes. His love of the Edwardian period is well known – and you couldn’t find a better symbol of that era than the Titanic. He talks of a sense of a society “on the brink”, the innocence of a proud country unaware of the Great War around the corner, the dramatic possibilities of a time when many resisted change with the same fervour that others embraced it.
“What you need in drama is the tension of someone being prevented from doing something,” he says. “That’s much harder to do now: there’s nothing to stop a boy meeting a girl and going upstairs straight away.”
In the Titanic disaster, as he said this week, we see the world shrunk into a bottle. Tragic weight is added to almost every line of dialogue by virtue of the audience knowing what the characters do not: that their time may soon be up. “It still haunts us,” he told me. “It taps into a fundamental fear. It is part of the national narrative. No one says, ‘Oh, Titanic? Remind me’.”
Of course, that the story is so well known poses its own challenges. It is, as one crew member said to me, “as much of a television staple as Nazis and sharks”.
Fellowes hopes to have navigated this particular iceberg by introducing an ingenious dramatic structure. His script follows different classes of passengers in each of the first three episodes, sinking the boat at the end of all of them. The final episode – broadcast around the world on April 15, the 100th anniversary of the disaster – will show who lived and who died.
Previous dramatisations have featured graceful aristocrats in first class, jig-dancing revellers in third and little in between. One of the best, A Night to Remember, in 1958, revolved around the officers. Fellowes’s Titanic, on the other hand, includes the squeezed middle – notably a lawyer in second class, played by Toby Jones, and his disgruntled Irish wife, played by Maria Doyle Kennedy (who will be familiar to many as Mrs Bates in Downton Abbey). It also features a smattering of real characters – including the chairman of the White Star Line, Bruce Ismay, the businessman Benjamin Guggenheim, and Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon.
Fellowes rejects any suggestion that this is Downton-at-Sea or an “Updeck, Downdeck” alternative to the BBC’s latest revival.
“I don’t think it is about class relationships,” he says, a little incongruously for a writer whose novels include Snobs and whose screenplays include The Young Victoria as well as Gosford and Downton. But he concedes that a significant attraction of writing about the Titanic is that “every aspect of Edwardian England was on that ship”.
His skill lies in interweaving the multiple stories: our “horrible fascination” with those in first class “whose hands had never seen anything harsher than a suede glove” suddenly fighting for their lives; the pathos of those in steerage who bought one-way tickets in the hope of a new life. “It is unbearable that all that optimism and hard work should disappear,” he says.
Of course, the pounds 11 million question for those viewers who will tune in for their Sunday night comfort blanket is: is it any good? Will we be glued to the screens for an hour? Will we tolerate the lengthy ad breaks? Or will we have that sinking feeling that, like the ship itself, the hype has failed to deliver what it promised?
Without wishing to spoil it for you, the first two episodes have not won me over. But perhaps that’s because I watched them on a weekday lunchtime with 500 other people, instead of on my sofa with a glass of wine.
No matter. There certainly won’t be a sequel. And Downton Abbey will be back before long.
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