We all think we know the story of the Titanic it’s the version that includes lots of special ef-fects, Kate Winslet’s boob, a very blue Leo DiCaprio, a soggy necklace and a dodgy Celine Dion ballad. However that’s just the way James Cameron perceived it and now we apparently have a slightly more historically accurate version of the story thanks to Downton Abbey crea-tor Julian Fellowes, who has written a new four part drama for ITV. Anyone who saw Downton Abbey, or Gosford Park for which he won a screenwriting Oscar, knows that Fellowes likes to stock his scripts full of people and in Titanic there are almost eighty different characters with speaking roles, some based on real people and some entirely fictional. The four parts each follow a specific set of characters up to the sinking of the ship itself, before rewinding back so we can watch the next set and so on.
This first episode primarily focuses on Lord and Lady Manton, whose primary focus of travelling is trying to get their daughter Georgiana away from London, as she is constantly getting arrested for her part in the suffragette movement. Lord Manton, played by Linus Roache, is portrayed as somebody who uses his position of power to get what he wants, however is still respectful enough to be polite to the lower classes such as his lawyer John Batley played by Toby Jones. His wife Louisa, played by Geraldine Somerville, is extremely snobby turning her nose up at almost everyone she meets from the American passengers to the unmarried European couple and especially the Batleys who she thinks she shouldn’t be dining with. Georgiana is the most compelling of the Manton clan both due to her political beliefs and her relationship with the American Harry Widener, although we see her eye also drawn to one of the Italian servers during dinner at the Captain’s Table. The Batleys also get a little bit of time to shine and their story looks at the differences between the aristocrats on the top deck and the working class underneath them on the ship.
The way the show is structured means that other characters are briefly introduced and then left for now. These include American actress Dorothy Gibson and the unmarried Europeans Mr Guggenheim and Madame Aubart, as well as my favourite couple the Rushtons who have obtained their money through trade and now are rubbing shoulders with the wealthy passengers, who look down their noses at them. And that’s just the passengers, because on the other side there are the servants and the crew members and it all leads to the scenes between the staff feeling very Downton Abbey indeed. This being a ship there are also first and second officers, the steam-room operators and the man who built the ship, who forewarns the money-man over the lack of lifeboats, something we all know that is going to become very poignant later on.
As this is allegedly the most expensive British drama ever, there’s no denying that everything about Titanic looks great and because Fellowes is involved you know there’s a great deal of period detail included here. The opening scenes with shots focusing on the tickets, the officers polishing their shoes and families rushing to board the boat, all make the boat seem like it’s something amazingly special. The cast themselves are fantastic and on the whole do their best with the characters they are given, with the stand-outs for me being Steven Waddington as Second Officer Lightoller, Celia Imrie as the talkative Mrs Rushton and Maria Doyle Kennedy as the frustrated Muriel Batley. However a lot of them don’t get the chance to explore their characters deeply just yet, because the decision to focus on one group of personalities means that a lot of people only appear in a handful of scenes, as an introduction. For me the person who suffers the most from this is new Doctor Who companion Jenna-Louise Coleman, whose role as chamber-maid Annie is essentially to show people to their seats and turn down their beds but the hope is there that her backstory will be explored at some point. I also wasn’t that impressed by the look of the iceberg. After all that is meant to be what sunk the unsinkable ship, but in reality it wasn’t a spectacular site at all and in that respect I think the Cameron film did a better job.
It’s definitely evident that Fellowes is behind this, as most of the character led stories in Titanic are to do with the prejudice between the classes and what the differences are between those above stairs and those below stairs. Titanic lets Fellowes do this several times over, as the ship has several layers of class with each one looking down on the one below it, as well as there being the traditional Fellowes servants quarters. There is even prejudice between the servants, as they are from various parts of the world, so the very xenophobic Brits want to sit together and away from their American cousins. I feel that this almost overshadows the story of the ship and why people were so surprised that it sank, but to be fair I am only one episode in. I feel it was an interesting decision for Fellowes to forgo a linear narrative in favour of a method in which characters and their stories are introduced sporadically and as yet, I’m not sure I like his decision. The main reason for this is that I didn’t really know about half of the characters when the ship hit the iceberg the first time therefore I wasn’t particularly emotionally invested in whether they survived or not.
This is certainly an interesting retelling of the Titanic story which looks great, is well-researched and has some great subplots going on. Therefore I really can’t understand the decision to crash the Titanic four times, rather than just introducing us to everyone in one go so there’s a lot more for us to worry about once the rescue effort begins.
Ultimately though, the way that Fellowes has decided to tell the story means that I’m not completely hooked straight away which I probably would’ve been had he taken a more traditional route. In saying that, perhaps he has done a good job, as I will definitely be tuning again next week!