Words of the Titanic on ITV1 – with Richard E Grant

“The pleasure and comfort which all of us enjoyed upon this floating palace, with its extraordinary provisions for such purposes, seemed an ominous feature to many of us, including myself, who felt it almost too good to last without some terrible retribution inflicted by the hand of an angry omnipotence.”

Colonel Archibald Gracie, first class passenger

One hundred years ago on 10th April 1912, the legendary Titanic set sail for New York. With diaries, letters, and memoirs, ‘Words of the Titanic’ tells the stories of the ship’s passengers and crew in their own words. The disaster at sea, which cost almost 1500 lives, has been well documented. But the individual experiences of the people on board offer a revealing insight into the emotions and terror they experienced when it became clear that the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic was doomed to plunge to the bottom of the ocean.

The film features a cast including Richard E. Grant, James Wilby, Claudie Blakely, Roger Allam and Anna Madeley, plus direct descendants of some of the ships passengers who read the diary extracts of their grandparents and great-grandparents. Dramatic reconstruction and images of the time evoke the spirit of Titanic’s fateful maiden voyage, which is brought poignantly to life in this powerful documentary. ‘Words of the Titanic’ is brand new & exclusive to ITV1 on Saturday 14th April at 10.35pm.

In 1912, Titanic was launched to sail the shipping route between the world’s most powerful cities, London and New York. Its vast size and unparalleled luxury stunned the 900 strong crew, who boarded the ship on 2nd April, when it left Belfast for Southampton.

Commander Charles Lightholler (read by James Wilby) recalled: “It is difficult to convey any idea of the size of a ship like the Titanic, when you could actually walk miles along decks and passages. It took me fourteen days before I could, with confidence, find my way from one part of that ship to another by the shortest route.”

On 10th April, Titanic’s 1,300 passengers boarded amidst an air of excitement. There were 700 in third-class, or steerage, 280 in second class, and 325 in first class. For three days Titanic then steamed westwards into the North Atlantic, covering more than 500 miles in a day. First class passenger, Colonel Archibald Gracie was returning home after spending the winter in the South of France.

Of the journey, he said (read by Roger Allam): “I enjoyed myself as if I were in a summer palace on the sea-shore, surrounded with every comfort – there was nothing to indicate or suggest that we were on the stormy Atlantic Ocean. The motions of ship and the noise of its machinery were scarcely discernible on deck or in the salons, either day or night.”

At twenty minutes to midnight on 14th April, Titanic was steaming west at twenty knots, 1000 miles from the American coast, when she struck an iceberg.

Second class passenger, Lawrence Beesley was a science teacher on his first foreign trip. He recalled (read by Richard E. Grant): “There came what seemed to me nothing more than an extra heave of the engines and a more than usually obvious dancing motion of the mattress on which I sat. Nothing more than that – no sound of a crash or of anything else: no sense of shock, no jar that felt like one heavy body meeting another.”

Commander Charles Lightholler said: “It was about ten minutes later that the Fourth Officer, Boxhall, opened my door and, seeing me awake, quietly said, ‘We’ve hit an iceberg.’ I replied, ‘I know you’ve hit something.’ He then said: ‘The water is up to F deck in the Mail Room.’ That was quite sufficient. Not another word passed.”

Governess and first class passenger, Elizabeth Shutes was immediately worried after the ship ground to a halt: “An officer’s cap passed the door. I asked: ‘Is there an accident or danger of any kind?’ ‘None, so far as I know’ was his courteous answer, spoken quietly and most kindly. This same officer then entered a cabin a little distance down the companionway and, by this time, distrustful of everything, I listened intently, and distinctly heard, ‘We can keep the water out for a while.’ Then, and not until then, did I realise the horror of an accident at sea.”

The crew began to shepherd the passengers up onto deck. The majority did not yet believe that Titanic could sink but the crew now knew the ship was doomed. Out of Titanic’s 2,200 passengers and crew, the ship’s 20 lifeboats only had room for 1,000. The rule of ‘women and children first’ was to be strictly enforced. The band began to plan and continued as the boats were being lowered.

Colonel Archibald Gracie said: “There was not one woman who shed tears or gave any sign of fear or distress. There was not a man at this quarter of the ship who indicated desire to get into the boats and escape with the women. There was not a member of the crew who shirked, or left his post. The coolness, courage, and sense of duty that I here witnessed made me thankful to God and proud of my Anglo-Saxon race that gave this perfect and superb exhibition of self-control at this hour of severest trial.”

Only now did the lucky few in the lifeboats realise the magnitude of what was happening. One thousand five hundred people now remained on board with no hope of escape.

Commander Charles Lightholler said: “I knew, only too well, the utter futility of following that driving instinct of self-preservation and struggling up towards the stern. It would only be postponing the plunge, and prolonging the agony – even lessening one’s already slim chances, by becoming one of a crowd. There was only one thing to do, and I might just as well do it and get it over, so, turning to the fore part of the bridge, I took a header.”

As the lifeboats rowed away the ship began to tilt upwards and she prepared to crash towards the bottom of the ocean.

Lawrence Beesley recalled: “She tilted slowly up until she attained a vertically upright position; and there she remained – motionless! As she swung up, her lights, which had shone without a flicker all night, went out suddenly, came on again for a single flash, then went out altogether.”

Stewardess Violet Jessop watched in horror: “With a thundering roar of underwater explosions, our proud ship, our beautiful Titanic gone to her doom.”

The programme is from the award winning ‘Words of…’ strand, an innovative and evocative way of bringing iconic events of the past to life, which has previously won the RTS Factual Education – Arts award.