Julian Fellows Downton Abbey has been, justifiably, a massive ratings hit for ITV for the last couple of years. But how well will the formula translate to the story of the unsinkable ship, the Titanic. Broadcast in a blaze of publicity, boosted even further this week with the announcement of star Jenna-Louise Colman’s casting on Doctor Who and much anticipated, will Titanic sink without trace?
Wisely, as everyone knows the story, the Titanic will crash every episode, with overlapping storylines and cliffhangers drawing the four episodes together with the final episode broadcasting on the centenary of the ship’s sinking. Fellows also has real life passengers mixing with fictional passengers, so there will be some twists and turns along the way.
The action kicks off well, impressive CGI shows the titular ship in dock intercut with its various passengers assembling. With sweeping shots of the Titanic in dock, one can easily get a sense of wonder at what a sight it must have been and how it marked (prior to its ill-fated voyage, of course) a turning point for British sea travel and industrial construction.
Very quickly, the relationship between the Earl of Manton (Linus Roache) and his daughter Lady Georgiana (Perdita Weeks) is established – he is taking her on the maiden voyage to keep her out of trouble and find her a suitor – she is a Suffragette. On the journey to Southampton, the family bump into their lawyer, Batley (Toby Jones). Within the space of five minutes, class and culture are contextualised. The pace of the story never lets up from here – and I think that’s where my problem lies with Titanic.
Plot and circumstance are sledgehammered on the viewer. For Gosford Park and Downton Abbey‘s more gentle kind of storytelling, Fellows seems to have been in a rush to tell this story. And it’s a shame. The cast, the sets, the costumes all tick the right boxes. The BBC is starting to have a rival for costume drama in ITV, but sadly Titanic isn’t going to win this round.
The dance of class that occurs, and the interplay between the English and American passengers is entertaining enough, however, there are too many characters and stories to keep up with. Threads are frustratingly dangled – when Batley’s wife, who has been constantly belittled, reveals Earl Manton’s ‘secret in Dulwich’, it is very difficult to care, or empathise. What is the secret between the two Italians (is there even a secret)? Who cares?
It’s a shame because I really wanted to enjoy this, but even in the chaotic scenes (which in truth were terribly English and not that chaotic in the slightest) of the evacuation of the ship, too much exposition is being thrown at you to take in. Fellow’s script can be witty, the actors (especially the always excellent David Calder) are giving it their all, but the sum of its parts is less than its whole and the programme just doesn’t hang together.
Perhaps its trying too hard to be liked in its opening installment. To some extent all of its cards are played at once. Guggenheim’s famous dressing up to await his fate and the Titanic band playing on the deck – two very famous ancedotes, played out in Part One. It’s a innovative structure, and I have no doubt that viewers who follow right to the end will be well rewarded for their perseverance. It’s just a question of whether they stick with it.
The Fiction Stroker gives Titantic two strokes out of five: