We were less than three minutes into the opening episode of Titanic (Sunday, ITV1) when we stumbled across our old friend dramatic irony. “There are davits for 32 lifeboats. Why haven’t we used them?” asked Stephen Campbell Moore’s harassed ship designer. “Because there’s no need,” replied J Bruce Ismay (James Wilby), president of the White Star Line, grumpily. Ah ha, the viewer shouted at the television. That’s what you think.
The problem any writer faces in telling a story as famous as that of the Titanic is how to create suspense and interest when the audience already knows what happens. James Cameron did it in his 1997 blockbuster by creating a romantic narrative of such force that you almost forgot the ship was about to encounter an iceberg. In this lush four-part series, Julian Fellowes has taken a different approach: he takes every opportunity to remind everyone that we know more than the characters do, underlining the entire script in such deep blue hindsight that we feel we too are drowning. “It’s so clear and there’s scarcely a ripple,” said one passenger, as the iceberg loomed.
He has also taken the bold – some might say foolhardy – decision to make each episode focus on one aspect of the story, repeating the same events to build a cumulative picture of the disaster. But in part one, this meant we were stuck in upper class with Lord Manton (Linus Roache), his tediously snobbish wife (Geraldine Somerville) and their suffragette daughter. We also met Toby Jones as Manton’s solicitor, plus his disenchanted wife who turned out to be Downton Abbey’s Mrs Bates, risen from the grave and still just as unpleasant. (Poor Maria Doyle Kennedy, lumbered with yet another thankless part.)
In Gosford Park, and to a lesser extent in Downton Abbey, Fellowes showed himself adept at creating dialogue and situations which precisely delineated each person’s position in the rigid hierarchy of a country house. Here, he didn’t show the situation, he explained it over and over – so that the subject of too many conversations was class itself. “We are a political family,” said Lady Manton, to Celia Imrie’s pushy Mrs Rutland. “You, I think, have always been in trade.”
But we’d already noticed that from her heavy Northern accent and uncouth outspokenness: the putdown felt both too modern and too insistent to come from the mouth of so grand a lady. In the same way, Fellowes hasn’t quite solved the other major problem of this type of tale – what might be called the “Have you met Mr Guggenheim, he’s an American billionaire” type of dialogue, or the need to convey everything about a character in a single sentence. All of this rather obscured Titanic’s better qualities. The opening scenes were filled with a kind of wonder, as the passengers arrived for this magical voyage. The setting was handsome, the acting efficient. But the characters were never given time to develop, partly because the ship was speeding too fast towards its date with fate. No sooner were they on board and eating scones or sipping whisky than they were rushing towards the lifeboats.
Bizarrely, however, the collision with the iceberg was curiously undramatic – represented by a bit of water in the engine room – as was the chaos that ensued. There was both too much and too little to concentrate on, and no-one to care about. If I were forced to judge Titanic on this one episode alone, I’d call it a damp squib – but having seen part two, I can assure you it gets better.