Monday, April 16, 2012

A Touch of Class

By the time the final episode of ITV's lavish four-part miniseries Titanic came to be broadcast last night in many countries around the world to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the luxury liner, I dare say that the majority of us were feeling all Titaniced-out. Not only was the coverage of the centenary in all sectors of the media extensive to say the least ("As it's Titanic week, we check out this season's nautical fashions....." - oh dear!) but each episode of the drama, as written by Julian Fellowes, had brought us to that fateful Sunday evening when the ship collided with the iceberg only to revert to the beginning of the voyage the previous Wednesday but from the perspective of different characters at the start of the following episode. Many have claimed, including the show's distinguished producer Nigel Stafford-Clark, that this unconventional approach is the reason that viewers in the UK switched off in their millions from week to week. I think the flaw in the concept is more that nearly every one of those characters seems as obsessed with class conflict as the writer who brings them to life.

One of the most enduringly fascinating and mysterious events in recent human history is the Titanic disaster and yet episode one was almost entirely preoccupied with the fictional Lady Manton's disgust at having to sit at the same dining table as people whose money was earned and not inherited including the American silent movie star Dorothy Gibson. The great moral lesson Lady Manton had learned by the end of series was that if she could bring herself to apologise to the obliging Miss Gibson she wouldn't in fact burst into flames. Lady Manton's rebellious daughter was all about women's suffrage while her snooty lady's maid Watson was up to no good with her jewellery box, plot points which inevitably lead to suspicions that the Downton Abbey creator was merely phoning it in. Given that there was no shortage of colourful personalities on board the Titanic in actual fact, the questions remains why Fellowes chose to populate his script with so many fictional people. Many of us know that Molly Browne was unsinkable and that Charles Lightoller, flirting with Dorothy Gibson above, was the highest-ranking officer to survive but only true Titanoraks would know the fates of the likes of Harry Widener, Jack Thayer, Bessie Allison, Madame Aubart and the Countess of Rothes surely?!

All of the characters I listed above travel first class in the series. Fellowes's script is not all that interested in the working class and the hundreds of steerage passengers, whose chance to create a better life for themselves in the States away from poverty and deprivation was cruelly snatched away on that fateful night, are represented by the Maloney family from Belfast who are down-on-their-luck yet are personally acquainted with the ship's designer, Thomas Andrews. Meanwhile, Irish lawyer John Batley and his wife Muriel sit in second class squabbling endlessly about his employer, Lord Manton, as the stairs that lead to first class are guarded more heavily than the gates of Valhalla by working-class stewards who, as Fellowes is as keen as ever to tell us, were as protective of the class system as the lords and ladies of the aristocracy. By the third episode, the suffragette daughter, Mrs Maloney and a chirpy Cockney stewardess had all indulged in improbably fast-moving romances and by this stage, although never less than entertaining, Titanic was also becoming tiresome, insubstantial and faintly ridiculous.

It is a pity that the series lost half its audience by last night, in the UK anyhow, because the final episode was intensely gripping and immensely moving as the ship foundered and the desperate scramble to survive was played out. Many of the personal dramas were brought to a crisis but the main strength was in showing how human beings handle the sudden realisation of impending death with acts of extraordinary kindness, heartbreaking sacrifices and touching reconciliations. Two standout moments for me were when Mr Maloney cradled his terrified young daughter in his arms and lovingly bathed her in calm and reassurance and when Watson reads a revealing letter written to her by her male counterpart, the unassuming valet Barnes, and breaks down crying. The impeccable cast and production values ensured that the events of that evening were never undermined or exploited in a fantastic hour of television made all the more engaging by having gotten to know these characters over four weeks and all the more resonant given the date of broadcast. This incredibly sad story should never be forgotten and neither should the bravery shown on that night to remember.

No comments:

Post a Comment