41N 50W – the Titanic on stage in London

I’m looking forward to seeing a new play about the Titanic disaster, which is being showcased in London later this week.

Written by Robert Neal Marshall, the American actor and director, 41N 50W tells the story of the tragedy through the eyes of witnesses and survivors.

Their words are taken from the US Senate inquiry into the disaster, which opened in New York on Friday April 19, 1912, just four days after the sinking itself.

41N 50W is in the Studio at St James Theatre, 12 Palace St, London SW1, with performances on Thursday October 4 at 3pm and 8pm, and Friday October 5 at 6pm and 8.30pm.

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Julian Fellowes’ Titanic – the Blogtanic preview

I went last night to a BAFTA preview, at the BFI, of the first two episodes of Julian Fellowes’ four-part Titanic TV series. Attended by many of the cast and crew, it was followed by a panel discussion featuring Fellowes himself.

In their quest to find a fresh way to re-tell the familiar tale, Fellowes and his producers have squared up to the crucial issue that audiences feel they already know the story – and they certainly know the Titanic is going to sink. As Fellowes put it in the Q&A, rather than have three episodes of characters worrying about their marriages and their mortgages, followed by one devoted to the actual disaster, they’ve decided to show the climax in every episode. That means we get to see the ship sink not once, but four times.

It’s a daring move, particularly in terms of episode 1, when the Titanic crashes into the iceberg before we’ve had time to get to know, or care about, the characters. Our first sight of the collision, and the loading of the lifeboats, seems strangely flat, and there has to be a chance some viewers will give up after the first episode. As the series unfolds, however,  each subsequent episode throws new light on the scenes we’ve seen before, repeatedly showing the same incidents from different perspectives.

The idea of the Titanic as a microcosm of the Edwardian world is hardly new, and yes, some of the emblematic figures whom Fellowes has placed aboard the great ship may seem familiar from his previous work. The flawed-but-decent Lord Manton, for example, is strongly reminiscent of the Earl of Grantham from Downton Abbey, while the various servants might have stepped straight out of Gosford Park. Fellowes’ deft touch at revealing their thoughts and motivations, however, from the millionaires in first class down to the impoverished emigrants in steerage and the grimy stokers in the boiler rooms, makes for compelling viewing.

Fellowes’ fictional characters share deck space with many of the Titanic’s real-life passengers and crew. His fellow “Titanoraks” will be fascinated to see his take on certain enduring controversies. Here, for example, it’s Captain Smith, rather than the usual villain J. Bruce Ismay, who dices with death by racing the Titanic ever faster towards the ice field.

While the fates of the genuine historical figures have long since been cast, the lives of the invented characters remain poised in the balance until the fourth and final episode. According to Fellowes, he didn’t decide who would live and who would die until he’d already written the first three instalments. I’m looking forward to finding out who makes it  – if I had to guess, though, it’s not looking good for some of those plucky steerage passengers.

The series is being broadcast in Canada from today onwards, and starts in the UK on Sunday March 25.

All text on Blogtanic © Greg Ward

The French Connection – Cherbourg remembers the Titanic

I was lucky enough to get an advance preview this afternoon of the new Titanic exhibition in Cherbourg, France, which is due to open next month.

The Titanic called at Cherbourg for two hours on the evening of the day she sailed from Southampton – Wednesday April 10, 1912. Just under 300 passengers joined the ship here, including such famous names as John Jacob Astor IV, Benjamin Guggenheim, and “the unsinkable” Molly Brown.

One hundred years later, to the day, the Titanic exhibit will open in Cherbourg’s former Transatlantic terminal. It’s a new addition to the Cité de la Mer, an already huge facility that incorporates a decommissioned nuclear submarine, the Redoutable; an extensive history of underwater exploration; and several large aquariums.

Only a small proportion of the Titanic displays are currently in place, but it’s clearly going to be a must-see atraction. Without trying to rebuild the ship herself, the designers have set out to evoke several of her most important features. Each visit is intended to offer an “immersive experience” – albeit not in the same sense as the original voyage!

Visitors reach the new exhibit via parts of the Transatlantic terminal that have until recently only been accessible to cruise passengers. Strictly speaking, this glorious Art Deco structure post-dates the Titanic, but you only have to glance outside to see the spot where the great liner anchored, beyond the harbour walls.

You enter the exhibition proper to find yourself standing at a re-created segment of the ship’s rails, watching a huge screen that displays first a panorama of Cherbourg as seen from the Titanic, and then her next and final port of call, Queenstown in Ireland (now Cobh). From there, you can choose whether to move into the first-, second-, or third-class areas of the ship.

Sections that I was able to see today included a meticulous re-creation of the Titanic’s mailroom, and a mock-up of a first-class cabin. Those that have yet to be installed, but will be ready in time for the opening, include a “wireless room” where children can learn Morse code, and Captain Smith’s own quarters. The exhibition also broadens its scope to explore twentieth-century European emigration to the United States.

With many thanks to Laure Anne Forti de Marthe for her hospitality.

The astonishing true story of the “Nazi Titanic”

The compelling TV documentary Nazi Titanic: Revealed tells the amazing story of the 1943 Titanic movie, made in Nazi Germany. Not only was its director arrested and driven to suicide during the shoot, but the real-life ship that doubled as the Titanic met her own grisly end just two years later, claiming three times as many victims as the Titanic herself.

Commissioned by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, the film calls the Titanic disaster “an eternal condemnation of England’s quest for profit”. It centres on the struggle between “Sir Bruce Ismay” and John Jacob Astor – depicted as an Englishman – for control of the White Star Line, which is in financial trouble due to the cost of building “the first unsinkable ship in the world”. Boasting that the Titanic will capture the Blue Riband for the fastest-ever Atlantic crossing, Ismay promises Captain Smith $1000 for every hour he’s ahead of schedule when he reaches New York.

As well as the usual fictitious passengers, from decadent English gentry to young lovers in steerage, the film also features an invented crew member, the young German officer Petersen. Very much the conscience of the piece, Petersen repeatedly warns Ismay that the Titanic is sailing too fast, with too few lifeboats, into an ice zone. When the inevitable happens, both Ismay and Astor try and fail to buy their way onto a lifeboat, but Petersen helps Ismay to escape anyway, so he can be held accountable for his actions. Petersen too is rescued, after he swims out to a lifeboat carrying a little girl. The two men have a final confrontation at the subsequent inquiry, only for Ismay to be exonerated, and all blame placed on Captain Smith.

Incidental moments en route include a girl rejecting her parents to follow the man she loves; a debauched dance in the third-class dining room; and even, as in James Cameron’s Titanic, a jewel thief being rescued from the ship’s jail by the judicious use of an axe.

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The climactic scenes were filmed aboard the Cap Ancona, a liner requisitioned by the German navy. After director Herbert Selpin complained about the behaviour of the ship’s real-life German officers, his co-writer denounced him to the Gestapo. Within 24 hours Selpin had been interrogated by Goebbels himself, and found hanged in his cells.

The Cap Arcona also met with catastrophe; she was sunk by British fighter planes the day before the war ended. Five thousand concentration camp inmates, who were being shipped to an unknown destination, lost their lives.

The so-called “Nazi Titanic” will be shown at the NFT2, BFI Southbank, on April 18 at 6.20pm, and April 25 at 8.30pm.


S.O.S. – The Titanic Centenary at the BFI

Here’s the full schedule for the Titanic season organised by the British Film Institute.

March 20 6.20pm NFT1, BFI Southbank

Titanic (TV miniseries, 2012)

A special preview screening of episode 1 of Julian Fellowes’ eagerly awaited four-part miniseries, plus a Q&A session featuring Fellowes, director Jon Jones, producers Nigel Stafford-Clark and Simon Vaughan, and cast members.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

April 5 onwards BFI Imax

James Cameron’s Titanic  (USA, 2012)

The new 3D version of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

April 11 6.20pm NFT3, BFI Southbank

Hitchcock’s Titanic Project

A talk by Professor Charles Barr. Alfred Hitchcock was originally scheduled to make his Hollywood directorial debut with a Titanic movie in 1939. He called it a “marvellously dramatic subject for a motion picture”, but the film was never made. Professor Barr will show a sequence edited from his other work to illustrate how it might have looked.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

April 11 8.40pm NFT3, BFI Southbank, and April 15 4pm NFT2, BFI Southbank

Atlantic (UK, 1929)

The first talkie to tell the Titanic story – albeit, thanks to pressure from the White Star Line, under a different name – was based on Ernest Raymond’s play, The Berg.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

April 13–28 times vary NFT3 & Studio, BFI Southbank

April 16 8.20pm NFT2, BFI Southbank; special showing with introduction

A Night To Remember  (UK, 1958)

More of a docudrama than a conventional narrative, the affecting and beautifully made movie version of Walter Lord’s bestselling book stars Kenneth More as its stern-jawed hero, Second Officer Charles Lightoller.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

April 18 6.20pm NFT2, BFI Southbank, and April 25 8.30pm NFT2, BFI Southbank

In Nacht und Eis (Germany, 1912) and Titanic  (Germany, 1943)

By the time the dramatic silent In Nacht Und Eis was released in August 1912, footage of icebergs and the Titanic were so familiar that the trade papers were already saying “they don’t attract audiences any more”. As for the so-called “Nazi Titanic”, it’s a fascinating propaganda piece, commissioned by Josef Goebbels, which calls the disaster “an eternal condemnation of England’s quest for profit”.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

April 24 8.40pm NFT2, BFI Southbank, and April 28 6.40pm NFT2, BFI Southbank

Titanic  (USA, 1953)

Romance and redemption against the backdrop of appalling maritime disaster. The young Robert Wagner falls for Audrey Dalton, and estranged couple Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck face the prospect of separating forever – and that’s before the iceberg intervenes.

Titanic season at the BFI

The British Film Institute is marking the centenary of the Titanic disaster with a season of Titanic films. Showings at London’s BFI Southbank cinema in April will include Atlantic, made in England in 1929; the infamous “Nazi” Titanic, produced as anti-British propaganda in Germany in 1943, on orders from Joseph Goebbels, which will form a double bill with the 1912 silent melodrama In Nacht und Eis; the first Hollywood Titanic, released in 1953; and the 1958 British docudrama A Night to Remember. The new 3D version of James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic will be shown at the nearby BFI IMAX. I’ll be posting dates for each showing when they’re confirmed.

Potentially the most interesting event of all is Hitchcock’s Titanic Project, a talk by Professor Charles Barr on April 11. Alfred Hitchcock was originally scheduled to make his Hollywood directorial debut with a Titanic movie in 1939. He called it a “marvellously dramatic subject for a motion picture”, but the film was never made. Professor Barr will show a sequence edited from his other work to illustrate how it might have looked.

Return of the Little Girl Giant

I’m really excited to hear that the Little Girl Giant is going to star in Liverpool’s Titanic centenary events. The pulchritudinous puppet will perform a Titanic-related love story in the city’s streets, as part of the three-day Sea Odyssey extravaganza; her retro aesthetic makes her an ideal fit for the part.  I missed her when she came to London with the Sultan’s Elephant in 2006, but I’ve seen the elephant in action in Brittany, and it’s breathtaking beyond belief.

Here’s a clip of the Little Girl Giant in London: