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

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.

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April 5 onwards BFI Imax

James Cameron’s Titanic  (USA, 2012)

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

Fictitious victims of the Titanic

For TV viewers, April 10 is the big date on the Centenary Calendar – it’s the start of Julian Fellowes’ new four-part Titanic miniseries.

The first series of Fellowes’ Downton Abbey kicked off with the deaths of Downton heir Patrick Crawley and his father James in the Titanic disaster (though you have to wonder just who Edith was talking to in series 2).

Fellowes wasn’t the first author to kill off his characters on the Titanic. Noel Coward established one of the great tropes of Titanic fiction in his 1931 play, and 1933 movie, Cavalcade. Stepping away from the rail of their honeymoon-bound liner, newly-weds Edward and Edith Marryot revealed a Titanic lifebelt to the horrified audience.

Downton precursor Upstairs Downstairs did it too. Lady Marjorie Bellamy, the central figure in the first two series, drowned on the Titanic, although at least her ladies’ maid – and her jewellery box – survived.

In Danielle Steel’s No Greater Love, heroine Edwina Winfield lost both parents plus a fiancé on the Titanic, leaving her to battle to hold the family publishing empire together.

And then of course there’s the utterly fictitious Jack Dawson . . .