Written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, ITV1’s new four-part Titanic drama serial marks the hundredth anniversary of the world’s most famous maritime disaster in April 1912.
Episode 1 airs at 9pm on Sunday 25th March.
Fellowes set sail on his new screen adventure after a phone call from Titanic creator Nigel Stafford-Clark…
“Would I be interested in writing the scripts? And I was, frightfully, because I was always very fascinated by the story of the Titanic. Drawn to it,” recalls Julian.
“It’s a great tragedy, obviously. But I was thrilled by the idea of having a chance to shape another version of it. So I didn’t need much persuading.”
At the time of that call the first series of Julian’s hit drama Downton Abbey had yet to be filmed. But he had already written the first scenes, with news arriving of the death of Downton’s heir in the sinking…
“When Nigel rang me I was very struck by the coincidence because I had, in fact, not long before written the opening of Downton Abbey as having two characters drown on the Titanic.”
Titanic was an epic project that Fellowes was keen to embark on in order to tell a wider story…
“I think this is a portrait of the ship in a way the other versions haven’t been. A Night To Remember is a wonderful film but is mainly about the officers. The passengers are quite secondary. James Cameron’s movie was another wonderful film. But that’s a love story set against the sinking of the Titanic. Whereas we, right from the start, set out to tell the story of the whole ship.
“So we have characters and narrative among the boilermen and the First Class, the officers, the stewards and stewardesses, the Second Class, the Third Class and the servants of the First Class. “And I think, in the end, you should get a pretty rounded image of the ship. That’s my intention, anyway.”
The writer explains: “Nigel has been the ringmaster in all of this. He’s run a very tight ship.
“Nigel and I worked very closely together all the way through and we came up with the structure where you see these different interlocking, interwoven, stories. You go back into the same scenes, quite often, but from a different angle and a different perspective.
“We have to have something completely different to offer and we both knew it would be the human stories, rather than the ship breaking in half or whatever.”
Those on board are a mixture of real people who sailed on the ship and fictional characters created to represent others on the maiden voyage…
“One of my strongly held beliefs is that I don’t think the audience should be too steered as to who they take an interest in. And so there are several leading players and a whole tier of secondary players, all of whose stories might be the one you like best. I never want to interfere with that.
“I’m very happy, for example, if people follow John and Muriel Batley all the way through and I’m very fond of the Batleys. Because normally the Second Class is left out. It’s always charm and graciousness in the First Class Dining Room and then ‘diddly diddly’ going on down in the Hold and nothing in between.
“The Batleys’ story is one of my favourites because they’ve been unlucky and think themselves unhappy. But paradoxically, given that they’re on a sinking ship, they’re less unhappy than they thought they were.
“And then you’ve got the First Class. It’s always one of my maxims that being aristocratic in a class dominated society was a performing art and these people were very much brought up not to be disappointing. So they were given lots of rules about behaviour and so on.
“You have the Mantons – Hugh and Louisa – who have had an absolutely textbook aristocratic marriage, very successful in its way, producing two healthy children. But during the end they realise, unlike the Batleys, that they were less happy than they thought they were.
“I like the story of the waiter Paolo and the stewardess Annie. There you have a situation where under normal circumstances she wouldn’t have taken him terribly seriously. But the disaster helps her see that he is serious and the disaster makes him brave.
“It was a generation that concealed their emotions, particularly the British. You’ve got to understand their limitations. Then when they do act in a way which, to us, is fairly normal it is a big departure from what they would have been brought up to do.”
He adds: “I don’t think anyone has used the Wideners before as major characters. And Harry Widener is a major character in the drama. Funnily enough, I didn’t know it then but I now know the couple who live in the Wideners house in Newport in America. So that’s rather extraordinary.”
Speaking during a visit to Stern Studios in Budapest where the production was filmed, he reveals his emotions were stirred by seeing the physical reality of Titanic recreated for the drama…
“The set is absolutely fantastic. When you walk on there you have this constant reminder that this happened. This was real. There really were men and women running around the decks, as our extras are, and a hell of a lot of them are going to die. That just can’t fail to move you.
“There’s something about disasters that happen to ordinary people who have done nothing to deserve it.
“The Somme is a disaster but those men joined up. They put on a uniform, they got a gun, they went off to fight and many of them were killed. And although that’s very tragic, it’s not quite the same as when innocent people are involved.
“That’s the essence of the disaster movie. And Titanic is a true disaster movie because it involves all sorts of people, all kinds, all ages, and they had done nothing to deserve it.
“They had planned a journey that should have been as safe as going up the escalator at Harrods in London and suddenly two thirds of them are dead.
“The fact that it was a trailer for the First World War obviously adds to its resonance. There was a strange promise in Titanic, this very arrogant world of the British Empire before the First War, with the bristling moustaches and the women in their diamonds. Everything looking so impregnable – when, of course, it wasn’t.”
Although Julian has no family connection to anyone on board Titanic, he does have his own personal memories.
“When I was young, you did meet survivors of the Titanic. In 1960 it was only 48 years before and so people in their sixties had grown up on it.
“It was a living memory to my parents. I’m not an old man and both my grandmothers were pregnant with my parents when the Titanic went down. One born in May and one born in July. Extraordinary, really.”
What was his biggest challenge?
“I’ve done quite a few of these multi-story dramas. The challenge is always that when you go from this story to that story, the audience wants to find out about that story and doesn’t think, ‘Oh, I wish we could have stayed with them.’ They’ve got to want to go with you.
“So that’s always a big challenge. That’s why casting is so important. I was absolutely thrilled with the cast. I’ve got nothing to say about them but, ‘Yippee.’
“A lot of my favourites are among their number and I think we’re incredibly lucky. I’m a big fan of Linus Roache, as well. An extraordinary actor. It’s a great cast.”
Julian points out that Titanic is a story with a final conclusion…
“Someone said to me the other day, ‘Is there a sequel?’ I said, ‘Not unless it’s directed by Jacques Cousteau.’ That, in a way, is a good thing. It’s a complete story. That’s it. That’s what happened. It’s over.”
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