Sunday, 25 March 2012

Ice, Iceberg Baby

I suppose it's a natural fit. The creator of Downton Abbey, who knows more about Edwardian class conflict than pretty much any other writer working today, and the story of the Titanic's ill-fated maiden voyage. So we shouldn't really be surprised that ITV has commissioned Julian Fellowes to knock out a four-parter to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the ship's sinking.

As James Cameron readies the 3D version of his Oscar-gobbler for a cinema re-release next month, the pressure's on for Fellowes' retelling to add another dimension entirely. £11 million might be a big budget for a TV production, but it wouldn't have covered the cost of the crockery on Cameron's opus. So it's all down to the script to elevate this above the Hollywood interpretation. Then again, it shouldn't be too hard to top classics like "Something Picasso? He won't amount to a thing." From King of the World, to Master of the 'ouse.

If anything, Fellowes' biggest challenge will be to give audiences something new - as one crew member told a writer from the Telegraph recently, the Titanic is "as much of a television staple as Nazis and sharks”. Nazi sharks, now there's an idea that would get the punters tuning in. Unfortunately, we'll have to make do with pithy dialogue and an abundance of cruelly ironic foreshadowing. The first three episodes each focus on a different class on board the luxuriously appointed liner, with the final part showing what happens when the ship hits the fan.

The first episode gets off to a predictable start, with a discussion between Joseph Ismay, President of the White Star Line, and Thomas Andrews, the ship's designer. As well as introducing us to two key figures in the story, it's a handy opportunity to remind us that the woeful lack of lifeboats was an aesthetic decision, rather than a practical one. 

On reflection, I may have missed a trick by not devising a drinking game for tonight's viewing - taking a swig every time we get a scene straight out of Cameron's film. Moments after Ismay and Andrews' exchange, a woman gazes up at the magnificent ship, adjusting her hat as she steps out of her car. Ten minutes in and I'd already be shit-faced. 

Elsewhere on the ship, we're given a fleeting glimpse of the characters who'll be our focus in the subsequent episodes. At this early stage, it's hard to tell who's who, except to say that Arg from TOWIE appears to be responsible for running the ship's furnace.  

One thing Fellowes knows how to do, is stick gloriously withering dialogue in the mouths of imperious actresses. So the Countess of Manton, played by Geraldine Somerville, is clearly intended as an analogue of the Dowager Countess. Her down-the-nose delivery is suitably bitter, but since her mouth doesn't ruche like a drawstring duffel bag, she's not fit to steep Maggie Smith's afternoon tea. 

Our focus for the first episode is Lady Georgiana Grex, daughter of the Mantons and, to all intents and purposes, a Kate Winslet equivalent. Despite her impeccable breeding, we're first introduced to her as she's released from jail, having been arrested for participating in a suffragette demonstration. When she's not flirting with the Italian waiter in the dining room, she's telling an industry heir that "writers and rebels" are more her type, or requesting Autumn by Archibald Joyce from the string quartet. The band are happy to accomodate, no doubt relieved that she didn't ask for 'Sexy, And I Know It.'

Meanwhile, the Countess seems to spend her time gliding from one awkward social exchange to the next, reserving particular scorn for Celia Imrie, whom she dismisses as a glorified seamstress. It's hard not to empathise with her rudeness though, since Imrie's accent is laughably awful. I guess you can take the girl out of Manchesterford...

As if that's not bad enough, the poor Countess also has to endure tea with her husband's lawyer Batley and his bolshy wife, even as her neck struggles under the weight of a hat that deserves its own state room. We've barely had time for a little more contrived flirting and some extensive hat-pin management, before the iceberg comes looming out of the darkness. 

With water flooding into the engine room, and the lights flickering ominously, Linus Roache comments "We can't be in any danger, not on this ship." *Drink. He tries to rouse his wife, but she's weary from a day of exasperated judgement and lip-pursing. Still, he pushes on and recommends that they take a short cut through second class in order to get up on deck and safely into a lifeboat. Unfortunately, this brings them straight into the path of an agitated Mrs Batley. Picking the wrong time to be haughty and superior, the Countess finds herself on the receiving end of a fierce smack-down from Batley, who tells the assembled crowd about her husband's philandering and his "dirty little secret in Dulwich."
That's the last straw for our Countess, who decides to drop any pretence at politeness. Up on deck she even refuses a seat in a lifeboat, declaring "You can't make me sit in a boat with a drunken prostitute!" oblivious to the fact that it's likely the most fun she'd have on the whole trip. Figuring that revenge is a dish best served on ice, she opts to stay on the boat and torture her husband until a watery grave seems like the easier option. Her daughter, on the other hand, has dropped her initial reluctance and is now racing into a relationship with the persistant heir she dismissed a few minutes earlier. They're not even on first name terms yet, but they're already making declarations of love and getting misty-eyed about their survival prospects. 

And with that, the first episode draws to a close. It'll be interesting to see how the class-focused approach will flesh out the story, but taken as a stand-alone piece of drama, this felt oddly rushed. Say what you like about James Cameron's short-comings as a script-writer, but his sense of pacing and structure was right on the money. All $270 million of it. 

1 comment:

  1. Am I the only person who doesn't enjoy Downton Abbey? Every scene begins and ends with someone walking in and then out of a room, bookends around a verbal confrontation. It's like watching The Phantom Menace, only without the CGI.