“Titanic Makes Us Feel Vulnerable” ..We Talk To Fellowes’ Captain Smith

“It’s not just Downton-on-Sea – that doesn’t get you anywhere near the storyâ€?, insists David Calder, the wise and white-haired veteran of British acting who plays the tragic Captain Edward J. Smith in Julian Fellowes’ much anticipated television series Titanic.

The versatile 65-year-old actor, his kind and scholarly face equally as recognisable from Midsomer Murders as James Bond, believes the Titanic story’s appeal is more profound than that of Downton Abbey.

“We are in this period of nostalgia, aren’t we? I think people are so uncertain about the future that they search for some security in the past. But I think there’s something more to it than that in the story of the Titanic. It’s an event that should never have happened, but it happened, and therefore that makes us feel very vulnerable about the world; that there’s no such thing as certainty.â€?

But just in case of the slim chance that Fantastic Mr Fellowes should be reading this, Calder laughs that he would relish entry into the Downton household – “of course I would, I’m an actor!â€?

Having worked with Fellowes in the past, Calder speaks of life on set with palpable affection, explaining that he already knew “most of the castâ€? and that the structure of the four-part series, in which the sinking of the ship is told in each episode from a different societal viewpoint, aided the bonhomie of this close-knit cast.

“It’s no one person’s tragedy, it’s hundreds of stories. In Julian’s version, he picks out a series of them and you all have equal billing in that world. There was no bruising of egos going on, you just did your job and played your role.â€?

Yet not even Fellowes’ signature story-telling prowess could cancel out the physical discomfort of working in the sweltering Hungarian studio chosen for the sake of “financesâ€? (a reasonable move, considering the production cost an unsinkable £11 million). The wintry, freezing sea tale was shot in the markedly land-locked Budapest, during a heat wave: “the great problem was how to stop people sweating in the so-called freezing cold. Our costumes were soaked it was so hot.â€?

David Calder with 2nd Officer Charles Lightoller played by Steven Waddington (left) and Chief Officer Wilde played by Will Keen

It is his confidence that Calder believes makes the doomed Captain the “iconic characterâ€? that he is, giving him more complexity than simply being the disaster’s reckless villain: “I think one thing we can be pretty sure of is that there was a certain arrogance in the guy, a self-confidence when under the best conditions probably makes for a very good captain, but under other conditions makes for a flawed captain because he doesn’t see the warning signs.â€?

“He also reflects all the prejudices of the time.â€? Being known as the ‘Millionaire’s Captain’, and very much a part of the snobbery of the upper classes, rendered predictably astutely by Fellowes, Smith flashes a face of utter affront at the Italian waiter serving him at his table in first class.

Immersed (eventually up to his neck and beyond) in the role of a sea captain, Calder even expresses a certain reservation to condemn the captain of the beleaguered Costa Concordia: “We think we know what he did, the drama allows press coverage to go wild and people jump to all sorts of conclusions about the captain, but at the time I just thought ‘I bet we don’t know everything’. One can imagine terrible confusion of communication, which also seemed to have taken place on the Titanic.â€?

Just as Commander Lightoller, regarded traditionally as the hero of the Titanic, has his mistakes highlighted in this series, the Captain’s reputation is marginally rehabilitated.

“I think what you see in the programme is that in the end he accepts his terrible responsibility before he dies. He is the man who went by supposedly the best traditions of the sea – to go down with his boat – but also the person responsible for sinking it. In that sense, he is both irresponsible and human and tragic.â€?