The maiden voyage of Julian Fellowesâ four-part television series of Titanic is predictably, and thankfully, in the unsinkable upstairs-downstairs format of his recent period soapy triumph, Downton Abbey.
Before we can even draw breath to say âencapsulation of entrenched class dividesâ, we hear phrases such as ânot your placeâ? and âitâs not the done thingâ? among the first lines of dialogue, while witnessing a studiedly representative cross-section of society, from English aristocratic toffs to working-class Irishmen, prepare to board the Titanic.
The first episode focuses on an upper-class family, headed by the kindly aristocrat, the Earl of Manton (which sounds familiar) who must remind his incurably snobbish wife of the absolute gift the story of the Titanic is to a screenwriter of Fellowesâ persuasion: âTheyâre just people, Louisa, trying to get from Southampton to New York like we areâ?.
This Lord Grantham-a-like also has the obligatory wayward daughter in Georgiana Grex, whose strident belief in womenâs rights causes her visibly to melt at a saucy wink from an ostentatiously Italian waiter, and flirtatiously to remark âplease donât flirt with meâ? with the nearest young wealthy American she can find before the ominous iceberg music begins.
All characters – rich or poor, upstairs or downstairs, English or other – are made equal by a single, terrible event. Much like the war in Downton Abbey. Indeed, after the frenzy and unthinkable tragedy of the sinking ship, which will take place in each episode from a different societal viewpoint, one is genuinely disappointed that Cousin Matthew doesnât re-surface, spluttering joyously that he can still feel his toes.
Despite Fellowesâ denial of the fact, this is Downton-on-Sea, but this should be seen as a positive. Yes the simplistic characterisation and crudely overt prejudice is there until the bitter end â âyou canât make me sit in a boat with a drunken prostitute!â? follows the collective horror of âtheyâre together but theyâre not married?â? and, gasp, âItalian stewardsâ? â but it is the fans of Fellowesâ previous triumph whose boats will be floated by his Titanic series, and would quickly capsize if it were any different.
A playful wit litters the script throughout; jokes about William Wilberforce are aired along with Mantonâs mysterious âgrubby little secrets in Dulwichâ?, along with liberal dollops of anti-Irish craic, and Celia Imrie gives an outstanding performance as hysterical on-board busybody Grace Rushton.
Yet there is hidden depth to this light-hearted romp through hellâs gates, as Fellowes seems to be tinkering with the traditional reputations of key Titanic figures.
For example, Commander Lightoller, usually regarded as the disasterâs hero, is seen making the fatal mistake of deliberately not filling lifeboats in the fear they would split, and there is a touch of sympathy for Captain Smith suggested by the line âit was very closeâ? about veering away from the iceberg. Hopefully the next three episodes will have a few more surprises planned, but go full steam ahead with Fellowesâ beloved format.