Titanic on TV: Four-part series review

by Diana Balham / 04 May, 2012
News flash: the Titanic was not sunk by an iceberg.

So, that’s it, then. After innumerable books, documentaries, theses and mad conspiracy theories – not to mention James Cameron’s bothering of the ocean in dozens of deep-sea voyages – the secret is out. The Titanic wasn’t sunk by an iceberg. Its passengers certainly came up against something cold, sharp and merciless in the Atlantic: Louisa, Countess of Manton. Her chilliness towards anyone socially beneath her – which was everyone on board, in her opinion – caused her to harden, fracture and eventually pierce the ship’s infrastructure.

A lifetime of being a crashing snob came to a shattering climax when she was imprisoned on a ship with a herd of inferiors: the frightfully common Joseph and Grace Rushton (“I hear you’re in trade,” Louisa quips); lawyer John Batley and his embittered wife, Muriel; all those ghastly nouveau riche Americans…and the countess’s husband, no thanks to Muriel.

As they’re climbing into the lifeboats, Muriel, who’s been simmering like a demented pot roast after one putdown too many, announces that the Earl of Manton has been playing away – then the temperature drops even further. “Titanoraks”, as the disaster nerds are known, will disagree, but episode one of TV1’s four-part Titanic series placed the action so squarely in the ambit of the countess – played with a slightly curling lip by Geraldine Somerville – it’s hard to disagree with this theory. In an unusual move, ITV shot each episode as a selfcontained story from the point of view of a different group of characters (there are more than 89 in total).

The ship founders at the end of each one, so we don’t find out who survived until the final. (Sadly, this non-linear approach wasn’t a hit with UK viewers, who preferred to watch a special about Des O’Connor’s 80th birthday instead of episode three. Cue “Titanic sinks ITV ratings” headlines. And, suggesting TVNZ has been reading the ratings tea leaves the network is now playing the last two episodes together.) The producers are so intent on showing us the rigid social milieu on board, the Titanic starts to look like an enormous mille-feuille after about five minutes.

Episode one is mostly about the toffs and their almost-as-class-conscious servants, which throws up such magical moments as Grace Rushton (Celia Imrie) having conniptions over her lost pekingese and Muriel Batley (Maria Doyle Kennedy) trying to throttle the countess mid-evacuation. Episode two offers another theory: Protestants sank the Titanic. The action opens with political unrest at the Belfast shipyards where the liner was built, with unsubtle signallings about the brewing troubles that led to Ireland’s Easter Rising, just four years away. Protestants were reluctant to employ Catholics, and building the behemoth is way behind schedule and over budget.

Never mind, says Lord Pirrie (Timothy West) of the White Star Line, “We’ll never need lifeboats for every passenger. They’re ferries, nothing more.” And then – a, er, riveting discussion about rivets: steel vs iron. We’ve already seen them popping like buttons off a fat woman’s blouse. We know the captain’s cheery “Man might sink us even if nature can’t” is going to leap up and slap him in the kisser.

We find out more about the Batleys’ marriage and why John (Toby Jones) looks like the saddest potato in the world. Thoroughly decent Catholic engineer Jim Maloney (Peter McDonald) gets a hospital pass in the form of thirdclass tickets for him and his family so they can start a new life, then an ogling foreigner moves in on his missus. Italian waiter Paolo proves he is of an “excitable breed”, as the captain suggests, when he winks at Lady Georgiana, then flirts with pretty stewardess Annie Desmond. So that’s why so many died when the Titanic went down; apart from the countess, most of the characters were made of cardboard. And episode three?

The damned boat’s going to sink again. I’m starting to hope one of our beloved comedians might be turning 80… Linus Roache, who plays the Earl of Manton, might sound like a pestilential scourge, and after a promising start that’s what he has become for poor old Ken Barlow (Bill Roache) in Coronation Street. Our Ken has discovered yet another loin-fruit from his sordid past and up pops Lawrence – Roache the younger. Linus is Bill’s son from his first marriage and Linus’s on-screen Coro son is played by James Roache – his half-brother (Bill’s boy from his second marriage).

They’re like Russian dolls: every time you open a Ken Barlow, a smaller one jumps out. Never one to miss an opportunity to tear off a sermon, Ken is horrified when he learns Lawrence has disowned James because he is gay. Rising majestically on his high horse, Ken responds to Lawrence’s question about reaching the limit of his tolerance. “You’ve found it!” he hollers. “Now get out!” Eee Ken, you’re beautiful when you’re angry.
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