The Maiden Voyage of ITV1’s Titanic Is a Mixed Affair

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I have mixed feelings about James Cameron’s epic 1997 feature Titanic. As I’m sure you are aware, it’s about to be re-released in cinemas in a new version, converted to 3D, so those who found the banal dialogue and crass characterisation too intellectually challenging the first time round can be helped along by pointy things coming out of the screen.

Okay, I’m being a bit harsh. I have to confess I rather love Titanic, even if it does have a script that clunks along like a tram missing a wheel and treats its audience as if they are three years old. The sheer spectacle of it is nothing short of incredible, and although Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio have seen better days acting-wise, I can’t help but be completely caught up in their love story. However, it doesn’t need 3D. But it goes without saying that Cameron, Fox and Paramount are only re-releasing it in three dimensions because it’s the centenary of the Titanic disaster. It’s about respect to the dead. Obviously it’s got nothing to do with trying to make loads more cash. What do you think they are, cynical? Greedy? Of course not, they’re just doing the right thing.

But although the second highest-grossing film ever made is set to hit multiplexes once again, ITV1 have bravely tried to match it with their new four-part big-budget TV drama. It’s written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, and concentrates on a wide selection of characters, rather than just one doomed romance.

The series has been made possible by ITV collaborating with a number of other companies from Canada, the USA, and Hungary. Even The Walt Disney Company has a part to play in the production, with TV channel ABC getting its logo in at the end of the credits. The first episode aired on Sunday and owned its 9pm primetime slot, bringing in the highest ratings for any channel that evening. As the viewing figures fell for the rather marvellous BBC revival of Upstairs Downstairs, the ocean-liner drama secured an audience of seven million.

But was it any good, and is it worth watching next week? Well, I’m afraid the answer is yes and no. The biggest problem — and it’s one that’s unavoidable (particularly if Julian Fellowes is writing the script) — is that the programme was reduced to yet another rehash of Downstairs Abbey (or is it Downton Upstairs?). One could have been forgiven for thinking they had actually tuned in to BBC One by accident, and watched the final episode of the let’s-all-watch-the-aristocracy-have-sex-while-the-servants-bicker series.

The snobbery between rich and poor, employers and the employed, passengers and staff, English and Irish, could have provided interesting drama, especially when we know all the people on board the Titanic will be in grave peril very soon. But Fellowes didn’t succeed in making the characters real. Instead, there was just a vague depiction of racism and class vulgarity without any real emotional engagement. Still, it passed the time as general Sunday night entertainment.

Titanic is a curious series. It seems to be confused as to whether it is a big special-effects festival or more of an intimate portrayal of the passengers on board. Next week takes us back to the designing and building of the ship, so maybe that will allow us to get under the skin of the people who were (or should have been) blamed for the disaster that occurred 100 years ago next month. It’s not Shakespeare but, thank god, it’s a step up from Cameron’s attempts at script writing. Hopefully it will get better as it goes on.

Titanic airs on Sunday nights until April 15th on ITV1 HD & ITV1. A DVD and Blu-ray release of the series is available from April 16th from ITV Studios Home Entertainment.

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Second year BA Film & English Student. Watches too many films and enjoys good novels.

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