In the midst of the Staircase-gate scandal surrounding Titanic Belfast – and with Belfast saturated with tacky cash-in products (Titanic teabags anyone?) in this, the great ship's centenary year – it's easy to forget the fascinating details of the creation and demise of the liner.
The massive loss of life that occurred on April 15, 1912, and the global ramifications of Titanic's sinking, are, admittedly, often difficult to fathom. But it is inspirational to see the lengths that Whizz Kid Entertainment and Northern Irish company, The Anderson Spratt Group, have gone to in order to ensure an evening of commemoration at the Waterfront Hall that entertains with integrity.
The performance – a mixture of pre-recorded documentary footage displayed on an enormous screen above the stage, as well as live performances from an array of world class musical artists and stars of stage and screen – is sold out (over 25,000 people applied for tickets).
For those who cannot attend, however, it is also broadcast live UK wide on BBC2 and locally on Radio Ulster, and hosted (in the main) by John Humphrys, growler-in-chief on Radio 4's Today programme.
The eager audience are greeted with music from a string quintet – a nod to the luxury afforded to the first and second-class passengers aboard the Titanic. After a brief introduction from BBC’s Noel Thompson, and tasteful music from the Ulster Orchestra, the main performance begins.
First to the stage is dapper icon Bryan Ferry, who performs a bombastic yet deeply moving cover of Tim Buckley’s 'Song to the Siren'. Sadly, despite a jaw-dropping stage set-up featuring full choir and orchestra, the performance is marred by a murky sound mix. Thankfully, this is rectified for the remainder of the live acts, and isn’t apparent on the television broadcast.
The documentary that plays on the screen between performances is top class, forming the backbone of the narrative upon which the show is based. Driven by commentary from esteemed historians such as John Anderson, Donald Hislop and Michael McCaughan, as well as eyewitness accounts voiced by acting talent including Simon Callow, Kenneth Branagh and Imelda Staunton, the film is refreshing in its lack of saccharine sentimentality.
Opening with bleak views of the Marconi Radio Station at Cape Race, Newfoundland, combined with an evocative Morse soundtrack, the audience is informed about the ‘inevitable failure of flaunted technology’ and the ‘shipwreck of dreams'.
Juxtaposing period images of the harsh working conditions at Harland and Wolff with details of the lives of the glittering millionaires who would sail (and ultimately perish) aboard the Titanic, the film does an excellent job of exploring who actually sailed on Titanic: people from all walks of life.
Back to the music. At times it feels as if some of the song selections might bring the evening into dangerously twee territory, with Maverick Sabre covering Alicia Keys’ ode to New York, ‘Empire State of Mind’, and Katie Melua Ron Sexsmith’s ‘Gold In Them Hills’. But the emotive stories of individual tragedies related by actors between songs bring us all back to earth.
With a haunting performance of 'Bring Him Home' from Les Misérables, Alfie Boe (along with the Irish Harp Orchestra) soundtracks the tales of courage that surfaced in the aftermath of Titanic's sinking. However, perhaps the most touching part of the commemoration is the portion dedicated to the heroism of Wallace Hartley and his band, who famously played on as the Titanic sank.
Hartley’s playing of 'Nearer My God to Thee' while water circled his knees is echoed in a performance of the aforementioned hymn by Charlie Siem, together with Nicola Benedetti on a 300 year old Stradivarius. Bendetti goes on to play Shostakovich’s 'Counterplan Opus 33 Andante' as the names of all those lost in the disaster are displayed on the backdrop.
The stand-out performance of the evening comes in the form of the Titanic Drums, in which 100 drummers with instruments of various types take to the stage, there to invoke the historic shipyard's ear-splitting cacophony of sound at it's busiest. Joined by the massed choirs of Grosvenor and Omagh Youth Community and the Ulster Orchestra, under the baton of composer and director John Anderson, this piece is met by thunderous applause from the audience.
Respectful without being pious, informative without being overly academic, mournful yet life affirming and full of vitality, Titanic: A Commemoration In Music And Film is a triumph of research, imagination and organisation. However, more importantly, it is a worthwhile tribute to all those souls lost 100 years ago.
Watch Titanic: A Commemoration in Music and Film on BBC iPlayer.