Witty writing and a sumptuous setting can't quite rescue the first episode of Julian Fellowes' mini-series from a lack-lustre storyline
The first of the Titanic adaptations kicks off with the Julian Fellowes penned and Jon Jones directed, unsub-headed Titanic miniseries on ITV. The hats are huge, the collars starched and the snubs cut social-climbers off at the knees. The recreated Titanic is appropriately extravagant, with sparkling chandeliers and elegant spiral staircases, and the vast, dark chill of the ocean is convincing. And isn't that new Doctor Who companion Jenna-Louise Coleman as a cheeky young maid?
It is all very sumptuous and wonderfully mannered. It is just the storylines that are a little lack-lustre.
The inaugural episode focuses on the Earl of Manton (the always good for a bit of aristocratic bone-structure, Linus Roache) and his family, the Anglo-Irish Countess and their suffragette daughter Georgiana. They get on the ship, meet some people they are rude to and then try to get off the ship.
They do it all very decoratively, of course, and with lots of appropriate social and political comment. Geraldine Somerville gets to use every scornful expression in her repertoire as the prim and proper Countess Manton. Her withering put-downs are things of beauty and she steals more than one scene with a flicker of an incredulous smile or a tightly insincere, ‘How kind’.
At one point, it seems like Georgiana, played earnestly by Perdita Weeks, might have a sniff of a storyline. She makes her first appearance in a cell, next to an extravagantly back-combed prostitute, after taking part in a suffragette protest. This is pretty much the last we see of any political conviction on her part, as she drops comfortably into a romantic sub-plot.
A confrontation with a furious Irishwoman in her nightie (the magnificent Maria Doyle Kennedy) in the last quarter tries to add a little dramatic tension. It is somewhat over-shadowed by the fact the ship is sinking, and doesn't really come to anything.
In fairness, the structure of Fellowes mini-series means that the next three episodes could provide the context to cast the Mantons in a whole new dramatic light. Rather than a linear narrative, Titanic retells the same time period using different characters, from different classes, each time.
So storylines and characters introduced in this episode only to be apparently abandoned will be revisited. Some of the characters will, like the Mantons, get their own episodes. Other stories will have to be pieced together bit by bit as the series goes on. We might yet get to actually Belfast, a visit neglected in this episode.
There are some wonderful stand-alone character moments with the other passengers and servants. The scenes at the end, as the ship slowly started to sink, were shockingly effective. Jones direction keeps special effect interference to a minimum, with all the impact coming from the passengers slow realisation of what is happening. The panic builds slowly and the Mantons are never more convincing than as they hurry, holding on to composure by a thread, from lifeboat to lifeboat.
Fellowes, the undisputed benign despot of period drama, also demonstrates his deft handling of class with a glimpse at the below the stairs world of servants and crew. A different, but just as strict, social hierarchy is in place here. There is a wonderful scene were all the first-class passengers servants are working out the pecking order. Only to discover they were being waited on by second-class crew.
On its own merits this is not a particularly effective episode. The characters seem to serve no real dramatic purpose, other than being passengers on the Titanic. The story itself is compressed to the point of semaphor, particularly in the climatic iceberg scenes.
There is still the potential, however for Titanic, taken as a whole, to be a powerful and fascinating piece of drama. The stage is set now, and this mini-series could still end up being as highly-lauded as Downton Abbey.
Watch the next episode of the Titanic on April 1 at 9pm on UTV. Or if you missed the first episode, catch it on the ITV Player.