Julian Fellowes on Sinking the Titanic

It's already being billed as 'Downton Abbey on sea' - a portrait of a ship and all its people, from first class to steerage and those in between.

According to award-winning writer Julian Fellowes, his new television drama on the sinking of the Titanic will be a 'world in miniature', interweaving - as he has so successfully done before - the lives of the upper and lower classes.

This four-parter from the man behind the Oscar-winning Gosford Park will portray the courage of the crew men in those last few hours on board the doomed liner, as well as the second-class passengers, so often overlooked in previous big and small screen versions of the tale.

'My Titanic is a portrait of a ship and all those on board, a world in miniature,' he tells me. 'When I began to study the subject it wasn't the stories of the few who jumped into the lifeboats that interested me, but the bravery and courage of the first, second and third crew men, the stewards, the boiler men, their stories were so inspiring.

'In all previous films, the emphasis has been on the first-class and steerage, but we have a very strong storyline about second-class as well. Some of the characters are true, others are fictional, but everyone, from first class to the ordinary crewmen, all have big storylines which are happening simultaneously.

'Life on the ship reflected what was going on in the world on dry land at the time. It was that post-Edwardian era when the British and Americans believed they were kings. Then of course, they hit the iceberg that was World War One. The Titanic seemed to represent that world in such an iconic way.'

Fellowes' multi-million pound mini-series, which was filmed on location in Budapest, is one of several new adaptations being shown this year to mark the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic. The 1912 disaster, in which 1,500 people died, has already been the subject of numerous films, including the massive blockbuster from James Cameron, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett.

Fellowes admits he has seen almost every version - his favourite is the 1958 film A Night To Remember. But while penning this drama, he refused to watch them again.

'I didn't want any distractions,' he says. 'Of course I've seen Cameron's Titanic, but we could never rival those special effects and anyway, his principal narrative was a love story.'

As a patron of Belfast charity Cinemagic, the 62-year-old writer and actor visited the Titanic Quarter to get a sense of history. He also spent much time on the set of his mini-series out in Budapest, where the reality hit home.

'I've always been intrigued by the story of the Titanic," he says. 'When I visited the Titanic Quarter in Belfast in my role as a patron of Cinemagic, I found it terribly moving.

'Then I went out to Budapest and was amazed at the set there, it was so enormous and realistic. I found myself looking at the decks and imagining all those men, women and children walking along them 100 years ago, and what they were doing in those terrible two and a half hours before the ship went down.

'The story of the Titanic continues to fascinate and haunt people today,' he says. 'And Belfast has a right to claim the Titanic and to mark this occasion. It was a terribly melancholy event, but it was also a great historical event. It was a story that began in Belfast but resonated around the world. It was the age old struggle of man against nature and nature won.

'It's not a case of celebrating this tragedy. What we are doing is commemorating the Titanic and those who lost their lives. It's only right that they should be remembered.'

Titanic, starring Celia Imrie, Toby Jones, Geraldine Somerville and Timothy West, will air on ITV in April.