TV SERIES: Titanic

With an unimpressive debut episode and a breathtakingly good finale, was the mini-series worth watching?

Julian Fellowes ambitious, ITV mini-series Titanic failed to impress with its debut episode. It lacked compelling characters and dramatic impetus, threatening to make the most iconic naval disaster ever...boring. However, the idea of the non-linear narrative – with each episode providing pieces of the final jigsaw – meant that the drama still had the potential to be addictive viewing.

So, as the last episode finishes, was it?

It's a shame not to be able to say yes. Titanic did improve after the first episode and there were elements where it excelled.

The set by Rob Harris is beautifully designed and executed. It has a subtle commentary of its own about the class divides on the ship, with the graduations in luxury between first-class and steerage, first-class servants and stokers starkly evident. Nothing is shabby, the workmanship throughout looks all of a piece, but the difference between the glister and gilt of the Manton's suites and the bare confines of the Maloney's berth is obvious.

The soundscape created by sound department for the series is also incredibly effective. It may seem like an odd aspect to praise, but it captures the chatter and music of a crowded ship as well as the creak and scrape of disaster.

Yet the undeniably excellent production values (£11million's worth, making it one of the most expensive dramas on ITV) cannot distract from the fact that the stories pieced together episode after episode are dull. Well-written and sometimes entertaining – few writers can surpass Fellowes knack for withering one-liners and clever bon mots – but seeming to lack any dramatic point. And, in the absence of one, everything seems to reset to romance.

By the evidence of this mini-series, the Titanic was the period equivalent of an 18-30s cruise. Despite the fact that they were only at sea for a couple of days, people are falling in love in every episode.

It is particularly irritating when one of the few interesting character's storyline is subsumed into yet another unconvincing romance. Peter Lubhov, based on a real-life criminal called Peter Piatkow, appeared briefly in episodes 1 and 2 hinting at some dark, revolutionary connection with the apparently blameless wife and mother Mary Maloney (Ruth Bradley). It was the most interesting storyline – aside from the baby-snatching nanny which came to nothing – in the series.

Except in episode 3 it turns out to be just another random romance. She, after exchanging two words and a weird stare with him, just can't resist his Latvian charm. Dragos Bucur, who plays Peter, is a good looking man, but surely Fellowes could have done something more interesting with his character than a romance and a very brief bit of murdering?

It is a shame, because there are so many absolutely pitch-perfect character moments throughout the show. The slow, withering look that Lady Manton (Geraldine Somerville) gives Bruce Ismay (James Wilby) when he sneaks onto the life-boat (he doesn't dress as a woman, although one of the crew does call him an 'old woman' in a nod to the myth) and the piercing kindness of the man rescuing the dogs from the hold. Linda Kash's wonderfully unperturbable Mrs Brown and the unflappable Benjamin Guggenheim (David Eisner) and his equally dry-witted valet Victor Giglio (Joseph May) both light up the screen in their brief appearances.

The bitter, battling Batleys are also an (unexpected) high point of the show, with Toby Jones and Maria Doyle Kennedy, who has a wonderful array of heavily contemptuous looks, giving their characters a bittersweet depth and solidity. Right to the end.

Yet the focus is always drawn away to romances too undeveloped to care about and awkward class commentary. The scene where Paolo Sandrini (Glen Blackhall) tells the crew member guarding the entrance to second class that 'First-class? Second class? What about your own class?' was so ridiculously clunky it needed a can of WD-40.

The fourth and final episode of Titanic was blisteringly effective, from the terribly inevitability of the crash to the petty jobsworthing of the crew locking first-class doors to stop steerage looting. As the lifeboats were lowered and men leapt desperately into the water it is impossible not to be moved. The scene where the door swung shut on Peter McDonald's Jim Maloney and his daughter (a short but believable performance by Georgia McCutcheon) was a brutally effective bit of imagery.

Yet it isn't enough to make up for the failings of the previous episodes or the frustratingly dropped storylines (isn't Georgiana Grex a suffragette? what about that overprotective nanny and the missing baby?). If people are still talking about Titanic at the end of this year, this won't be the show they are talking about.

If you missed Titanic, you can catch up with it on ITV Player