Television Review

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The Independent Culture
I HOPE SOMEONE in the Discovery Channel showroom shouted "anchors aweigh!" just before they went on air for Titantic Live, their transmission from the wreck of the Titanic (first shown in the early hours of Monday morning and repeated in an edited form on Channel 4 last night). It would have been a sad waste of a pun if not, because there were anchors all over the place - a female one on a supply vessel, a male one two-and-a-half miles down in the Nautile (a manned submersible which supplied many of the pictures), and another on the ship from which the Nautile was dangling. There was even a dry- dock anchor helping to carry the burden of this "unprecedented television event", a burden which included saying the word "live" more times than you would have thought humanly possible in just two hours. Occasionally, as with the soupy green images visible through the submarine's window, the density of the adjectives would increase to the point where visibility ceased altogether, to be replaced by an opaque swirl of whipped-up intensifiers - "Live on Titanic Live!" yelped the presenter at one point, as if her syntax had finally crumpled under the pressure of expectation. In the midst of this storm of galvanising adjectives, the wreck itself could occasionally be glimpsed - utterly silent, utterly dead, utterly patient - a rusting contradiction to all this worked-up immediacy.

There were thrills, of course, it was just that they couldn't ever quite match the frenzied presale of the presenters. It's one thing to promise "never-before-seen pictures", but if quite a lot of what you are then shown is "still-can't-quite-be-seen-properly", there's bound to be a certain amount of disappointment. It was eerie to stare into the crow's-nest hatch on the main-mast, the place where nemesis had first been spotted looming out of the darkness ahead, and poignant as well to see the captain's bathtub, its enamel shining through decades of silt. Unfortunately, the soundtrack to this bathetic momento mori ("that's incredible... gosh... Oh my god!") soon smothered whatever bubbles of excitement were rising up. Not that understatement worked much better: talking to one of the submersible pilots, who was preparing a mosaic of high-definition pictures of the entire wreck site, the female anchor got into trouble trying to provoke him into similar extravagance: "I've heard that described as being like siphoning off the Atlantic, snapping a picture and putting the Atlantic back," she said. "That sounds kind of easy, but it can't be." He managed to keep a straight face.

Nor did the "mission" deliver on its other promises - providing conclusive proof about how the ship sank or whether those controversial barriers between steerage and the lifeboat deck had been locked shut when the boat went down. The science, too, was vestigial - a marine biologist offered a brief explanation of how the wreck was being consumed by "rusticles", structures formed by micro-organisms. He enlisted the ship as a kind of exemplary object - a demonstration of the great cyclical turns of nature, by which the iron had briefly been put into a condition of unnatural complexity by Harland and Woolf of Belfast but was now returning to its elemental simplicity.

That is what the Titanic is best at - provoking contemplation and moral reverie. But neither of those states of mind are compatible with the commercial urgency of an American television event. Paradoxically, the most evocative moments were those when the sound went completely dead (including the dubbed-on pinging of sonar which accompanied some sea-bed shots). This puzzling gap was a sign that an advertising break, unsold here, was playing out in some other market, but it also meant that we could briefly be left alone with our own thoughts - sunk in contemplation rather than knee-deep in synthetic thrill.