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Television: The most incredible hulk in the world

Robin Buss views the Titanic through the eyes of a claustrophobe
Titanic Live

The Discovery Channel & C4

Unless you happened to be watching on the Discovery Channel at around 4am on Monday morning, the title of this documentary was not strictly accurate: but the pictures seen by Channel Four viewers that evening were no less awe-inspiring for not being broadcast live. We saw, with startling clarity, the looming shapes of the Titanic's hull, its massive boilers, forward mast, deck and propellers. And the camera, in its wandering, came across other fittings and mundane objects: a serving dish and frying pan, pipes, panelling, wash basins and Captain Smith's bath - which looked half-full, until one remembered that this tub and the silt in the bottom of it were in fact under two and a half miles of water.

As you watched the small probe gliding around, in the gently drifting "snow" of debris that falls constantly towards the ocean floor, you had to keep reminding yourself of the nature of the medium in which it was operating, the sheer weight of sea above it and the technical achievement that these pictures represented. Not that we didn't hear plenty about the technical achievement, and about conditions inside the manned vessel, Nautile, a claustrophobe's worst nightmare, a cell padded with television screens and instruments, with tiny portholes on the outside world and only a cable or two linking it to the surface. The compulsion that would induce anyone to step inside it must be powerful indeed.

Some three years ago, when the Titanic exhibition was being held at the National Maritime Museum, the morality of disturbing the site was made a central issue: there were discussions on late-night television, and visitors to the exhibition were even asked to cast a vote for or against leaving the site as it was, in deference to the memory of the 1,200 passengers and crew who died. As far as I know, the ethical issue was never formally resolved. But curiosity has won, with hardly an argument. It is as though the need to know and the need to tell have become almost irresistible imperatives. went out, after all, on the same evening that the President of the United States was being obliged to reveal the most intimate aspects of his personal conduct down a closed-circuit television link to a grand jury, before coming on television to tell the whole world about it.

We did learn that the members of the expedition had "an enduring respect" for the ship and her passengers; but there was never much hope that, once they had located the wreck and perfected the technology, Titanic would simply be left alone. The chance to find answers to unresolved questions, about how she sank, for example, added to the fascination. Last year's feature film clinched it, making the liner an intimate acquaintance and adding Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet to its romantic appeal. So there will be more pictures. From now on, it is a battle between men and "rusticles", the curiosity of scientists and the voracity of microbes, before the whole thing is reduced, as the microbiologist said, to a mere iron ore deposit on the ocean floor.