Titanic: A night to remember

Expectations are high for ITV's new drama, Titanic. Gerard Gilbert talks to writer Julian Fellowes and the cast

On hearing that ITV was going to make a drama about the sinking of the Titanic, my first reaction was an involuntary snort of disbelief. This is no longer the ITV of Lew Grade, after all, and the iceberg-stricken liner proved too much even for that ambitious media mogul, Grade famously remarking of his disastrous 1980 movie Raise the Titanic that "it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic".

However, with a script from Downton Abbey's Julian Fellowes, and a £11 million budget, the four-part Titanic threatens to be defiantly seaworthy. It may even prove triumphant, although there remains a potential iceberg lurking inits path in time for the April 1912 disaster's 100th anniversary. But more of that later, because first the James Cameron question needs to be addressed – his 1997 blockbuster of the same name is a benchmark for movie spectacle and is the second-highest grossing film of all time.

It was "the elephant in the room", admits Nigel Stafford-Clark, producer and creator of the new ITV series, after a pub lunch with his eventual co-producer during which the project was first mooted. "It just felt too large." However his doubts only lasted as long as the walk back to his car,"when I suddenly thought, 'Actually there is a way of doing this,'" says Stafford-Clark, a three-time Bafta winner (most recently with BBC1's Bleak House). "And that was to make a serial about Britain in 1912, when we were the most powerful nation on earth and we were also sailing towards the First World War as obliviously as the Titanic was sailing towards the iceberg."

It's hardly the most original thought. Indeed, Fellowes had already had it when he started writing Downton Abbey, of which Stafford-Clark had no inkling when he approached Fellowes – on the strength of his script for Robert Altman's Gosford Park – to write Titanic. "When Nigel rang me," recalls Fellowes, a self-confessed, as he puts it, "Titanorak", "I was very struck by the coincidence because I had not long before written the opening of Downton Abbey (in which) two characters drown on the Titanic."

Stafford-Clark's first big new idea was to take a different point of view in each of the four episodes. The series begins with the focus on the aristocratic Manton family, headed by Hugh and Louisa (played by Linus Roache and Geraldine Somerville), accompanying their rebellious suffragette daughter, Georgiana (Perdita Weeks). It continues in second class with unhappily married Irish couple – the Manton's subservient lawyer, John Batley (Toby Jones) and his spirited wife Muriel (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and so on, down through steerage to the boiler rooms.

"A boat is almost a perfect place to do this in," says Stafford-Clark. "Nowhere else would you ever get such an extraordinary mixture of people in one place; the whole of society is set in steel. We tell about 12 different stories in four hours – it's something TV does really well."

"This is a portrait of the ship in a way the other versions haven't been," says Fellowes. "A Night to Remember [the 1958 British movie starring Kenneth More] is mainly about the officers. The passengers are quite secondary. James Cameron's movie – that's a love story set against the sinking of the Titanic. We have boiler-men and the first class, the officers and stewardesses, the second class, the third class and the servants of the first class."

So far, so Downton Abbey, although Titanic's politics are more prominent with suffragettes, Irish home rulers and anarchists making for a more abrasive mix than the country seat of the Earl of Grantham. Titanic's other innovation is to climax each episode with the collision – a conscious decision not to leave the audience waiting too long for the most famous iceberg in history.

"Everybody knows what happened with the Titanic," says Stafford-Clark. "It means we can tell the story in a more original way than just a straight linear retelling. It seemed to me that one of the most important things to do would be to sink the boat – or start sinking the boat – at the end of each episode, otherwise the audience will be sitting there going,'This is all very well but when's the boat going to start sinking?'"

It's also a gamble – the collision is the money shot after all, and to show it at the end of the first episode risks blunting the appetite for succeeding weeks. Fellowes disagrees, arguing that the spectacle of the sinking is secondary to the human drama. "When Nigel came up with this idea of taking the ship down every week I knew that I wanted to do it tremendously because the point of these stories is like the disaster movies my generation grew up on; it's to see how people behave in a disaster."

Those drawn to Downton Abbey may find the pace here a bit frantic. There is some romance but little humour. On the whole though, ITV can be proud of Titanic, and viewers won't be disappointed by the special effects. "Special effects have come a long way in the past 15 years," says Titanic's director Jon Jones. "We found things that he [Cameron] found difficult to do, relatively easy."

Two decks of the liner were re-created in studios in Hungary, with a vast water tank used for the lifeboat scenes. "It would be wrong to ignore the irony of making Titanic in a land-locked country," says Toby Jones, whose Irish solicitor is one of the highlights of the series. "But in a curious way that helped – you could concentrate more on the work." Equally ill-fitting, says Linus Roache, was the heat. "One of the hardest acting challenges was pretending to be cold in the middle of summer in Budapest wearing formal costumes," he says. "But there's just something about this Titanic set. It really does recreate the atmosphere of what it must have been like to be on board. Sometimes you just found yourself thinking about the what-ifs."

It almost goes without saying that, despite being pre-sold to 83 different countries, including ABC in the US, nobody should expect a second series. "Someone said that to me the other day, 'Is there a sequel?'" laughs Fellowes. "I said, 'Not unless it's directed by Jacques Cousteau'. That, in a way, is a good thing. It's a complete story. That's it. It's over'." Except, of course, with film-makers and the Titanic, you feel it's never really over.

'Titanic' begins on Sunday at 9pm on ITV1

Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs