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