The Weekend's Viewing: Titanic, Sun, ITV1 Words of the Titanic, Sun, ITV1


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The Independent Culture

In every sense, Titanic has been a little lower in the water each week, the viewing figures for Julian Fellowes' ocean-going drama almost perfectly reflecting the downward slip of its subject.

It launched with 7.4 million, dropped to 4.7 million on the second episode and then 3.5 million last week, when quite a few passengers apparently decided that the SS Des O'Connor was a safer bet. This week, a few bedraggled survivors will have watched as the stern finally disappeared beneath the waves and the drama concluded with the most otiose title card I think I've ever seen. "One hundred years later," it read, "Titanic has not been forgotten."

Well, thanks for that helpful note, Julian. We might not have noticed the centenary otherwise, what with the BBC restricting itself to a three-part series with Len Goodman, a Radio 2 special broadcast and, on Saturday night, Titanic: a Commemoration in Music and Film, and the cable channels limiting coverage to just a few hundred specials. Even ITV, which might reasonably have felt that it had done its bit for Titanoraks, added another programme for the centenary of the night the ship went down, Words of the Titanic, which drew on the eyewitness testimony of those who actually survived. And curiously it turned out to be one of the best of the bunch. No CGI reconstructions, no wild hypotheses about the sinking, no historical revisionism, just the event itself in snagging detail. Earlier in the evening you could have watched actors rushing around mocked-up companion-ways, searching for missing relatives and then you heard this from Charles Lightoller, second officer on the Titanic: "It took me 14 days before I could find my way from one point to another in that ship with total confidence." What must it have been like for panicked passengers who'd only been on board for four days?

Disaster struck with discretion. Lawrence Beesley, a teacher, remembered "no sound of a crash or anything else. No sense of shock. No jar that felt like one heavy body meeting another". Lightoller, who knew better what maritime noises meant, recalled "a distinct and unpleasant break in the monotony of her motion". But Elizabeth Shutes, a governess, had to eavesdrop to learn how bad things were, catching the officer who'd just smilingly reassured her tell someone else that "we can keep the water out for a while". Initially, those on board matched the iceberg for reticence. "There was no panic or hysteria... No cries of fear," recalled one passenger and Archibald Gracie, an American returning from wintering in the south of France, declared himself proud of his "Anglo-Saxon race and its example of self-control".

You couldn't help but feel that some of the stiff upper lip might have been retrospective, the keel of the Titanic myth having been laid before the Carpathia even arrived in New York with the survivors. But even so, these accounts were gripping, and the straight-to-camera delivery by the actors and relatives who read them an arresting alternative to the melodrama immediately before. Fellowes, incidentally, devoted his final episode to a succession of those curiously extended farewells that lovers often indulge in when facing imminent death in disaster movies. There was one nice moment when a steward threatened to report one character for damaging White Star property as they frantically tried to release someone from a locked cabin – a plausibly Wile E Coyote failure to see that life hadn't just taken them over the edge of a cliff – but it couldn't match the chilling detail from Words of the Titanic, explaining that the wages of stewardess Violet Jessop, like those of all the surviving White Star employees, were only paid up to the point the vessel sank. Or the poignancy of the final wrap-up showing you the witnesses' real faces. And now, one hopes, the Titanic can be left to rest in peace for a while.