As ITV prepares for the launch of its four-part drama Titanic on Sunday, Maggie Brown reports on how the project was developed and assesses whether the series is likely to sink or swim
In its brief existence, Titanic was the largest ship afloat, and the four part miniseries about to hit our screens has echoes of that epic scale and grandeur.
ITV’s director of television, Peter Fincham describes the £11 million drama as a “TV series like no other”. At £2.75 million per episode, Titanic is event drama costing between two and three times even the most ambitious period pieces such as Downton Abbey. Evidence of the money spent is clear, from the 79 strong main cast of mostly British actors, and the 3,000 extras to the 60 metre promenade deck set and massive, specially dug water tank.
Nonetheless, it began in a mundane manner, four years ago, with a conversation in a Hammersmith pub, on the banks of the Thames, as the respected producer Nigel Stafford-Clark, with credits ranging from Bleak House to Warriors, was sounded out by another entrepreneurial veteran, Simon Vaughan, who spotted the chance to mark the 100th anniversary.
The project, once it had writer Julian Fellowes’ name attached, was then crucially kick-started by ITV’s backing, making a generous financial contribution of £3.8 million – a third of the total budget. One of many backers of the drama, ITV committed first, on a three-page treatment, long before the script was ready.
Stafford-Clark, when he approached Fellowes, did not know that the writer was already deep into Downton Abbey, which starts with the Crawley heir, Patrick, lost on the Titanic. But Fellowes needed no persuading in writing the drama.
“I knew this was my chance at the Titanic,” he says. “The point of movies – disaster movies – is how people behave.”
He also saw it as a parable for our uncertain times, saying “the whole of the world was on a cliff”. With the outbreak of war imminent, Edwardian society, like the Titanic, ploughed on oblivious to danger. “That echo resonates today,” he adds.
The production credits for Titanic roll like a film – they list nine different sources of finance and support (although this is chiefly an Anglo-Hungarian-Canadian series) with subsidy from the Broadcasting Authority, Ireland, and the media programme of the European Union. The post-production editing, took place in Canada, benefiting from its tax credit system.
It has been pre-sold to around 86 broadcasters, with ABC and Germany’s ZDF co-funders, such is the pull and urgency of the anniversary, meaning no one is going to lose out financially.
Stafford-Clark says he would have liked to film at the Harland and Wolff shipyard, Belfast, where Titanic was built, but uncertainty about tax credits prevailed. In fact, the studios chosen, near Budapest, were also occupied with BBC1’s Birdsong. There were times last summer when it seemed that any actor worth their salt was taking a trip to sunny Hungary. Actors at the screening of Titanic earlier this month said the hardest part was having to look freezing cold.
There are 12 interwoven stories of passengers and crew threading through the four episodes, allowing Fellowes to recount the individual tragedies from every viewpoint, first class, second class and steerage, crew and servants. Intrinsic to the dramatic structure devised by Stafford-Clark and Fellowes is that the boat sinks four times, once per episode. This is fertile ground for Fellowes, who dismisses the James Cameron 1997 film Titanic as just “a love story set against the backdrop of the ship’s sinking”.
The lead role, Hugh, Earl of Manton, is played with elegant aplomb by 48-year-old Linus Roache (son of William Roache) who lives in New York, after finding fame in America as attorney Michael Cutter in Law and Order. This was his first lead role in a period drama and he relished being on a British production again.
“I know it was a tragedy, but we had some laughs,” he recalls. “In America, it is more of a cut-throat thing, British actors are looser, have more of a sense of humour. You don’t take it so seriously. I love hanging out with fellow countrymen. I’d love to do some more television here.”
Fellowes adds: “I was absolutely thrilled with the casting. It is always a big challenge, telling stories, taking the audience with you. That’s why casting is so important.”
His hand is evident. Toby Jones, who played his son years ago in Aristocrats, has a lead role as John Batley, the unhappily married lawyer serving Lord Manton. James Wilby, who plays the chairman of the White Star Line, owner of ship, Bruce Ismay, was in Gosford Park.
Jon Jones, Titanic’s director, says: “Actors – the wonderful thing is they looked after themselves. They all came on set, very much in character, and I had to just point the camera at them. The script was clear, the characters were clear.”
The drama is stuffed with good parts and one-liners. Celia Imrie, for example, plays the comically nouveau riche Grace Rushton, more concerned about her pet dog Suki than anything else. The Earl’s beautiful daughter, Lady Georgiana, (Perdita Weeks) is a rebellious suffragette who embarks on a doomed romance. Manton’s wife Louisa (Geraldine Somerville), is depicted as a ghastly Anglo-Irish snob cutting people dead. “We are a political family, you are in trade,” she explains to some first class upstarts.
But for all its large for TV budget and epic tragic theme, does it work?
Stafford-Clark says that one of hardest tasks was the computer generated imagery for Titanic.
“It is great for wooden armada-style ships, where there is lots of visual detail, not for the sleek metal lines of a massive steam liner,” he says.
And likewise, with so many characters, and interacting stories, the challenge is to make viewers remember them, and therefore care about their forthcoming ordeal.
The structure, moving backwards and forwards is unusual – the first time the boat hits the iceberg, water just comes gushing in through a puncture in the boiler room, about half way through the first episode. In the second episode, you see the iceberg close up as the ship bounces along it.
There is also another end of an era message in this production. Stafford-Clark is sure that a golden decade of television drama is coming to an end. He says he gave up producing films in favour of television a decade ago, because TV dramas were fully funded, by a broadcaster, so he was able to get on with making them. Now no single broadcaster can foot the bill.
“I am afraid that is the world we are in,” he says. “For ten glorious years the broadcaster has written the cheque. I left feature films because I couldn’t bear every three years putting together the finance. I’m back there now.”
Titanic continues on ITV1, Sunday, 9pm