Downton on Sea fails to float

Pat Stacey

THE sinking of the Titanic in 1912, which claimed more than 1,500 lives, was a genuine disaster.

Writer Julian Fellowes' Titanic, which clocks in at a hefty four hours - roughly 45 minutes longer than James Cameron's blockbuster film - is merely disastrous.

Suspicions that Fellowes' version, each episode of which looks at the sinking of the supposedly unsinkable ship from the perspective of the passengers on different decks and therefore reverses the story to the beginning at the start of each week, would merely be Downton Abbey on water (or rather under it) proved depressingly true.

Even Fellowes' harshest critics, however, who accuse him of recycling the same basic material in Downton as he used in his Oscar-winning script for the Robert Altman film Gosford Park, can't have imagined that he'd pile on the drama cliches so relentlessly.

The script mixes real-life characters - White Star Line owner J Bruce Ismay, second officer Lightoller, American billionaire Benjamin Guggenheim and his French mistress Madame Aubert - with fictional ones. Attempts to fit the former into their historical context leads to some awful, clunky expository dialogue. Early on we see the Titanic's designer question why the spaces for 32 lifeboats haven't been filled.

"There is no need," blusters Ismay, played by James Wilby. "The law stipulates 16 lifeboats and that is what we have. I will not have the promenade deck ruined or the ladies terrified out of their wits."


But whether they're real or imagined makes no difference; they're all so cardboard you imagine they could quite easily float on the surface of the water.

The real star of the show is not the ship, which frequently looks in long shots like what it is, a piece of CGI, or even the iceberg, which made a curiously murky, low-key entry early in the episode and was feebly represented by the sight of an Italian furnace stoker being drenched with a markedly small amount of water, but Fellowes' favourite (only?) theme: class conflict.

The first-class charge is led by toff Lord Manton (Linus Roache, son of Coronation Street's Bill 'Cock' Roache) and his hideously stuck-up wife (Geraldine Somervile), who looks down on everyone below her, literally and metaphorically, including Madame Aubert, with whom she refuses to share first a breakfast table and later a lifeboat.

The chief targets of her contempt, though, are Irishman John Bailey (Toby Jones), a solicitor who works for her husband, and his outspoken wife (Maria Doyle Kennedy). When her husband extends an invitation to tea to the Baileys, who are billeted in second-class, Lady Manton bitchily sneers, "I don't think that's allowed, dear."

Lady Manton is basically a younger, sourer version of Downton Abbey's dowager (Somervile even looks a little like Maggie Smith) without the withering humour. She's a horrible character and Somervile compounds the horribleness with a dreadful performance.