By the time the shout of “Iceberg right ahead!” goes up in this week’s final episode of Titanic, you could be forgiven for sighing like a bored countess as you mutter “Oh really?” into your floral antimacassar.
The real Titanic disaster 100 years ago was a gut-wrenching national tragedy, an unparalleled maritime disaster with the loss of more than 1,500 lives. The television drama version, which ends on Sunday, felt more like the evacuation of a two-star hotel into a deserted rain-lashed car park on a suburban industrial estate.
I have many problems with Titanic, the biggest being that it wasn’t dramatic. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t striving to be reverential, that it really wanted to be gripping. But what emerged was a hoary soap, Crossroads at sea.
The fact that we all know how the story ends can’t be used as an excuse. After all, we all know what happened to flight United 93 on 11 September 2001, yet the eponymous film directed by Paul Greengrass was one of the most exciting, heartbreaking films I have ever seen.
I don’t think Julian Fellowes’ Titanic by any means signals the end of costume dramas, but I think it contains a salutary lesson: that people won’t watch just anything simply because everyone in it wears big hats and dresses for dinner.
The suffocating formalities of the British class system that are at the heart of everything Fellowes does belong in Downton Abbey and Gosford Park. But they can’t simply be transplanted on to a CGI ship to be burdened with the iconography of the Titanic. You just end up with a stodgy, pedestrian drama that’s routinely slowed down by laboured dramatic irony (“Man might sink us, even if nature can’t!” or “We’ll never need lifeboats for every passenger.”) and endless repetition.
Remember, the iceberg hit the ship in every single episode. Where’s the tension in that? By the time it looms up this week, it’s hard not to mutter “Oops, here it is again” because the moment has been robbed of all its power. It’s groundhog day, only much chillier.
Fellowes’ pan-global triumph Downton Abbey works because it’s classic escapism, a chance to wallow in the familiar, in a time where everyone knew their place and was jolly glad about it. You can invest in characters, so you don’t need to go to all the trouble of guessing who drowns in the last episode.
It sounds tasteless, but that’s exactly what happens in Titanic. We’ve been thrown a variety of toffs, artisans, breezy Americans and noble savages, urged to despise/connect with them all in just four weeks of seeing exactly the same footage of them falling in love/forming unsuitable liaisons/boarding or trying to board lifeboats, only to end up playing a game of “Who cops it?”, like in a wet game of Cluedo.
No wonder viewing figures tumbled from 6.28 million in week one to 3.99 million in week two. Why bother to waste time on stock characters in a drama that throws away through over-familiarity what should be its great moment, the best-known seafaring accident in history. Titanic was fatally holed by its cliches before it even set sail.
Titanic is on ITV1 this Sunday at 9:00pm.