Reviewed by Monica Hall
(Look away now, all who hope to enjoy this series outside the UK over the next couple of weeks).
This week saw an outbreak of anti-Catholicism, which at least is historically accurate for the times. Belfast had grown from a town of 20,000 people in 1800 to one of 350,000 by 1901, and this growth was fuelled by burgeoning industry, especially the shipyards. This had led to traditional mainstream 19thC Irish politics (more Conservative vs. Liberal before 1850) re-aligning into sectarian Nationalist (Catholic) and Unionist (Protestant) divisions, as immigrants of both persuasions flooded in for the work, and to escape famine.
I was quite interested in the Catholic engineer who could only get work as a humble-but-expert electrician in Harland & Wolff who was promised, by nice Thomas Andrews, passage to the New World in 3rd class, plus the work crew of his choice, if he could only sort out Titanic’s electrical systems, which were complicated by safety features. These safety concerns predictably irritated Lord Pirrie (Timothy West – who does irritated rather well). The Catholic electrician, who was up a ladder and poking about overhead, eventually agreed to this arrangement although, oddly, he wasn’t too keen on the “steerage” aspect. I thought 3rd class on Titanic was better than 2nd class on most other ships, which surely he would have known. I could have stuck it for a week to reach the coveted New World.
But then things got very strange indeed. At one point he seemed to be smuggling his family aboard, through locked doors, depriving paying customers of their berths, and generally behaving very suspiciously. Why? They were supposed to have a legitimate passage, but he didn’t even seem to have any tickets. I obviously missed something here, which is easily done in this production, since it resembles a sort of dramatic shorthand - possibly I glanced away for 10 seconds. And his wife, Mary, was fairly odd too. There was another bloke on board who seemed to have something to do with her – he whispered in her ear at Sunday service and she guiltily moved away, after a bizarre previous encounter over a sewing machine in 3rd class. Hmmm. It can’t be an affair, as she surely wouldn’t have had the time - she seems to have about 6 children under 10. She wasn’t keen on emigrating either, though she did do the dutiful wife business. But perhaps she knew this strange and feared man was going to be aboard .... Obviously a situation to be sorted out in the final episode, then.
The class struggle was alive and well, with first class passengers aghast that spiritual comfort was extended to all at the Sunday service. Celia Imrie, complete with provincial English accent, which immediately gives her character away as New Money in first class, is particularly vocal about this outrage. Molly Brown is similarly fingered as an arriviste, although I think we mainly only ever see her fleecing the men at cards after dinner, though I can’t be sure. She might be doing sterling work on the boat deck during the evacuation for all I know, but I find it hard to keep track of the faces. Lady Manton, who we learned last week is Irish but “not that sort of Irish”, deplored the evident Catholicism of some present on Sunday. A nice stewardess later remarks to a nice (flirty) Italian waiter, who gets everywhere, and who this week was threatened with dismissal for last week’s wink at Lady Georgiana (who has vanished), that the first class servants are “grander that their masters and touchier than a king in exile”. I’m sorry if you’re finding this hard to follow, but I’m reflecting the nature of this drama quite accurately, I think.
Irish virago, Mrs. Batley (Maria Doyle Kennedy) is forced to undergo yet another ghastly tea in first class with Lord and Lady Manton, her husband’s employers, and as a result has a total breakdown. She wastes valuable time on the boat deck reprising and adding to last week’s tirade against the unfaithful Lord Manton with his now-open secret in Dulwich (“Control your wife, Mr. Batley!”), after burdening her long-suffering husband with more guilt than even such a loving man as he could bear, since it seems she’s never been happy since her marriage. Anyway, I think they’re both going to drown, as they both have “victim” written all over them. And they have no children.
Titanic myths continue to be either reprised, including locked gates, and rivets - or totally overturned. You may be slightly surprised to discover that J. Bruce Ismay, not otherwise sympathetically portrayed, is not at all bothered about pushing Titanic to her limit and getting to New York early. Take it easy! It’s Captain Smith who is the villain here. The latter is also not worried about the ship build, but is concerned about terrorism (anarchists), which seems rather modern. There is a bit more water this week, which is even more puzzling, as one minute we are following the lives of passengers, and the next we are reprising the stoker from last week staring in horror at a small amount of water bursting into the hold. This has been augmented this week by what looks like three power-showers. And suddenly, everyone is up to their thighs in water, and panicking.
This production is beginning to make me fear the onset of Alzheimer’s. I just can’t follow it. Younger or more astute viewers than me may have less trouble in following the plot-lines, but I can’t help thinking that better continuity and editing, and a smaller cast of characters, would make this a much easier drama to comprehend. The weekly sinking bursts upon us as just we are saying “Hang on, what’s going on here?” Too late. They’re either suddenly all on deck, in the boats, or resigned to their fates.
And the ladies’ favourite dancing partner at those entirely fictional frolics, 2nd Officer Lightoller, is improperly-dressed. He’s the only officer who never wears his cap.
Great hats, though, elsewhere.