Reviewed by Monica Hall
Nautical Groundhog Day is here again. A second viewing of Episode 2 enabled me to sort out a few puzzling things, including why the Catholic electrician was smuggling his family around in 3rd class. He just wanted to keep them with him although, sadly, it could never have happened as depicted, for Titanorak reasons I won’t bore you with. But was it important to the plot?
I have found someone to care about. I feel deeply for Mr. Batley (Toby Jones), who is Lord Manton’s lawyer (2nd Class of course) and subject to frightful patronising teas in 1st Class, which Lady Manton deplores as evidence of Lord Manton’s slight proletarian instincts, and which Mrs. Batley rabidly deplores as evidence of Lady Manton’s extreme and unwarranted snobbishness.
Poor Mr. Batley is subject to the tantrums of his Irish virago wife (Maria Doyle Kennedy), whom he loves, which bring her into conflict with the Mantons, publicly and at the worst possible time (the ship is sinking for God’s sake), and also mean that he has to listen in private to her despairing regrets about her life, behaviour etc. Kennedy does all this very well, but she is rather eclipsed by her fictional husband. Mr. Jones is a man of relatively small stature (compared to Kennedy at any rate), a homely face, and is a very good actor. In fact, I would go so far as to say he is a superb one. Anyone who can sort out his part in this production simply has to be superb, and he is convincing. I look at his worried face, contemplate his conflicting loyalties and the class issues, and think “Poor man.” Sadly, I know he’s not going to survive. Mrs Batley will, I’ve decided since last week. She’ll be dragged on board the Carpathia from Collapsible A, but she will never get over the loss of this good, and unappreciated, man.
I wrote the foregoing before the screening of Episode 3, just to see if I was right. Not proven wrong so far, but I’ll have to wait until Episode 4 to see whether I have to eat humble pie. But I am quietly confident.
But to return to the topic of originator and scriptwriter, Julian Fellowes, and class distinctions, the poor Guardian reviewer felt that (s)he was continually being bashed over the head with Debrett’s Etiquette (?) and thrown into the sea – four times. Now, when a Guardian reviewer complains about an obsession with class distinction, you know you’re in trouble. It takes a lot to persuade a Guardian journalist that an obsession with class has gone too far.
I’m sure the Titanic was a microcosm of class boundaries, but this sort of thing was entirely normal for the times, and largely accepted, even if resented, by the less fortunate. Julian Fellowes has previously skilfully mined the rich seam of our fascination with a very-different age which is still just within touching distance through personal family reminiscence. But I think Titanic has (temporarily, we hope) sunk him, as it did so many others. He had to find a different way to portray the tragedy, but it isn’t really working. It was a mistake to claim historical accuracy beyond previous dramatizations, because that makes you a hostage to the eagle-eyes of far more expert and dedicated gaffe-detectors than me. In any case, this is telly entertainment, and not a documentary. But I think the structural scope he set himself, given the episode time-frame, was too challenging. The weekly sinking, the augmented story-lines from the previous weeks, the large array of characters, the adverts, and the continuity difficulties, all combine to make it very hard to follow indeed.
Still, never mind. What happened last night? As usual, I’m not entirely sure.
I now know the Latvian identity of the Catholic electrician’s wife Mary’s mysterious on-board stalker, thanks to the startling spectacle of Winston Churchill putting in an enraged 1911 back-story appearance, furious about the Siege of Sydney Street (January 1911) and the escaped ringleader -Peter the Painter. (Memo to researchers re characterisation - Churchill was only 37 at the time, not 57. A mere lad, even if Home Secretary). Our Latvian anarchist, Peter, boards with apparently no luggage, which is OK, as the border controls were even more hopeless in 1912 than now. He is, we learn, an artist, so possibly a Dadaist, who were anarchistic. But I’ve been trying to think of other creative / homicidal political sorts, and have only come up with Hitler. I’m sure I must be wrong. Lenin the Post-Impressionist, or Pol Pot the Surrealist, perhaps? Anyway, the “real” Peter (who may never have existed) was suspected of escaping on a ship to the USA, so why shouldn’t Julian heave him aboard for dramatic purposes? Bit puzzled still, though, about his Rasputin-like influence over Mary, who is clearly an Irish freedom-fighter manqué. But he looks like a resourceful chap to have around in a crisis.
Stereotyped, fictional characters (Italian again – well, they do know how to live joyously) get aboard, not by playing cards and winning tickets in a Southampton pub (Cameron), but by the simpler expedient of getting someone so paralytically drunk he misses the boat, which delivers us our nice flirty Italian steward. He is probably unlikely to survive the final sinking as he seems very “Jack”-like. He is fascinated with a lovely Violet Jessop-lookalike stewardess and has idiotically proposed. She, sensibly, has gone off to look after her passengers, but we know she’ll be back. Some first-class servants seem to be having a crisis of conscience / identity too.
A middle-aged British soldier, who may well be gay or possibly a government agent, or both, is trying to engage the Latvian anarchist in conversation, who reacts so oddly that suspicion can only be confirmed. You’d think he’d know better. He’s avoided capture for over a year. Sadly, the soldier challenges Peter while the water is steadily rising (how daft), and gets murdered for being silly at a time like this. You’d think he’d have known better.
Mr. Lightoller seems to have disappeared, maybe in search of his cap, though I possibly spotted him once (improperly dressed in a jumper). And Lady Georgiana might have leapt off the stern for all I know, though she too might have put in a fleeting appearance this week on the boat deck. It’s hard to be sure.
It is getting more agonising - but not much more comprehensible.