by Stuart Kelly
Just as the hectic round of events commemorating the centenary of the Titanic’s sinking were finishing off last year, it was announced that an aspect of the Titanic story that has been long talked about was going to become a reality: a replica of the ship was going to be built. Australian mining billionaire Clive Palmer was finally going to do what many had often dismissed as fantasy, in bad taste and impossible since at least 1998 when the hype created by James Cameron’s film (what was its name again?) was at its height.
The tradition of scepticism around such a project continued for the rest of 2012. Would there be a shipyard big enough? Would anything built to modern safety requirements resemble the original Titanic in the slightest? Would there be enough interest to make the project viable? I must confess, these questions were as present in my mind as any other Titanic enthusiasts. Then in November, two people from Australia I’ve been in correspondence with since 2000 over matters connected to the Olympic class interiors told me over Facebook that they had been appointed as technical advisors to the project that had been announced the previous April: Daniel Klistorner and Steve Hall.
It came as a pleasant surprise to me when Steve contacted me in November to offer me a ticket to the gala dinners that were being held in New York and London, originally in November but postponed due to the disruption caused by Hurricane Sandy in New York the previous month. The dinner eventually happened in London on Saturday, 2 March and not only was I to be present at it, but through the generosity of Phil Hind in his capacity as editor of Encyclopedia Titanica, I was doubly lucky to attend the press conference at the Ritz Hotel with Clive Palmer that same morning. Phil asked me along so I could produce the article you’re reading now.
Th press conference was at 10 am and I was careful not to read any of the reports in the media about the project that had already appeared due to the event in New York. As I walked through the Ritz’s main artery up to the beautiful room where the press conference was held, I knew it was a setting befitting a billionaire with grand Edwardian dreams. After the room filled to standing room only, scarcely space to put down another press photographers’ tripod, the impending press conference was heralded by a Korean guitar player, billed as a ‘YouTube sensation' played a song by a French Canadian singer who enjoyed some success in the late 1990s. We were then treated to an eight minute long computer rendition of what Titanic II would look like which is more or less as the original ship would have looked, except with an added safety deck, modern propulsion and steering and the very modern addition of a helipad on the poop deck. This was followed by a two minute pre-recorded address by Palmer in which he made spiritual references to his project ("Titanic was the ship of peace") and stated he was doing it for the same reason why Cook discovered Australia and Oxford row Cambridge: "because they could".
On came Palmer. Here was a man who as soon as he started answering questions, he was as large in spirit as he was in being, rebutting every question with ribald and often funny replies that had the whole room in laughter, most notably his dismissal of the idea that there will be any discounts on Titanic. The first question was from the local newspaper in Southampton in which the reporter asked about the concern Southampton had that he was seeking to make money from the more than 500 members of the crew who died, many of whom have descendants still living in the town. Palmer’s rejection of this was emphatic: he'd made no money yet and if someone wanted to commemorate his life in a hundred years in a similar way to which he was commemorating those Southampton mariners’ lives, then he’d be happy.
The press questions continued with many notable names from the British and foreign media including the Times, the Independent, the Mail on Sunday and the Express in addition to a foreign contingent from Russia, France, AfP and Reuters. Most of the media reports subsequently dwelled upon Palmers’ remark that you will not be allowed to use the internet on the 1912 sections of the ship and class distinctions will be upheld. Palmer also dismissed the rumour that he has not yet signed a contract for the ship with the ship year in China as Bull Sh*t and claimed 40,000 people had already expressed interest on sailing on it when it is completed, including 16 who had offered a seven figure sum for it.
As the press conference ended, there was a melee of chatter among the reporters. Many of the comments centred on the fact the last half hour had been peppered with references to James Cameron’s Titanic movie, starting with the guitar player, Palmer’s comment that Cameron had an easy job in building partial sets with green screen filling in and his assertion that the bow will have a camera at its point so passengers have their photographs taken like Jack and Rose. He justified this by saying that Titanic symbolises Romeo and Juliet to people around the world. There were some references to the actual history nonetheless with the presence of Terry Ismay, descendant of J Bruce Ismay and question about what will be done once it reaches the spot on the Atlantic where the original ship went down. Palmer said it would be poignant but the bigger question is what will it be like when Titanic II arrives in New York. It left this observer under the impression that this Titanic will owe more to Jack and Rose than Eaton and Haas.
When the afternoon had passed, it was time to get ready for the dinner which became a mini-Titanic convention with many people associated with the Titanic community in the UK dressed up in their tuxedos and ready to enjoy a Titanic themed meal at the Natural History museum. I hard that around 400 people were at the dinner at the museum and we were rubbing shoulders with the likes of John Bruton who was the Irish Prime Minister in the mid-1990s as well as other former prime ministers from Romania and Bolivia. RMS Titanic Inc had been commissioned especially by Palmer to bring over some salvaged items from the Titanic’s wreck from the US which were on display in London for the first time since the O2 exhibition of 2011. I wasn’t sure if it was the artefacts that were more impressive or the fact Palmer had been able to bring them to London.
We walked through the Natural History Museum’s Victorian brick corridors, serenaded by brass bands to be met when we reached the main atrium which is dominated by a giant dinosaur skeleton. On Titanic II night it was joined by a full orchestra with giant TV screens playing over and over the video renditions of the interior with actors wearing false moustaches seen earlier at the press conference. Everyone was treated to a glass of Crystal Moet champagne as we went in and we sat down to a meal that was very similar to the one I had at a house that had the Olympic’s a la carte restaurant last October, albeit that serving twelve courses based on the Titanic’s dining saloon menu of 14 April 1912 was almost like a military operation with more than 100 servers who had to change the Blue Star Line branded cutlery after course 8. They decided to give us smaller portions not, I suspect, to economise but to ensure no one was sick due to over eating. The meal was very tasty and, while I couldn’t drink as I was driving, I could see my companions around me becoming steadily merrier as the waiting staff did not allow ten minutes to go by without offering a top up. By the end of the evening, some people were falling off their chairs!
The entertainment was a topic of much comment among the Titanic societies tables. It began with a rendition of the British and American national anthems in a song sheet that was left at each place on the table. The extra verse added to God Save the Queen - containing the line 'Frustrate their knavish tricks' - set the tone for the entertainment. It was to say the least, a little odd. We had speeches from Palmer and his team giving details of the project although considerably briefer than the information that was given at the press conference. As the evening went on, what appeared on the stage with orchestra became more and more surreal. The cast of Titanic: the Musical appeared and sang some of the songs from the show that I’m sure many readers will have heard but will have not necessarily seen. The most memorable song involved a hokey cokey routine in lifejackets, led by a man in a false white beard and an officer’s uniform. There was then a conga line around dinosaur with Palmer himself heartily joining in while a plastic statue of liberty appeared on the stage presumably to inform us that we had reached our “New York” and the evening was soon drawing to a close. An Irish ceilidh band came on at about 11pm and rounded off a very memorable evening and the Natural History Museum was almost empty by midnight and unlike 14 April 1912, I don’t think anyone stayed up for cards and ice football. We were given golf umbrellas as further gifts to complement the brochures and pin badges we were given as we came on so souvenirs aplenty to remind us of the generosity of Clive Palmer and his vision of making the Titanic sail again.
I canvassed for opinions of the evening and the project in the days following the event and got some varied responses. In summary, I can safely say that there are mixed feelings within the Titanic community about the project. While everyone I spoke to thoroughly enjoyed the press conference and the dinner, not everyone was comfortable with the "Jack and Rose" approach. A lady at my table said she thought it’s going to be a bit like a floating Disney land with the theme being Titanic rather than Harry Potter. Another said the entertainment was more inkeeping with P&O retirement cruises than the White Star Line of 1912. However, another person at my table commented that the ambience was delightful; the conversations were full of hope and high expectations for the future.
The Belfast Titanic Society don't feel it is respectful and have decided to not be involved in a project that seemingly has no connection with the place the original ship was built. The British Titanic Society is cautiously optimistic about the project but one of its officers told me that he would rather the ship was named Olympic II out of respect for the dead and because the ship’s interior design is largely informed by photographs of the Olympic’s interior and surviving relics. White Star Memories enjoyed the evening, were privileged to be invited and wish the project team every success for the future.
Stuart Kelly is a member of the Belfast and British Titanic Societies and is webmaster of www.rmsolympic.org