Titanic mini-series: Downton Abbey at sea! Julian Fellowes" heart-rendering tragedy

All aboard for Downton at sea! Obnoxious aristocrats, heroic stewards, heart-warming romance and heart-rending tragedy. As Julian Fellowes’ 10m Titanic sets sail, we bring you the inside stories

Polished mahogany, shining silver, exquisite antiques and shimmering chandeliers are all around. The saloons and bedrooms are sumptuous, and in the magnificent panelled dining room, the finest cuisine is served on delicate china. The wealthy, the famous and the accomplished, the aristocrats and the captains of industry, all dressed in formal clothes, are sipping champagne, while on the floors below them, dedicated staff toil to cater for their every whim.

Welcome to life on board the Titanic. Downton on sea. Upstairs Downstairs transformed from a two-dimensional Them and Us division into several rigid layers of society, just as it was on the ocean-going liners of a century ago: First Class, Second Class, Steerage and crew.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, ITV has made a four-part mini-series, at a cost of 10 million, telling the human stories behind the disaster. Of the 2,223 passengers and crew on board, 1,517 perished after the ship hit an iceberg near Newfoundland at 11.40pm on 14 April 1912 and slowly sank below the freezing waters of the Atlantic at 2.20am the following day.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, ITV has made a four-part mini-series, at a cost of 10 million

To mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, ITV has made a four-part mini-series, at a cost of 10 million

Today I’m standing on the First Class deck and panic is raging around me as director Jon Jones calls ‘action’ for one of the many scenes showing the passengers’ frantic attempts to escape from the ship. Hundreds of women and children in Edwardian life jackets swarm up from the lower decks, battering down the locked barriers that kept the social classes apart. They’re joined by others pouring out of the cabins, where they’ve been trying desperately to retrieve their belongings, and jamming the corridors and promenades in the scramble to survive. Up on the bridge, Captain Edward Smith fires a pistol into the air. Ordering everyone to keep calm, he shouts, ‘This is the Titanic. It cannot sink.’ How tragically wrong he was.

The lucky ones manage to clamber into the lifeboats swinging precariously from the davits as the ship begins to sink. Others jump overboard (the camera doesn’t show you their dry soft landing on piles of mats), hoping to be picked up by rescue boats. Still others – mostly men who’ve nobly let women and children go first, although it’s giving nothing away to say that not all the male First Class passengers were so chivalrous – cling to the rails stoically accepting their fate is to go down with the ship as it slowly sinks, splitting in half.

Meanwhile, below decks, engineers and stokers plead to be rescued as the relentless sea floods the boiler room, trapping them along with steerage passengers. Drowning is inevitable. It’s a horrifying scene, made all the more harrowing by the sound of the ship’s siren, blasting with haunting impotence, and the passengers’ screams of terror.

Each episode of the series focuses on different characters. Pictured left, David Calder as the Captain, right Toby Jones as John Batley and Maria Doyle Kennedy as Muriel Batley

Each episode of the series focuses on different characters. Pictured Toby Jones as John Batley and Maria Doyle Kennedy as Muriel Batley

Each episode of the series focuses on different characters. Pictured left, David Calder as the Captain, right Toby Jones as John Batley and Maria Doyle Kennedy as Muriel Batley

‘The Titanic story is one of terrible tragedy, but even a century later it still fascinates people,’ says producer Nigel Stafford-Clark, who won a Bafta for his TV adaptation of Bleak House. ‘A whole cross-section of Edwardian society died – everyone from noblemen and millionaires to Italian waiters, Irish emigrants, servants and ordinary working people and their families. We’re telling what happened through the lives – and deaths – of both real and fictional characters on board, and viewers will be taken on a heart-wrenching journey as it’s revealed which of the characters they’ve got to know survive or perish. We hope it will be a fitting tribute.’ The script has been written by Julian Fellowes, who won an Emmy and a Bafta for Downton Abbey and an Oscar for Gosford Park. He says he was inspired by the hundreds of poignant – and previously untold – stories of many of the passengers and crew, and the mini-series will show the bravery, and sometimes atrocious behaviour, that went on that night.

One entire side of the Titanic – 150ft
long and 50ft high – has been reconstructed in painstaking detail at a
studio in Budapest. Standing on the top deck I look down into the
freezing Atlantic. In reality, it is Europe’s largest indoor water tank,
which sits alongside the ship and measures 95ft long but only 4ft deep.
It is painted black to evoke the unfriendly atmosphere of night in the
mid-Atlantic and heated so none of the actors gets a chill.

Upstairs and downstairs: Left, Glen Blackhall as Paolo Sandrini and Jenna Louise Coleman as Annie Desmond, right, Linus Roach as Hugh, Earl of Manton and Geraldins Somerville as Louisa, Countess of Manton

Upstairs and downstairs: Linus Roach as Hugh, Earl of Manton and Geraldins Somerville as Louisa, Countess of Manton

Upstairs and downstairs: Left, Glen Blackhall as Paolo Sandrini and Jenna Louise Coleman as Annie Desmond, right, Linus Roach as Hugh, Earl of Manton and Geraldins Somerville as Louisa, Countess of Manton

Rob Harris,
the production designer from Birmingham, who has worked on epics such as
Hornblower and Treasure Island, had just ten weeks to build this
colossal set with his team, but he had been working on designs for
almost a year. Many of the cabins and corridors are the same size as on
the real Titanic and decorated in period style. ‘We slightly shrank the
boat deck and lifeboats to make them manageable,’ explains Rob. ‘The
lifeboats are about two-thirds the size of the real ones.’

The promenade, boat deck, First Class dining room, First Class dining saloon and corridors, Second Class corridors and the captain’s bridge area are all here, and the attention to detail even extends to Edwardian photographs on the walls and the White Star Line crest on the dinner plates. It is an astonishing and uncanny sight, and anything they haven’t been able to build or recreate will be generated digitally as they’ve made a 3D computer model of the Titanic too. Rob adds enthusiastically, ‘We’ve got people swimming with funnels falling on top of them. There are collapsible lifeboats, which were smaller with canvas sides, as well as the normal wooden ones. There are lots of scenes with people clambering on top of these to try to keep out of the water and survive. The tank is indoors because all the scenes that take place in it are at night.’

One entire side of the Titanic  150ft long and 50ft high  has been reconstructed in painstaking detail at a studio in Budapest

One entire side of the Titanic 150ft long and 50ft high has been reconstructed in painstaking detail at a studio in Budapest

One major technical problem was how to get the lifeboats to lower safely without swinging too much as the actors tried to step into them from a great height. The boats, full to bursting, then had to be lowered into the tank where they had to float for the escape scenes. Rob says, ‘It’s always slightly worrying when you’ve got all your main artists dangling above the studio floor. The actors have to stand 16ft off the ground before they step into the lifeboats – high enough to seriously hurt yourself if everything doesn’t go to plan.’

Luckily, everything went off without a hitch. Which, tragically, can’t be said of the real Titanic’s maiden voyage, and that terrible night of 14 April, 1912.

WOMEN AND LAP DOGS FIRSTBOARDING PASS

Actress Celia Imrie, plays newly rich passenger Grace Rushton. This picture shows her with JJ Astor played by Miles Anderson

Actress Celia Imrie, plays newly rich passenger Grace Rushton. This picture shows her with JJ Astor played by Miles Anderson

Before filming, Celia Imrie visited
exhibitions of Titanic relics, where she discovered a family member may
have had a connection with the ship.

There was a boarding pass with the
name Imrie. ‘I’m not quite sure yet, but there may be a link.’ she says.
‘My grandfather was a shipping clerk in Glasgow.’

For actress Celia Imrie, who plays newly rich passenger Grace Rushton, being on board the ship brought back memories. She has crossed the Atlantic twice by luxury liner – first on the Queen Elizabeth when she was a child and later on the Queen Mary. ‘I think Grace feels like I did then – it’s such a romantic and graceful way to travel. I got on at New York the first time. I stood on the top deck drinking champagne with the Statue of Liberty in the background and a brass band playing on the dockside. I thought, this is the only way to go. People took more time to travel in those days, but now it’s all a mad rush. We have to get everywhere so fast, and yet going by liner was so calm and unhurried.’

Those journeys were uneventful, but on the Titanic she finds herself in deep water – literally – when she escapes with a dog tucked under each arm. ‘My adored Pekingese, Suki, is missing, so I refuse to get into the lifeboat until she is found and returned to me. But then I see another poor dog floundering in the sea, so I pull it on board. I’m wearing a heavy Edwardian coat, am soaked to the skin, and clinging onto two struggling dogs. It wasn’t easy!’

Grace’s husband Joseph (Peter Wight) has bought First Class tickets, but they are being snubbed by their fellow passengers. ‘We’re looked down on as new money because Joseph made his fortune from industry, rather than inheritance or aristocracy,’ explains Celia. ‘We aren’t getting First Class treatment or being invited to the parties because they’re snobs and know we’re not born toffs like them. Actually, we can look back now, a century on, and ask if anything has changed.’

THE LOVE BOAT

There’s nothing like sea air and the seductive luxury of a liner to set hormones racing, and romance blossoms above and below deck. The Earl of Manton’s rebellious daughter, Georgiana, played by Perdita Weeks, falls for Harry Widener (Noah Reid), the handsome scion of a wealthy Philadelphia family, who is travelling back to the US with his parents. He is immediately attracted to the headstrong, impulsive Georgiana, and his intelligence and humour prove a good foil for her self-confident impetuosity.

‘In the first scene I filmed, Harry and I were walking along the deck,’ says Perdita. ‘It was at night and the lighting was beautiful. It was easy to imagine that we were on board a great liner – we had a sense of the enormity of the Titanic and the belief that it couldn’t sink.’

Harry proves to be a calming influence on Georgiana, who has seen her passion for justice as a suffragette previously land her in trouble with the law. ‘Harry is engaging, well-travelled and well-read,’ adds Perdita. ‘He is able to advise Georgiana, “Choose your battles – you don’t have to fight everything.”

Georgiana Grex played by Perdita Weeks and Harry Widener played by Noah Reid

Unchaperoned: Georgiana Grex played by Perdita Weeks and Harry Widener played by Noah Reid go to a ball on the boat

Unchaperoned: Georgiana Grex played by Perdita Weeks and Harry Widener played by Noah Reid go to a ball on the boat

Below deck: Annie Desmond played by Jenna Louise Coleman and Paolo Sandrini played by Glen Blackhall also fall in love on the ship

Below deck: Annie Desmond played by Jenna Louise Coleman and Paolo Sandrini played by Glen Blackhall also fall in love on the ship

MY HERO: LEONARDO DI CAPRIO

Heartthrob: Leonardo Di Caprio, with Kate Winslet, in James Cameron's Titanic

Perdita Weeks was a big fan of the 1997 Titanic movie. ‘It came out when I was about 11 and I saw it four times – Leonardo DiCaprio was my heartthrob.’

It didn’t prepare her for filming scenes in the gigantic water tank though. ‘They painted the tank completely pitch black and I’m scared of heights and water. It was terrifying!’

‘Their life on the ship is like a fantasy world – they meet unchaperoned, which was daring for those times – and there are endless dinners and dancing.’ Perdita admits the ballroom scenes were a highlight. ‘It was so much fun doing the rehearsals and Noah’s a very good dancer. Back then the waltz was quite intimate; you’re on your own looking at each other. You can imagine how easy it would be to fall in love with someone. It’s all exciting stuff for a young girl.’

Meanwhile, another attraction is developing among two members of the liner’s young staff. Working as a steward, Paolo Sandrini (Glen Blackhall) falls for Annie Desmond, a shy young stewardess (Jenna-Louise Coleman). ‘They have little moments where they can share their feelings,’ says Glen.

With his brother Mario (Antonio Magro) as a stoker, they have managed to board the ship at the very last moment to go to New York and start a new life.

There is a touching moment when Annie is about to make her escape in a lifeboat. Paolo stays behind to try to help his brother, who’s locked below in Steerage. ‘He tells her, “I have never kissed you”,’ says Glen. ‘To which Annie replies, “Kiss me in New York.” You’ll have to wait and see whether he gets that kiss.’

THE SILENT STAR

Glamorous Dorothy Gibson, one of the first stars of the silent movie era, is sailing back to America with her mother after a holiday in Italy. Within a month of the disaster, Dorothy (who is portrayed by Sophie Winkleman) will have written and starred in the silent film Saved From The Titanic, playing herself.

Glamorous Dorothy Gibson (front right), one of the first stars of the silent movie era, dances with hero, Second Officer Charles Lightoller

Glamorous Dorothy Gibson (front right), one of the first stars of the silent movie era, dances with hero, Second Officer Charles Lightoller

On board ship, she dances with Second Officer Charles Lightoller (played by Steven Waddington). Famously portrayed by Kenneth More in A Night To Remember, Lightoller is regarded as one of the heroes of the disaster because of his diligence and calm demeanour during the evacuation. Dorothy Gibson takes a shine to him and he helps her escape when the ship strikes the iceberg. ‘There is a bit of a frisson between them,’ says Steven. ‘But Dorothy is a self-contained, confident character.’

Lightoller was the highest ranking officer to survive, escaping on an overturned lifeboat. ‘In this drama, though, he swims for his life to reach a boat and is pulled aboard and saved,’ Steven explains. ‘Then there’s a bit of a tender moment at the end where they all say the Lord’s Prayer.’
Sophie took a break from filming hit US show Two And A Half Men to appear in Titanic.

DID THEY BRIBE THEIR WAY TO SAFETY

When the Titanic hit the iceberg, dashing Scottish landowner and Olympic fencing champion Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, fifth baronet of Halkin, and his chic fashion designer wife Lucy were among the first to escape. They somehow comandeered a lifeboat and were quickly rowed away by some of the liner’s crew. When the Earl of Manton called out to them, ‘Come back, there’s room for more in your lifeboat’, they blatantly ignored his pleas, and afterwards faced accusations they had bribed their way to safety.

Getting their own way: Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon and Lady Duff Gordon played by Simon Paisley Day and Sylvestra Le Touze climbed into the Captain's lifeboat

Getting their own way: Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon and Lady Duff Gordon played by Simon Paisley Day and Sylvestra Le Touze climbed into the Captain's lifeboat

Panic on deck: Charles Lightoller, played by Steven Waddington, plays the hero (left)

Panic on deck: Charles Lightoller, played by Steven Waddington, plays the hero (left) while Muriel and John Batley wait for a lifeboat

Panic on deck: Charles Lightoller, played by Steven Waddington, plays the hero (left) while Muriel and John Batley wait for a lifeboat

BATH TIME

Life veered between hot and, well, warm as the sinking was re-created.

Says Geraldine Somerville, who plays the Countess of Manton, ‘We were pretending to shiver in the freezing cold, but we were pouring with sweat under the lights.

'Those struggling in the water must have been tempted to bring soap – it was heated to bath temperature to keep everyone comfortable!’

Sylvestra Le Touzel, who plays Lady Duff Gordon says, ‘In her memoirs, Lucy says that she and her husband [played by Simon Paisley Day] came on to the deck and found it deserted. There was a small boat, which she later discovered was the captain’s emergency craft, and they climbed into it with some sailors. Because there was no one else around, the boat was lowered and rowed away. They watched as the Titanic began to sink and they were then faced with an almighty decision – whether or not to return for survivors. In the end, they didn’t go back, but they realised that the men in the boat with them had lost everything. Cosmo gave them 5 each, to help them when they were eventually rescued.

‘In hindsight it was seen as a bribe for them not to return and risk the boat being capsized as it was swamped with survivors. I don’t know whether that’s really fair or not. I think he did it in the heat of the moment and out of the goodness of his heart, realising he was a lot more wealthy than the sailors. It’s terribly hard, isn’t it, to know what you would do in that situation

‘When I was sitting in the lifeboat and filming that part out on the water, I realised that, although we all think we want to make it, in some ways being a survivor can be a curse,’ she says. ‘You think back afterwards about all the people who weren’t saved – and you’re haunted by whatever action you took for ever.’

THE COWARDLY CHAIRMAN

Bruce Ismay’s conduct on the night
earned him the soubriquet the ‘Coward of the Titanic’. He was chairman
of the ship’s owners, White Star Line, and his career ended in disaster
and personal disgrace. His downfall in many people’s eyes came when he
jumped into a lifeboat while women and children were still on board his
ship. ‘Should he have gone down with the ship in a ludicrously
honourable way’ asks James Wilby, who plays him (above). ‘I won’t judge
anybody in a situation like that. I’ve done a fair amount of research. I
read his statement to the official inquiry in New York, where he says
he’d loaded a number of other boats and was loading this particular boat
with a fellow passenger.

Rich and rebellious: Countess and Earl of Manton played by Geraldine Somerville and Linus Roache and Georgiana Grex played by Perdita Weeks

Rich and rebellious: Countess and Earl of Manton played by Geraldine Somerville and Linus Roache and Georgiana Grex played by Perdita Weeks

‘They
got everybody on the lifeboat and there was no one else on deck at that
point. So he and the fellow passenger got in and the boat was lowered.
Which is a very different interpretation to him jumping on the first
boat he could. There’s a space and he takes it. Was it premeditated For
me, it’s not. It’s opportunistic. Maybe he regrets it from the moment
he does it, but it’s too late then. If it was me, I’d be on the
lifeboat. I wouldn’t be shoving women and children out of the way, but
I’d be getting in.’

He
adds, ‘Even as a child, all kinds of weird thoughts used to go through
my head about Titanic. How could an iceberg break a boat that size And
the idea that, as it sank, all those people swimming on the surface were
to be sucked down. That thought used to haunt me.’

WHO ELSE IS ABOARD

Bessie Allison (Olivia Darnley)

Mrs Bessie Allison

A young mother, she becomes separated
from her baby in the evacuation and refuses to leave the ship without
him.

Lord Pirrie (Timothy West)

Lord Pirrie

Chairman of Belfast firm Harland & Wolff,
who built the Titanic, then the world’s largest and most technically
advanced ocean liner.

Jim Maloney (Peter McDonald)

Jim Maloney (Peter McDonald)

The Belfast engineer thinks his luck is in
when he’s granted free passage to emigrate to New York. Unfortunately,
it’s in Steerage.

Mary Maloney (Ruth Bradley)

Mary Maloney (Ruth Bradley)

Jim’s attractive and loyal wife accepts the
uprooting of her family with grace. But she’s about to have an encounter
that will turn her life upside down.

JJ Astor (Miles Richardson)

Mary Maloney (Ruth Bradley)

The US millionaire is returning from his
honeymoon with his pregnant young spouse after shocking society by
divorcing his first wife.

Captain Edward J. Smith (David Calder)

Captain Edward J. Smith

His desire to go full speed ahead
and thus dock early in New York will prove unwise amid the Atlantic ice
floes.

Chief Officer Henry Wilde (Will Keen)

Henry Wilde

He’s a last-minute addition to the
crew, which causes a reshuffle and means other officers have their
duties reassigned. Not helpful as disaster strikes.

Watson (Lyndsey Marshal)

 Watson played by Lyndsey Marshall

Lady Manton’s
maid, she has a strong sense of what is right and proper and is very
concerned with upholding standards. But, like her employer Lord Manton,
she is hiding a secret.

A CHIP ON HER SHOULDER

The ship is going down, but some passengers have their own sense of priority. A long queue of people is waiting to collect their valuables from the purser’s office. One very relieved First Class traveller, Louisa, Countess of Manton, turns to Second Class passenger Muriel Batley and sighs, ‘I’m so lucky – I have my jewellery.’

Muriel, a feisty Irish woman who is travelling with her lawyer husband, lets rip. ‘She shouts, “Call this lucky”’ says Maria Doyle Kennedy, who plays her (below). ‘She is furious because this is an all-out crisis and she’s resentful of the aristocracy. She’d crossed swords with the countess earlier, but Muriel held back – now she tells the countess that she’s awful, ridiculous, ignorant and pathetic. It goes on and on – marvellous stuff.’

Trouble-making, of course, is what Maria does best. She was last seen on TV in Downton Abbey as the spiteful Vera, who was married to the Earl of Grantham’s valet, John Bates. Now, in Titanic, she describes her character as, ‘a bright, political, capable, forthright woman, who’s not very happy in her marriage’. She’s also a woman who despises the class system. ‘Muriel believes herself to be brighter and more capable than the aristocracy. They were born into privilege and wealth and didn’t achieve it by merit, so she doesn’t respect that. But she’s also envious of what more fortunate people have.’

Her attitude certainly causes some fireworks on board ship. ‘The Countess of Manton is incredibly rude. She puts Muriel down so that obviously gets her back up. At the heart of her bitterness is frustration – at a husband in a dead-end job, a home in dull suburbia, no children and no way of harnessing her energy and intelligence. The countess and Muriel were always going to clash.’

SNOBS WITH SKELETONS IN THE CUPBOARD

Louisa, Countess of Manton, a blue blood through and through, is shocked to see that women in Steerage are being allowed into lifeboats ahead of male First Class passengers. This may be a chivalrous age, she fumes, but surely that doesn’t mean that privilege and position count for nothing

‘Apart from a few upper-class snobs such as Lady Louisa, it was assumed without question that the men would let women and children go first,’ says Geraldine Somerville, who takes the part of the countess. ‘They were above saving themselves, and were prepared to die because that was the right thing to do. But Louisa didn’t agree with that.’ Linus Roache, playing her upper-crust husband Hugh, Earl of Manton, says the crisis forces the couple to face some uncomfortable truths about other divisions between them. ‘He has a complex relationship with his wife,’ says Linus. ‘There is a love between them and a lot of respect but the tragedy brings out some things that have been kept hidden.’

In preparing for her role, Geraldine – known to cinemagoers as Harry Potter’s mother Lily – read Beryl Bainbridge’s fictionalised account of the disaster, Every Man For Himself, and another Titanic book, A Night To Remember. ‘I can see why people are so fascinated by the story,’ she says. ‘Just the enormity of it and the fact that it was such a levelling experience and it didn’t matter who you were. Quite a lot of the people in the water were not crying for help, but were calling desperate last messages to each other – “I’ve always loved you”, and, “You were the love of my life”, or, “Tell my children I love them.” It was deeply poignant.’

Captain Coward: Bruce Ismays conduct on the night earned him the soubriquet the Coward of the Titanic'

Captain Coward: Bruce Ismays conduct on the night earned him the soubriquet the Coward of the Titanic' (left) while Muriel Batley gets people to sort out their priorities

Captain Coward: Bruce Ismay’s conduct on the night earned him the soubriquet the ‘Coward of the Titanic' (left) while Muriel Batley gets people to sort out their priorities

However, interests of a more mercantile kind are what bring the Earl and Countess of Manton on board. The earl has inherited his family’s money, but also has business interests in New York which he is on his way to attend to. Linus explains that the earl’s affairs soon become more tangled. ‘There is a secret to this man, and things will come out during the voyage,’ he says. ‘He’s not quite the straightforward, stuck-up toff you think he is. The writer, Julian Fellowes, has given him a lot of humanity, wit and humour. He’s nuanced – which is true of a lot of the characters on board. You think one thing about them and then you find out there’s an underbelly.’

Linus had his own surprise in store for the cast – the arrival of his soap star father, Bill Roache, at the Titanic set in Budapest. Until they realised the family connection, a few wondered if the man better known all over the world as Coronation Street’s Ken Barlow was to be a surprise addition to the cast. But Bill was keeping his feet firmly on dry ground. Linus explains, ‘We’re very close so he came to see me. He was as impressed as everyone else with the scale of the production.’

Titanic will air in four hour-long episodes on ITV1 later this month.