In yesterday’s post about Zeebox I said that drama is “a genre that demands concentration”. I’d like to amend that claim, if I may, to “good drama is a genre that demands concentration”. Bad drama longs for it but often doesn’t get it.
Titanic by Julian Fellowes (Sunday, 9pm, ITV1) longed for my attention but didn’t work hard enough to get it. Dubbed ‘Drownton Abbey’ and ‘Upstairs Drownstairs’ by critics, the series feels frightfully dull. So what’s wrong with it? It looks great, granted, with impressive sets and a decent cast, including Stephen Campbell-Moore (of The History Boys fame) and new Doctor Who girl Jenna-Louise Coleman. The problem with it is more deep-set than that. It has inherent story problems.
The nicknames mentioned above are unfair on the programmes they mock. Downton Abbey regularly captured more than ten million viewers, who loved the world, the characters, the storylines (both realistic and absurd). Similarly the new Upstairs Downstairs gets an average 6-7 million viewers per week for similar reasons.
The problem with Titanic is that I frankly do not care for the characters. There seems to be a sense of impending doom to them all, like they somehow know that their world is about to be torn to shreds. Their dialogue too, while well delivered, is ever so clunky, and the cliché counter has exploded through overuse. I half expected a ‘Good God man, pull yourself together!’ when the second class passengers burst out of their confinement to hustle for life boat space. It doesn’t help that this second instalment (of four) began again at the beginning of the tale and so we had to go through the build-up to the disaster all over again from a slightly different angle. This tactic worked for One Night last week because we only focus on one character per episode, but in Titanic it was never really clear who’s story was at the forefront, and why we needed to see it all again. It really didn’t work, and actually takes the disaster movie element out of a series which should be all about a disaster.
So if this series about the Titanic isn’t actually about the Titanic, then what is it about? Somewhat predictably, given that Fellowes wrote it, it seems to be about social standing and the British class system. Whoopdy doo! Way to suck the excitement out of a tragedy, out of a story of the failings of man, out of stories of heroism in the face of certain death. Every scene in Titanic seems to be about who is pipping who on the social ladder. Honestly, the class system in and around that period has been explored to death on TV of late, and it’s just boring me now.
Tonight at 9pm on ITV1 sees the fourth episode of the latest series of Sally Wainwright penned Scott and Bailey. Now there is a good series that demands concentration. The characters are brilliant, the dialogue sublime, and the acting is way up there. It is a detective drama that hurtles along at a decent pace. It’s a crime of the week affair with on-going serial elements throughout. Last series that serial element was about DC Rachel Bailey’s (Suranne Jones) war with love-rat-cheat-married-man-twat-ex-boyfriend Nick Savage (Rupert Graves – Lestrade in Sherlock) which came to a satisfying conclusion in the sixth and final part when he was locked up for trying to have Rachel bumped off. All the while Rachel was constantly supported both professionally and personally by her best friend DC Janet Scott (Lesley Sharp).
If I were responsible for Titanic in the development stages, I might have suggested using Scott and Bailey for inspiration. The friendships and relationships in this Red Productions masterpiece, along with the sometimes witty, sometimes sincere dialogue, and the story of the week structure, would make for a drama you could care about. It would make for a drama that you would care so much about that your heart would be close to breaking when those you’ve loved for four weeks are caught in the middle of the ultimate tragedy.
Structurally I wouldn’t have touched the non-linear narrative style that Fellowes adopted. Instead I would have followed four sets of passengers (across thethree class systems if you really want, Julian!) each with their own warm unique crises, journeys, love stories, illicit affairs… whatever… which played out nicely over four weeks. The dialogue would be chirpier, friendlier, and less clichéd, and the four weeks would be set within a four hour time frame, from plain sailing, to grazing the ice berg, to the flooding of the lower decks, and finally the dramatic escape/sinking of the ship finale.
Oh, and I’d cast Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp in it too, of course!