Finding a New Way to Tell Titanic Tale


Nigel Stafford-Clark, lead producer on "Titanic," says the television miniseries is more an examination of the English class system in the early 20th century than an epic romance or action flick.

Written by "Downton Abbey" and "Gosford Park" scribe Julian Fellowes, "Titanic" is a four-part television event headlined by Maria Doyle Kennedy, Linus Roache, Toby Jones, Geraldine Somerville, Peter McDonald and Perdita Weeks.

Set to air on ABC Saturday and Sunday to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ship's sinking, the miniseries shows what happens after the Belfast-built passenger liner struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York.

Each of the first three episodes of the miniseries follows a mixture of real and imagined characters in the first-class, second-class and steerage sections of the ship, as well as the crew members, in the time leading up to the crash. The finale pulls together all of the characters as they struggle to survive the historic maritime disaster, which left more than 1,500 people dead.

In a recent phone interview with United Press International, Stafford-Clark admitted he initially couldn't think of an angle from which to re-tell the story when he was approached in 2008 about developing a television drama timed to air for the centennial anniversary of the real ship's sinking.

"Because, although it is a wonderfully iconic subject, I felt the [1997 James Cameron movie, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio] had sort of sucked the air out of it, in a sense. That really was the last word for the moment on the subject. But when I thought about it some more, I thought there was a way it actually could be done. And it was something I would be very interested in developing and producing, which was, rather than to do what Cameron did, which was a single love story effectively, was to do a snapshot of a whole society, British society, in 1912. Because it felt to me like a really interesting subject," Stafford-Clark told UPI.

"Such an extraordinary moment in our history. At that point, we were the most powerful nation on earth and had been for about 50 years and virtually unchallenged, and yet, we were two years away from the First World War. So, in a sense, the society of which we were the leading member was heading as inexorably towards its own iceberg in the shape of the First World War as the Titanic and, when it hits, that society would be gone forever. It felt like an extraordinary moment to try and capture the essence of that society and, of course, where better to do it than on a boat? Because that's where you get every level of society in close, physical proximity. ... On Titanic, they are, literally, like the class structure encased in steel," continued the producer, who has previously worked on the popular period miniseries "He Knew He Was Right," "The Way We Live Now" and "Bleak House."

Stafford-Clark said he tapped Fellowes to write "Titanic" long before "Downton Abbey" became a surprise, massive hit in the United States, as well as the United Kingdom.

"Downton Abbey" chronicles the lives of a wealthy British family and the loyal employees who serve them. When the show first opens, the patriarch and father of three daughters learns his heir has died aboard the Titanic, leaving him to get acquainted with the distant relative to whom he must now leave his estate. Stafford-Clark confessed the Titanic connection between the two projects initially gave him pause, but said he ultimately remained convinced Fellowes was the right man for the job.

"When I got over that, I thought 'Titanic' is so different because of the ship and what happens to it is so unique it makes it different from any other period piece, including the one he was writing," the producer recalled. "I took a deep breath and he said very quickly: 'Of course, this is 2009, the show's going to be on in 2010. By the time we get to 2012, if 'Downton' were still running at that point, we would be into the 1920s and well away from Titanic. And, also, it's completely different subject matter and anyway [the ship sinking is] only in the first few minutes and you don't see it.'"

Heading up the stellar cast of "Titanic" is Linus Roache, star of TV's "Law & Order" and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

"Television can do something movies can't; it can take you on a more in-depth journey, if you like, into many more of the lives of the people of that era," Roache told UPI in a separate phone interview. "So, I liked the idea when they came to me and then hearing the fact that Julian Fellowes had written the script kind of made it a no-brainer and then reading it made it even more of a no-brainer."

Asked if it was essential to him the Titanic story be told in an entirely different way than ever before, Roache replied: "Yeah. I don't think we'd want to remake the James Cameron movie because it's a fantastic movie and it stands in its own right as an epic piece of romantic movie-making. ...

"Julian's idea was to really look at not just the 'Upstairs Downstairs' aspect of who was on the Titanic, but look at all the multiple layers -- first class, second class, steerage and crew -- and, on top of that, you have got all of the cultural differences thrown in there. So there is a much bigger look at the society and life at that time," he explained. "So, I think that is playing to the strengths of Julian's writing and the nature of episodic television."

The Manchester-born actor also said he loved the chance to play a fictional upper-class British character.

"I immediately warmed to the character Julian had written," Roache said. "I haven't actually played an aristocrat before -- not like this. I've played royalty and kings in Shakespeare, but I've never actually played an aristocrat and I felt Julian had made this man quite progressive, acceptable, warm with a certain degree of wit and, yet, very much of his class. I thought he did that very simply, but clearly. So, I responded to the part very enthusiastically."

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