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The television programme Titanic was a terrible slur against the British upper classes

Last night’s television drama portrayed the Edwardians in a totally false light

By on Monday, 26 March 2012


There was a time when British television was the envy of the world. As a child in Malta, we would all be glued to the great imported series from Britain – things like the original Upstairs, Downstairs, and the long but fascinating adaptation of War and Peace, starring the young Anthony Hopkins. No videos in those days, so no recording, and thus on those nights no going out for the adults, and the children allowed to stay up late specially. And though it is a long time ago now, some of those distant scenes are still burned into my memory: Pierre playing patience as the French march on Moscow, or in the queue to get shot; Lady Margery’s daughter being arrested as a suffragette… and many others.

Fast forward a few decades and all is changed. British television drama is a wasteland. Look at last night’s offering, Titanic. Where to begin? Surely the Titanic theme has been done to death? If you doubt that, Julian Fellowes’s version will settled the question. His drama had some uncomfortable resemblances to the James Cameron (on the whole very good) film. But its main weakness was its historical illiteracy.

I could go on and on about this, but luckily I won’t. Take one couple, the Earl and Countess of Manton. Lord Manton embarrasses his middle class Irish lawyer, something no gentleman would ever do deliberately; Lady Manton is rude to his wife; she also snubs Mr Guggenheim and is rude to his French mistress; Lady Manton points out that someone is in trade. I do not think a real Edwardian Countess would have ever done any of these things. As a member of the upper class she would have taken pride in putting people of all backgrounds at their ease. It is unlikely she would have snubbed a Jewish American, or indeed refused to speak to his mistress in a public place: the court of Edward VII, who had only recently died, had been full of foreigners and included several mistresses including the King’s own. As for trade, well, by the time the Titanic went down the idea of British aristocrats shoring up their financial positions by marrying Americans, all of whom had made their money in trade, was commonplace. Money, as the Italian love to say, has no smell. Jenny Jerome, Consuelo Vanderbildt, and the fictional lady in Downton Abbey are just three examples of this.

All this may not seem important, but Lady Manton made me squirm, with her caricature toffness. In the interests of truth, this sort of thing should not be allowed to pass. The only reason a person in Lady Manton’s position would act like that would be if she were socially insecure or a little bit potty.

I was very glad to escape into the world of Channel Four plus one and watch the next episode of Homeland. This is such a good series, well scripted, well acted, and posing a very simple but disturbing question: there is a Trojan Horse in our midst, but who is it? My guess is that we are in for a surprise. Could it be Saul? But please do not tell me. I want to enjoy this one for as long as it runs, just like those great television series of old.

  • Andreas

    You lost me when you said that James Cameron’s effort was “on the whole very good”. It was sentimental, one-dimensional trash, with gratuitous nudity and simulated fornication to boot.

  • Oconnord

    There are twelve episodes in Homeland and I don’t think it would be a “spoiler” to say that it’s pretty certain to get a second season.

    The US does seem to be well ahead in contemporary drama. I think that may be because they often have such unlikeable characters. The Wire, The Shield and Mad Men are full of characters that are difficult to empathise with. Breaking Bad would be an excellent example, where a teacher gets involved with to drug trade to provide for his family. As the story progresses he becomes obsessed with wealth and power and puts his family at risk.

  • Jack

    I think someone needs to change the headline. This article isn’t about the film Titanic, but the current TV series…

  • Honeybadger

    Presently, period drama is lacadasical and lazy in the details and chronology of the same – which is why, for example, I refused to watch The Tudors and its like – preferring cozzie dramas and docs made in the ’60s, 70′s,’80s and ’90s.

    Upstairs, Downstairs has recently been slagged off in the letters page of the Radio Times for getting it wrong about the introduction of nylon stockings to Britain to BEFORE WW2 instead of during the conflict.

    Television is nearing saturation level with the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic but, don’t lose heart… it is possible to separate the wheat from the chaff.

     Whilst we’re at it, how come nobody has mentioned that superb Canadian period crimebusting drama series, Murdoch Mysteries, which is shown on the satelite channel Alibi?

  • Honeybadger

    I loved French and Saunder’s wee-wee take of the film, Titanic, to the James Cameron version!

    If there is one thing that sticks in my craw in any media, it is the gratuitous nudity and – as you so beautifully put it – simulated fornication.

    I’d also add profanities to the mix.

    I’ll stick to documentaries about the Titanic rather than any fiction…

  • m francis

    You are forgeting one very pertinent point. These sophisticated upper class people were so brave and sophisticated that they refused to allow third class passengers, many of them Catholic I might add into the lifeboats. Thats the real issue here. Get real please

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Have you any evidence to substantiate your claim?

  • Cjkeeffe

    Or father you could have turned the TV off and read a good book?

  • am-s

    Oh please don’t mention the Tudors, I’ll come out in a rash!

    I like Castle. That’s good too. Life was also good, and no I don’t mean the Attenborough nature programme.

  • Oconnord

    There is no evidence that it happened, it think it’s an urban myth based on a scene in the Cameron movie. If I can work off memory rather than quotable fact, there were far more women and children saved from third class than first and second combined. Despite the fact the percentage of  third class women and children who were lost was far higher.

    This though can be explained by three factors. The ratio of children to adults in steerage was far higher, making evacuation far slower. The density of passengers in the lower decks was far higher, so especially with “women and children first” this would have slowed progress even more. Once you factor in that these passengers would have had to travel much further to reach the lifeboats I think the anomaly is easily explained without any darker motive.

    It is true that there would have been locked doors and gates between the different classes but that would have been the case throughout the journey, as would the fact that there were far more stewards in first and second class to guide passengers.

    There is also the story of the unfortunate cabin-boy (again if my memory is correct) which backs both non preference of class and the Edwardian sensibilities of the time. A young cabin-boy, after, guiding a female first class passenger to the lifeboats, accepted a cash gratuity. When he got home and told his story, the press vilified him. He was seen as without honour and guilty of making a profit. Even his family disowned him. His life was ruined.  

  • Oconnord

    There is one huge entertainment medium that is not covered in the CH. There are blogs about TV, movies, radio, books, You-tube videos and music. But never about gaming. I readily admit that I am of the old age demographic of gamers but how many homes contain a console? 

    Most households with children have one. I’d even bet most child-free households do too! I do not want to read another blog by Milos, but perhaps WO, FP and ALS should check how their younger relatives relate to this medium. 

    There are games which are “free roaming”. Within them you’re able move about, free to make decisions. For example there is a game that is a “western”. You can ride into town and decide to be a sheriff or an outlaw. Either way you are rewarded “money” for success. The game itself is neutral, so the sheriff will be given the option to invest in a brothel, saloon or hardware store. So the choice to be a “goodie” is no more easy than in real life…… And so it can go on….

    My point is that if you think that games are just blips on a screen. Well, you don’t understand that your grandchildren may well be making moral decisions on a TV screen. And you will never have any control of it. 

  • DALE1953

    Of course I wasn’t there, but I did talk and tape extensively with my grandmother – who was of course not there either (Slovak/Hungarian immigrant) but talking to her and reading contempory lit, Titanic SEEMS to be an accurate portrayal of class structure.  And I can attest to the Protestant “disgust” of Catholics!