First thing to know – there's no Celine Dion song. Not a note is warbled by the inestimable chanteuse in all four hours of Titanic (Global, 10 p.m.).
You might say, "jolly good!" And if you did, you'd be in line with the spirit of the multi-multi-million dollar U.K./Canada miniseries. See, it's written by this chap Julian Fellowes, who created Downton Abbey and, by Jove, there's a lot of jolly-good this and jolly-good that. Always keeping in mind, of course, that the ship sinks and, of the 2,223 passengers and crew on board, 1,517 perished when it hit an iceberg near Newfoundland and sank.
On the cusp of the 100th anniversary of the sinking, a mild Titanic-mania is let loose. Coming soon, just on PBS, are Saving the Titanic and a NOVA special, Why Ships Sink. Also coming is another dramatic miniseries, the star-studded U.K./Ireland co-production Titanic: Blood and Steel.
This one is the glamourpuss. And that's largely because Fellowes wrote it. With Downton such a phenomenon, his take on the Titanic story is highly anticipated. Downton followers will not be disappointed. Titanic is very deftly done, another twist on the upstairs/downstairs template, or what they call in Britain, the nobs-and-slobs drama. This is a high-grade nobs-and-slobs story set on a sinking ship.
The miniseries gets around the problem that everyone knows the outcome (and many have seen James Cameron's movie) by taking a simple but effective tack. Each of the four episodes has a different point of view from inside the ship and each ends with the sinking, seen through different eyes. The opening episode Wednesday (it continues next week) focuses on the aristocratic Manton family.
There's Hugh (Linus Roache) and wife Louisa (Geraldine Somerville), accompanied by their rebellious daughter, Georgiana (Perdita Weeks). In second class there is the married Irish couple John Batley (Toby Jones) and his angry wife Muriel (Maria Doyle Kennedy). John Batley is the Manton's lawyer and anxious to please, while Muriel has taken a more rebellious Irish attitude to the English nobs. We also get glimpses of the poorer passengers and the staff.
Producer Nigel Stafford-Clark said in a recent interview that he saw Titanic as, "A serial about Britain in 1912, when we were the most powerful nation on Earth and we were also sailing towards the First World War as obliviously as the Titanic was sailing towards the iceberg."
Thus, the class tensions and political issues of 1912 are delivered sharply and with skill. It's a time when Ireland is agitating for independence and England is resenting it. So Luisa Manton was born in Ireland but wants to hear nothing about that. She snaps at her husband, "I wish you wouldn't call me Irish!" He replies, "But you are Irish." And Louise acidly concludes the conversation with, "I'm not. Not in that way."
Women cannot vote and the suffragette movement is under way. Georgiana has taken part in protests, to the mortification of her parents. The Americans on board are considered uncouth by the stiff-upper-lip English. The Americans are, in turn, out to prove how generous and egalitarian they are. An Italian waiter flirts with a young English Lady, causing consternation. Viewers will feel they're still in the environs of Downtown Abbey.
The climactic scenes of the sinking are very well done. The stoic chaps and the panicky youngsters. The poverty-stricken in steerage, aware that they are lost. There's a powerful scene in which Louisa Manton is confronted by Muriel Batley. In the circumstance, Muriel decides to unleash her hatred. "You think you're so fine, so aristocratic, don't you? You're pathetic," she roars and then uses a word that rhymes with "witch."
The second episode, airing next Wednesday, begins in Belfast, where the Titanic was built and deals with the background to the ship's design and the internal machinations about how it was marketed to both the rich and the poor.
On the evidence of the first episode tonight, it's exemplary entertainment, an imaginative approach to a story that everyone feels they know. All jolly good.
ALSO AIRING TONIGHT
Republic of Doyle (CBC, 9 p.m.) has a madcap storyline and an interesting guest star. The gist is this: "When Des's dad is kidnapped after being released from jail, the Doyles must band together and save Jody Redmond before it's too late; Mal is distracted when he gets bad news about his old partner; Kathleen angers Tinny when she chooses an issue from the past over a case from the present." Tomfoolery to be sure, but please note that Des's dad is played by Michael Healey – the distinguished playwright and actor whose new work for the stage, Proud, which features an unnamed character called the Prime Minister, is the subject of much controversy and chatter. Here, obviously, he's merely messing with Doyles.
All times ET. Check local listings.