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A Titanic century

Programs and specials by Julian Fellowes, PBS, National Geographic and more show there's plenty left to say about the 1912 tragedy that continues to fascinate.

April 01, 2012|Scott Timberg
  • A scene from the four-part ABC miniseries "Titanic."
A scene from the four-part ABC miniseries "Titanic." (Laurence Cendrowicz, ABC )

Julian Fellowes recalls his first Titanic moment, decades before a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet climbed onto James Cameron's set.

"It haunted me," he says of a childhood viewing of "A Night to Remember," the 1958 British film about the ocean liner's crash into an iceberg and the ensuing race for the lifeboats. "Somehow the disaster of the Titanic embraces so much of that world -- high and low, working men and aristocrats, entrepreneurs and movie stars, immigrants hoping to start a new life in America. All those hopes and dreams were on board that ship, that night. I can't think of an equivalent disaster."

Fellowes began his cult series, "Downton Abbey," with the death of several characters on the ship, which sets some of the program's plot in motion; he says now that he used the ship as a kind of historical shorthand for the immediate pre-World War I period.

But he's returned to the Titanic by writing a four-part miniseries that airs on ABC next weekend, to mark the 100th anniversary of the ship's demise. It's one of a long list of television programs -- not to mention a 3-D reissue of Cameron's record-breaking film -- running over the next week or so as the grim centenary approaches.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, April 04, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Titanic on TV: An article in the April 1 Calendar section about a spate of Titanic-related programs coming to television this month said that "Titanic," Julian Fellowes' miniseries about the ill-fated ship, would air on ABC the following weekend. It airs April 14-15.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, April 08, 2012 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Titanic on TV: An April 1 article about a spate of Titanic-related programs coming to television this month said that "Titanic," Julian Fellowes' miniseries about the ill-fated ship, would air on ABC the following weekend. It airs April 14-15.

"In a lot of ways, the Titanic [disaster] was the 9/11 of its day," says Beth Hoppe, vice president of programming at PBS, which is airing three programs on the subject. "That boat was the symbol of what technology can do and our hopes for the future."

The ship's social structure, with its first- and second-class passengers and "steerage" underneath, was like a laboratory for the class system. "The stories about the percentage of people who survived from first class versus those from below decks brought some of those social issues into sharp focus," Hoppe says. "It was not just a natural disaster -- it was human-engineered. Fifteen hundred people dying in a landslide in 1912 is not something we end up revisiting."

World War I, which brought several of the world's greatest empires to a bloody conclusion, is often seen as the end of the 19th century and the true beginning of the 20th. But the Titanic was a microcosm of the same world-changing process.

"You think of people in top hats when you think of the Titanic," says Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University historian of popular culture. "1912 is really this fulcrum between the Victorian old school and the whole new order" as radio and other new technologies emerged. "That ship was not only sailing from Point A to Point B -- it was sailing from the Old World to the New World in about six different senses."

An enduring story

When the RMS Titanic was built in Belfast in 1912, it was the most elegant and technologically advanced oceangoing vessel the world had ever seen, as well as a symbol of the still-robust British empire. This was the age of the steamship: Automobiles and planes were still fairly new and primitive by comparison. "But we can't be in any real danger," a shell-shocked character says in Fellowes' "Titanic" as news of the iceberg begins to circulate. "Not on this ship."

The liner's maiden voyage, from England's southern coast to New York City, attracted members of the United States' wealthiest families in a time -- the days before talking pictures -- when Astors and Guggenheims became celebrities simply for their surnames. They were able to enjoy smoking rooms, enormous staircases, a swimming pool and lavish restaurants serving the finest French cuisine. European immigrants crossing the ocean for the promise of America, needless to say, traveled more modestly.

When, four days out, the ship hit an iceberg about 400 miles south of Newfoundland and it became clear that the ship was going down, the decision by the ship's operator, White Star Line, to skimp on lifeboats became tragic. One side of the ship followed a women-and-children-first policy, the other side saved space for women and children only.

About 700 survivors, picked up by a nearby liner, made it to the New York harbor as the world followed the disaster by radio dispatch and newspapers. Soon entombed deep under the sea, far from any landmass, the wreck's location was unknown for decades.

Books, movies, radio interviews with survivors and other kinds of aftermath kept the story alive. But the tale of the Titanic took a jump forward in 1985: Families of survivors had lobbied to find the ship's final resting place, and a French and American expedition was led by Jean-Louis Michel and Bob Ballard. Though the discovery marked a triumph, Ballard felt a shot of remorse when he found the rusted hull. He knew he was disturbing the site of a tragedy and, as he discusses in the April 8 National Geographic documentary "Save the Titanic With Bob Ballard," he feared that those who came after would not respect it.

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