Going overboard with the glut of 'Titanic' centenary shows

Sat, Apr 14, 2012, 01:00

TV REVIEW:AT THIS STAGE I feel like I’m training for Mastermind – specialist subject Titanic – and it’s getting just a bit wearing. The documentaries, particularly Timewatch (BBC1, Saturday) and even Titanic with Len Goodman (BBC1, Monday) have been interesting, informative and poignant – although the idea that twinkle-toes Goodman, the dapper judge on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, was once a welder in Harland & Wolff took some getting used to.

For a story that is naturally so full of drama, the TV dramas made to mark the centenary of the sinking of the ship have been curiously flat. For the past three weeks (Titanic, TV3, ITV, Sunday) Julian Fellowes has been throwing his full bag of Downton Abbey tricks at it – cardboard characters, clunky dialogue, obsession with class, enormous hats – and this four-part drama has been floundering just a little bit more with each episode. Hitting the iceberg came as a bit of a blessing in the quite ludicrous opening episode until you realised that the creaky drama wasn’t in fact over, the story was just going to be told in flashback from then on.

And this week’s big-budget drama – an Irish-German co-production Saving the Titanic (RTÉ1, Monday) – was more endurance than enjoyable. Directed by Maurice Sweeney, it told the story from the point of view of the workers deep below deck who heroically kept the ship afloat for a crucial 90 minutes, focusing particularly on nine men who stuck to their stations, keeping the power systems running, even when they learned that all was lost. The set was fantastic: giant engines, coal furnaces so real looking you could almost feel the heat, and the camera work captured the claustrophobia and danger of the work. But it needed characters who were well written enough to be convincing. Only David Wilmot, in a moving, quiet performance as chief engineer James Bell, stood out as someone who might have existed and may even have spoken some of the words the scriptwriters gave him.

Its best moments were when the action stayed below deck – the CGI shots of the Titanic sailing along couldn’t have looked more fake, while the music track was intrusive and unnecessary. And why have a narrator for a fully-fledged drama – shouldn’t the characters and the action tell the story? Disappointing.

Having spent so long immersed (sorry, but watery metaphors are hard to avoid) in Edwardiana, there were many times in Return to Farmleigh (RTÉ1, Monday) where you had to remind yourself that the events being talked about happened only in the 1970s and not decades before. Miranda Guinness came to Farmleigh as a bride – her husband Benjamin, scion of the brewing dynasty, had been given the mansion in the Phoenix Park as an engagement present by his grandparents. On their first visit, the couple were greeted at the porticoed entrance by a line of staff, an office manager, housekeeper, butler, the lot. Later on, the children ate, slept and played up on “the nursery floor” at the top of the house. It couldn’t have sounded more Upstairs Downstairs if it tried.

In 2010, the already gravely ill though sparky and charming Miranda, returned to the now State-owned house for a final visit. Together with sons Rory and Edward, they reminisced fondly about life in the house. Showing a photo of one of their birthday parties, they pointed to the rows of nannies on either side of the long table, standing behind their charges and the line of mothers standing behind them. “Classic early 1970s,” they commented.

A thick blanket of privilege covered everything. They had a swimming pool, a Ferrari, glamorous parties – Miranda knew everybody – but while the documentary had access to the Guinness family and marvellous home-movie footage, it seemed curiously distant, impersonal even. Every story prompted questions that weren’t asked. How, for example, did Rory feel being sent to boarding school age seven when Miranda left her husband? And what happened in the years between then and when the State paid a small fortune for the property? More of that and much less about the brewery.

When people in high-viz jackets started walking around the industrial plant and anonymous music twinkled away in the background, it edged into corporate video territory, away from the sparkling reflection of a glamorous life it could have fully been if it had just concentrated on Miranda.

It’s week four in The Apprentice (BBC1, Wednesday) and Irish contestant Jane McEvoy got the boot, although she can’t be too sorry because there’s so much about this franchise – the predictable tasks, the usual suited-up wannabes – that seems tired and past its amuse-by date.

And it shouldn’t even be called The Apprentice any more because now the prize is “the chance to go into business with Sir Alan Sugar” – although as a programme title, it’s not so catchy.

The task facing the gang of hair-obsessed young men and glossy-lipped women was to create a pop-up junk shop on London’s Brick Lane. “There’s a well-known saying, ‘You don’t look a gift horse in the eye’,” said one of the contestants about sourcing stock from a skip, taking an old saying and not quite adding value to it.

Jane’s selling technique did for her. “It went between aggressive and a bit desperate,” observed Sugar’s sidekick Karren Brady, who clearly couldn’t stand the rather stern-faced Kilkenny woman.

While The Apprentice has nicked the investor aspect of Dragons’ Den without success, a far more entertaining option is Four Rooms (Channel 4, Wednesday). It’s a vastly entertaining cross between the stiff old Antiques Roadshow and the naked desperation of Dragons’ Den, where people bring in their treasures (some seriously peculiar – last week there was a Ku Klux Klan outfit) and try to flog to them to four flamboyant and canny dealers who bid blind against each other. The people inevitably come across as greedy and no match for the dealers’ wiles, but watching the psychology of expectation and greed is compelling.

This week’s offerings included a knackered-looking old desk. “It was outside in a yard during two World Wars,” said its owner, Billy, who claimed it was the desk on which Bram Stoker wrote Dracula. “Charles Dickens’s desk made £430,000 at auction,” said one of the dealers and Billy’s face took on the look of a man about to hit pay-dirt. “It was a nice desk, yours is a bit of junk.” The dealer offered Billy £2,000. He took it.

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In a new series The 70s (BBC2, Monday), historian Dominic Sandbrook sets out to show that there was more to the 1970s than strikes, sideburns, the discovery of the Costa del Sol and that exotic tipple, Blue Nun.