What's that huge, static object? Just another Fellowes drama


TV REVIEW:FINDING A WAY to tell a story to which everyone knows the ending is always tricky, and so for the four-part drama Titanic (UTV and TV3, Sunday) the writer Julian Fellowes opted to look at the disaster through the prism of the British class system at the time.

It worked spectacularly for him in Downton Abbey, so why not in Drownton Abbey or Downton-on-Sea or any of the other smart-alecky nicknames the €13 million series has already picked up?

Except the tragic event 100 years ago wasn’t all about class: that’s not the drama in the story of Titanic, and by making it all about the divisions between the toffs in first class, the middle class in the cheap seats (an Irish couple, played by Toby Jones and Maria Doyle Kennedy) and the great unwashed in steerage (a large Irish family, the Maloneys – Peter McDonald and Ruth Bradley), he has sucked the breathtaking, hubris-fuelled drama out of the real story.

Even hitting the iceberg seemed almost incidental to the real business of whether snooty Lady Whatsit was going to make another cutting remark about people “in trade” or showing how the servants were as class ridden as the rest. As always in a Fellowes drama, there’s a faint a echo of something else, so when two attractive young characters meet and fall in love (and them only a couple of hours out of Southampton – everything in this Titanic feels rushed), most of their courting is out on deck, clutching the railing. All they were short of was a gust of wind to lift her chiffon scarf and a few bars of My Heart Will Go On.

In Downton, Maria Doyle Kennedy played the shrewish, bitter Mrs Bates; here she’s the shrewish, bitter Mrs Batley – what is it with Fellowes and Irish women? – and even in the crush for the lifeboats she takes the opportunity to launch a crazed attack on the earl of Manton (a bland Linus Roache) about inequality (as her character in Downton famously said: “As if”).

By the time the ship starts sinking you’d be hard pressed to care about any of the far-too-many characters, and that’s crucial, as the clunky structure of the drama means that events in the first episode will be revisited from different characters’ points of view. Historical references are thrown in with all the subtlety of an iceberg. Mrs Batley quizzes Lady Manton about her views on Irish home rule – more not-quite-credible dialogue.

The ladies’ enormous hats are fabulous – large enough to make impromptu lifeboats – but it won’t keep this lavish but dull drama from giving you a sinking feeling.

THE FIRST, STRANGELY flat episode of Mad Men (Sky Atlantic, Tuesday) will have left all those coming new to the series slightly puzzled as to what all the hype was about, but the second episode – they were shown back to back – was the real deal: compulsive, tightly written, even funny, and always slick.

It’s 1966, nine months since we last checked in with the dysfunctional “family” of workers at the ad agency (double that in real life). Megan, Don’s new wife, gets it right when she says: “What is wrong with you people? You’re all so cynical. You don’t smile, you smirk.”

The civil-rights movement is starting to take hold; the ad agency is still struggling to find business; Joan, desperate to get back to work, has had the baby and feels her life is happening somewhere else, and newly-wed Don has become a poster boy for happy families. As Peggy, the character who knows him best, observes: “I don’t know that man. He’s kind and patient.”

The first episode revolved around Megan, Don’s former secretary and now sexy new wife and cub copywriter.

There’s a generation shift afoot, with Peggy, Pete and Megan coming into their own just as Don is getting old – his 40th-birthday party is the key scene – and sleezy Roger is becoming as superfluous to the business as old man Bertram Cooper.

There is plenty to keep hard-core fans nodding knowingly, with Pete and Peggy being left with Joan’s baby – a reference to their shared history – and Roger walking down the hall saying, “There’s my baby,” to an alarmed Joan: we know it could be his. As usual, everyone wants something someone else has. “The only thing worse than not getting what you want is someone else getting it,” says yesterday’s man Roger at Don’s party – the set-up line for the new series that’s as good looking and smart as ever.

THE FIRST SHOW in The Voice UK (Saturday, BBC1) had some knockout talent and an A-list judging panel of Jessie J, Danny O’Donoghue, will.i.amand Tom Jones, and it does it all in an hour and 20 minutes. Our version is The Voice – deadly boring anyway, but now by comparison looking even more like a talent show in the village hall, and it goes on for two hours. You could go away, have your dinner and watch another talent show, say Feis and Blood (TG4, Sunday), and still catch the end credits for The Voice and not really miss anything. Feis and Blood, back for a new series, is admirable in that it is without pretension. It’s a purely amateur talent competition for families that doesn’t pretend that any of the contestants are going to make the big time or are even particularly good. Refreshingly honest, when you think about it. There doesn’t even seem to be a prize, though maybe it was lost in translation. It could have been made any time in the past 50 years, and no one will be dancing around in their pants – the backing dancers in The Voice have taken to doing toe-curlingly awful raunchy numbers.

The families on Feis and Blood inevitably include many small children with wide eyes and hopeful faces (playing flutes or dancing jigs), and when the supernice judges have to eliminate them at the end it’s a bit like watching a seal cull.

SETTING UP THE theme of The Frontline (RTÉ1, Monday), Pat Kenny posed a question: “Bertie’s rise and fall, what does it say about ourselves?” It wasn’t addressed by the panel that talked about Bertie (his friend Des Peelo was once again the lone voice out to bat for his pal) and the findings of the Mahon tribunal, so with luck it won’t arise again. Otherwise it’s a short step to becoming like that “we all went mad in the boom” cliched, insulting, self-flagellating way of thinking.

Bertie made Bertie a liar. We didn’t.

Get stuck into . . .

Men of Arlington is a superb documentary in which three former residents of a London hostel, Arlington House, home to thousands of migrant Irish labourers in the 1950s and 1960s, tell their remarkable stories. Shown on BBC last year, it’s worth another look (RTÉ1, Thursday).