When I was 17, I starred - I use the word loosely - in a school production of Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound. Perhaps you know this play. It's about a pair of theatre critics, Moon and Birdboot, who are supposed to be reviewing an awful country-house murder mystery until, unaccountably, they spring out of their seats and become involved in the action on stage. Hilarity ensues. I played Cynthia Muldoon, a role that demanded red lipstick and a distrait manner that was really quite a stretch at the time.
The whodunit begins with the cockney help, Mrs Drudge, shuffling across the stage to answer a ringing telephone. "The drawing room of Lady Muldoon's country residence one morning in early spring," she says, as she picks it up. I mention this because Mrs Drudge's funny line kept floating into my mind as I watched the first part of Julian Fellowes's latest magnum opus, Titanic. All his dialogue is like this: expository to within an inch of its fox-fur stole. "Good morning, Captain Smith," a character will say. "Here on the first class deck, it is marvellously reassuring to see all the lifeboats on hand - and please don't think that I don't notice these important details for all that I am an exceedingly rich aristocrat whose wild, suffragette daughter and cold, snobbish wife are causing him embarrassing headaches!" (I exaggerate, but you get the picture.) And Fellowes, unlike Stoppard, is writing drama, not a spoof.
How does he get away with it? I will never understand people's love for Downton (and feel sad for its ignored BBC rival, Upstairs, Downstairs, so superior in every way). Downton's plots - each one shaken out like a tablecloth to its fullest extent within a maximum period of 30 minutes - are woeful, its characters made of papier mâché. Titanic is the same, only worse. For this series, Fellowes had the wizard idea of sinking the ship at the end of every episode (we see the same events from the point of view of four different lots of characters). So an awful lot has to happen in 50 minutes. Absolutely nothing can be withheld. Every line must be resonant, every look easy to read.
In this world, a Yorkshire accent instantly denotes vulgarity; an Irish brogue, rebellion; an American twang, pushiness; and anything French-sounding, dubious sexual morals. Fellowes, who came to script-writing relatively late, really missed his moment. He would have done fine work on Crossroads, sucking yet more life from the already mortally plank-like Jill and Adam Chance.
Crossroads, however, was cheap. This is expensive. Last summer, I travelled to the Titanic set in Hungary where, along with about 400 other journalists, I marvelled at the clever reconstruction of one side of the great ship. As junkets go, it was like the good old days, by which I mean lavish (we weren't hanging about backstage at Burton-and-Taylor's Cleopatra, exactly, but it was lavish in TV hack terms). Does the spend show on screen? Yes, with the exception of the CGI iceberg, which looks like it has been transported straight from the Mappin Terraces (aka Bear Mountain) at London Zoo. The costumes are great and the interiors are, too - all darkly panelled and luxe. Among the fine cast are Linus Roache as the Earl of Manton; Toby Jones as his Irish lawyer, John Batley; Celia Imrie as the common-as-muck-because-the-family-is-in-trade Grace Rushton; and James Wilby as the cowardly chairman of the White Star Line, Bruce Ismay.
None of this, though, makes the slightest difference. The script - lumbering and yet slapdash - spits in the face of the investment. I don't object in principal to the idea of yet another drama about the Titanic. Any subject is interesting if the writing is there. But I do query the commission. Lightning isn't going to strike twice and encouraging Fellowes to repeat himself is only going to subject his work to the law of diminishing returns. On this occasion, they should have asked someone else to jump bravely into the icy water.