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A Titanic century

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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

And thus began another chapter of the Titanic’s story: its afterlife. These days, artifacts from the Titanic and its passengers are auctioned -- men’s room keys from first class can command in the range of 50,000 pounds sterling -- and Russian submarines take wealthy tourists to the site. RMS Titanic Inc., the company that legally recovers objects from the ship’s carcass, has just announced that it will work with retailer QVC to “to design several Titanic-inspired products including jewelry, home goods, giftware and a fragrance, Legacy 1912 -- Titanic (TM).”

“It’s sad,” says Ballard, who grew up in Long Beach and Downey. “You don’t poke your finger into the Mona Lisa, you don’t go to Gettysburg with a shovel.”

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Much still to say

The programming offered for the Titanic centenary ranges quite widely. It includes more-or-less fictional character-based films (such as Fellowes’), Ballard’s tale of concern about the origins and potential fate of the ship, and cautionary tales about the current state of seagoing vessels (Nova’s “Why Ships Sink” on PBS). There ends up being a lot left to say about this famous old liner.

It’s only a few minutes into Fellowes’ “Titanic” that the issue of class is breached explicitly, and the early part of his miniseries is saturated with coded and not so coded plays on status, ethnicity and religion. But Fellowes, who grew up in a Britain where the wreck’s survivors were still accessible and read extensively on the disaster, thinks that’s not the whole story. “The more it sank in that this ship was going down, the less that stuff mattered,” he says. “And the thing that came through was how well the majority of them behaved.”

On April 10, PBS will broadcast “The Titanic With Len Goodman,” in which the “Dancing With the Stars” judge (and former East London shipbuilder) finds descendants of passengers to illuminate the disaster’s effect.

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“He tracks down untold personal stories of people who died and who survived,” says Hoppe of PBS. “He looks at everything from the crew and the Italian waiters to people below decks.” And PBS’ “Saving the Titanic” (first aired last week but broadcasting again Tuesday and Saturday) is what Hoppe calls “a nonfiction dramatization of the men in the engine room, who tried to keep the Titanic systems running even when it’s sinking.”

The next weeks will also see “Titanic: The Final Word With James Cameron” (April 8 on National Geographic) and “Titanic at 100: Mystery Solved,” (April 15, History) both of which consult experts to ask why this “unsinkable” ship went down. The 1953 “Titanic” film, starring Barbara Stanwyck, has just been released on Blu-ray, and Cameron’s 3-D version opens this week.

Elemental interest

Ballard is happy that people remain interested in the ship and its tale. But to him, more important than simply marking this woeful anniversary is the issue of protecting this site that serves as the graveyard of 1,500. He fears that plunderers are making plans for another visit this year.

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“You don’t know what they’re doing in the dark down there,” he says, lamenting damage to the hull as well as the loss of the crow’s nest. " I’d like to see the principle countries sign the treaty to protect the site and honor it. As the Titanic goes, so goes the other human history in the ocean. The deep sea is the largest museum on Earth, and there’s no lock on the door.”

Its transformation into a watery grave, picked over by pirates, makes the ship’s story both mythical and poignant, says historian Thompson. “You’ve got what amounts to the greatest luxury hotel in the world, and you go from five-star elegance to drowning in a frigid ocean. Doesn’t get much more intense than that.”

To Fellowes, our compulsive interest in the tragedy is absolutely elemental. “I think the Titanic touches on the fundamental terrors,” he says. “There’s something about being on a liner, at night, in the middle of the ocean -- and it’s going down -- that’s a kind of primordial fear. And we all want to know: Would we be crying in terror or giving up our seat in the boat? It’s terrifying and inspiring, simultaneously.”

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calendar@latimes.com


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