If only there was an alternative ending to the Titanic story. We could use a change. ‘Phew, we almost hit that iceberg!’ Or, ‘Thank goodness the White Star Line made sure there were ample lifeboats for everyone on board!’ Or even, ‘So it’s true — this ship really is unsinkable, and tomorrow night we will be safe and well in a rat-infested tenement on the Lower East side shared with seven other families!’
But of course it’s not a story, it’s a myth. You might as well have a happy ending to Oedipus Rex. And in the same way we can see it again and again. In Julian Fellowes’s version alone (ITV, Sunday) we get it four times. It’s about man’s hubris in the face of nature. It’s about class. You can’t take your money with you, but you can use it to postpone the trip. And it’s about courage, cowardice and the band playing as the ship went down because they were British. Three years later, twice as many people died on the Lusitania, which was historically a far more important event, but I don’t think anyone’s made a TV mini-series about them, possibly because they were torpedoed by boring old Germans. And also because the ship sank in 18 minutes, which didn’t leave time for heartfelt reconciliations between unhappy couples, or changing into dinner jackets like Benjamin Guggenheim, who wanted to drown dressed as a gentleman, so proving that an American can have an upper lip quite as stiff as any Englishman, and not because of the ice in his scotch.
All of which shows why Titanic With Len Goodman (BBC 2, Friday) was, in spite of its silly title — Goodman, before being a judge on Strictly Come Dancing, worked for Harland and Wolff, who built the ship — rather more affecting than the fictional series (which lost more than a third of its audience in its second week). These were real heroes: 5th officer Harold Lowe, who saved several real people, and real cowards, such as Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, who settled himself comfortably in a lifeboat, and later was seen on the Carpathia dishing out Coutts cheques to crew members who had obeyed his orders not to return for survivors screaming in the water. (His family say he was just a generous sort of chap.) There is nothing more powerful than a myth that turns out to be true.
The BBC paid some £22 million for the rights alone to The Voice (BBC1, Saturday). It’s a basic, off-the-back-of-an-envelope talent show, so why it cost so much I cannot imagine.
The wrinkle is that the judges, who include Sir Tom Jones, have their back to the singers — many of whom, it turns out, are already professionals or rejects from other talent shows. The notion is that the judges won’t be affected by appearances, which is absurd because half of showbiz appeal is about appearances. No doubt that’s why they rejected a beguiling 17-year-old who sang ‘Nessun Dorma’ purely because they didn’t know she was a beguiling 17-year-old. Bonkers and — which is far worse — almost entirely lacking in charm.
Mad Men is back, on Sky Atlantic instead of the BBC, and had a pathetically small audience, with well under 100,000 watching it live. The ratio of overheated publicity to actual viewer numbers was possibly around 500 times greater than that for Eggheads and 1,000 times that of a nice cheap hit such as The Great British Bake Off. For the moment Mad Men doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. The problem with long-running series is that the writers and producers sometimes panic and use increasingly ludicrous plots. (This is known as ‘jumping the shark’ after an episode in Happy Days.) Or the creators fall in love with their characters and let them amble along doing not much at all because they’re so wonderful and fascinating, and even the meticulous design of their underwear is worth a round of applause.
What was more intriguing was Sky’s cunning decision to interleave the programme with only vintage adverts, dating back decades, but for things you can still buy, such as Cadbury’s Smash, and eggs. They also found one of my all-time favourite American ads, for VW, dating from the time when nearly all Americans drove massive cars with boots (trunks) as big as their bonnets (hoods). It showed two identical houses and their driveways. The voiceover said that both the Joneses and the Klamperers (I think; the soundtrack was fuzzy) had $3,000. The Jones had spent theirs on a gas-guzzler. The Klamperers had used their $3,000 to buy a fridge, a cooking range, a washing machine, a dryer, two TVs and a record player. And a Volkswagen. ‘Now Mr Jones is faced with that age-old problem — keeping up with the Klamperers.’
Brilliant. And proof that Americans can do irony too, as well as having stiff upper lips.