The Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes is working on a drama about the sinking of the Titanic, and as the 100th anniversary of the disaster approaches, it's unlikely to be the last.
After more than a decade at the top, last year Titanic was finally overtaken by Avatar as the highest-grossing film ever. Meanwhile, Titanic II - which wasn't, admittedly, blessed with the directorial hand of James Cameron, a blockbusting budget or the star power of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, suffered the ignominy of going straight to video. But anyone who suspects that the sinking of the famous passenger liner will finally pass meekly into history might like to check their dates. For, in 13 months' time, it will be 100 years since RMS Titanic hit the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. There will, no doubt, be plenty of column inches written about this fateful centenary. And, we learnt this week, a television mini-series from the Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes, focusing on the most notorious accident in maritime history.
Fellowes is the ideal choice. Not only was the sinking of the Titanic a key element of the narrative in his posh period drama Downton Abbey (the first episode sees both the heirs to Lord Grantham's fortune perish in the tragedy), but the British broadcaster ITV is very keen that this new drama will "focus on different characters ranging from steerage passengers to upper-class guests". Intertwining the lives and stories of the upper and lower classes is exactly the trick Fellowes pulled off with such style in not just Downton Abbey, but the Oscar-winning film Gosford Park. Both starred Maggie Smith, so it'll be no surprise if, next year, she's staring fretfully at the ocean.
Refreshingly, it appears ITV is not just aiming to reprise James Cameron's epically cheesy film in episodic format. Though the broadcaster was quick to promise "romantic plotlines", each episode will be seen from a different character's point of view, culminating in "an explosive conclusion which draws together each of the stories... revealing which of the characters will survive... and who does not".
Of course, you'd expect Maria Kyriacou, the managing director at ITV Studios Global Entertainment, to say at the launch that Fellowes's Titanic will provide a "vividly different experience of the ship's last hours alongside a definitive snapshot of what was a unique and uncertain moment in history". She has a high-profile, expensive drama to sell around the world. But she wouldn't be the first to promise a unique take on the Titanic story - although not many have been quite as bizarre as the 2007 Doctor Who episode Voyage of the Damned. Forget well-to-do passengers adrift on a broiling sea, in Russell T Davies's BBC version, the 1912 White Star ship had turned into an interstellar spaceship cruise liner whose nuclear powerplant threatened the extinction of life on earth. It was almost incidental that Kylie Minogue was the Doctor's assistant.
Actually, that particular plot borrowed significantly from the 1998 video game Starship Titanic, which, with pleasing symmetry, was conceived by the Doctor Who script editor and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams. Proof, if any were needed, that the sinking of the Titanic has held a continued fascination for writers and directors over the past 99 years.
Not all filmmakers left a respectful distance between their movies and the tragedy, either. If you thought that Oliver Stone's World Trade Center movie of 2006 was just a little too close to the terrible events of September 11 for comfort, consider the German film based on the Titanic story, released in the same year as the disaster. For decades afterwards, the silent movie In Nacht Und Eis (In Night and Ice) was thought to be lost, until a film collector uncovered it in 1998. Naturally, you can now watch it via YouTube (just search for Nacht Und Eis), and while the scene involving what's clearly a model ship hitting a block of ice looks a little too much like an irreverent out-take from South Park, 99 years ago this was pretty cutting-edge stuff.
In Nacht Und Eis was a pretty straight recreation of events onboard Titanic. The notion of the disaster as an emotional human drama would come later - although it wasn't James Cameron who reshaped matters into a tear-jerking romance. His version, where DiCaprio wraps his arms around Kate Winslet and bawls "I'm the king of the world" might seem a long stretch from Atlantis, a 1913 Danish silent movie. But both concerned themselves with romantic entanglements on a doomed ocean liner. Atlantis wasn't actually set on the Titanic itself, not least because the film was based on a Gerhardt Hauptmann novel which, remarkably, was published just a month before the disaster. But the inference was obvious. There was clear drama in the notion of people voyaging across the seas to start new lives with new loves, and never quite making it.
Since then there have been ridiculous adventure movies (1980's Raise The Titanic), melodramas (the Oscar-winning Titanic from 1953, starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck as an estranged couple) and straight historical epics (1958's A Night To Remember, starring Kenneth More and widely praised for its accuracy). The Titanic filmography even extends to, bizarrely, a Nazi propaganda film: 1943's Titanic was an attempt to show how the greedy British were to blame for the tragedy - and the hero was a fictitious German First Officer. It wasn't completely crazy as a concept, though: James Cameron's film borrowed many of its social elements.
But the scope, realism and sheer storytelling power of Cameron's Titanic have made any films since 1997 just a little pointless - although that didn't prevent a hilariously poor Italian animation from doing the rounds in 2001. Whoever thought that a band of Mexican, er, mice might lighten the mood on board the doomed ship was clearly a comic genius... working on the wrong film. Still, the presence of a Titanic musical proves that nothing, not even 1,500 deaths in a cold ocean, is truly safe from the clutches of the wildly emotional singalong.
And yet, unbelievably, Titanic: A New Musical opened on Broadway in 1997, winning five prestigious Tony awards before touring in Europe, Australia and Japan. Of course, it helped that Cameron's film contributed to a sense of Titanic mania, but the musical actually came first. Indeed, the writer Maury Yeston put her finger on why the Titanic has been such an object of fascination for writers and audiences in a more eloquent way than anyone before or since.
"What drew me to the project was the positive aspects of what the ship represented," she revealed in her biography. "Humankind's striving after great artistic works and similar technological feats, despite the possibility of tragic failure, and the dreams of the passengers on board. The collision with the iceberg dashed all of these dreams simultaneously, and the subsequent transformation of character of the passengers and crew had, it seemed to me, the potential for great emotional and musical expression onstage."
Against all the odds - after all, one song is the snigger-inducing Dressed in Your Pyjamas in the Grand Salon - Yeston pulled the musical off. And there can be no higher praise than the staging of Titanic: A New Musical on the 100th anniversary next year, at the Grand Opera House in Belfast. It might not be quite as high profile as the premiere of Fellowes's series, of course. But the story they will both tell remains as compelling as ever, a century on.