17 April, 2012

Characterisation Masterclass: Titanic

Did anyone else watch the ITV drama, Titanic? Anyone else find it amazingly well-written and unbearably sad?

Written by Julian Fellows, I watched it mostly for this reason, having loved the first series of Downton  Abbey. Of course, some of the emotional pull of the four-part series was the knowledge that it was a real-life tragedy. However, that shouldn't take anything away from Julian Fellows - it was astonishingly well-crafted drama. I've never thought about writing for stage or screen before, but now I just want to be like him!

Each of the first three episodes started just before the Titanic set sail and followed a couple of different people and families up to the point where all the lifeboats had been launched. Throughout each however, we saw snapshots of the people we meet in the other episodes, with all the storylines dovetailing together so beautifully. The final episode covered the moment the iceberg hit, to the moment the survivors saw the lights of the ship that rescued them. It was heartbreaking. Finding out which of the characters you've been following survive and which don't make it hit me harder than any other drama I've ever watched.If you haven't watched it then go to ITV player at once and do it, for me. Just incredible.

The real key to the beauty of it was the characterisation. I consider the characters of Snape in the Harry Potter series and Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, to be the best examples of characterisation I've ever read. But now I'm adding these characters to my list. None of the  main characters was two-dimensional; they were all heroes and cowards, hopeful and despairing, good and bad. For example, one of the men is an adulterer, but also one of the few first class passengers that tried to help the third class women and children on to the lifeboats. He is a fallible hero and I loved him a little bit. Just like I loved the hot-headed father who loved his children so much but was helpless at the mercy of the Atlantic, and the arguing couple who realised how much they needed each other just in time, before... well, I'll let you find out. This is how your build characters folks. A absolute masterclass.

The thought of what happened 100 years ago is horrifying, isn't it? The panic and confusion of knowing the ship you're on is sinking into icy water in the middle of a dark ocean; the horror of women safe in the lifeboats watching and hearing 1500 people drowning, including the husbands they'd been forced to leave behind; the fear and gallantry of the men who saved others, knowing that they would die... I'm not really a crying type of person, but this really got me. I think it's the gallantry - bravery always chokes me up. I was recently reading  about HMS Birkenhead (the first recorded use of what became known as the Birkenhead Drill - "Women and children first!") and found myself with something in my eye. The men on the HMS Birkenhead, chose to stay on the deck of their sinking ship, in shark-infested water, and die rather than swim out the lifeboats as they'd been given permission to do, in order not to risk capsizing the boats full of women and children. And it's stories like that that sometimes gets me wondering, who needs fiction anyway? Real life is sometimes enough.

10 comments:

  1. A great post, Chloe. Many a book or drama or film can be exalted by the acting or the characterisation, despite a plywood plot or creaky dialogue. Leaving aside writers such as Chekhov, it's finely drawn characters that pull us in. As you say, we don't even need to like them, necessarily, just believe in them. And when that piece of drama or fiction is based around a real event, it ups the stakes for all concerned. When it's done well, we 'connect' with history in a way we might never have before. For example, when we see a war memorial and read the names aloud, we are connecting to individuals rather than mass events, and the past touches us.

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    1. I completely agree. Every year at my school, the head boy would read out the names of all the pupils who had once gone to the school and had died in war. Knowing that these were real people who had walked the same corridors I did - and that some of them had probably left school to go to war - always really moved me.

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  3. No I missed this! Apparently (they were saying on the radio) that it only got half the expected viewing audience. Yikes. They over anticipated people's interest in it being 100 years since.

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    1. Yeah, I haven't heard anyone else talking about it. I think it's still on ITVPlayer if you want to watch. I was really surprised nobody I've come across has mentioned it - one of the best things I've ever seen. I find the Titanic fascinating, but I think maybe there was a bit of overkill of the subject in the media for too long - shoud have limited it to one week before!

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  4. There are more heroes in everyday life than we'll ever know or hear about.

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    1. I'd find it very hard to write about a real life hero in something fictional, for fear I could never do them justice. I'm sure we all know people or stories that would make amazing pieces of fiction, but it's knowing when to make them so that matters.

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  5. Good post, Chloe.

    I haven't seen any of Titanic (I think to be honest I was suffering from Titanic fatigue - as you say it's been pretty much unavoidable over the last month or so), but I understand how big a difference proper characterisation can make.

    The example I'm thinking of is Homeland, which (although it's starting to get a little convoluted now) started off with a cast of brilliantly complex and multi-layered characters. Everybody has their secrets, fears, strengths, flaws, grudges, dreams and obsessions. Loyalties shift, deals are struck, sparks fly. You can empathise with their motives, and sympathise when they have to resort to 'bad' behaviour to get what they want/need. I don't watch a lot of TV but I hate missing Homeland (watching it on 4OD just isn't the same).

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  6. I might try and find this, though it may be too late.
    You're right - the thought that real people would have been going through these things, these emotions, these thoughts, you can;t help but put yourself in their place. There's something so much more moving about stories based on real life.
    Thank you for this post :)
    Nari X

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    1. We've just started watching the second series of Downton Abbey and one of the actors is the same as in Titanic and it keeps bringing it all back!

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