Northern Ireland

Titanic drama focuses on Californian question

Image caption The drama tells the story of the inquiry into the disaster

The new BBC Northern Ireland drama SOS - The Titanic Inquiry tells the story of the British Inquiry into the sinking of RMS Titanic and whether the SS Californian was in near enough proximity to the vessel to rescue some, if not all, of the 1,500 lives lost.

Made by The Hole In The Wall Gang, Tim McGarry explains why he wanted to tell this side of the Titanic story.

SOS - The Titanic Inquiry is a Titanic drama with a difference.

There's not an iceberg or a half-filled lifeboat in sight. And there are no first class passengers looking down their noses at the 'oiks' in steerage.

Instead we tell a story that's not well known but which asks an intriguing question - could the passengers have all been saved?

This tense courtroom drama tells the fascinating true story of the Californian. Was the ship a lot closer to the Titanic than it said it was?

The Californian was the ship that some say saw the distress rockets fired from the Titanic and yet it did nothing. Why?

Were the Captain and crew of the Californian guilty of grave dereliction of duty or were they merely the blameless victims of unfortunate circumstances?

Our drama is based on the play Blackness After Midnight by local man Denis MacNeice.

We were attracted to this story because it was little known - except by 'Titanoraks' - and because the actual testimony by the crew at the British inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic reveals underlying tensions and differences among the Californian crew.

Image caption Tensions within the crew of the Californian are examined

This a story about loyalty, duty, truth, hidden motives and dawning realisations.

Plus we are from Belfast and we're proud of our association with the great liner.

We thought it would be a real shame if BBC Northern Ireland did not make a television drama to mark the centenary.

We did a lot of research; there was plenty of trawling through long and often tedious evidence from the inquiry itself before we constructed our story.

We had to distil hundreds of pages of testimony to make a drama that would be fair and factual but also compelling.

And we had to read all the books and online arguments between the 'Lordites' and 'anti-Lordites'; Captain Lord was the captain of the Californian and he has supporters and detractors who take their subject matter very, very seriously.

The hour-long drama was shot entirely in Belfast in just under a week, indeed entirely in one location, the Masonic Hall in Rosemary Street.

We had a budget that would have bought Julian Fellowes about five seconds on screen. But we are delighted with the outcome.

Because it was a court-based drama with a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere it was essential to get the very best actors we could.

We got a great cast including Stuart Graham (Hunger, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) who plays Captain Lord, and a number of excellent actors who you may not know by name but who you'll recognise when you see them as "yer man off the telly who was in thingamajig".

As well as Tom Chadbon, Terence Harvey, Sam Holland and Iain Robertson we were especially delighted to bring Paul McGann (Withnail and I , Doctor Who) to Belfast.

He did a superb job as Rufus Isaacs the man who cross-examined each member of the Californian's crew. His forensic questioning exposed the cracks in the version of events offered up by the crew.

Image caption Tim McGarry said a lot of research went into the documentary

As a matter of historical fact, the inquiries into the Titanic disaster found that the Californian was a lot closer to the Titanic than it had claimed, that the crew had seen distress rockets and that the ship failed in its duty to come to the aid of the doomed liner.

These findings are still matters of intense debate and argument.

SOS Titanic Inquiry is not the final word on the matter but it will give viewers an insight into an intriguing possibility.

If the crew of the Californian had acted differently, would there have been a disaster for us to commemorate 100 years on?

You can see SOS - The Titanic Inquiry on BBC One NI, 16 April at 21:00 BST

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