Entertainment & Arts

Biggest Weekend: Titanic survivors' voices are woven into four new songs

Public Service Broadcasting
Image caption The songs were built around archive audio and eyewitness accounts

The voices of people who built - and survived - the Titanic have been woven together in a new suite of songs by the band Public Service Broadcasting.

The poignant songs were premiered on Friday in the shadow of the shipyard where the hull was constructed.

One song also incorporated the Morse code distress signal sent by the ship's captain after it struck an iceberg.

The band said it was "hopefully" a "fresh look at what is admittedly a very well-covered subject".

More than 1,500 people died when the "unsinkable" ship sank on its maiden voyage in 1912.

Image copyright Father Frank Browne
Image caption The Titanic was, at the time of its construction, the largest ship in the world

Yet in Belfast, the Titanic is also remembered as a triumph of engineering - and one which created tens of thousands of jobs when the city was, in the words of one historian, "at the pinnacle of its industrial glory".

Public Service Broadcasting said they had attempted to convey that side of the story as much as the catastrophic loss of life.

The trio have carved a niche as a band who breathe new life into soundbites from key moments in history. Previous projects have investigated the conquering of Mount Everest and the collapse of the Welsh mining industry.

They were commissioned to write about the Titanic for the BBC's Biggest Weekend festival - which is taking place around the UK this weekend.

"We've been asked a few things similar to this but very rarely do they come off," the band's frontman J Wilgoose told BBC 6 Music's Elizabeth Alker.

The band's set, on Belfast's Titanic Slipways, also featured footage of the Titanic and its sister ship, The Olympic, which were constructed metres away from the stage in the Harland & Wolff shipyard.

"To play it in such a unique setting, as well, was incredible," said Wilgoose, who pored through hours of archive footage an interviews to piece together the music.

One clip featured the voice of a man whose father helped build the Titanic.

"When I was a wee boy growing up in Belfast, my father was working in the shipyard and he kept telling me about this great ship he was helping to build," he reminisces.

He recalls the sheer scale of the vessel - which, when it launched on 31 May 1911, was the largest ship in the world.

"One Sunday he took me down to the shipyard and he told me to look up... It seemed to reach the sky, it was so high. There seemed to be no end of it, it was so long."

Image caption Belfast's Titanic Quarter now hosts a museum to the ill-fated ship, as well as apartments and concert venues

Wilgoose said most of the audio had been drawn from archives at the BBC and the British Film Institute - but he was surprised by how little material there was available.

"You kind of forget [that] in 1912, radio wasn't around and people weren't really recording.

"There's not much contemporary [material] and most of it is obviously about the sinking.

"But there is some great footage of The Olympic being built on these very docks, so we used some of that and moved on to the bit listeners will be a bit more familiar with... the distress call.

"We made a song out of the Morse code sequence, which was CQD ["All stations, distress"].

"We tried to make it quite abstract - because how do you recreate that kind of disaster at sea when there's no contemporary footage of it?"

The Biggest Weekend will also see performances from Ed Sheeran, Rita Ora, Taylor Swift, Nigel Kennedy, Evelyn Glennie, Beck and Liam and Noel Gallagher - with venues in Belfast, Perth, Swansea and Coventry.

You can find out how to watch and listen on the official Biggest Weekend site.

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