Geraldine Somerville and Maria Doyle Kennedy
Friday, 23 March 2012

'She’s a terrible snob & I’m a terrible @*#*$!'

They play two of the Titanic’s most, ahem, ‘awkward’ characters. So what happened when we met Geraldine Somerville and Maria Doyle Kennedy?

As the Titanic sinks in Julian Fellowes’ new ITV drama, actresses Geraldine Somerville and Maria Doyle Kennedy go head to head as a snooty Louisa, Countess of Manton and the embittered Muriel Batley.

These two certainly have history. Downton Abbey fans will recognise Maria from her role as Mr Bates’ late wife, Vera, while Geraldine has also done her fair share of period dramas, from Gosford Park to Aristocrats. The latter has even narrated our exclusive serialisation of a Titanic survivor’s memoir, currently available here.

But what drew them to this latest telling of the Titanic tragedy? And indeed what was the appeal of playing, dare we say, such abrasive characters?

Geraldine sighs, ‘The director said to me, “You two have the hardest job. Everyone else is fi ne, they’re poor and have problems, but you two are rich, so how are we going to like you? You’re a roaring snob!” It was really hard, because she is just so monstrous and I thought everyone will hate me. I heard a woman behind me [at the fi rst screening of episodes one and two] when I said the line “I will not get in that boat with a drunken prostitute”, say “You cow!” You do think, oh dear.

‘But she does change as the episodes go on. Ultimately she’s quite a good egg, really.’

Maria, who plays second-class passenger Muriel Batley, adds: ‘Muriel, she’s complex. Which I think people are – they’re neither solely good nor bad. She’s obviously an intelligent woman living in a time when women didn’t have the opportunity to use their intelligence very often.

‘She couldn’t have been a lawyer as her husband was, although she was certainly capable of it. She has a social conscience, she’s politically awake with issues about Ireland and Britain and she was also part of a great love affair. Her relationship with her husband came from a place of great love but somehow she’s forgotten about that.

‘The huge thing about her is she has this big thread of grief going through her as well as her frustration. She didn’t have anywhere to pour her brains; she also didn’t have anywhere to pour her love because the Batleys were unfortunate not to be able to have children. She’s frustrated and she’s strong, but she has become kind of soured by circumstance.’

But what is the appeal of Titanic? Why are we all so fascinated by it?

‘The Titanic sinking drew a line under an era in a similar way to 9/11,’ Geraldine muses. ‘Everyone said that after the Titanic sank nobody felt safe again – suddenly you had the First World War, closely by the Second. And I felt the same thing with 9/11. I remember being pregnant and seeing the Twin Towers coming down and thinking oh my God, it could happen to any of us, any time, any where. I remember not feeling safe any more, and Titanic I think was similar.’

Maria says, ‘It’s the perfect story in a way. It’s a real life event, it did actually happen; it is the biggest maritime disaster ever. There was the panoply of class on board that boat. The wealthiest people in the world. It was an act of unbelievable hubris to say we are building and sailing the unsinkable ship. And then of course it’s going to sink.’

Retelling the worst maritime disaster of all time, in which 1,517 people died, brings its own pressures.

‘I hope we brought out the injustice,’ says Geraldine. ‘It’s just so, so unfair this story, on so many different levels, and I think that’s part of the reason people are drawn to it. The arrogance. The people in steerage who were just left…’

Maria agrees, saying: ‘The other thing, and we spoke about this when we were fi lming, is, how would we have behaved in that situation? I imagine it’s quite interesting to discover if you really are the brave person you’d like yourself to be.

‘Certainly I would imagine my decision or my actions might have been very different if my children were on board. I can imagine trampling over people to get them off. So there are all those questions about it too. There’s guilt, survival...’

Geraldine adds: ‘I was really moved by the whole relationship with men and women and the fact that men had it so instilled in them that they had to look after the women. ‘I found that so moving, the idea that some men sort of attached themselves to women they didn’t necessarily know, and took it upon themselves to make sure that the women got safely off the Titanic.’

But in this £11m drama, which follows the stories of characters from steerage, second and first class, as well as servants and officers, who are the characters on board the doomed ship that we are all going to love?

There is an eruption of laughter.

‘It’s not going to be either of us!’ blurts Maria.

‘It’s certainly not going to be me,’ agrees Geraldine.

‘She’s a terrible snob and I’m a terrible b****,’ laughs Maria. ‘We’re desperately misunderstood.’

The pair ponder for a moment. Then…

‘I think probably Ruth Bradley’s character [Mary Maloney],’ says Geraldine.

‘And Toby Jones, who plays my husband,’ says Maria. ‘He’s got an incredible journey. I think people will really love him.’

‘But I hope people will change as they move along the episodes, that they learn to love bits of all of us. We’re not instantly likeable but there are redemptive qualities.

‘People are complex and never wholly bad,’ she points out.

Geraldine agrees. ‘There is hope,’ she says. ‘No matter who you are you can turn out to be a nice person.’

Titanic, 9pm, Sunday, ITV1.

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