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The Sinking of the Titanic

tx: 27 Nov 1956

This rare BBC programme should have been fairly simply to track down and view using my contacts within the BBC and the BFI (British Film Institute); I knew from experience that the latter organisation could borrow items from the BBC Film and Videotape Archive for private researchers, but all the avenues were closed to me. There seemed to be no possible way to view this.

I knew the programme had existed (it was referenced in a letter from Gus Cohen to Walter Lord), but given the BBC's deplorable practise in the 1970s of destroying items that had exceeded their sales potential, have it survived the furnaces?

A quick email to Dick Fiddy of the BFI confirmed that it did exist, and he gave me a list of participants. The full title of the programme was "FIRST HAND:2:THE SINKING OF THE TITANIC" (presumably 'First Hand' was the name of the TV series?). With a note that the "Titanic footage [had been] returned to BFI", the list of contributors was listed as follows: COHEN, Gus, COTTAM, Harold, HURST, Walter, JOHNSTONE, Paul (PRD), LIGHTELLER, [sic], MANNING, mrs QUICK, ROWE, G. T., RUSSELL, Edith, THOMAS, Nancy (DIR), WITTER, James, WEST, Peter.

Finally, thanks to a fortunate assemblance of people and resources, a copy was made available to me. Considering that UK TV broadcasts in 1956 were of 405 line resolution image, the recording is in quite good shape. The show survived as a telerecording (kinescope) made by simply pointing a film camera at a studio monitor. The line structure of the screen is evident in a few places; the images have reduced definition and are very "contrasty", with areas of bright white or pitch black dominating. It would have been nice to have the show on higher quality videotape, but recording on 2 inch Ampex tape was not widespread, and the only other option was to use the BBC's VERA (Vision Electronic Recording Apparatus); a behemoth that sped through tape at 70 feet per second, giving a recording time of only 15 minutes from a 21 inch-diameter reel of tape! With neither option available, a film recording was the only available archival possibility in 1956. Still, someone went to the trouble of making and keeping the show and for this we are lucky: just three years earlier, recording of the final four episodes of the Quatermass serial was abandoned because the quality of the kinescopes was so low, and "The Sinking of the Titanic" was made using exactly the same technique.

The impressive range of survivors

The assembled guests were Gus Cohen, Wally Hurst, James Witter, Edith Russell and George Rowe. From the Carpathia, we had Harold Cottam. Lightoller, it was noted, had died a few years ago and his radio interview was played out over a sillhouetted graphic showing the Titanic getting low in the water, attaining a vertical position and then sinking. To assist the programme makers, a large model was used, a pointer used to indicate areas mentioned during the interviews. This model was presumably constructed by Bernard Wilkie and Jack Kine of the BBC Visual Effects Workshop.

The programme seems to be incomplete and is split into chunks. The footage of the Titanic is missing, as indicated in the BFI's notes, and there is no clue as to what this film consisted of. It was probably of the ship in Belfast in early 1912. But the interviews are complete, but the opening and closing titles had been excised. We must be thankful that any of it survived. Apart from archival staff at the BBC, perhaps only two people have seen it since 1956.

Edith Russell

The interviwer first asked Edith Russell her story, and she replied that, before the collision, she was "...In the library. The steward has just called out 11.30 'Lights out' so I gave him a few letters to post in the morning, told him I'd pay for the stamps, picked up a book and walked forward to my stateroom, which was on the same deck, A11.
As I got in my stateroom I switched on the electric light and I noticed a slight jar followed immediately by a second one and a third one which was quite strong enough to make me hold on to the bed post.
The boat came to a full stop. I walked forward to my window and saw a greyish white mass drifting by, was very much surprised and decided to take my fur coat and go out on deck to see what was all about. Well, I got out on deck I noticed a gentleman standing by the rail and several people and again, this greyish mass. I said "What on earth is that?" "That? Well, madam, thats an iceberg." "iceberg? I've always wanted to see one of those things since I was a child." "Well you're seeing a corker now. Theres 1/8th above the water and 7/8ths below and believe me, that's some iceberg." So, after that, we picked up bits of ice, played snowballs for a little while. It was very very cold, I asked one of the officers if there was any danger, he said "no" and I went back to bed."

James Witter

2nd Class Smoke Room Steward James Witter was asked for his recollections of the impact:
"I didn't think she'd hit anything, I thought she'd dropped a blade, from the propeller, you know ... I went down to the working alleyway where my cabin is, No.7 gloryhole and I was standing there talking to two or three fellows and the carpenter came along and I heard him say, "The bloody mailroom is full of water!" "I said, whats that, mailroom full of water?" "Yes" I said "what about bulkhead doors forward?" "He said, "They're not holding, Jim." Of course, by then I walked into my cabin, No.7 glory hole and I opened my box, I called everybody, I said, "Come along fellows, get up she's going down." So, I opened my box, took out some matches and some cigarettes and I said "Come on fellows."
"What the hell are you talking about?" He said, "Get out of here" and someone threw a boot at me. I said, "Goodnight, gentleman."

George Rowe

Quatermaster George Rowe related how he had helped to fire the distress rockets; "I went on watch on the poop at 8 o'clock. At 10 o'clock I read the log and passed it onto the forebridge. At twenty minutes to twelve I was pacing up and down the deck and I felt a good jar.
I thought that was peculiar, I looked along the side and saw what I thought was a windjammer but as it came astern I saw it was an iceberg. The engines were going full speed astern then so I pulled the log in.
After that it got a bit quiet except for the blowing off of steam and heard nothing or seen nothing until I saw a lifeboat lowered from the starboard side. I reported it to the bridge, asked them if they knew there was a boat being lowered. They said they did and wondered who I was. I said I was the after quartermaster. They asked me if I knew where the distress rockets were. I said yes. They said bring them on the bridge... captain smith told me to fire one and fire one every five or six minutes. After about two or three minutes he said to me "Can you morse?" I said "Yes a bit." He said "call that light up, tell her we are the Titanic sinking, please get all your boats ready." She never answered."

Gus Cohen

Third class survivor Gus Cohen was a bit more lively than his fellow interviewees. He started off his account by saying that, "We had a celebration with a glass of lemonade," prompting a chuckle and an incredulous question from the host, "am I expected to believe that?"
Cohen continued, "the reason [we didn't get a lifebelt at the time early on in proceedings] was because we thought the Titanic was unsinkable. [I Knew that the ship was going down] when the boat was listing. And then I decided to find a lifebelt. I found it very quickly. And then I went towards the lifeboats. I never had a chance to get in any one of them because the order was "Women and children first." And I was 19, I was out of it, so I decided to find my own salvation. I went across to the davit, climbed across the davit, which was a dangerous thing and went down the rope about 80 feet long and went into the water, into the sea rather. [The lifeboat that eventually picked him up wasn't full] no it had about 25 people in it. The reason why it was fairly empty as it was because the people on the boat never realised that the boat would sink and not many people took the opportunity to get into the lifeboats."

Russell again picks up her story:

I was on A deck in the lounge, when [Bedroom Steward Robert] Wareham came along and I said to him, "here Wareham, here are my trunk keys would you mind taking care of my trunks if I don't get back in time in the morning." So he said, "you'd better go in and kiss those trunks goodbye." I said "You don't think theres any danger do you. If there is, you'd better go back and get me my mascot."

Russell shows her little pig

My mascot was a little pig, a music box, it had been given to me mother after a motor accident fatal to everybody but me in France. So he brought the little pig back, it played the maxixe [pronounced "macheech"; a brief section of music was played over her narrative top here] and after that I was in direct line of light from Bruce Ismay who saw me and picked me up like a puppy and threw me down the steps.

Russell holds up her mascot.

I was wearing a sheath dress, very narrow skirt, a long fur coat, a woolen cap, some furs, evening slippers, and then stockings. And I went forward to the rail, looked at that very very high rail and the lifeboat swinging way out on its davits and I knew I never could make it in that skirt. So as I stood there hesitating, a sailor grabbed this little pig from under my arm and said "If you don't want to be saved, we'll save your child," and he threw the pig into the lifeboat. Well, I stood there hesitating and I said to a gentleman alongside "Should I leave?" and he said "Definitely madam." I said "I can't make it." He said "If you will just sit on my hand, this sailor and I will make a little cradle of our hands, your sit down, put your hands around my neck and we'll toss you right into the lifeboat."
At this point, Russell clasped her fingers together to demonstrate, allowing a little seat to made from the cojoined palms.

A schematic showing Russell's clothing.

"...and they did the first thing I did was look for the little pig, I found it in the bottom of the boat with its legs broken but it still could play the maxixe and I played it all night long to keep the children from crying."

Harold Cottam operates the wireless equipment.

In a break from the survivor's tales, the interviewer now approached Harold Cottam of the Carpathia. Starting off with a demonstration of morse telegraphy (to which the interviewer admitted that the audible buzzer wasn't an accurate addition to the equipment), Cottam was asked when the Titanic called him. He replied, "She didn't call me, I called her about 1 o'clock in the morning after I had taken the press or listened to the press I took a batch of messages for her with the intention of redirecting them on to her I called her up and the only reply I got that she'd struck ice and I said "was it serious?" and she said "Yes its a CQD old man. Here's the postion, report it and get here as soon as you can."

Harold Cottam.

So I took the position on a scrap of paper and rushed up to the bridge with it. When I got on the bridge I contacted the officer of the watch and the information didn't seem as though it had sunk as fast as I thought it ought to, so I rushed down the ladder and knocked on the captain's cabin and as I saw a light I rushed in. And he said "Who the hell....?" or words to that effect so I said well, the Titanic's struck ice, sir and she's in distress. I've got the position here so he said well, give it to me and he put a dressing gown on and went. So he said, Will you confirm this, go aft and confirm it if you can ... which I did. When I came back he said you'd better go back and tell them we are going to double bank out watches on deck and below and tell him we are on our way as fast as you could go."

Walter "Wally" Hurst.

Finally Fireman Wally Hurst recounted his account: "Well, I saw the foreward part of the boat deck dip underwater so I jumped overboard ... [I] swim away from the ship, turned round to look at her and down come the funnel smashed into the water right in front of my face. I got a gush of wind and dirt that nearby blinded me and I felt the cap go off my head and one slipper off my foot. But I didn't take my attention off of this boat and I see this collapsible boat wash straight off the deck within a few yards of me. I managed to get on to it, followed quickly by the second officer and a few others. Anyhow, she soon got filled up. There was an old man stood next to me and he was complaining all the night long about his head was so cold. I took particular to this as mine was pretty cold too. But a friend of mine, a shipmate named Lindsey gave me a drink from a bottle. I thought I was on a good thing I thinked it was whisky or brandy; turned out to be essence of peppermint. Nearly choked me!"

The show is a nice historical novelty. It doesn't tell us anything that we don't already know but it is nice to hear survivors tell their story in the own words. But, on the other hand, given how hard it is for bona fide researchers to access such treasures, it might as well have been mercilessly shovelled into the furnaces 30 years ago.

The remnants of this TV show have been placed on YouTube by the BBC here; the broadcast date (1957) is wrong, though.

Postscript The tune played by the musical pig has mystified researchers for decades. When it was bequeathed to Walter Lord, it was reportedly broken and it was later donated to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich along with Lord's other collection of Titanic related material. But the box was unplayable and the tune was feared lost for ever - until August 2013 when researchers at the museum managed to play the musical box.

The pig with its restored tail

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