Belfast Telegraph

Monday 14 July 2014

Tycoon's Titanic sails beyond the fateful maiden voyage

The fact Clive Palmer, the man behind Titanic II, calls his ship a 'blockbuster' proves this is all about box office appeal, says Susie Millar

Clive Palmer
Clive Palmer

So many rumours have emerged and disappeared over the years about the construction of a replica Titanic that the latest news of a project which intended to build a Titanic II in China has been greeted with a healthy amount of cynicism in Titanic circles.

However, the amount of hoopla and showbiz surrounding the most recent attempt to recreate the world's most famous ship seems to add some weight to the argument that it might actually happen.

The protagonist is one Clive Palmer, a 58-year-old Australian billionaire who intends to start his pet project this summer in the Chinese Jinling shipyard. I say pet project because this re-creation has nothing to do with staying true to the original spirit of Titanic. It is the plaything of one of Australia's best-known business characters. It is his version of Titanic, his vision of what the ship represents.

Clive Palmer does not need to make a commercial success of Titanic II which will begin sailing between Southampton and New York in 2016. He has already made his billions. To quote the tycoon directly, he is building Titanic II "because he can".

Titanic is in my blood. My great grandfather, Thomas Millar, helped to build her engines and sailed on her as a deck engineer. He lost his life at the age of 33.

It was with this unashamedly partisan interest that I was part of a delegation from the Belfast Titanic Society who visited Southampton in early March, eager to find out about the motivation for the latest attempt to rebuild Titanic. We were armed with questions such as when the ship would visit her home town, would they like input from a society formed to make sure the story of Titanic was told with respect and honour, was there a chance that some of the construction could be done in the original shipyard where she was built?

All of our inquiries were met with blank stares by the team from Blue Star. Professor Palmer had left the UK the day before, having tired himself out it seemed at the lavish dinner party he had held in London a few days earlier. He had notably led a conga line around some of the dinosaur skeletons exhibited in the dinner's venue, the Natural History Museum.

A member of Belfast Titanic Society who attended the dinner looked on in horror as a singing Statue of Liberty was wheeled out along with an actor playing Captain Smith, singing New York, New York.

The Blue Star Line team, including the global director of marketing, conducted the Southampton presentation in Clive Palmer's absence although he did appear in video form. We from Belfast sat in stunned silence. It very quickly became apparent that the tone of the venture was more Barnum and Bailey than Harland and Wolff.

The idea that Titanic II would ever visit Belfast had never even been considered by the marketing team. They found it hard to fathom why that should happen. In fact, it became clear to us that the replica Titanic would draw on the Hollywood movie for its references rather than the real story of 1912.

Speaking in New York on Tuesday night, Clive Palmer said Titanic II would be a "ship of peace" and a "financial bonanza".

Palmer was unveiling his plans at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York city.

"Titanic was the ship of dreams, Titanic II is the ship where dreams come true," he said at the launch.

The chairman of the Blue Star Line said that more than 40,000 people had already registered for tickets to take part in Titanic II's maiden voyage, which will follow the same route that the RMS Titanic was travelling when it sank 375 miles south of Newfoundland in April 1912.

"Originally, we thought it was a good idea," Palmer said.

"We thought it would have a lot of appeal.

"We didn't know how much appeal, but certainly we've found it's had enormous appeal. And financially very strong as well ... it's going to be a blockbuster."

The Australian, who is funding the project entirely on his own, declined to divulge even estimated costs associated with the massive undertaking, saying it "is not about money".

"If there's any money to be lost, it should be mine," he said.

Blue Star Line has agreed to a deal in principle with China's state-owned CSC Jinling Shipyard to build the Titanic replica.

Although the final contracts for the construction have yet to be signed, Prof Palmer said he was certain a deal would be sealed within days.

China's Jingling Shipyard has little experience in the luxury liner market, specialising almost entirely in tankers, container vessels and bulk carriers.

Prof Palmer proudly proclaims that passengers can relive the spirit of Jack and Rose, the two lead characters of James Cameron's movie. There is no mention of the real people who sailed on Titanic. Reference is made to paying homage to the original designers of Titanic, but there is no follow-up as to how this would be achieved.

The emphasis is on the romance portrayed in the James Cameron film. Passengers would be travelling in a division of classes to recreate the feel of the original era. They would be invited to dress in clothes from the period and to eat the same food as the Titanic passengers did.

For those who prefer to experience the less extravagant side of Titanic, the new ship will have third-class accommodations, complete with shared bathrooms, dancing to Irish drums and Irish stew on the menu.

Palmer says he plans to take full advantage of Titanic II's third-class facilities.

"That'll be where the most fun will be," he said. "For me that's the great adventure. I can sit down there, have some Irish stew, talk to somebody and at night I can get up and do the Irish jig. It'll be a great place to be."

To our delegation, who had worked so hard to get Belfast's name back into the Titanic history books, it all feels like one gigantic, tasteless party game. Clive Palmer made his first fortune in real estate. His second was made through highly lucrative deals with the emerging economy of China to mine the rich resources of Western Australia. Prof Palmer was ahead of his time in seeing the potential of China as a super-economy. With his latest introduction into cruise ship building, his focus is in the same direction.

Titanic II is aimed firmly at the Chinese market. There is no harm in that, but what must be pointed out is that the emerging nations have only the Titanic movie as their frame of reference for the story of Titanic. A tourism professional who visited Shanghai last year in order to promote Titanic tourist destinations in Ireland told me that she was several days into her marketing trip before she realised that her audience had not realised that Titanic was an actual historical event rather than an invented story told on film. Our small delegation from the Titanic Society came away earlier this month feeling disappointed. It was obvious to us that the builders and project leaders had not even considered that Belfast might have a valuable input to offer or that the city could be a port of call. Our views were neither wanted nor needed. The passengers are to be given a Disney-style version of Titanic.

We had gone with a hope of seeing a replica Titanic sail down Belfast Lough as passengers learned how she had been built and heard some of the real stories of those who were on board. We left feeling we could not endorse such a crass recreation with so little respect for the 1,500 souls who perished in the Titanic disaster.

As I watched video recreations of Titanic's interiors and how they will relate to the newest incarnation of the ship, I began to feel quite upset at the very idea of it all. Titanic should be remembered with dignity and honour and respect for those people who gave up their lives so that others could be saved. It is an insult to that memory to have people playing dress-up, recreating famous scenes from the movie and gambling at an on-board casino.

Prof Palmer can and will build his toy Titanic. He seems to be a man who makes things happen. Small issues like government policy do not appear to stand in his way. We here in Belfast can have no influence over the plans to build the ship nor the way in which it will be used. It will be a rich man's plaything which will end up moored in a wealthy port when the novelty has worn off. I feel that an important opportunity has been wasted.

While the Belfast Titanic Society will not be actively opposing the project, we cannot endorse it. We are not a pressure group, just a collection of people fascinated by the Titanic story and trying to put Belfast's role front and centre after decades of silence. We fed back our impressions of the Southampton and London events to our membership and they felt the same, that a ship which had no intention of visiting Belfast and which was not interested in the true stories of Titanic was not a project we should be putting our name to.

We did establish contacts with the Blue Star Line and will feed back our reaction to what they are planning, but beyond that, I doubt we will ever hear from them again.

Some Titanic descendants, relations of the Unsinkable Molly Brown and of White Star Line chairman Bruce Ismay, have endorsed the project. Notably, both those Titanic passengers survived. I cannot offer such an endorsement through my family connection to an engineer who perished.

Initially, I had thought that there might be a role for me within the ship's enrichment programme but I realise now that the story of a Belfast man who's two children were left orphaned by the disaster holds no interest for the demographic at which Titanic II is being marketed.

One final thought to end on. Blue Star Line has got it wrong. The Titanic which sank in 1912 was in fact the second use of that name for a vessel. She was Titanic II. Blue Star are creating Titanic III. That simple fact shows how little research they have done into the true story.

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