On looking, after some years, through my father's diary for 1941, I found his account of a visit to the "Forum Picture House" with you [Wynne] and the Skipper and Kitty and my sister Joanna to see the preview of 'Atlantic Ferry'.
"How much of the story, that of the founding of the Cunard Line, is fact, and how much is fiction I shall not pretend to know; but the tale is told and the plot is unravelled with plenty of brilliant incident, and occasional humour and comedy. Charles Maclver, played by Redgrave, is a most handsome figure with a good voice and closely resembles his various well-know portraits . . . David, his brother and partner in D & C MacIver is a good foil for his taller and more dashing brother. The part he is allotted is not so heroic, and has elements of tragedy in it; but he is an outstanding and lively character in the story. A good looking and clever actor, also endowed with a strong clear voice.. Marianne Morrison is the heroine and is very well acted by Valerie Hobson. She is not beautiful but contrives to present a graceful, strong willed, enthusiastic and passionate character. She is made to sway the fortunes of the brothers by becoming engaged to the one, David, and falling deeply in love with the other, Charles.
Now I suppose I ought to give a synopsis of the picture play .... The affair opens with the launch of the 'Gigantic' in one of the old Liverpool docks. On the stand is the Mayor in his cornered hat and robes. He makes a speech which introduces the brothers who are sitting together in the front row. The dowdy old Mayoress launches the ship, which is, apparently, fully funnelled with all her deck houses and rigging and, of course, paddle boxes. After she has slipped down the ways and backed in a top-heavy manner some distance across the dock, she capsizes and sinks. This incident, sufficiently bizarre, is utilised not only for dramatic effect but to show the entire disbelief in steamships. The sceptical crowds roar with laughter and jeer. This really major disaster has given them just the sensation they keenly enjoy, because it accords with their prejudice. The scene is most animated, the dock side is crowded, and the period costumes and the slender masted ships in the docks carry the audience back to that peaceful era which opened more or less with Queen Victoria.
Now we are taken to the great Inn and the crowded coffee room with seemingly a dozen or more tables laid for luncheon. Waiters in white chokers are busy wheeling round the dinner wagon with its huge shining metal cover - familiar objects to any sexagenarian. There is an air of very solid comfort and prosperity, and the place is crowded with well-dressed and animated Liverpool business men - the hard headed men of commonsense who we learned counsel loved so to apostophise when we found them perched in boxes as special jurors at Assizes. The talk is in the same jeering strain which we witnessed at the dockside. "Those MacIvers will never show their faces here to-day". But they do, showing stiff upper lips and plenty of courage.
We next see the brothers in their perfectly palatial office. Beautiful furniture, mostly Chippendale, carpets, white panelled walls lined with well stocked book cases. Well dressed elderly confidential clerk and the two young dandies. Charles & David discuss their future policy. Charles is still for steam: David is inclined to back out after the disaster of the morning. We have seen the villain of the piece, one Eagles, a nasty looking piece of work, owner of sailing ships. Charles seizes all legitimate and illegitimate opportunities of knocking him down. Charles is very handy with his fists.
Charles has heard of Samuel Cunard and decides to go to America to enlist his help. He will go by one of Eagles ships as an emigrant. Meanwhile Morrison, the Customs Officer of Glasgow, calls at the MacIver office; his daughter Marianne is with him. He interviews David, who sends him to discover what support the Glasgow shipowners will give to steam. Morrison is adamant against it. Here I am obviously a bit vague about the thread of the story; but Marianne first meets David, and the two are much attracted. Later, Charles comes back to the office, sees Marianne and falls in love at sight. She is quite charming but not beautiful.
The scene is again at the dock, at night. The emigrants are going aboard the sailing ship, and there is much bustle of departure. An unusual but significant incident is the hawker who brings a sack of food on board and offers it to a woman, telling her she'd better take it for £3 as she would get nothing on an Eagles ship. Charles comes to the rescue and buys the sack for 30/- and tells the man it's all he'll get. Charles knocks a few roughs down and the ship sets sail. In mid-Atlantic there is a storm. The emigrants are battened down and starving, waterless and dying all round. The sounds of coughing are very realistic, a suggestion of a bad night at sea. Charles says they must have water, and goes up the ladder and bangs on the hatch cover. Eventually a small keg of water is thrown down the hatchway. The emigrants fight for it; but Charles seizes a pannikin of it for a child, but too late. She anticipates her fate for a day or two by passing away.
Meanwhile, at Glasgow, David, having been overpersuaded and losing all faith in steam merges with Burns; but not until after great efforts, in which Marianne backs him up, to get Uncle Donaldson and others to support steam. Their love affair prospers while he turns the pages of her music while she performs at the piano in crinoline and flounces.. They hear that the 'Anne', in which Charles had sailed, is lost at sea. We are at Lloyds for a moment or two where this news is published. Later there are reports of some survivors. Of course Charles is one. He reappears with a fluffy beard, much to the disgust of master Eagles who has collected the insurance. Charles goes to Liverpool, where he is disgusted to find that D & C Maciver is closed and the business transferred to Burns. He goes to Glasgow and BREAKS WITH David. He will try to raise support in London. We see the Board of Admiralty in their palatial offices. They put out a tender for carrying the Royal Mail by steamer. ( Should have supposed that this was a Post office affair, but no matter!) Charles determines to tender for the contract and now, very smartly dressed and exceeding handsome goes to London and interviews bankers in their palatial offices. He meets with refusal and scepticism everywhere. At an important bank he is introduced to the Board, who are in session round a vast mahogany table. A certain Dr Lardner, a celebrated scientist is present. It is his opinion that sways the Board:- "Steam is uneconomical. The whole of a ship's tonnage space being needed to carry the necessary fuel, there would be no room for passengers or cargo". Dr Lardner is good, very convincing and pragmatic and contemptuously certain. He had said the last word on this preposterous idea. The Board agrees with him. Charles made a dignified protest and exit. His argument is that, by keeping a definite timetable, you would assure the safety of passengers, especially of emigrants, who, as things were, risked being starved to death in ill-stored vessels which were often weeks and months overdue. The fuel difficulty, he said, would soon be overcome.
In the anteroom Charles accidentally meets the hard-headed American, Samuel Cunard, who is visiting the same bank. He follows him and catches up with him. They decide to work together, and soon we see them both in Glasgow. They take Napier the great engineer into partnership: and they try to interest the Glasgow shipowners. There is a good scene in the drawing-room or library at the Morrison's palatial home. Uncle Donaldson, enormously rich, is there. All the sceptical element, the Burns' Morrison and others, have been spending the evening at the Morrison's party when the adventurers turn up.
They persuade, they argue, but it is Marianne, by her enthusiasm, who turns the scale. Dear old Donaldson, finding that Morrison tries to influence him against the scheme, becomes obstinate and decides to support it, and that's that! The financial problem is settled. Old Morrison hates these MacIvers, so he sends his daughter packing off to America. She is to sail in the 'Queen Mary', one of Eagles' sailing ships.
The new 'Britannia' is ready for her maiden voyage on the same day, and the ships are lying side by side in the old dock in Liverprol. Here there is again the bustle of departure, extremely well staged. Marianne finds Charles on the Britannia, and at the last minute, the minx decides that she will sail with him. But her baggage has to be rescued from the 'Queen Mary'. This is made the occasion for a tremendous scuffle between the rival crews, and a free fight ensues. The deck hands of the 'Britannia ' board the sailing ship and dash down to the ladies' cabin. Of course they rescue the baggage. Her Majesty's Mails arrive. There is a magnificent Mail Coach with prancing horses. It drives up to the ship's side with flourishes and post-boys blowing their horns. The Mails are handed over to the Captain with cheers and great ceremony, and at last the ship steams out of dock.
The voyage is smooth and prosperous. Charles and Marianne become more deeply in love than ever; but Charles' loyalty to David keeps him severely proper and cold. The welcome at Boston is wildly enthusiastic. They sail in to the playing of bands and fluttering of flags. They have a Ball (very well done) and a public reception and fireworks at night, and generally a great fuss. On the voyage home they run into a tremendous storm. Marianne has stowed herself away, refusing to stay in Boston. During the storm, as on the outward voyage, we have glimpses of the engine room with Napier at the controls. The seas become enormous, and, unless she can be kept head to wind, the 'Britannia' will founder. The paddles cease to revolve. They try to hoist the mizzen but it tears to ribbons. Ah, there is a broken spar, the top mast, in fact, which has snapped off and fallen over-board, and has somehow entangled itself in the paddle wheel. Here is a Herculean job. Someone has to climb down under the paddle box in the raging seas with axe and chopper and cut away the spar. Charles does it, you bet. Marianne screams behind the bulkhead; but they pull out a dripping, but still breathing, Charles. This time they fall into each other's arms, and that's that.
The last scene. They come up the Liverpool river and the channel in dense fog. David has gone out in a tender to meet them. The 'Britannia' sinks the tender, and David with it. The drowning David is recovered, and the story ends with David dying in Marianne's arms, while Charles looks sadly on.
(from GHJ's Diary, copied by GJ January 1989)