Drama On The High Seas in New Cruise Ship TV Show

February 5, 2010
(1 p.m. EST) -- In 1998, United Kingdom TV documentary "The Cruise" propelled singer Jane MacDonald to international fame. 2002 brought ITV's "The Cruise Ship," a warts-and-all docudrama about the trials of the fledgling Island Cruises.

Now, "Cruise Ship Diaries" is about to bring cruising back to the small screen in the U.K. Being aired at 7 p.m. GMT Sundays (starting 7 February) on National Geographic Channel, the six-part documentary puts Costa Cruises' 114,500-ton Costa Serena, its 3,000 passengers and 1,100 crew in the spotlight.

"It's cruise ship life as you've never seen it before," promises the narrator excitedly. “We'll see exactly what it's like to live and work on one of the ocean's true giants."

Unsurprisingly, life on Costa Serena turns out to be less than serene; well, it wouldn't make good TV otherwise, would it?

We snuck an early peek at Episode One, Honeymoon Season, which features a seven-night cruise out of Venice carrying 580 honeymooners and vow-renewers among the 3,000 passengers. But the passengers, as it turns out, barely feature.

What we do get is a tantalising glimpse behind the scenes. The film crew had full access to the bridge, the spotless engine room, the crew mess, the galley and the crew cabins, areas passengers rarely, if ever, get to see.

We see the crew misbehaving (Beppe, one of the entertainment staff, has an obsession with flying a miniature helicopter in the public rooms when nobody is looking), arguing (two male dancers had been fired from the previous cruise for brawling) and letting off steam. It's a rare insight into life behind the public smiles of the people who work on ships -- and the intensity of a career at sea.

The style of the show is entertainingly over-dramatised. We're told that the crew will be "tested to the max" and are "working against the clock" -- when in fact, they're just carrying out their normal duties. Refuelling in Venice is billed as an activity fraught with risk and danger, with samples being sent off to a lab in case half a million Euros' worth of fuel is somehow contaminated (spoiler alert: it isn't).

The presence of 580 loved-up couples is built up as a potential drama ("the crew know they could be in for a bumpy ride"), but in fact, the honeymooners are docile and obliging, participating in tacky games in the Cupido Lounge and posing by a huge wedding cake for photographs.

There's a bit of excitement when the pilot turns up late in Istanbul and the ship is in danger of drifting in the Bosphorus, but Captain Giuseppe Russo ("known as the best manoeuverer in the world,") keeps his cool and later, we see him donning a curly black wig to entertain the kids in the children's club.

The crewmembers who do win our sympathy are the new group of dancers, presided over by excitable choreographer Gerald van Vuuren. "I like them thin with long legs," he tells the camera, adding that after a few months onboard and a lot of starch, "Some girls roll off the gangway." Heather Gould, a 22-year-old British dancer, is surprised that she can't get a cup of tea until the crew mess is open. "It's like a prison, but as long as you comply with the rules, it's not a problem," Gerald tells her evilly.

Fascinating though it is, episode one of Cruise Ship Diaries struggles to find real drama. We see hotel director Ann Ryan, from Ireland, having a rant over a crewmember's jacket being undone and one passenger is carted off in an ambulance in Istanbul because of illness. Gerald despairs over the first production show, shrieking, "The dancers are too fat!"

But Marco Rosa, managing director of Costa Cruises in the U.K., is pleased with the documentary and the exposure it will generate. "The series illustrates successfully the cosmopolitan atmosphere experienced by our passengers," he told Cruise Critic. "We hope this will go some way to dispelling the myth that cruising is just for the over 50's."

Let's just hope would-be cruisers aren't too alarmed by the excitement. Future episodes promise more thrills and spills: with "unexpected challenges" and "worsening weather" ahead, the crew must be on "high alert." Gripping stuff! Tune in next week -- and tell us what you think.

--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor

Photo appears courtesy of the National Geographic Channel.