37 Days: the countdown to World War I – great drama and decent history

The BBC TV drama series 37 Days: the countdown to World War I is great piece of drama and a pretty decent piece of history too.

37 Days to War - DVD cover

The drama is delivered courtesy of a great, tight script and some impressive acting, especially in the scenes when many key people are in shot but only a handful talking. The continued high quality acting by the rest of the cast gives their characters much greater depth than if they’d relied on just their lines.

As a piece of history rather than of drama, 37 Days doesn’t rate quite so well because it takes – in part understandably for a British TV production – a very Anglo-centric perspective on events and even within that British focus, it is much more about Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey than about anyone else.

As a story of how the Liberal Party ended up going to war,  or a part biopic of Grey, the drama does very well.

As a story about how the First World War broke out in general, its focus on the senior personalities in Britain inevitable skews the explanations away from those factors which don’t feature. The Tsar and the Emperor of Austria feature only briefly in a few scenes, for example, despite their two countries being at the heart of the original conflict. Even between them the two actors say almost nothing.

The focus too on dramatising the acts of individuals means that events seem all to flow as the results of their decisions, rather than because of wider forces at work. Social and economic pressures on the participants only feature briefly, and when they do are rather cryptic unless you already know about the events (such as the brief, largely unexplained, reference to Keir Hardie).

That said, the drama seems to stick fairly closely to the documented record on the substantive points – at least as far as one take on them can given some of the controversies. The main exception to that is with the original assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, though in a response to another review one of the production team has explained, “the budget simply did not allow for a full and ‘accurate’ recreation. It was shot in little more than an hour with no money for extras or practical effects. The director and producers, when deciding how best to spend the limited budget, decided that this part of the story was already familiar to most and had been amply covered in other productions”.

It’s great drama and decent history. Here’s the trailer to whet your appetite:

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Buy 37 Days: the countdown to World War I here.

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