This year, it is 100 years ago since the Great War started. All around the world, this fact will be remembered this and the coming years. The BBC partakes in this centenary with the production of new television and radio programs about WWI, both documentaries and dramas (you can find an overview of all the programs here). First among the dramas produced by the BBC was the three-part series 37 days, which tells about the prelude to the War.
Between the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and the declaration of war by Great Britain upon Germany were 37 days. What happened in this month, which led from a conflict between Serbia and Austria to a war in all of Europe? 37 days gives us a look behind the scenes of this frantic month, from the Foreign Office to the meetings with diplomats to the breakfast table of the German Kaiser.
Growing up in The Netherlands, WWI was never a large part of my history curriculum for the simple reason our country did not participate in this war. It wasn't until I started watching British period drama that WWI entered my 'radar' and I wanted to learn more about it. The assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand as the immediate cause of the War was a fact I knew, but how countries such as Britain, France and Germany became involved in the conflict was new to me.
37 days is a perfectly instructive mini series. It details the complex going-on between the many countries involved in an easy-to-follow manner by introducing us to two young employees of the Foreign Offices of Britain and Germany, Alec and Jens. We can identify with them as they try to navigate the mad race their lives have become. Next to Alec and Jens, we meet a host of historic characters from the era: Kaiser Wilhelm, Prime Minister Asquith, Foreign Secretary Edward Grey and even a young Winston Churchill. 37 days is tense and manages to make you sit on the edge of your chair watching diplomats talk while the number of days till the start of the war tick away.
This series brings together a great number of seasoned British actors to give shape to the historical big shots: Nicholas Farrell, Tim Pigott-Smith and Bill Patterson, to name just a few. They all their roles expertly and believable, but two names deserve an extra mention: Ian McDiarmid as Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, who showed the best the human struggle of making decisions which could have international impact and Urs Remond, who played the German diplomat painfully trapped between his mother country and England, the country he now called home.
In short, 37 days is a very well made miniseries about the run-up to WWI, but to be honest that's really all it is. With which I mean, the subject matter is very strongly fenced off. Over 90% of the scenes show meetings between politicians or diplomats and we don't get to know the characters outside of their work. Not even the 'non-historical' characters Alec and Jens, who were really underdeveloped. 37 days is as close to a documentary as a drama can get. Now I understand this is not Downton Abbey and the goal of the series is to highlight little known historical developments, but they still could have added another hour and delved a little deeper into the personal lives of all those involved.
Another thing which annoyed me about this series was the British-centeredness of it. The British politic going-on get much more time and attention compared to the German, French or Russian side. The German characters, though mostly played by German actors, all speak English. This really reduces the realism of the series. I think 37 days would have been better and had a greater impact if it where an international production, such as Diaries of the Great War, which I'm also currently watching.
I would recommend this series to anyone wanting to learn more about the prelude to the Great War, but not expecting too much character depth or development.