37 Days, TV review: A political thriller that grippingly uncovers the countdown to war


Ellen E. Jones
Friday 07 March 2014 00:00 GMT
Battle stations: Tim Pigott-Smith (second left) as Herbert Henry Asquith and Ian McDiarmid (bottom row, right) as Sir Edward Grey in ‘37 Days’
Battle stations: Tim Pigott-Smith (second left) as Herbert Henry Asquith and Ian McDiarmid (bottom row, right) as Sir Edward Grey in ‘37 Days’ (Steffan Hill/BBC)

Franz Ferdinand are the Scottish band behind such toe-tapping indie-disco hits as "Take Me Out" and "The Dark of the Matineé". It is also the name of the archduke whose death kicked of the events of 37 Days (BBC2), of course, but ask most people how, exactly, this latter Franz led to the start of the First World War and they might struggle on the details.

This three-part drama aims to fill in those blanks. Narrated by two fictional clerks – one in the British foreign office and one in the German Reich Chancellery – the "drama" consists of little more than cabinet meeting followed by telegram arrival followed by gentleman's club chat. Its masterstroke is to reframe this history textbook timeline as a subtle character study.

The characters of men (plus one Mrs Asquith) are often the deciding factor in war – according to this view of history, at least. Is Sir Eyre Crowe (Nicholas Farrell), the Germany-born British diplomat, too dowdy to be taken seriously when he warns of the German threat? Is his superior, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey (Ian McDiarmid) too slow and indecisive? Is the Kaiser (Rainer Sellien), just a little boy who never grew out of tin soldiers? It's like the young(ish) Winston Churchill (Nicholas Asbury), muses to Sir Eyre: "Politics is a curious business, isn't it? Who's strong, who's weak and what-not"

Judging by the unshowy casting, 37 Days isn't supposed to be the flagship drama of the BBC's centenary season, but it's terrifically well written, all the same. The dialogue, in particular, does an excellent job of conveying both the prevalent political mood and any diplomatic subtleties that might otherwise be lost on modern viewers. The fact that the Archduke's visit to Sarajevo on 28 June was the Balkans equivalent of "an English king going in battle dress to Dublin on St Patrick's Day", for instance, or that the ambassadors in London for Austria, Russia and Germany were all cousins.

If all that political fast-talk passed you by (it was like an war-era episode of The Thick of It, at times) there is still the facial hair to enjoy. Last night was a stroll through an enchanted forest of extraordinary moustaches. Special mention goes to the Austrian ambassador in Berlin and his spectacular, foot-long crumb-catcher.

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