This blog doesn’t go in for TV and book reviews as such. However, I do hope that anyone who is able to receive BBC2 or use iPlayer saw the 3-part drama 37 Days which focused on the diplomatic efforts to avoid (or in some cases ensure) war in the period between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the start of the First World War. This well-written and superbly-acted series is, to my mind, one of the best things the BBC has produced in years.
My first thought was that audience interest could not possibly be sustained through the gloomy dialogues and machinations of a few dark-suited men in wing collars and oak-panelled offices, discussing in hushed voices the complex relationships between European nations that no longer exist. No doubt it will all have been too slow for many viewers. It was the personalities that drew me in. The events of the thirty-seven days leading up to war are certainly intriguing. Most people, even at the time, will have had no idea what was going on behind the closed doors of Whitehall, and even the occupants of Whitehall could only make an educated guess at what was going on in Berlin. Putting together a drama like this must have entailed an enormous amount of research, and much of the material must have been gleaned from memoirs as well as from official papers that were not released until many years later. That the actions of the few affect the lives of millions is a truism, but that is what happened here.
Most people are familiar with the Churchills, Lloyd Georges and Asquiths who were at the forefront of British government activity, but these characters took a comparative back seat to Sir Edward Grey, on whose shoulders the burden of trying to avert war fell. Grey, Britain’s longest-serving Foreign Secretary, was in his fifties at the time, a Liberal politician from an aristocratic family, educated at Winchester and Balliol (where he gained only a third-class degree). In 1885, aged only 23, he became the youngest MP at Westminster. His first wife died in 1906 (in a riding accident); his second, whom he would not marry until 1922, was the socialite and writer, Pamela, Lady Glenconner, mother of the war poet Edward Wyndham “Bim” Tennant and – of course – of Stephen Tennant. Grey thus became Stephen’s stepfather; Bim was killed on the Somme in 1916. Siegfried Sassoon met Grey after the war, through Stephen, and remarked on his "perfect simplicity and kindness". However, if the portrayal of him in 37 Days is at all correct, Gray surely must have felt a burden of guilt left over from his misjudgements of the situation on the European continent in 1914.
Another, more obscure, personality brought to life in the TV drama was the trade unionist John Burns, a native of Battersea and one of the first working-class men to become a member of the government. Burns, despite his history of involvement in militant industrial actions during the 1880s, was the only member of the Cabinet to resign in protest at Britain’s decision to participate in the Great War. At the time, I am sure, most of the public would not have been in sympathy with his action, principled though it was.
Almost more interesting than the British politicians were their opposite numbers in Berlin. Enough has been written and said about Kaiser Wilhelm II’s troubled personality to save me having to say anything about it here; but the portrayal of the emperor by German actor Rainer Sellien was riveting as well as scary. Equally accomplished were the performances of Ludger Pistor as the sophisticated German Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, and of Bernhard Schutz as fiery General Helmuth von Moltke; these two contrasting personalities, almost guaranteed never to be friends, worked together to ensure that German pride was maintained in the face of a somewhat tricky political situation.
Many of us have been sceptical about the content of some of the centenary programmes so far offered by the BBC. Up to now, however, they have delivered several worthwhile documentaries as well as this excellent drama. Let's just hope they can keep it up.