Engineer pens Franz Ferdinand's tragic tale

Sue Maillot Sue Maillot (Woolmans) thought about writing the book for about 15 years

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As a story it has the hallmarks of a blockbuster: romance against the odds, murder, orphaned children and tragedy. The fact that the story is also true only adds to the allure.

Sue Maillot fell under the spell of Franz Ferdinand and his family dynasty, a sprawling, tangled tale that became little more than a footnote of the First World War.

So taken was she with his story, the studio manager in London has now co-authored a comprehensive book about the man behind the 'shot that rang round the world'.

The Assassination of the Archduke - written with Greg King - is the result of meticulous research and a passion for the subject.

Maillot's passion for history began ordinarily enough on the morning commute, a daily two-hour journey from her home in Kent to a job in London many years ago. It afforded her enough time to lose herself in immense family biographies on prominent figures such as Queen Victoria.

But it was Franz Ferdinand, with his tale of love and loss, which really inspired the historian. 'It has universal appeal,' she says, sitting down in a small corner of Broadcasting House. 'He fell in love with somebody who wasn't equal and he fought to marry her against all odds. It's a romantic story. The story of him doing that really caught my imagination and that's why I decided to write the book.'

Pop band
Franz Ferdinand band The indie band took their name from the Archduke

Most people, Maillot explains, know very little about Franz Ferdinand, and associate the name with the indie band. 'All people know is that he was a man who was shot and nothing else. It would be nice to redress the balance, really, and make him more well known.'

In 1914, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire was shot in Sarajevo with his wife Sophie. The assassination sparked World War I almost exactly 100 years ago. The politics of why this happened is included in the book - a thick and impressive-looking tome - but it's the human side of the story which Maillot and King wanted to explore in depth.

It's a tale strewn with misfortune - there are concentration camps and sons shipped off to war, confiscated property, discrimination and injustice. The writer believes it 'epitomizes what happened to so many families in the 20th century'.

Dying words

To bring the historical details to life, Maillot journeyed to Europe and met the Archduke's great-granddaughter, Princess Sophie von Hohenberg, who enthusiastically backed the book and wrote the introduction. 'I was extremely nervous and I spent the whole Eurostar journey thinking, I am meeting her in a hotel. Do I curtsey or not?' She didn't in the end and was met with someone 'terribly informal and casually dressed'. They chatted for hours, raking over the events of the past.

Her research uncovered a man who had been misunderstood. 'He wasn't popular in his time,' the author judges. 'The Viennese tend to see him as somebody who was a bit of a reactionary, a bit of a martinet and not much fun.' But in the course of writing the book, Maillot found evidence that overturned common perceptions.

'We made him more of a human being,' she believes. 'He was a man who believed in peace, he was humorous and he certainly was a man who loved his wife and children and was very much a family man.' His dying words upon being shot were to ask his wife, already mortally wounded, to stay alive for their children.

Archduke dust jacket
Transatlantic tale

It took about two years to finish the book, which was remarkably written from two countries. King - the author of 11 internationally published works - is based in the United States. Maillot, meanwhile, lives in London, which is why she undertook the European-based research. 'Email is a wonderful thing,' she smiles.

There were other challenges - several languages needed translation - and it took some time to unearth pictures that hadn't been widely seen before. Maillot says she relied on her skills as a studio manager to block out any distractions.

'The discipline of applying yourself is something you have to do with live programmes. You have to shut out everything else and concentrate on what's going on around you … So the ability to concentrate to the exclusion of everything else probably helped enormously.'

Her 'long-suffering' husband was also mostly left to fend for himself, because he was considered a distraction. 'He's been ignored, starved and snapped at during the writing process,' Maillot says in the acknowledgements. 'Still he has endlessly supported both Greg and myself. He has my love and grateful thanks for all time.'

An 'understanding manager' at the BBC is also thanked for not 'batting any eyelid' when Maillot had to ask for chunks of unpaid leave.

Two passions

It's not that common for a sound engineer (as studio managers are referred to outside the BBC) to write a book, I say.

Maillot - who has edited a book about a duchess called Twenty-five Chapters of My Life - doesn't think it's that unusual. 'I've always had two passions in life: radio and history… They don't on paper look like they are similar and in reality they probably aren't at all, but I love both,' she says with feeling. 'If you take me away from one, I'd be miserable.'

Could she perhaps tackle the BBC's history, then?

The royal historian laughs. 'There is a BBC history department. I did actually once think about applying for a job there and, yes, part of me would love to do that, but I think they are doing their job very well at the moment.'

Instead, she will 'stick' with live broadcasting, which gives the studio manager a huge buzz, working on programmes such as Start the Week, Front Row and Woman's Hour.

Right now what she would really like is a holiday, but with the centenary of World War I looming - and a couple of offers of work already - she doesn't know how much time she'll have for an escape, unless it's escaping through the pages of a good book: 'I still read avidly. There are many days when I look up and realise I have missed my stop because I am so engrossed in a book.'

It's her hope that readers will find The Assassination of the Archduke provides this kind of escape for them.

  • The Assassination of the Archduke is published by Macmillan and is out now

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