37 Days: Changing my perspective of WWI

Friday 7 March 2014, 10:42

Mark Hayhurst Mark Hayhurst Writer and Producer

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I’ve been interested in the First World War since I was a boy, but I’ve always found it so hard to understand how people allowed it to happen.

The process of writing 37 Days gave me a real insight into why we went to war – something I hope the viewer will grasp as well.

So how do you get your head around the few short weeks that changed the world forever?

Well the producer Sue Horth and I compiled a 175-page 'war book', which broke down the 37 days.

37 Days The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo set off a chain of events

I traced every conference, every telephone call, private letter and telegram swirling around Europe.

This helped me understand what my main characters would have known and said. I was also keen not to break any major timelines in the plot.

Writing 37 Days did change my perspective of war. I started thinking Europe had slept-walked into war and all the nations were equally to blame.

But I came to think that it was the German war machine that gave the crucial push.

I think the German high-command didn’t have the will to stop the war as they saw a conflict with Russia as inevitable.

It was important to understand the predicaments of my characters, like German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollwegg.

He had to work out what Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted and formulate a foreign policy from this.

But the kaiser, who was an autocratic monarch, who was constantly changing his mind. He may have been a little bit insane too.

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Kaiser Wilhelm II is briefed by German ambassador to Britain Karl Max Lichnowsky

I also think the British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey was in something of an impossible situation.

His instincts were peaceful and I guess he could have been more aggressive to Berlin at the start.

He could have said, ‘We will mobilise for war if you encourage Austria to attack Serbia’, and that might have reined in Germany.

But equally it could have encouraged Russia, our ally, to become more aggressive and bellicose. I hope the viewer will see the dilemmas facing these men.

There are three episodes of 37 Days and each one deals with a shorter period of time.

This is because events moved quite slowly for the first four or five weeks after the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated.

A lot of statesmen went on holiday as it was summer. But by the final days in August 1914, the pace of events was incredible.

37 Days is ultimately about politics and power. There are some long conversations in it.

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A telegram arrives from Germany and causes a rift in the Cabinet Office

People having arguments about stuff that matters. The director Justin Hardy made this work beautifully.

There's an idea in TV that you can only grab the viewer's attention by cutting rapidly between scenes and having the music hammering away. He didn't believe that.

If you do it right there can be incredible drama and tension in political conversation because it's about the conflict of opinion and the clash of egos. Just look at Borgen or House of Cards.

The episodes were all filmed in Northern Ireland last summer. The cabinet and Foreign Office scenes were filmed on a fantastic estate called Ballywalter Park.

We were so lucky with the weather. It was gorgeous and sunny, with lots of blue sky.

This was important as the summer of 1914 was famous for being sunny. I don’t know what they’d have done if it had rained.

Mark Hayhurst is the writer of 37 Days.

37 Days continues on Friday, 7 March at 9pm on BBC Two and BBC Two HD. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

More on the World War One Centenary
BBC: World War One Centenary
BBC iWonder Interactive Guides: Margaret Macmillan: How close did the world come to peace in 1914?

BBC: World War One On Television And Radio

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC. 

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  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 1.

    Loved the casting, they just looked the part but oh dear I quickly lost the plot. Rapid switching of scenes did not help me understand which alliance was feeling threatened and for why.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 2.

    The BBC 2 broadcasts of 37 days coincide with the sad but real events now happening in the Crimea. 37 days has yet to conclude but so far at least for me, a key question raised by the programme, is why the UK decided to become involved and I suppose really why we had to join in with the hideous battles of WWI. Today's tensions over Crimea, the Ukraine and Russia are really not those of the UK. The ousted president of the Ukraine appears to be a selfish man whose peoples did not from what I can gather, see how much his own pocket was being lined presumably at their expense. The Russian supported proposed president of break away Crimea may or may not be hardly any better. The point is that the arguments and any fights are for them and not the UK.

    Frankly the EU threatening collectively this that or the other sanction against Russia, seems absurd and adds weight to those in the UK who wish to leave the EU.

    Reverting to the broadcast of '37' itself: As one who has very little education in history I find it riveting as well as educational - many thanks.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 3.

    This is a very badly researched drama
    The assassination scene is wholly inaccurate
    Princip was in a cheering crowd
    Moltke is portrayed as a thug hell bent on invading France
    Whereas he was a self doubting general who was obliged in a war to follow a plan devised by his predecessor in 1906.
    The Kaisers medals are simply wrong-including the iron cross he wears.
    All the younger civil servants seem to have dispensed with jackets and wear waistcoats
    Grey speaks to Ambassadors like a rude Boss and not Goreign Secretary.
    The Austrian Ambassador struts like a model at a Milan fashion week, his jacket slung over his shoulder, showing off yet another waistcoat
    And the conclusion is going to be?
    All Germany's fault.
    How 2 dimensional.
    This was done do much better in the BBC series Fall of Eagles in 1974
    What a great opportunity wasted.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 4.

    I watched 37 days after having seen Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War and Max Hastings' The Necessary War. These two programmes were an excellent model of TV as educational in the Reithian tradition which the screenwriter of 37 days could well have benefited from watching. They showed clearly the complexity of the situation from a much wider perspective such as the entente cordial and the importance to Britain of maintaining her trade routes. 37 days is an old fashioned 'Great Men' account of history dependent on their whims and egos which Tolstoy had satirised in War and Peace, and showed no understanding of the social and economic forces at play apart from a small mention of Russian influence in the Indian sub continent. 37 days is entertainment but hardly educational.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 5.

    Oh and the external image of No 10 is also wrong!

 

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