37 Days review – Episode One: One Month in Summer

37 Days BBC37 Days was a bit like an Open University docudrama, the type of thing that normally airs at 3am on BBC Two, but with a bigger budget and more recognisable actors. There were individual moments of captivating drama but they were continually broken up by pointed and unsubtle history lessons.

The first part of this three-part drama, airing over three consecutive days, followed the lead up to WWI – from 37 days before the war to 13. The episode focused mainly on the British Foreign Office’s attempts to read the situation in Europe, and the German high command’s instigating of the conflict.

The show had two narrators: a young civil servant in London and his German equivalent on the continent. It didn’t add anything to the drama though, and was responsible for the history lesson feel. I can imagine a future where classrooms of bored teenagers are forced to watch 37 Days while a frustrated teacher hopes some of the blunt narration filters through to his pupils.

The unsubtle historical references hurt the quality of the dialogue as well, with little nudges and winks peppered in for the audience – references to the forthcoming Irish civil war for instance.

All the British characters spoke in the kind of oh-so-witty, back-and-forth dialogue that the ruling classes probably think is their argot but which actually only exists in the scripts for plays and films. I really dislike this type of wit in dialogue because it is false and transparently constructed. ‘The News of the World says who the hell cares,’ one character said. ‘About Serbia?’ another asked. ‘About anything’ the first replied. Yeah, very good, except that ‘about Serbia’ is not a realistic response when it is clear from the context that the first character was talking about the Balkan country. If a character is just a construct for a screenwriter’s funny lines then it’s not legitimate drama it’s just bad comedy.

It wasn’t just the dialogue hurting the characters; most of them were 2D creations. A cast of pompous or witty English diplomats surrounded the awe-struck and naive young civil servant. The foreigners were the worst though. Almost every non-British character in the show was a cartoon villain: the pompous Austrian ambassador flouncing around a room, the aggressive warmongering German general, the stupid German leader and the cowardly men who surrounded him. All so unlike the noble Englishmen, with the British instinct for, as the show put it, protecting the poor underdogs against the bully. Who wrote this? Michael Gove?

The only two foreigners in the show who were even remotely likable were the anglophile prince and the German civil servant, a self-confessed liberal who disowned his own country in his opening lines.

I’d have hoped a show like this, leading up to the hundredth anniversary of WWI, would be less Hollywood in its approach and not divide the conflict into goodies and baddies. If you were to be generous, you could argue, as the Radio Times did in its review, that the scenes of diplomats playing cricket or attending formal suppers while Europe marched to war is a critique of some sort, but I found the episode really lacking in any message or insight beyond ‘Look: these people are unaware of the war that’s coming.’

There’s still another two parts to go but I’m not optimistic. 37 Days will, I think, pass quickly over the three days it was crammed into, and be forgotten entirely, except in the classrooms of desperate history teachers, enthusiastically wheeling a massive CRT television into a room of bored GCSE students.

Random notes:

  • Great moustaches though.
  • England, England, England – no wonder Scotland is looking at independence. Apparently Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland had fuck all to do with WWI. To be fair, it’s probably historically accurate dialogue. And it was good to see the civil servant speak with a Scottish accent at least – too often regional accents are whitewashed from history in these dramas.

12 thoughts on “37 Days review – Episode One: One Month in Summer

  1. At last, a sensible review of a tedious and disappointing drama fawned over critically elsewhere. As I’m always saying, viewers should watch Fall of Eagles instead from 1974 when the BBC could still make gripping dramas without knowing post-modernist jokes and nudges.

      • No, awful. I remember watching it as a teenager in the 70s. Now that really was a cartoon caricature of European power politics.

        Ok, the dialogue in 37 days probably was rather self consciously “witty” and if that sort of thing overly bothers you then it will annoy you in this drama. However I found the dramatic tension, and the way the steps to war were laid out comprehensibly, to be impressive and well worth watching. Perhaps because I have read a lot of books about the early history of the war, that I find it fascinating and found far more to value in this drama than you did.

      • Fair enough. I would have thought it was the opposite – people with an in-depth knowledge of the war finding the show frustrating and simplistic – but I guess not. Thanks for the comment.

      • Certainly is, buy it or download from YouTube (while you can). Great cast throughout, with Barry Foster as the Kaiser outstanding in my opinion. Made me actually feel some sympathy for him and want to learn more about his life.

  2. Oh and I have studied first and second world war history too these last 40 years…still think 37 days was glib and unclear. My better half, bless her, a highly intelligent person with however not much knowledge about WW1 said after episode 3 was over, “Well, I’m still none the wiser.”

  3. either you like 37 days or you don’t -simples!
    Like the film ‘Lincoln’ you have to see it through the eyes of history at the time not like some all action CGI thriller.
    If you want that then watch films like Die Hard-don’t watch this.

  4. All the points raised here are excellent. I tried 4 times to watch this because I’ve always wondered about the origins of WW1, and it defeated me in the end. The final straw was the Germans speaking English with ‘German’ accents. when that’s done, I’m out of there toot sweet.
    The music was stirring, and it was pleasant for the first 5 minutes to ‘be’ in the period, but It was all too shiny, contrived, clichéd and condescending to the viewer.
    It didn’t help that I accidentally caught the first few minutes of ep2 and it seemed that bugger all had actually happened since the first 15 mins of ep1.
    Totally overrated, if rated.

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