As the 100th anniversary of World War One approaches, a special BBC Two docu-drama tells the story of the final 37-day countdown to war. Susan Griffin reports
He might be one of the country’s leading theatre actors but Ian McDiarmid hates having his photograph taken. It’s something he believes he shares with Edward Grey, the former Foreign Secretary he depicts in a project for BBC Two.
After rifling through numerous archive pictures as part of his research, Ian noted that Grey didn’t just look uncomfortable, he looked “haunted”.
It’s only on reading his biography that he realised why. “His personal life wasn’t too happy early on,” says the 69-year-old actor. “He was married to a woman he loved who didn’t want to have sex with him. She later died after falling off a horse, and tragically, two of his brothers were also killed by animals on safari, so a most peculiar upbringing.
“But then it settled down and got better, and he had a lot of affairs like everybody else at that time,” he adds, grinning.
Not that Grey’s extra-marital antics will be explored in 37 Days. The docu-drama, which will be shown over three consecutive nights, is part of the BBC’s World War One commemoration and examines the catastrophic chain of events that took place in the final weeks before war broke out in 1914.
“When I got the script, I was fascinated because I didn’t know much about those 37 days that led up to it,” says Ian, who is known to millions as Darth Sidious in the Star Wars movies.
“It’s extraordinary that it did happen in 37 days, like a gigantic boulder gathering force and sliding down the hill – and it was a slide into war.”
At that time, the Foreign Office was a detached place, “like its own island”, explains the actor. “It had its own mystique and didn’t feel it was responsible to other branches of government.”
Of course, words like ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’ hadn’t been invented “so the Foreign Office went their own way”.
Ian continues: “That was just the way things were, but it meant certain things were overlooked and didn’t come to light immediately, or could be hidden.”
The factual drama begins with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and examines how war on Germany was declared merely weeks later.
“The great thing about Edward Grey was that he initially refused, perhaps foolishly, to be worried about ‘the German threat’,” Ian notes.
“His number two was always saying, ‘Don’t trust the Germans‘, but Grey wouldn’t have any of that and more or less accused him of being racist.”
Following his research, the actor believes that war wasn’t inevitable.
“There wasn’t a load of wilful people gloriously brandishing their metaphorical or literal spears,” he says, “but there were the usual diplomatic cock-ups.
“It wasn’t exactly The Thick Of It but probably not far from it, and you see how absurd things happen for absurd human reasons, and that was all part of the mix that led to the slide into the war.”
In those final weeks before war was declared, Grey continued to reiterate that he hated war. “And I believe he did,” says Ian who credits the writer Mark Hayhurst for emphasising the humanity of the characters.
It was the strength of Hayhurst’s script that also attracted McDiarmid’s co-star Tim Pigott-Smith, who plays Prime Minister Asquith.
“I read the material and it was just superb, an absolute brilliant example of historical research that’s been put together so well it does cross the line between documentary and drama,” says the 67-year-old actor.
He admits that he had initial reservations about the project, but was told by his agent to take it seriously because of the people involved, including Sinead Cusack and Bill Paterson.
“What’s there to say no to? It’s an absolute, classy team,” he says now.
Events are told from the perspective of an English boy working in the telegraph office at the Foreign Office, who “observes everything going on”.
“I think at that time there were something like two million telegraphs going through the Foreign Office in a year,” says Tim. “It’s not the age of the email, everything has to be typed out and handed in, so you see him relaying to the Foreign Secretary and other people and picking up what’s going on.”
Similarly, there is a German boy working in a telegraph office who introduces you to the events on the opposing side. “It’s a very simple, clever device that gets you into the story,” says Tim, who came to prominence in the 1984 series The Jewel In The Crown.
Like his co-star Ian, he doesn’t think anyone in the Cabinet wilfully wanted war but adds: “It’s as if there was nobody there trying to stop it. It’s as though they sleepwalked into this war.”
He acknowledges there was nowhere near as much media intrusion as there is today, and therefore fewer people asking questions, and references the clout that the Foreign Office had back then, which no-one challenged.
As for Asquith, he believes he was “pretty powerless in this situation”.
“He could only act on the information he got and he was in an impossible position, trying to balance different complexities and starved of information,” says the actor.
To give you an idea how remote he was, Pigott-Smith adds, laughing: “He’d write letters to one of his mistresses during cabinet meetings! It doesn’t give you the impression of a man who had any real understanding until too late, quite how momentous things are.”
It’s only by the end of the third instalment that the Cabinet begins to realise a “sense of this huge cloud growing over Europe“, the actor notes, and Tim Smith admits that the premise for the programme might sound “quite dry”.
But as complicated as the subject matter is, it’s been executed so well he adds, that “audiences will find it very informative, very instructive and very entertaining”.
37 Days airs on BBC Two over three consecutive nights starting on Thursday, March 6 at 9pm.