Days That Shook The World (Series 1-3 Box Set) Review
Should I ever become famous, I would rather my life not be presented on the screen in a drama-documentary. Drama, yes, or even a documentary but not drama-documentary, which is something of a muddle between the two poles and as unsatisfying as that suggests. Although, I'm hard pressed to think of why I might become famous or be involved in any event that shakes the world unless it's entirely accidental, such as reversing a car over a Prime Minister or, Larry David like, tripping up a major sporting star at the peak of their career. However, were that the case, I would rather that drama-documentary not be the method by which my actions will be recorded for posterity.
The suggestion implicit in drama-documentary is that the actual events we're privy to are not inherently interesting enough to be presented without the fuss or fanfare that comes with an unknown cast trussed up in period costume and wrestling with a poorly-written script. In recent years, the BBC would have it that a Supervolcano in Yellowstone National Park needed the antics of Michael Riley and Gary Lewis to make it more exciting while we, the audience, would clearly have struggled with the idea of a hurricane threatening the coast of Florida were it not for the human drama afforded by having Nicola Stephenson windswept, soaked and emoting for the camera. And, in a surprise twist given his background in Game For A Laugh, Matthew Kelly apparently discovered the resting places of kings in Egypt. I fully expect that, in time, we'll see Robson Green averting an apocalyptic impact with an asteroid while, narrating the piece, John Nettles wraps his comforting tones around the end of civilisation.
Days That Shook The World was first shown by the BBC in 2003 and follows the trend of drama-documentaries by mixing reconstructions with news footage in a series of hour-long shows that take two important and somewhat related days and dramatises and documents what happened. This connection can be somewhat loose, such as the pairing of Marconi's first transatlantic radio transmission and Concorde's first flight into John F Kennedy airport in New York. Granted, the ocean that had to be crossed is the same but the mediums, technology and importance are vastly different. However, some are very much better, including a genuinely tense and shocking dramatisation of the Kristallnacht. In occasional moments, the series breaks from its own rules by devoting an entire hour to one subject, such as the bombing of Hiroshima or to the negotiations that brought the first world war to an end but, typically, it's a half-hour per topic and, sometimes, offers some very surprising moments in amongst the expected.
The episode that describes the gunfight at the OK corral allows the series a sympathetic portrayal of Ike Clanton who begins the episode by arriving in Tombstone not in search of trouble but simple provisions. Rather than the one-sided tale that Wyatt Earp promoted during his long life, Days That Shook The World presents the story as remembered by Earp and by those who would have counted themselves on the side of the Clantons. As one used to the characters as they have been portrayed on the screen, including Val Kilmer's dashing take on Holliday and Kurt Russell's upright Wyatt Earp, the series' balanced version of the story suggests that Holliday may have played a part in the robbery of a coach transporting over a million dollar's worth of silver and that the Earp's interest in the Clantons may have been a bid to silence what they knew of the robbery. Later, there's a very good telling of the story of the independence of the British colony of India and how, with some haste, it was broken up into India and Pakistan.
However, the problem with them being drama-documentaries remains. In the very first episode in this set, which describes the first flight by the Wright brothers, we probably have more of Wilbur Wright frying up eggs and ham than we do of him in the air lying on the Wright Flyer. One tends to pity the actor who's given not one word to speak in the drama and so reverts to the vocabulary of silent-movies, which haven't been employed in motion pictures since 1930 or thereabouts. Later, before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, we see a group of actors playing the Black Hand gang march purposefully towards the screen but, in a disappointing choice of soundtrack, are accompanied by a, for all the wrong reasons, very grim piece of dreary hard rock. Near the end of the series, a furious Adolph Hitler recovers in hospital after the end of the First World War but being called upon to portray anger, disgust, horror and a desire for revenge is clearly and laughably beyond the actor cast as the Fuhrer, who does everything but twirl his moustache in his bid to play evil.
There is one rule, however, that cannot be broken and that is each story and event must be contained within one day. Sometimes this leads the show into trouble. The episode on Black September, being the multiple hijackings of planes from the UK, the US and Switzerland and the bringing them together at a disused airstrip in Jordan, doesn't so much overlook the fact that the situation lasted for six days, which is mentioned, but is only really interested in what happened on the last day when the final 141 hostages were evacuated from the site and the planes blown up. Similarly, the Six Day War is covered only in the battle in Jerusalem while the meltdown of the reactor at Chernobyl only deals with the first day not the more interesting stories that came as those charged with cooling the reactor walked to certain death. And when it comes to the death of Princess Diana, an event that continues to fill columns in the newspapers and that occupies hours of television hours still, the show's self-imposed limit of one day forces it to a stop soon after Diana passes away. Other than a brief glimpse of people crying against the gates of Buckingham Palace, we don't get to see the quite insane public mourning that carried on over the next week.
There are other problems with the series, not least that, looking past how obvious some of the choices are and how extensively they'll be covered elsewhere, it can appear to be very cheap. Given that it was produced for BBC4, it was never going to have a fortune lavished on it but when we're asked to believe that Howard Carter's home in Egypt doesn't extend beyond a single room furnished with on sofa and one armchair, the restrictions in the budget are apparent. Later, we see that Chernobyl doesn't extend beyond a room full of switches and dials, the Romanovs live, eat and apparently sleep in a single room while the producer's sense of relief at Ayatolla Khomeini planning the Iranian revolution out of a bungalow in Paris is palpable.
But aside from those complaints, this is often a well-made and sometimes fascinating show that comes with the kind of authority that the BBC stamps on its drama and documentaries regardless of whether it's deserved. Of course, some episodes could have been better and some, particularly that which tells the story of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, ought to have been excluded from the finished series but when it's good, Days That Shook The World is very good indeed. It's a pity, though, that it couldn't have sustained the quality of the Kristallnacht, War Of The Worlds and Gary Powers episodes throughout. Generally, it does try and, with the odd exception, it's almost always interesting. If, unfortunately, sometimes laughable in its dramatic depiction of events.
Disc One (59m07s): The dream of flight is one that has eluded man for most of his existence. But two days stand out as changing history. The first is the flight of the Wright Flyer on 17 December 1907 by Wilbur and Orville Wright while the second, separated by only sixty years, is the flight of Apollo 11 from the Earth to the Moon.
Disc Two (2h57m13s): Royalty, civil rights and two world wars are the subjects of the second disc in this set, which begins with an episode that describes two days that shook the British royal family. The first is the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952 while the second is the day that many of us will remember, when we woke up to hear that Princess Diana had died overnight following a car crash in Paris. Elsewhere, the assassination of Martin Luther King begins with the civil rights leader, who has recently received a death threat, standing on the tarmac while his plane is searched. Unknown to him, his killer races towards Memphis. Years later, Nelson Mandela, emerges from Victor Verster prison after being jailed for twenty-seven years. Finally, Days That Shook The World looks at the beginning of the First World War with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 while, thirty-one years later, Hitler commits suicide in his bunker in Berlin in the closing days of the Second World War in mainland Europe.
Disc Three (2h57m40s): The end of hostilities and the repercussions of war are examined on the third disc in this set, with the first episode beginning with the testing of an atomic bomb in New Mexico and, following its success, the loading of a second weapon onto a destroyer only four hours later to sail to Tinian Island in the Pacific, centre of America's efforts against the Japanese. Days That Shook The World describes what happened on that island as Little Boy was loaded onto the B-29 Enola Gay and took off for Hiroshima. Next comes, not the Bolshevik Revolution, but the killing of the Romanovs and the fall of the Berlin Wall while the disc finishes with two stories of the Jewish people, one Kristallnacht in 1938, which is a precursor to the horrors of the Holocaust, and only ten years later, the founding of the state of Israel.
Disc Four (2h57m29s): The fourth disc in the set opens with two stories that the BBC would later dramatise in Egypt, the discovery of Tutankhamun's Tomb by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon and the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone by Jean-François Champollion. Next comes a modern wonder and its disastrous counterpart, the first nuclear reaction by Enrico Fermi in a squash court in 1942, which will herald the nuclear age and the meltdown of a reactor at Chernobyl in 1986. Finally, Days That Shook The World offers reconstructions of two of the most well-known terrorist incidents of the twentieth century, Black September (the hijacking at Dawson's Field in Jordan in 1970) and Lockerbie (1988).
Disc Five (2h57m45s): America, the crossing of the Atlantic and speed are what this next disc documents as it opens with a young president would not survive his first term in office and another who would not be forgiven after being forced out during his second term. Connecting the assassination of John F Kennedy (1963) and the resignation of Richard Nixon (1973), Days That Shook The World looks at the fall of two American presidents. And it's also to America that the second episode goes, with a rather loose association between Marconi's first transatlantic radio transmission (1901) and Concorde's first flight into New York. The Atlantic had been flown before and Concorde had already crossed it but New York had held out. All that was to change in 1977 with the fastest commercial airliner in the world. This interest in speed continues with Chuck Yeager's first supersonic flight in 1947 in the Bell XS-1 and, in 1967, Donald Campbell's ill-fated attempt to set a world water speed record on Coniston Water in the jet-powered boat Bluebird.
Disc Six (2h57m00s): The second series begins here and, from the first episode, it's clear that Days That Shook The World will offer a more tangible connection in those episodes when it chooses to tell two stories. As such, this disc opens with Disaster In The Sky and in the US in 1937 with Herb Morrison and Charles Nehlsen setting up their mobile recording equipment to document the arrival of the airship Hindenberg while, in its second half, it travels to Florida in 1986 and to the launch of the refurbished Space Shuttle Challenger. Next is the The Christmas Truce, which, without Paul McCartney and his Pipes Of Peace, tells the story of Christmas 1914 when British and German forces played football between the trenches. Finally, it's to Pearl Harbour in 1941 and the Japanese attack that brought a reluctant America into the Second World War.
Disc Seven (2h57m09s): Going further back than it has done before, Days That Shook The World travels to 1671 for the first of its Grand Heists, the theft of the crown jewels from the Tower Of London. And we remain in the UK for second of our two stories but to Crewe in 1963 and in the company of Ronnie Biggs, Bruce Reynolds, Buster Edwards and others for the Great Train Robbery. Next is Conspiracy To Kill with the two targets of the assassins in our stories being Hitler (by von Stauffenburg in 1944) and the ambush of Charles De Gaulle in 1962 in Petit Clamart by a gang that includes Alain Bougrenet de la Tocnaye and Bastien-Thiry. The last episode on this disc is Reach For The Stars that follows the story of two men, one who looked beyond this world and another who travelled there, Galileo Galilei (1633), who stands accused of heresy for suggesting that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, and, in 1961, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
Disc Eight (2h57m15s): Dinosaurs And Duplicity hints at going even further back in time than 1633 but, alas, it chooses instead to document the discovery in 1824 by Gideon and Mary Mantell of the fossilised teeth of a dinosaur, which proved that giant and long-extinct reptiles had existed. Duplicity, on the other hand, describes the 'finding' of the Piltdown Man in 1912 and how, in 1953, Kenneth Oakley and Joe Weiner revealed it as a fraud. In Terror - Made In America, we go to Washington in 1865 and to see John Wilkes Booth dressing to attend the theatre, which, that same night, will play host to Abraham Lincoln. And over one hundred years later in 1995, as thousands of others head to work, Timothy McVeigh readies the homemade bomb in the back of a hired truck that he will park outside the Murrah Building in Oklahoma. Finally, in Cold War Spies, we have the shooting down of a U-2 American spy plane and its pilot Gary Powers over Russia (1960) and the day in which these enemies traded spies with one another on the Glienicker Bridge in Berlin (1962), another story in which Gary Powers has a starring role as America attempts to get him back in exchange for Frederic Pryor.
Disc Nine (2h57m12s): Execution and abdication are at the heart of Affairs Of The Crown, in which two members of the British royal family, Anne Boleyn (1536) and Edward VIII (1936), are removed from the throne by very different means. Meanwhile, in The Cost Of Betrayal, Days That Shook The World documents the defection to the of two British spies whose names are still remembered, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean (1951) while, in America, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg wake in separate cells in Sing Sing where, that day in 1965, they will be executed for spying against their country. Finally, in Rule Of The Gun, it's back to America and to two days that live on, the gunfight at the OK corral (1881) and the St Valentine's Day massacre (1929).
Disc Ten (2h57m11s): Fact Or Fiction? sounds like a Reader's Digest book and, indeed, it takes in two stories that have been told many times alongside other famous fakes, getaways and haunted houses. This episode documents two famous hoaxes, Orson Welles' famous radio broadcast of HG Wells' War Of The Worlds (1938) and the selling of the Hitler Diaries to The Times in 1983. The irony in The War To End All Wars is not lost in the episode that describes the conclusion of the First World War in 1918 but which sewed the seeds of the second, even ending with Adolph Hitler in hospital deciding to enter politics and take revenge on those who had shamed Germany. Finally, in Let Freedom Ring!, two events are examined, both of which features a cry for independence, the Boston Tea Party in 1773, while the other is the achievement of that prize, August 1947 and the day in which India is made independent from the British Empire.
Disc Eleven (2h56m55s): In 1967, Israel and Jordan fight for control of Jerusalem in Battle For The Holy City while, in the next episode, another war plays out in The Battle Of Midway, with one day in 1942 changing the course of the Second World War in the Pacific. Finally, and in the final episode in this set, The Road To Revolution, Days That Shook The World documents the changing of two countries forever. The first follows the wave of revolution that swept through central Europe as the Soviet Union fell until it eventually arrived in Romania in December 1989 with the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu. Then it is to Iran in 1979 and the fight for power between two men, the reigning monarch Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and, conducting his affairs out of a bungalow in Paris, Ayatolla Khomeini.
Days That Shook The World has received a typically decent transfer by the BBC and 2 Entertain, having an anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer that, like a good deal of television releases, can appear a little soft. As to the look of the show, it's a competently-made mix of archive footage, period reconstruction and some very unpredictable camerawork that, one assumes, is there to disguise the limited budget and to make it look much more exciting than it actually is. However, the DVD copes with this fairly well although never exceptionally so. What can be said of it is that there is no noticeable damage to the source material, that the picture looks clean and the encoding, other than when it is punished by some frantic photography, is generally very good.
The DD2.0 is, like the picture, entirely functional. There are very few frills to the audio track, much of which is taken up with a narrator explaining what the format of the show denies the actors but there are some standout moments. The use of the actual recording of Welles' production of War Of The Worlds is an inspired and very effective one while the choice of using native languages - Russians do speak Russian and not a heavily-accented English - actually helps the production. There are English subtitles for each episode.
Unfortunately, I can't help as regards the packaging, which seems important when dealing with a set of eleven discs. We were only sent a package of check discs but hopefully 2 Entertain have managed a boxset that keeps these discs in such a condition as to prevent damage.
There are no bonus features on this DVD release although it could be argued that with eleven discs, ten of which feature three hours of material, there's more than enough here.
Actually, I'm rather glad there's no bonus material as the thirty hours of programming that's here already feels like quite enough. As to the show itself, it won't take the place of any of the BBC's bigger-budgeted series or one-off documentaries but it serves to highlight some of the major events of the past in a short but never patronising style. That it was originally shown on BBC4 also means that there is some intelligence to the piece, which makes certain demands on the viewer to pay attention. Far too long for a single sitting, there's plenty to dip in and out of here and given its broad range of topics, much to learn.