Ambassadors review – Episode One – BBC Two

Ambassadors BBC Mitchell WebbAmbassadors doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s a weird mix of broad comedy, gentle comedy and straight drama. It’s part Yes Minister, part 2012 and part Borgen, and the mixture is jarring. It also, in my opinion, promotes a deceptively false and favourable picture of British foreign policy.

David Mitchell plays Keith Davis, an ambassador to a fictional Middle Eastern dictatorship. Robert Webb is the head of his embassy staff. In the first episode Keith battled the French to win a helicopter contract for the UK, while juggling the host country’s human rights issues.

The episode began with Keith accidentally shooting a protected animal, and pinning the blame on a French diplomat. This set up an episode-long battle between Keith and his French counterpart. English TV has this really weird obsession with the French. Over and over again, the French are portrayed in UK television as slimy and arrogant, and Ambassadors is no exception. It’s weird and kind of pathetic.

The episode was filled with such stereotypes. The writers have gone straight for the most obvious character model every time. So a human rights activist is self-righteous and crusty and an actor who visits the country is pretentious and arrogant.

I mentioned above that I think the show conveys a dangerous view of UK foreign policy. I will say first that I think it’s unintentional; Ambassadors is quite obviously trying to be neutral on this issue, putting the embassy staff in the middle of competing interests. For instance, Robert Webb’s character Neil Tilly had an argument at one point with Keith, with Neil criticising the UK’s involvement with a dictatorship while Keith made an argument for the greater good. There was also a storyline about false charges for a human rights activist and plenty of other balancing details.

But ultimately, the show – made with full cooperation from the Foreign Office, with the writers spending a week in Kazakhstan as guests of the ambassador – reinforces a perception of UK foreign policy as moral and well intentioned. Notably, at the end of the episode, Keith made the ‘good’ decision, sacrificing a helicopter contract to protect human rights. Only a villainous minister in London was shown as dislikeable. Meanwhile, a human rights activist was shown as naive, stupid and self-obsessed; leave such things to the diplomats, the pros, the establishment, is the show’s message.

Is this the reality? Because what I see in the UK is a country more than happy to work alongside dictatorships. I see a country that would never, ever sacrifice an arms contract over a minor human rights issue. And I see human rights activists who sacrifice their personal safety to protect the weak and vulnerable in foreign countries, activist most of whom are perfectly aware of the complexities of the issues.

A TV show that portrayed the UK as a wonderful country that fights the baddies and protects the goodies and never does anything wrong would not be a problem because it would be transparently false. What is problematic is a show like Ambassadors, which appears to be neutral and critical but overall supports and reinforces the view of British foreign policy as moral, protective of the little guy and critical of brutal regimes, and successfully disguises this narrative by localising it to the actions of one ambassador.

And this stuff matters. Culture matters. TV matters. Our perception of the world is in large part filtered through such entertainment.

Anyway, enough of my wannabe Chomsky rhetoric. Pulling things back to the realm of TV production, I thought the show was too uneven in tone. For instance, the episode kept cutting to a couple of intelligence agents spying on the rest of the show’s characters. These scenes were really broad, like something from a sketch show. It didn’t fit. The humour kept jumping about, from sitcom set-up/punchline jokes to gentle comic relief. And a serious sub-plot in the episode, about Neil being blackmailed into spying on his embassy, was out-of-place in amongst all the comedy shenanigans and gentle comic drama.

I don’t think it worked, Ambassadors. It was enjoyable enough, and a decent way to pass an hour, but it wasn’t great television, and I, personally, have an issue with its promotion, if unintentional, of a false narrative around the UK’s actions in foreign countries (I’m going to go out on a limb here, and suggest that I’m probably in a tiny minority on this one).

Random notes:

  • Robert Webb’s acting was really good, conveying a hassled and cynical mid-level bureaucrat. David Mitchell I don’t think is quite as comfortable in a straight-acting role.
  • The opening credits and music were good. Animated title sequences seem to be a thing on the BBC right now – see The Wrong Mens and By Any Means. I’m all for it.
  • I get that the show is focusing on the difficulties of the individuals on the ground, and I’m sure the reality is that it is difficult for such individuals in those situations, but that doesn’t change – or excuse – the fact that, ultimately, the show reinforces a perception of the UK’s foreign policy that is not only false but the perception that the establishment would want promoted.
  • There’s a former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan called Craig Murray who claims he was sacked by the British Government for criticising Uzbekistan’s human rights abuses. He says that Ambassadors is based on his book, but that the production company didn’t buy the rights. ‘I repeat that the producers of The Ambassadors, Big Talk, contacted me about acquiring the rights to Murder in Samarkand and held a meeting with me in their office to discuss it at length. They did not get the rights.  The concept of The Ambassadors, the series Big Talk subsequently produced, is very plainly based on Murder in Samarkand.  Big Talk are copyright thieves.’              He also calls the show ‘state-sponsored satire.’
  • While researching this review, I came across an Australian show called Embassy. According to Wikipedia, it was criticised for being ‘an exercise in stereotyping…a confirmation of an Anglo-Australian cultural hegemony in which non-Anglo nationalities are reduced to a homogeneous, imaginary “other.”’ There were elements of this problem in Ambassadors, in which many of the foreigners were obsessed with sacred animals, misogynistic and clownish. It wasn’t completely bad – the barmaid was a normal character for instance – but maybe something to keep an eye out for in future episodes.

9 thoughts on “Ambassadors review – Episode One – BBC Two

  1. Yes, absolutely superb. One of the best new things on TV for years. It has great depth – I kept coming back to lines, and realising their cleverness, or making other links – dare I say re Episode 2, Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic? Also very brave – I hope they do not get panned for tackling sensitive issues – and holy cows. More like this, please!

  2. Craig Murray doesn’t just claim this- it’s true. You should read Craig Murray’s book “Murder in Samarkand”. It’s very good and sad. It’s shocking to see what the FCO has done to Murray for standing up for human rights. And now they have even stolen his story.

  3. I enjoyed:

    > English TV has this really weird obsession with the French. Over and over again, the French are portrayed in UK television as slimy and arrogant, and Ambassadors is no exception. It’s weird and kind of pathetic.

    Which would normally be followed up in prosaic fashion, with a comment about the Belgians, Irish, Germans or perhaps the Dutch.

    Fact is, British comedy writing often tends towards xenophobic laziness, good isn’t it. (or sarcasm.)

    • Yeah, it is a bit of a problem, although to be fair, TV from other countries can be guilty of the same thing. Thanks for the comment, cheers!

  4. Thanks for this review. Just watched the first episode and was curious how it had been received. I’ve read the reviews in the main newspapers but yours is the most sensible and the sharpest that I’ve seen. The show was a mess and very uneven in tone – not dramatic enough to be a drama, not funny enough to be a comedy and falling back on stereotypes for most of the main gags, as you say. The show’s moral position was also rather odd. As Mitchell’s wife kept on bullying the local cook we were apparently supposed to sympathise with the wife for obstinately refusing to adapt to local cuisine, rather than the poor put upon woman labouring in the kitchen, probably working for a pittance. We’re supposed to be as irritated as the ambassadors themselves with the human-rights activist who’s landed himself in jail, rather than see him as the only person in the situation trying to make a change for the better. At the end, after saving him from execution, Mitchell’s character rants at the activist about his ingratitude ‘you’ve no idea what we’re trying to achieve here’. The only thing we’ve seen them trying to achieve is to sell helicopters to a third-world dictator to earn British arms companies a few billion pounds with the side benefit that it’ll look good for the PM because the helicopter factory is in his constituency. Sure, Mitchell’s character, torn between trying to push through the helicopter sale and saving the rights activist from a beheading sacrifices the sale and persuades the country’s president to release the activist. We’re supposed to see this as a demonstrating of his moral integrity. At the same time, however, the message is clearly “wouldn’t it have been nice if the helicopter sale could also have gone ahead.” and this left me feeling more than a little uncomfortable. The situation depicted in the show reflects a sad reality that Britain’s diplomatic service is operating as the state-funded sales wing of the country’s arms industry – sealing billion pound contracts to rake in profits for billionaire arms dealers and providing repressive regimes with the tools of their repression, and all under the banner of that convenient fiction of new market liberalism that we’ll all benefit from some magical trickle down effect. This isn’t a reality that I am happy to accept and it would have been nice to see it being approached with a healthy dose of critical skepticism here.

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