By James Wood and Rupert Walters
Big Talk Productions and That Mitchell & Webb Company for BBC Two
Wednesday, 23rd October 2013
Ambassadors begins with a scene in which the most important eponym (i.e. the British one, what-what!) is on a hunting trip. Keith Davis (David Mitchell) is ambassador to Tazbekistan, the president of which fictional country (diplomatic choice, that) has organised the trip as ‘an endurance test for new diplomats.’ Davis accidentally shoots a ‘mighty ibex,’ a wild goat which is the sacred national animal of the Tazbeks (and why not modify a made-up pronoun?). He then blames it on the French. This opening episode introduces two key sources of humour in Ambassadors: serious, high-octane situations being comically undercut by fallible, human characters, and the kind of national badinage (what a pretentious piece of Frenchery) that may be as well-loved amongst the British diplomatic community as it is amongst that of British comedy-writing (‘don’t mention the wars’). It is followed by a somewhat orientalising credit-sequence in which nothing is emphasised so much as Tazbekistan’s distance from Whitehall, coming as it does at the easternmost edge of a panned-over map, even further away than all the other stans.
The plot of the episode focuses on Davis’s bid to land Britain a contract to sell helicopters to the Tazbeks, in which he is aided by Neil Tilly (Robert Webb), Deputy Head of Mission. The script sets out the ambassador’s basic dilemma of business vs. human rights, and the related one of King and Country vs. personal advancement, ‘staying on the escalator.’ And it doesn’t do so glibly. Davis gets the opportunity to sincerely set out the case for job-creation back home, but in the end he has to choose between getting the helicopter deal or saving a British human rights journalist from execution, and he must do the honourable thing. Because, as he points out at the beginning, ‘The days when we could get what we wanted by sending in a gunboat are sadly behind us.’ The knowing, ironic tone of this statement is an example of Ambassadors’ nostalgic-but-resigned, post-imperial-but-patriotic liberalism (a stance that is also present in Mitchell’s own writing). ‘Do I hanker after the days of empire?’ Davis asks later. ‘No, heady though they must have been.’ So, British fair play means that the ‘kicking, cheating and eye-gouging’ French (cf. ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’) get the deal.
The subject-matter makes a certain amount of light satire inevitable. The most explicit instance of this is Tilly’s sceptical line, on watching a promotional video of a British helicopter neutralising (or should that be neutralizing?) a rabbit: ‘My guess is the regime won’t be exclusively targeting rabbits.’ There are also phone-tappers, bribes of Centre Court tickets, and a call for ‘No Blair-Gaddafi handshakes.’ But it is only light satire, and I wonder whether the reason for this is partly to do with genre. After all, the formal difference between Ambassadors and, say, Yes, Minister, or The Thick of It (co-written by Mitchell and Webb’s erstwhile scripters Jesse Armstrong and Simon Blackwell), is that the latter two are sitcoms. iPlayer calls this a ‘comedy,’ but the Radio Times is more accurate with ‘comedy drama.’ And maybe I’m biased, but I’ve never watched a really good sitcom and wished there was more drama and serious acting, with correspondingly fewer laughs and less satirical bite. Davis’s wife Jennifer (Keeley Hawes), in discussion with her husband, refers to ‘your nasty helicopters.’ Given that Britain does sell nasty helicopters to dubious regimes, the first episode of Ambassadors may have been more satisfying if it had indulged its British audience less, and shown us that.