Television: Ambassadors, BBC2

Ambassadors, available to buy on iTunes from the BBC2 website

The work of a British embassy could, surely, make for a great TV drama. I imagine it would also provide fertile ground for a comedy. Unfortunately, this BBC mini-series tried to be both at once – and the result was neither dramatic, nor funny.

By Matt.Ross

28 Nov 2013

Certainly, the multiple plotlines could have been dramatic. Some explored the tough decisions and awkward compromises facing British diplomats overseas: protect the fleeing dissident, or win the oil concession? And whilst others were distinctly soap opera (will the ambassador’s wife get her dream job back in London?), the rich backdrop of the fictional Tazbekistan and its ruling family – nakedly modelled on those of Uzbekistan – set the scene for a gritty play full of tension and moral dilemmas.

Instead what we got was a sitcom, starring comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb – who, whilst outstanding on Channel 4’s brilliant Peep Show, lacked the gravitas or versatility required to give the heavyweight plotlines authenticity. Yet those plots were never going to be funny, so the show’s writers – apparently barred from inserting any jokes – tried instead to squeeze laughs out of the daft characters: the pugnacious, unreasonable FCO contact; the hard-nosed, prying vetting officer; the eavesdropping state security officials; and, uncomfortably, the blind, traumatised, escaping dissident. Unsurprisingly, laughs were very scarce.

Yes, Minister and The Thick of It prove that great comedies can have serious messages. But as well as good comedy actors, that requires funny plotlines and scripts containing actual jokes. In Ambassadors, the BBC has gone all out to Educate and Inform – hiding that ambition behind a comedy front that promises to Entertain. It has fallen between all three stools, with a bump loud enough to make every viewer cringe.

What makes a good minister?

Self-confidence about being a politician. The best ministers really occupy the ministerial space with a high degree of confidence and know that there is a gap between that and the official space.

Favourite minister to work for?

Stephen Dorrell, when I was at Health. My abiding memory is of a meeting where there was some important policy under discussion. The officials came along with their advice and there was a good, back-and-forth debate for over half an hour, at the end of which Stephen Dorrell said, “Thank you very much. That was a fantastic discussion. I am now going to do the opposite of what you recommended. Because, politically, that’s what I need to do.” And that was absolutely fine. We’d had an evidence-based and respectful debate, where it had felt like he’d properly listened to what people were saying. And actually it’s right for ministers to have other things that they need to put into the mix.

Health, DWP, Justice, BEIS, DfT, Defra, DExEU. Which was your favourite?

This is really difficult. I think it has to be Defra, because that was the place where they gave me the keys to the bus and let me drive it. I finally had the opportunity to bring together lots of things I’d been thinking and was able to shape the department and do things with culture that I had just never been able to do. Because there are things you can do as a permanent secretary that you can’t do, even as a DG. So I think Defra will always have a special place in my heart.

Most Thick Of It Moment?

When I was about 30, I was finalising the report of a review of NHS central management. We’re talking early 1990s, so we did just about have computers. But there was only me and an executive officer, and we were running round doing everything. We sent it off to the printers late one night and when it came back there was one section that was complete gobbledygook. I realised that when I was very tired I must have leant on the keyboard and inserted a string of random characters into the text. The report was distributed quite widely in the NHS. We had managed to put a correction slip in with it, but for months afterwards there was this conspiracy theory going round about the hidden message in the gobbledygook letters.

Biggest regret or disappointment?

I think it’s the consequences of always moving on. So being a human cannonball, constantly hoicked out of things and fired to other places – never quite getting to finish what I was doing, right back to one of my early jobs when I was head of drug misuse prevention. As I leave, there’s loads more I wanted to do on leadership but I’m really pleased that on my very last day we launched Leadership in Action, which feels like a great parting gift to the civil service.

Read the most recent articles written by Matt.Ross - Kerslake sets out ‘unfinished business’ in civil service reform


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