Television: Ambassadors, BBC2

Written by Matt Ross on 28 November 2013 in Culture

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.

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.

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