“Shooting Ibex very bad – big trouble! National animal – dead! Big disgrace!”
“Blame the Frenchmen!”
If it weren’t for that last line, you would be forgiven for assuming that Ambassadors was a point-blank serious drama, even given the involvement of that inimitable duo, David Mitchell and Robert Webb. That said, while the humour is there, it is more subtle than what you would expect from these two; it certainly is not just an exotic excursion for Mark and Jez from Peep Show. No, the comedy of Ambassadors is far more subtle.
A three-part series on BBC2, Ambassadors follows the fairly serious (on the face of it, at least) diplomatic exploits of Keith Davis (Mitchell), the ambassador for the British Embassy in the fictional Tazbekistan, and his aide, Neil Tilly (Webb). The first episode sees the pair trying to simultaneously win a lucrative helicopter-building contract for Britain, and rescue a rather over-zealous human rights activist from an impending death sentence. This is where Ambassadors differs from anything else the pair have jointly starred in before. Peep Show was inane; That Mitchell and Webb Look, plain bizarre. But this time round, it becomes apparent that the plot is not where the humour lies, but in the way the characters confront the circumstances they are dropped into, often with incompetent, if any, assistance.
From the frustratingly detached “Prince of Darkness” that Davis has to report to, to the completely deluded activist, to the interfering Frenchman who insists on referring to Davis as “Elmer Fudd” of Looney Tunes fame, Ambassadors is a sarcastic portrayal of the obstacles that, in all probability, actual diplomats do have to confront. Davis finds himself having to make a decision between winning a $2 billion contract for his country, or preventing the Tazbek authorities from making a gruesome example of an idealistic but naïve activist. He soon finds out that his aide has different ideas of what is the most important option, but it turns out that this is by far the least of his worries. He finds his efforts to woo the President of Takbekistan comically hindered by hefty quantities of vodka, an underwhelming “Best of British Festival” and a pompous ‘actor’ – ‘Chutney, morris dancing, and some fucking poncey actor are not what makes Britain great!’.
Arguably, it is these ridiculous circumstances that brings the best out in Mitchell’s acting, triggering a hangover of mammoth proportions and several furious outbursts at the idiocy that he is encountering. The final scene in particular is one of the highlights of the episode, with an explosion of infuriation at the fact that those not directly involved in the world of diplomacy completely fail to acknowledge the pressures that they face. In fact it is in these rants that you see a shadow of Mark from Peep Show. Indeed, while the two shows are written by different people, Ambassadors still carries the trademark dynamic of the pair. Davis is the utilitarian, sensible one; Tilly the idealist. However, quite refreshingly, we do not see Webb playing a complete moron for a change. Passionate he might be, but he certainly is not an idiot, the pair just have ‘differing priorities’.
The portrayal of a foreign country for the purposes of a series is interesting; as with any sort of comedy, especially satire, there is the risk of making a mockery of those not intended to be mocked. Remember when Borat was released, and there was a level of outrage that Sacha Baran Cohen appeared to be making Kazakhstan out to be a nation of imbeciles, more or less entirely by people who were missing the whole point of the film being one big dig at America. Similarly it is important to note that the creation of an invented country is not to be taken in an offensive or reactionary manner; to do so is to ignore the wider point that, at least I think, Ambassadors is trying to make. In fact, Davis’ rant that I mentioned early sums up the crux of what they are trying to say: ‘And as for you, you shithead! You have no idea what we are trying to achieve on a wider scale here. You ignore our advice, and then you expect our busy, underpaid, under-resourced, overworked staff to pick up the pieces, when you inevitably fuck up!’
If you saw the trailer for this, and expected that Mitchell and Webb’s joint participation meant another offshoot of their previously bizarre comedy, you will be disappointed. However, that is not because Ambassadors is not a decent watch – it is just something different from what you are probably used to from the pair. Of course, they are not the only characters involved, but I daresay it is not an accident that they both are, and so it impossible for them to not be the focus. If you are looking for another Peep Show though, you will have to wait. Until the next series of Peep Show. But if you appreciate the pair as actors, and intelligent ones at that, Ambassadors is not to be missed.
Ambassadors airs on Wednesday nights at 9:00pm on BBC 2. You can catch up with the last episode on BBC iPlayer.