Looking Back At AMBASSADORS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony learns diplomacy.
The trend for putting comedians, comic actors, and especially comic double-acts into what it should be illegal to call “dramedies” has not been new for some time, and continues to this day. From Alan Davies and Caroline Quentin in Jonathan Creek, to the likes of Chris Addison, Chris Langham, and Rebecca Front in The Thick of it, through Johnny Vegas in Murder On The Blackpool Express, and on to Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins in Hitmen, there’s been a significant growth in the last few decades of shows that exist more or less to prove the old showbiz adage that most comedians can do dramatic acting too.

That’s very much the territory in which we find ourselves with Ambassadors. David Mitchell and Robert Webb were very much identified as a comedy double act in 2013, having made their name in sketch comedy and the ground-breaking point-of-view sitcom Peep Show (which ran for 12 years, from 2003-2015).

Their first exploration into drama-with-funny-bits (we’re never using the word “dramedy” again, sorry) took the pair into an entirely different setting, with the movie Magicians in 2007. While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly WHY this should be the case, it didn’t do particularly well at the box office, and was largely seen as evidence of a comedy duo running before they could walk in more dramatic territory.

That seems with hindsight a wholly unfair verdict, given that a) Peep Show itself has some fairly dark themes of wasted life due to stasis and a refusal to change and evolve, and b) the relative failure of the film seems to have more to do with the expectation of the audience than it does with the actual performances of the central duo.

We mention all this as a prelude to tackling Ambassadors – another project that’s much more in the drama-with-laughs-in vein than any straightforward comedy, like Mitchell’s later collaboration with Ben Elton, Upstart Crow. Because when it hit screens in 2013, while it didn’t draw critical condemnation in the same way Magicians had, Ambassadors still seemed to struggle with viewers’ – and critics’ – expectation of what Mitchell and Webb were all about, what they could do, and what, when all was said and done, they probably shouldn’t.

Shot on film, and partly on location in Western Turkey, it’s a single series of just three hour-long episodes, rather than something that breaks up its storytelling into more bite-size pieces and demands that viewers buy into it over the longer term, evolving its characters as it goes.

In essence, it dropped in the same format as Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss’ reimagining of Sherlock Holmes. But Ambassadors was never going to be Sherlock or anything like it.

It has roots in political comedies like Yes, Prime Minister, drama-with-funny-bits-in like The Thick Of It, and more serious, long-running dramas like The West Wing. It has an interesting “behind-the-scenes” premise of showing the conflicting demands of a British ambassador and his team in a country where diplomacy is often a matter of back-scratching, nods, winks and arms deals. And, perhaps peculiarly, it has Mitchell and Webb in leading roles.

On that point, let’s settle one thing before we move on. Mitchell and Webb in mostly-dramatic roles with character and situation comedy arising naturally out of events?

Yes, please. The pair nail their roles as Keith Davies, British Ambassador to Tazbekistan (Mitchell) and Neil Tilly, Deputy Head of Mission (Webb). They each do it in different ways, but they nail their characters to the screen.

Keith is a simmering cauldron of tensions, pressures, conflicting demands and expectations, but he’s also a natural diplomat, with both the charm and the elbows to get things done and push his agenda to the front of the line.

Neil is a serious-minded, pulled-together font of all knowledge, without whom the building would probably fall down out of sheer panic. The conviction with which he’s played is a particular surprise from Webb, who the world knew more as the relatively feckless Jez Usborne in Peep Show. Seeing him in such a central, relatively serious, morally certain though technically compromised role gave viewers and critics at the time quite a shock, but he absolutely works in the role.

Then again, the central duo are massively well supported. From getting Matthew MacFadyen in to play their boss back in London (known mostly as POD – Prince of Darkness) is both a stroke of casting genius and a delicious nod to his role as Chief of Section Tom Quinn in the long-running spy drama Spooks.

Fellow Spooks alumnus – besides SO much else – Keeley Hawes gives a highly flexible performance as Jennifer Davies, an impressive doctor in her own right, but also running a hugely effective social game as the ambassador’s wife.

Amara Karan is an actress who brightens everything she touches and gives it an extra edge of quality, so getting her to play Isabel, the Trade and Political Secretary, should have earned the casting director bonus points. Working closely with Neil, she’s an expert in making the wheels of diplomacy turn, and it’s not too far a stretch to say you never want to stop watching the pair together.

Similarly, Susan Lynch had been adding believable grit and gravitas to shows and films since the mid-Nineties, and has rarely if ever struck a dud note. As Caitlin, Head of Consular Affairs, she tempers some of the hope and optimism that keeps embassy staff working with the hard-headedness that genuinely finds workable solutions and compromises.

And Natalia Tena (possibly best known as Tonks in the Harry Potter movies or Osha in Game of Thrones) adds a distinctly human note as Tanya, Neil’s Tazbek girlfriend, who plays her own part in the work of diplomacy, despite officially being a barmaid.

Match this cabinet of talents with scripts that are drawn from the stories and reminiscences of real embassy staff, and what you have are three extremely watchable hours. Each of the episodes shows the arc of its own story, and explores issues related to the balance between the diplomatic interests of a nation and the human interests of the people who are tasked with making decisions that will shape lives and national destinies for years to come. That’s given to us even in the first episode, when the choice of what to do with a moment of influence comes down to a stark truth. The government back in London wants Keith to do a deal with the Tazbek President to supply billions of poundsworth of military helicopters (which he knows are likely to be used against Tazbek civilians who are against the current regime). Meanwhile, an activist is briefly rotting in a Tazbek jail on entirely trumped-up charges, and will be judicially beheaded in the morning.

What would you do? Save one life – and an ungrateful life at that – and sink the arms deal, losing jobs in your country, and snatching away a hope of prosperity for hundreds, if not thousands? Or sell the helicopters and close your eyes and ears to the imagined final screams of someone who wants to make the world better?

As we mentioned, if you tuned into Ambassadors looking for a stream of gags and slapstick, you’d be SERIOUSLY watching the wrong show.

But as an interesting, rewarding story that both delivers a complex story in each show and builds up and up to a climactic final episode, Ambassadors is three hours of your life you won’t at any point regret giving to Mitchell, Webb, and their incredible cast.

Quite why it’s just a one-series show is difficult to say. It’s worth noting of course that Mitchell and Webb were still filming Peep Show when Ambassadors went out, so perhaps any plans for more of what was presumably a costly show to produce simply clashed with longer-standing commitments.

But it’s also fair to say that it had ratings on broadcast that, while decent, didn’t especially set the schedules alight and inspire an instant fan campaign for more of the Ambassadors. Perhaps the combination of both factors dissipated any will – and money - for more.

One thing is certain, though. With perspective and distance, it’s a much better show than the immediate ratings would have you believe. And now, with its arrival on Britbox, you can watch Ambassadors in a way that is unpressured, and unburdened by pre-knowledge of ‘What Mitchell and Webb do.’

Watch it again – or for the first time – in that spirit, and you’ll have fun, get gripped, and be entirely pulled into the world of the embassy staff. The enjoyment comes as much from seeing wheels in motion as it does from the occasional comedic moments. How the embassy staff tackle their multi-layered dilemmas, and how they solve them enough to at least survive another day, is what you’re really here for – and on that score, Ambassadors won’t let you down.

Watch Ambassadors today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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