David Mitchell and Robert Webb in Ambassadors.
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Beheadings and Eccles cakes: David Mitchell and Robert Webb reunite in Ambassadors

Ambassadors reserves at least as much of its firepower for naive human rights workers, heritage fetishists in mob caps and those dreary dumbos who believe it’s no more difficult to export culture than it is to crate up a few bottles of HP Sauce.

Ambassadors
BBC2

I’m demented with love for Ambassadors, a new drama series (Wednesdays, 9pm) with funny bits, starring David Mitchell and Robert Webb. But I do wonder: how on earth did it get commissioned? It’s so hard to imagine the programme meeting. Jokes about central Asia? Jokes about human rights abuse in central Asia? And who cares about diplomats, anyway, with their entitled publicschool backgrounds, their special car number plates and their insulating imported supplies of Marmite and McVitie’s Digestives? My God, how I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at that one, each relevant bottom shifting uncomfortably in its seat at the horrible conjunction of the words “beheading”, “vodka” and “Eccles cakes”.

Somewhere along the way, though, the writers, James Wood (Rev) and Rupert Walters (Spooks), obviously managed to penetrate the BBC’s Dome of Nervousness – a wobbly structure that was built by committee over a period of several decades – because their Kingsley Amis/Craig Murray mash-up is now a reality and going out in three hour-long episodes. Hooray!

Filmed on location in Turkey, it looks extremely convincing, all minarets, boulders and roads to nowhere. But it sounds even better – weird, black, learned and quite fiercely satirical (I can’t see Jack Straw putting it on his Sky Plus any time soon). The performances are slick and rather wonderful, particularly that of Webb, who is so superbly lizard-like in his role that you half expect a long green tail to emerge from his trousers and wrap itself around the nearest flagpole. That it sometimes made me laugh out loud was just the icing on the plov.

They eat a lot of plov, an Uzbek rice dish, in Tazbekistan, a country so remote and inhospitable that no member of HM Government is willing to visit it, not even when a $2bn helicopter contract is in the offing. In episode one, our man over there, Ambassador Keith Davies (Mitchell), had to try to bag the deal through his own efforts, something that was always going to be tricky, given that: a) he’s a bit of a plonker and b) the country’s president is a psychopathic dictator with a taste for butchery (animals and humans).

First, there was a hunting trip with His Excellency, a snow-bound fiasco that began with Davies accidentally shooting an ibex, the revered national animal of Tazbekistan, and which ended with him suffering from alcohol poisoning.

Then there was a calamitous “Best of British” reception at the ambassador’s residence: many chutneys were displayed, a group of Gloucestershire hippies played Englishe folke songes and a luvvie called Stephen Pembridge (Elliot Cowan), who’d arrived courtesy of the British Council, performed his one-man Frankenstein. (“Oh, not him,” said the American ambassador when she heard about the evening’s entertainment. “They put me through his Martin Chuzzlewit in Ankara last year, and it was longer than sorrow.”) Davies took one look at the gathering – “Hey, nonny nonny”, went the folkies, recorders tootling frantically – and said to his deputy, Neil Tilly (played by Webb): “It’s hardly the Great Exhibition, is it?” Hee.

The whole thing was essentially the madrigal scene from Lucky Jim, minus the knitted ties and sexual frustration (Tazbekistan is a conservative Muslim country but these rules, as ever, do not apply in Embassy Land). Neil, by the way, is the Murrayish figure (Craig Murray, you will recall, is a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan and the author of the book Murder in Samarkand, which Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan once hoped to make into a film). In other words, he is a diplomatic cynic with a local girlfriend. He is also possibly about to go rogue; the Tazbekistanis are in possession of some dodgy photographs of him and will use them unless he spies for them.

There’s much to admire in Ambassadors. What marks it out, though, is its even-handedness. Of course it was always going to take aim at the Foreign Office, an organisation that somehow manages to be both sleazy and ludicrously superior (“Sniff the armpit, but no embarrassing Blair/Gaddafi handshakes,” says Davies’s boss from London, urging him to get closer to the president).

Yet happily Ambassadors reserves at least as much of its firepower for naive human rights workers, heritage fetishists in mob caps and those dreary dumbos who believe it’s no more difficult to export culture than it is to crate up a few bottles of HP Sauce. It’s a drama that is quietly attentive to reality, or at least to realpolitik, and this, for those of us growing weary of certain liberal doctrines, will come as something of a relief. To be enjoyed, without or without the Ferrero Rocher.

Rachel Cooke’s book “Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties” will be published by Virago on 31 October Books, page 73

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

Still from How to be Single
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Why is Britain falling out of love with Valentine’s Day?

Celebration of the “Hallmark holiday” is at an all-time low in the UK.

A recent YouGov poll found that only four in ten Britons will be celebrating Valentine’s Day this year. And – perhaps more tellingly, if, like me, you believe that Hollywood has a shrewd grip on the nuances of Britain’s collective attitude – this year’s Valentine’s Day romcom isn’t the usual boy-meets-girl love story, but a film about being single.

So are we falling out of love with Valentine’s Day? And why? It may be partially down to the financially independent self-proclaimed Bridget Jones generation. We’re living longer and doing it on our own; we’re all a bit more relaxed about the search for our significant other (and probably less inclined to say “significant other”).

Unmarried adults are now a majority for the first time, according to analysis of the 2011 census. In fact, the number of people living alone globally has increased by around 80 per cent in the 15 years leading up to 2011.

We’re marrying and having children later than we used to, divorcing with wild abandon and using apps to bring more efficiency to our dating lives. I’m 26, and I still feel panicky when someone chooses to take on any more responsibility than a Twitter account. But it was completely normal for my parents’ generation to be having babies at this age.

Our increasingly casual ways might just have rubbed off on our dating lives – in spite of apps supposedly making dating more accessible. An impressive 72 per cent of people would rather stay in and watch Netflix than go out, according to a recent study. OK, so that’s according to Netflix – but there’s no denying that we have been staying in and forgoing dating a lot more since that old recession.

One survey found that 59 per cent of men think Valentine’s Day is pointless. And of those remaining, one fifth think the most important aim of the day is to “get laid”. But men – and filmmakers – aren't the only ones to dislike the “Hallmark holiday”.

The burgeoning anti-Valentine’s movement – rebranding the day according to our beliefs – has the potential to kick more retailers to the curb than supermarkets’ enthusiasm for horsemeat (but more of that in my “Valentine’s gift guide for her” piece).

Bounce nightclub has run an anti-Valentine's party in London for the last three years, where the “bounce games gurus” dressed in their “love police” uniforms punish any “romance rebels” who don't abide by the strict anti-Valentine’s Day rules.

These rules include: no flowers, hearts, public displays of affection, emotional outbursts, pet names, sharing dessert, winking or whispering. And I’m assuming drugs are prohibited – no one wants to be tripping when they’re already in a room full of pretend police arresting people for unlawful eyelid movements.

But Bounce says its event has always sold out, and a spokesperson attributes its popularity to people increasingly preferring to socialise in groups, rather than in couples:

“Looking at sales this year, interest is far from dwindling. In general, there's been an increase in interest for group events as opposed to the traditional Valentine's event designed for couples.”

Another growing Valentine’s alternative is “Galentine’s Day”, which originated in 2010 from the show Parks and Recreation and is growing in popularity. The idea behind it is to celebrate the platonic love of female friendships in whatever way you and your gal pal wish.

This seems to be more positive rebrand of the single women’s Valentine’s boycott seen in the Friends episode of burning boyfriend memorabilia.

Last February, student Amelia Horgan helped to organise a very different anti-Valentine's Day party with her student union, as a fundraiser for her university’s local rape crisis centre. “The thinking behind it was that Valentine’s Day can be a really alienating experience for those of us who don’t, and don’t want to, match the standards of heteronormative romance,” she tells me. 

The party, she says, was “an alternative event that's much more fun than forgetting to book a reservation for dinner and sitting across from someone you've grown to silently resent, or sitting at home feeling worthless because you haven’t got a date”.

Perhaps a day celebrating traditional love is becoming more and more incongruous alongside an increasing openness towards discussing gender and sexuality.

We’re talking more about how sexuality transcends definition – a discussion that peaked in popular culture with model Cara Delevingne’s comments last year on the fluidity of sexuality. And then there’s Jayden Smith, who is becoming frontman for the increasingly blurred gender lines in fashion.

Valentine’s Day as we know it might be wilting, but I can’t help feeling more love for our willingness to replace it with something more fitting.