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

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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