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14 November 2018

Michael Waldman’s Inside the Foreign Office sometimes feels like a clever PR stunt

Plus: Running Wild with Bear Grylls.

By Rachel Cooke

Michael Waldman’s new series Inside the Foreign Office (9pm, 15 November) opens in New York, where the United Nations General Assembly is about to meet, and diplomats at the UK’s Permanent Mission to the UN (UKMIS) are, metaphorically speaking, carefully placing Ferrero Rocher on silver platters ahead of the arrival of various British politicians. Waldman began filming in June 2017, soon after Theresa May’s botched election, and thanks to this, Boris Johnson is still foreign secretary and initially much in evidence, cracking his stagey jokes, refusing to make eye contact, gazing heavenwards whenever anyone who knows more than him – which is pretty much everyone – has the temerity to brief him. Here is entitlement, and here is bullshit, and together they make for some quite appalling viewing.

However, he’s soon gone. With these documentaries, the waspish Waldman (Inside Dior, Our Queen) appears to be attempting an impersonation of the great political film-maker Michael Cockerell, and it simply wouldn’t do for one overgrown sixth former to dominate, would it? He wants to give us wheels within wheels: Sir Humphrey as well as the Minister. Personally, I don’t think he presses his interviewees nearly closely enough. How, for instance, did Harriet O’Brien, who left her state school at 16, come to be a second secretary at UKMIS? What route did she take? We were never told. On the plus side, people do seem to like showing off to him, some of them growing quite camp in the  process. “Not one of my regulars,” said Matthew Rycroft, the British ambassador to the UN, somewhat tartly, on putting down the telephone to his Burmese opposite number.

But I do wonder to what degree this is just a clever PR exercise on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)’s part. Waldman boasted of his remarkable access at the outset, but at times I felt like I was watching a recruitment ad: “The Foreign Office: Not as Posh as You Think” or “Diplomats: Seriously Normal”. In Ukraine, we met Judith Gough, an ambassador who is gay and who likes Eurovision. In Burma, we watched the new ambassador, Dan Chugg, strum his guitar and sing “Wonderwall” as one of the white-jacketed flunkies who staff his colonial mansion smilingly looked on. Chugg, who did an MA in pop music, once wrote a 5,000-word essay about “Wonderwall”, which may, or may not, come in useful at the stuffier Rangoon dinner parties.

In the end, it was left to Simon McDonald, the permanent under-secretary at the FCO and the head of the diplomatic service, to come over all sphinx-like and talk in esoteric Oxbridge aphorisms (“Diplomacy is the art of letting other people have your way,” he announced early on, a statement I’m still trying to translate into English). He was also – picture a clubby room, possibly lightly scented with extract of limes from Geo F Trumper – just a touch patrician. When he spoke to Chugg, shortly before his departure to Burma, he carefully reminded him that he was now a “key role model” and therefore needed to be on best behaviour. Had McDonald heard rumours about the obsession with Noel Gallagher? Was he trying to decode Chugg’s luxuriant eyebrows even as he settled into his stately armchair? Again, we were not told.

Running Wild with Bear Grylls (9pm, 12 November) is made by NBC, something you know even before you see the logo: what is it with US network shows and their need to reiterate in a Very Loud Voice things that happened only five minutes ago? Still, in his US format Grylls does get good guests, Barack Obama having been the most famous.

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To open season three, his candidate for a day trip in the great outdoors was Roger Federer, who attached tennis rackets to his shoes to cross the Swiss snow, and unhesitatingly ate both a fish’s eyeball and a bolus of stewed reindeer moss for his lunch. They sounded like Gwyneth Paltrow on a bad day. “It’s a journey, isn’t it?” said Bear, of life. “Dare to dream,” said Roger, of ambition. Departing their adventure in a handily parked snowmobile, they looked like nothing so much as two personal trainers on their way to a local juice bar. 

Inside the Foreign Office (BBC Two)
Running Wild with Bear Grylls (ITV)

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This article appears in the 14 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexiteers broke history