Long-term comedy collaborators David Mitchell and Robert Webb have teamed up again to star in the new BBC2 comedy-drama Ambassadors (Wednesday, Oct 23), which is set in a foreign embassy.
TV & Satellite Week caught up with the two stars, best known for playing slacker Jez and his uptight flatmate Mark in Peep Show, for a debriefing on their new roles in the diplomatic service…
How did the idea for this series come about?
David: “We started with this vague idea that it was a good place to set a comedy-drama and we were surprised not to discover that it was being done or had recently been done.”
What’s the set-up?
Robert: “It’s set in the British embassy in Tazbekistan, a fictional ‘stan’ not a million miles away in tone and geography from the other ’stans’ which are real.”
What can you tell us about your characters – newly arrived ambassador Keith and his second-in-command, Neil?
Robert: “My character Neil has been there longer and there’s a slightly more cynical feel about him. They’ve only just met and they’re getting to know each other.”
David: “They suspect each other of being exactly the sort of person who’s dragging the foreign office down. Keith, who I play, thinks Neil is a woolly liberal who’s gone native.”
Robert: “Whereas Neil thinks Keith is this yesman who is ambitious for his own sake.”
David: “They’re both partly right, but they don’t think of each other as stupid or incompetent.”
It’s been described as ‘Spooks meets Yes, Prime Minister’. Would you agree?
Robert: “It’s like nothing else that’s ever been on television before! Actually, I had to come up with a quote for the press release so I said: ‘It’s sort of Yes, Prime Minister meets Spooks at a bad disco, and Yes, Prime Minister is a bit sick on Spooks, but Spooks doesn’t mind.’ It’s got civil servants in it so it’s slightly reminiscent of Yes, Prime Minister.”
David: “It’s definitely a comedy drama and not a sitcom.”
Robert: “I’d describe it as a drama that allows itself to be funny – just to pre-empt everyone saying: ‘It’s not as funny as Peep Show, is it?’”
If it’s also like Spooks, does this mean you’re turning into action men?
David: “I got tied up and shoved into a room.”
Robert: “I get kidnapped at the beginning of the second episode, and that involved having a bag over my head and being pushed roughly into a chair. But actually they weren’t that rough at all.”
Borat, the comedy character from Kazakhstan, attracted accusations of racism. Were you wary of that potential pitfall?
Robert: “If anybody starts speaking with a foreign accent, everybody goes: ‘Oh, that’s racist’. But obviously people do speak with foreign accents, so it’s just a matter of getting the tone right.”
What is Tazbekistan like?
David: “There’s oil there, and a bit of money in this new capital city that the President has built. There’s a hospital where my character’s wife, played by Keeley Hawes, works. There’s not much to do, but there are a lot of lucrative business opportunities for western countries, which is why this is potentially a more important embassy that you might expect for such a small country.”
Who else is in the show?
Robert: “We are visited by a member of the royal family, played hilariously by Tom Hollander. Matthew Macfadyen plays our boss in London whose nickname, Pod, is short for ‘prince of darkness.’”
Are you now more diplomatic having played these roles?
David: “I don’t think we learned any diplomatic skills. I’m more diplomatic than Robert as I don’t like conflict. I occasionally lose my temper, but it costs me a lot emotionally so I try to avoid it. I’m very two-faced – I try to tell people what they want to hear.”