Mitchell and Webb: The funny old world of foreign affairs

David Mitchell and Robert Webb are back on our screens in a new BBC2 series, Ambassadors. Diplomacy is a rich source of such comic material, so it's surprising no one has tried to cover it before, they tell James Rampton

The stars of Peep Show, Channel 4's consistently brilliant and enduring sitcom about a pair of loser thirtysomethings wasting their lives in a permanent state of arrested development in a dreary flat in Croydon, have surely never looked so elegant and sophisticated.

Dressed today in smart suits, they are sitting on ornate armchairs in the splendiferous drawing room at a grand stately home on the outskirts of Reading. You almost expect to see a photographer dashing about taking pictures for a glossy magazine feature headlined: "Mitchell and Webb show us round their beautiful home."

It's not really their home, of course. We are on the British Embassy set of their latest venture, Ambassadors, and as you can see, this time the performers have left the Croydon flat far behind.

Written by James Wood (Rev) and Rupert Walters (Spooks), BBC2's promising three-part comedy drama zooms in on Keith Davis (Mitchell) and Neil Tilly (Webb), who are respectively the ambassador and his deputy at the British Embassy in the fictional central Asian country of Tazbekistan.

Keith and Neil have to deal with such inconveniences as a high-maintenance minor-royal-cum-trade-envoy. All the while, they are arguing over the competing demands of commerce and human rights in this oil-rich, not-really-very-democratic-at- all nation.

In the first episode of the series, which is shot in Turkey and the home counties, Keith and Neil have a huge stand-up row over whether they should petition the tyrannical president of Tazbekistan about a £2 billion helicopter contract or about the release of a British human rights activist. It's international geopolitics – with added laughs.

Reclining in their armchairs, Mitchell and Webb possess a natural ease with each other that stems from a friendship dating back to their first meeting at an audition for a Cambridge Footlights production of Cinderella 20 years ago. They banter and take the rise out of each other in the way that only truly close friends can.

They begin by expressing their delight that such a rich subject has never been covered by a British comedy drama before. Mitchell, 39, who is married to broadcaster Victoria Coren, observes that, "I'm very surprised that there haven't been about eight different series set in embassies, ranging from a big studio sitcom with lots of laughs to a very serious drama and everything in between."

"We're going to try every genre in this series," chips in 41-year-old Webb, in characteristic fashion. "Episode one is a sitcom, episode two is a serious drama, and it all ends in parody."

Picking up the baton, Mitchell continues, "It hasn't been done before because people previously thought, 'It hasn't been done before.' They said to themselves, 'That's spooky.' We're the only ones who thought, 'Sod it. We're going to build a house on that old Native American graveyard. I'm not superstitious. What could possibly go wrong?'"

In the same way, Webb chimes in, "There has never been a great British sitcom about a band. That's funny when you consider that among the community of comedians there is a large minority who would rather be pop stars."

Mitchell takes up the theme. "I would genuinely rather be a comedian than a pop star. I resent sharing my profession with so many failed rock stars, with people whose faces are too bent and whose musicality is too unoriginal to make it in the pop world. Just imagine, a touch more weirdness from Mick Jagger and he'd have been in On the Buses."

The pair's easy-going chemistry translates seamlessly to the screen. It has served Mitchell and Webb exceedingly well over the past 10 years on Peep Show, which is now the longest-running British sitcom on Channel 4.

However, it would be wrong to think of Ambassadors as "Peep Show: the Foreign Office Years". Webb, who is married to fellow performer Abigail Burdess and has two young daughters, comments that, "Unlike Mark and Jeremy from Peep Show, Keith and Neil are fully functioning human beings. They are ordinary people doing an extraordinary job.

"The characters in Ambassadors are happy where they are. They don't feel trapped – they're not like Basil Fawlty desperate for his hotel to be grander or Captain Mainwaring wanting to be a general."

Mitchell, who with Webb is preparing to film what looks set to be the last ever series of Peep Show, adds that, "It is inevitable that viewers will bring baggage from Peep Show, but this is a very different beast. It's less populated by characters who are incompetent, for a start.

"It's going to be very difficult to mistake Ambassadors for a sitcom set in urban Croydon – although I'm sure some people will still try. Perhaps to make it absolutely safe, Ambassadors should have been set in the Iron Age or Ancient Rome."

Referring to one of the most popular characters in Peep Show, Mitchell carries on that, "I can assure you that Super Hans is not going to appear in Ambassadors as a trade representative. That would be like turning Peep Show into a sort of Carry On franchise. This week they're running the Embassy, and next week they're working in a condom factory. Actually, that's not a bad idea. Is it too late for a quick rewrite?"

Now, Webb has gone back to the theatre, appearing at the Hampstead Theatre in Raving, a new comedy about the trials of marriage and parenthood.

Mitchell, too, is considering a return to the stage. When I ask if he would fancy one of Shakespeare's great comic roles, he jokes, "No, I want to do something older than that. I'm not comfortable with all that up-to-date Shakespearean dialogue. I'm going to do some untranslated Mystery play in Old Norse. I want to make sure we pack 'em in!"

Finally, there is one unresolved mystery in Ambassadors. Mitchell reveals that, "Keith's predecessor has left under a dark cloud. He just disappeared, and no one knows what has happened to him. Perhaps if they commission another series, it will eventually be explained."

Quick as a flash, Webb jumps in: "Maybe we could make a prequel starring Mick Jagger as the previous Ambassador."

'Ambassadors' begins on Wednesday at 9pm on BBC2

Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
Arts and Entertainment
Crowd control: institutions like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are packed

Art
Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices