Review: Pack your pin-stripes for the European front
Friday 29 April 1994
The FO - an incongruous acronym for a ministry that trains its staff to be polite - has overcome its legendary camera shyness. It can't be a coincidence that this conversion took place on the road to Maastricht. Opening doors has given the mandarins a chance to prove that diplomacy is not all a matter of plush upholstery and cushy cuisine (though the fromage selection on their chartered plane did seem to be a notch up from the cheese on the bucket-shop shuttle).
The series beamed in at ministerial level, focusing on Tristan Garel-Jones during the British presidency of the Union. As he and a team of chiselled, pin-striped flunkies whizzed round Europe, one cast around for signs of humility and esteem for others in our official face abroad. A stop-over in Rome offered an early chance to take a reading. 'He's miles away,' said our minister, after chewing the fat with his Italian opposite number. 'He's on another planet. Zimmer frame, really.' And the flunky, a non-smoker but well stocked with his boss's favourite cigarettes, agreed.
Never mind that our minister's effort to communicate with the allegedly decrepit space cadet in his own language yielded a solitary word of Spanish: 'Comprendo.' On the evidence of this film, though this will doubtless be disproved by subsequent episodes, a knowledge of foreign tongues is not part of the British brief. In one sequence rich in comedy, in which our chinless negotiator hammered out a statement that everyone could agree on, two meticulous Danes argued with each other in English about the various legal implications lurking in certain of our verbs. In another, less frantic, episode, True Brits might find time to ask whether Britain's false sense of superiority is founded on the fact that everyone speaks our language, literally if not metaphorically. If our chaps had to talk to one another in Danish about Danish verbs, Britain would never have got involved with the foreigners in the first place.
Garel-Jones, who resigned his post once Maastricht, limping and bandaged, had got through a hostile Parliament, is meant to be one of his party's most ardent Europeans, but even he talked dismissively of 'all this Euro claptrap that the Belgians and these other people have been peddling for years'. There was probably a clause in his agreement, thrashed out over several late-night soirees at the Savoy Grill, that delayed the broadcast until he was safely spending more time with his family.
The claim for True Brits is that it has gained unprecedented access. While the newly accessible has nothing quite as crowd-pleasing to show of itself as the Royal Family famously burning sausages on the barbecue, it's still a glimpse of something hitherto unseen. How much of a glimpse it is, though, is hard to assess. We saw Garel-Jones tut-tutting at the PM's tasteless choice of conference chairs, which will doubtless dig a deeper chip into Mr Major's classless shoulder, but that was just a minor indiscretion. Before Edinburgh he talked of 'showing Gonzalez (the Spanish PM) a bit of ankle,' and one suspects that this series is performing the same modest act of titillation on its audience. And most titillating it is, too.
The executive producer of True Brits is Edward Mirzoeff, who has previously gained intimate access to those tabloid superstars, Torvill and Dean and the Queen. The Disorderly House of Windsor (C 4) cited the access granted for films like Mirzoeff's as the principal cause of the first family's decline. 'Elizabeth R' might as well have been called 'Elizabeth PR', so flagrant was its sales pitch. This was a tidy rehearsal of the reasons for not buying the product.
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