Last Night's Television - Generation Jihad, BBC2; Getting Our Way, BBC4
A power trip to savour
Tuesday 09 February 2010
Mock humility does not become Sir Christopher Meyer KCMG. The former British Ambassador to the US presents
Getting Our Way, a three-part series about the history of British diplomacy based on his book of the same name, and in last night's opener mused that he would love to have played a part in the Byzantine international relations of Elizabethan times. "The nearest I got to it," he added, affecting disappointment, "was playing cat and mouse with the KGB in Soviet Russia."
It's rarely a good idea to make your audience feel inferior, or less privileged. My wife and I both sniffed. On a scale of one to 10 of diplomatic intrigue, playing cat and mouse with the KGB is right up there, and Meyer knows it. The nearest we ever got to the Byzantine international relations of Elizabethan times, we decided, was probably the parent teacher association at our children's primary school.
Still, Sir Christopher can be forgiven for wearing his credentials with pride, and on the whole he did a splendid job, manifestly enjoying himself enormously and sometimes out-Starkeying David Starkey, who must have thought he had first dibs on this kind of series. Like Sister Wendy Beckett, the nun with the teeth, Meyer has discovered late in life that he is a born TV personality, and he makes up for lost time by treating the camera like a co-conspirator in some Machiavellian plot, whispering, shouting, smiling, frowning, and changing clothes and even hats from shot to shot, as if trying to hoodwink two beetle-browed men following in a Skoda.
Moreover, his name carries the clout to open doors, so the talking heads are impressive: Lord Hurd, Lord Powell, Lord Wright and, Lord above, Henry Kissinger. Apart from Kissinger, whose voice is now officially too deep to understand, the others all talked about par, par games, and par-broking; with your eyes closed it was possible to imagine you'd switched inadvertently to the Golf Channel. Only the Right Honourable William Hague MP invested the word "power" with two syllables, which among pillars of the Establishment is a sure sign of a dodgy background. It's just as well that Hague is plotting a political route to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He'd never have got there through the Civil Service, not with those vowels.
As for definitions of the word "diplomat", opinions varied. Alex Salmond, the old cynic, said it means being sent abroad to lie for your country, while Lord Powell of Bayswater, once the Private Secretary to Margaret Thatcher, reckoned the one thing you must never do is lie. Meyer himself offered a different perspective. He recalled his years as a junior diplomat at the British Embassy in Madrid, where his main job was organising seating plans for grand dinners. Once, he realised he'd got it horribly wrong, when a duque stomped out, hugely miffed to see a mere marquess in a loftier position. At none of those dinners, incidentally, did Meyer ever see a single Ferrero Rocher chocolate.
Later, as Our Man in Washington, he was instructed by someone at 10 Downing Street – he didn't specify who – to "get up the arse of the White House and stay there". There were plenty of precedents, but no ambassador in Washington has ever inhabited the presidential fundament quite like David Ormsby-Gore, who in 1962 was largely responsible for persuading John F Kennedy to permit the British to use Polaris submarines.
The Polaris deal was sealed by Kennedy's affection for the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan; as Lord Hurd observed, personal chemistry is important in high-stakes diplomacy. Indeed, Meyer could offer his own striking example, having been at Camp David before the invasion of Iraq when George W Bush and Tony Blair holed up on their own – "a diplomat's nightmare" – leaving Meyer, Condoleezza Rice, Alastair Campbell and co to hunker down at the local Tex-Mex restaurant, talking fajitas.
For Meyer's personal recollections but also his studies of great diplomats through the centuries, this is an engrossing series. As, in a different way, is Generation Jihad, which coincidentally reflects the diminishing role of international diplomacy in protecting Britain, for there's not much a chap in a pinstripe suit can do to dissuade a jihadi from Halifax bent on mass-murder. As reporter Peter Taylor said, a small group of radicalised young men now pose the biggest single threat to national security; oh for the days when it was just Soviet warheads.
In last night's programme, the first of three, Taylor went to West Yorkshire to examine how men whose grandparents arrived from Pakistan decades ago with not a murderous or subversive thought in their heads, have signed up to fantasies of global jihad. A cocktail of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, violence in the Middle East and the internet seems to be the intoxicant.
We should all watch Generation Jihad, although I confess I would find it easier without the throbbing synthesizer. I have been banging the drum for years about background music in dramas and documentaries that bursts rudely into the foreground, but to little avail. Still, that's the least of our problems.
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