TV Review: How to Be A Foreign Secretary

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How to Be A Foreign Secretary (BBC2) began with some useful advice from Lord Owen, who recalled - in the middle of a montage about the irresistably soporific effects of international diplomacy - how he had found it useful to carry a pin which he could drive into his thigh at particularly muzzy moments. You wouldn't dare invent such a detail but you wouldn't dare confess to it either, at least not until you had been safely out of office for several years. It is one of the pleasures of Michael Cockerell's political primers (this followed similar exercises on the offices of Prime Minister and Chancellor) that he mixes current incumbents - who still have to be circumspect - with veterans who can afford to be less tight- fisted. That this holds good for civil servants too was demonstrated by the knowing juxtaposition of the current Permanent Secretary, pooh- poohing the very notion that Foreign Office officials would attempt to bend Ministers to their will, and an ex-Civil Servant, who described the department's general attitude to new appointees as being like that of an oyster to a grain of sand - "the intrusion of an irritant with a very low statistical probability of ever producing a pearl".

The perks of the job are considerable - a magnificent country house and a very nice place in town, not to mention a high seed for the top job - but they need to be, because the demands are grim too - from a life spent perpetually in transit to the numbing tedium of consensus politics. "There's nothing that bureaucrats like better than drafting" explained Lord Carrington, a charge borne out by a sly sequence in which the nation's brightest minds were seen agonising over the relative merits of "agree" and "decide", "declaration" and "decision". The word "ethical" appeared to have undergone a top-level etymological make-over too, since Robin Cook first used it to describe his new- broom policy. A brief exposure to realpolitik had made his brave words more cautious: "Inconsistency is inevitable in compromise," he concluded, "and compromise is inevitable in foreign policy".

Ambassador (BBC1) a gleaming vehicle bearing Pauline Collins and a little Union Jack on the aerial, was unlucky to follow Cockerell's beguiling and informative programme. Then again, you wouldn't need to know the first thing about the world of British diplomacy to see that this is thin stuff. Collins plays a career diplomat recently appointed as Ambassador to Dublin. You would be more likely to find Sharon Stone playing Mother Theresa than come across Collins in an unsympathetic role, but just in case the audience didn't take it as read that this was a woman in whom brilliance and tenderness vied for prominence, the writer had taken precautions; our heroine was first seen helping a frail old lady off a plane, and whenever her dead husband was mentioned, her voice faltered and her eyes filled with tears. I assumed from her manner that the soil was yet fresh on his grave, but it turned out that he had died four years earlier, the victim of a car- bomb intended for her. His death was hardly surprising, if the security at the time was anything like as incompetent as that depicted now. Arriving to present her credentials to the Irish premier, Collins is assaulted by an egg-throwing protester who simply trots past the two flustered Gardai on the gate. Much later, the ambassador races unhindered through the corridors of the Dail to deliver an important message to the Irish Foreign Minister, apparently unaware of the invention of the mobile phone or the existence of civil servants. The depiction of diplomatic manners is scarcely more convincing, alternating between pious speeches that wouldn't have been out of place in a Forties morale-booster ("Yes, it's true that my remit here is to protect Britain's interests, but that includes protecting her reputation as a just and honourable nation") and exchanges of steely insinuation, as seen in every Angry Colleague drama since the Triassic Period. Had the Irish Government not actually helped to fund this insult to the intelligence it would have constituted perfect grounds for breaking off diplomatic relations.