Rob Brown's Media Column

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The Independent Online
A Sunday night drama series may have had us all chortling over our Ferrero Rochers, but as a view of life at the top of Irish politics, it seems sadly implausible

Did you see The Ambassador? Don't worry if you missed the first six-part series: a second series will be filmed in Dublin later this year, which you may stumble upon some Sunday evening. Whether you will consider it a stimulating way to round off your Sabbath is another matter.

The decision to recommission this drama will astound those who considered the first series anything but a diplomatic triumph. Not to put too fine a point upon it, The Ambassador got absolutely panned by some telly critics on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Even Her Excellency the Ambassador to Dublin - the real one, Veronica Sutherland - felt moved to emphasise in a newspaper interview that she wasn't a bit like the character portrayed by Pauline Collins.

She told the Irish Independent: "I inevitably judge it as a comparison between the life of Harriet Smith and my own life and they are so completely different. I find myself thinking: `If that were me I wouldn't be doing it like that'. The content of the stories is nothing I have ever had to deal with in my own life."

What Ms Sutherland found especially implausible was the way her fictional counterpart repeatedly wrestled with the demands of Realpolitik and her caring, feminine instincts. "I have been in this career since 1965 and I don't find that very plausible," she said. "If you're going to get ahead in this career there are certain ways in which you tackle the problems."

One of the most savage critics of the series - aside from The Independent's Tom Sutcliffe - was Peter Paterson of the Daily Mail, who will certainly be startled to see it being recommissioned. He wrote last week: "They say that the diplomatic community in Dublin takes it in turn to host TV parties on Sunday nights just to have a good laugh over the latest episode of The Ambassador. "

Douglas Rae of Ecosse Films, the London-based independent production company which made The Ambassador for BBC Northern Ireland, says that is nonsense, pointing out that a former - "very senior, but he must remain anonymous" - British ambassador served as a consultant on the series and approved the scripts. Rae added: "Seventy per cent of the critics did like it and, more to the point, seven million people watched it."

These are, presumably, people whose knowledge of modern international diplomacy is drawn largely from the Ferrero Rocher commercials. No, that's a little unfair... to the makers of that telly ad, who didn't foist a mumsy, maverick - and hence entirely unbelievable - ambassador on us.

As you can see, I broadly come down on the side of the detractors, not just because of the sentimental tosh spouted by this single-parent superwoman, but because poor dialogue was the uniting thread in the entire series.

Robert Cooper, head of drama at BBC Northern Ireland, said that The Ambassador has a point when he suggests that the series is highly topical at a time when the present Foreign Secretary is endeavouring to pursue a more ethical foreign policy. But, Harriet Smith doesn't just bring an ethical dimension to her diplomacy - the most Robin Cook ever promised - she spends half her working life dispensing moral lectures to here embassy aides and to Ireland's Minister for External Affairs, who was her sparring partner in every consecutive episode.

When she isn't getting up his nose, she is repeatedly outwitting Ireland's police force by mopping up unsolved crimes in metropolitan Dublin involving British subjects. Obviously Garda investigators welcome all the help they can get, but it is hard to envisage any police force tolerating Mrs Marple with a diplomatic pouch.

The truth is that this series could not have been made without the co- operation of the Irish authorities. The Dublin government's generous tax breaks for film-makers, coupled with access to a range of state buildings, made the shooting of the series both financially and physically feasible.

My hunch is that the Irish political elite view The Ambassador as a harmless melodrama which, at least, portrays Dublin as a modern and sophisticated European capital. Half the cast carry mobile phones and drive Mercs.

The Ambassador will certainly make a more positive contribution to Anglo- Irish relations at the popular level than some recent episodes of EastEnders. But, if it is ever to be viewed as a sophisticated popular drama - which is what the producers should aspire to - they are going to have to address some of the central deficiencies spotlighted by the critics.

That doesn't mean diplomatic protocol should hold up the plot. Obviously the script-writers must be allowed some artistic license, as Veronica Sutherland herself conceded in a separate interview with the Sunday Tribune. Real-life representatives of Her Majesty's Government abroad tend to spend most of their time attending tedious meetings and functions or on the phone to the Foreign Office. Not very televisual.

Robert Cooper tells me that he hopes to focus more in the second series on the ambassador's domestic trials and tribulations. Harriet Smith's husband was killed in a Middle East car bomb meant for her and she now has to deal with a dysfunctional family - a real diplomatic challenge, offering ample scope for a Sunday night drama series.

Let's just hope the script-writers rise to the challenge. If not, they should just make the humour intentional next time and have us all chortling on our Ferrero Rochers.

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