The Ambassador is a bit of an oddity in the universe of British drama about politics, in that its not very cynical. Pragmatic, yes, but not cynical. As a result it seems to have more in common with The West Wing than with the kind of scurrilously disrespectful political drama and comedy we’re used to.
Pauline Collins is Harriet Smith, Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland. It’s a charmingly strong performance, nuanced and steely but with bags of warmth. We’re in no doubt the strength of this woman working in what is clearly a man’s world made up of a very old guard, and also in no doubt about whether she’ll take any shit.
We first meet her as she’s just arrived in Dublin – a widow with a young family consisting of a precocious younger son and an older son, already studying at Trinity College (who is unfortunately slightly too cliched a stroppy idiot to ever take seriously). The programme takes great pains to balance the personal and political, with worries over her family taking equal billing in the drama with the political machinations. It’s a shame really, because the family aspect is the least interesting dramatically of the whole lot. In the second series Ambassador Smith’s relationship with a possibly shady businessman played with his usual elegant elan by the wonderful Peter Egan does actually combine the two more successfully, but the political intrigue is the stronger of the two sides of the story.
In the retinue of support staff at embassy is the Ambassador’s assistant, the commercial attache and smooth talking ladies man John Stone (Denis Lawson). Stone is in fact the M16 officer in charge of security operations, which makes once its revealed very early on (this is not a spoiler) because he never actually seems to do any work. But his shadowy expertise is at the centre of more than one plot. Also Harriet Smith’s second in command is the deceptively young old guard Stephen Tyler played with expertly chiseled vowel sounds by William Chubb.
Each episode is nicely structured and paced. It’s an easy watch without relying on the audience having to delve too deeply into the emotional stores. The politics plays slightly too much of a backseat to the family story but in its generally optimistic attitude the political drama we do see is actually quite hopeful.
The dialogue may not be as sparkly and interesting as The West Wing, but The Ambassador proves that a positive British drama about politics is actually possible. Even if it has to be set in another country.
The Ambassador is released on DVD on the 15th August.