TV preview: Ambassadors | Toast of London

Keeley Hawes and David Mitchell in Ambassadors. Picture: BBC

Keeley Hawes and David Mitchell in Ambassadors. Picture: BBC

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THE big question about new comedy drama Ambassadors: is it just Mark and Jeremy from Peep Show as diplomats? Or is it just David and Robert from Mitchell & Webb, umpteen comedy quiz shows and voiceovers?

Ambassadors

Wednesday, BBC2, 9pm

Toast of London

Sunday, Channel 4, 10:40pm

Muse of Fire

Thursday, BBC 4, 10:40pm

It’s a double act conundrum, though no-one ever complained that Laurel & Hardy played the same characters every time.

Ambassadors isn’t written by Peep Show’s Armstrong and Bain, nor by Mitchell and Webb themselves, though. It comes from the team behind Rev, with – surprisingly – assistance from the Foreign Office, but none from controversial former ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray, who’s complained it rips off his story.

Mitchell plays the clownish British ambassador to “Tazbekistan”, instructed to secure a major business deal from the highly stereotypical locals; Webb is his efficient deputy, sceptical of their hosts’ human rights record.

There is something here – a visiting actor is amusingly lampooned, Webb’s character is appealing and the setting is interesting – but it doesn’t quite work. The Tazbeks are caricatures, Mitchell’s acting abilities aren’t up to the more serious parts and the FO’s involvement clearly blunts the satire to show the Brits as just awfully decent chaps, really. While the presence of such a familiar comedy duo might lead people to expect more of a sitcom feel, this is more story than jokes.

TOAST OF LONDON, meanwhile, was picked up from Channel 4’s comedy pilot season last year. It’s a mildly surreal sitcom about a pretentious actor played by Matt Berry (doing that same “cinema advert voiceover” voice he did in The IT Crowd and the much-missed Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place – can it be his actual voice?) Berry also co-wrote it with Arthur Mathews, who co-wrote Father Ted and the late 1990s sketch show, Big Train, which launched half of Britain’s current comedy actors.

Toast shares that off-kilter sensibility within a more conventional format: its hero goes through the usual sitcom set-ups, but with a disturbed edge.

For instance, when he meets a potential love interest, she’s played by Emma Fryer with a manic laugh and demented body language, as if miming a crane. And she’s called Susan Random, one of many deliberately odd character names (Clem Fandango, Jemima Gina, Kikini Bamalam). There’s also a sudden, brief musical number which flares up intriguingly and a really unsettling Bruce Forsyth lookalike.

But there are two big flaws: Toast himself isn’t that interesting a character and there aren’t enough actual laughs. This could develop into something weird and wonderful but for now it’s just the former.

Two less pretentious jobbing actors, Giles Terera and Dan Poole, spent a couple of years making MUSE OF FIRE, a cheerful, laddish mission to “conquer their fear of Shakespeare”. They interview their chums, audience members, passers-by and almost every big thesp from Dench and McKellen down, asking what they think of Shakespeare.

There’s an awful lot of indulgent messing about, showing them on the phone, travelling or setting up, but that very self-consciousness might well appeal to the social media generation making their own discovery of the Bard.

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