Mitchell and Webb on Ambassadors, holidays, learning Russian, tea and global politics

We interview the stars of BBC2's comedy drama. Why does Robert Webb struggle to visit France? And why did David Mitchell ignore Eamonn Holmes at an airport?

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Mitchell and Webb on Ambassadors, holidays, learning Russian, tea and global politics
Written By
Jack Seale

In BBC2's new comedy drama Ambassadors, David Mitchell and Robert Webb play Keith and Neil, two British diplomats in eastern Europe who struggle to communicate with the locals. They didn't struggle to communicate with RadioTimes.com in a hotel in Covent Garden the other week though...

This feels like a reunion of sorts, because once you were always "Mitchell and Webb" but recently you've almost been your own individual people. You're back together! 

Robert Webb: It was certainly nice to get back and do a bit of filming together, that was very enjoyable, wasn’t it? Especially as there was no pressure on us as writers. A bit of gentle filming and a lot of other excellent people in the cast.

David Mitchell: We got to go to Turkey for ten days. Stayed in the Hilton.

Webb: That’s the main thing.

Have they got a good Hilton there?

Webb: The Hilton Bursa. They can’t do enough for you.

Mitchell: The Hilton is a broad church. The brand in this country has been much devalued. I would say, as a branding advisor, they’ve allowed "Hilton" to be slapped on too many… little Hiltons.

What’s the first thing you do when you get in the hotel room? 

Webb: I get my tape measure out and measure all the dimensions of the room and then check with the producer that it’s no smaller than David’s.

Mitchell: One of the first things I do is check the WiFi situation.

Webb: The biscuit situation and the WiFi situation. It was quite a long journey, because we flew, and then we had to wait for the ferry, and then you get on the ferry, and then you drive from the ferry, so I think I had a bit of a lie down. I took off my shoes and lay on the bed.

Mitchell: It was like a scene from Lost in Translation.

Webb: It was that poignant. Then I started thinking about going to the bar.


Go on holiday with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details


Do you use the suitcase-y stand thing? Lots of people don’t even know what it is.

Webb: I almost want one in my house.

Mitchell: You wouldn’t have to have a wardrobe, would you? You could just have everything in a case perpetually.

Webb: Yeah, I mean the case usually goes at the top of the wardrobe, but then where do you put the duvets? If you’ve got more than one duvet. Which not everyone has.

Did you pick up a lot of Turkish? Are you now fluent?

Webb: One Turkish word we did learn is the Turkish for "action", because if you were doing an outside scene with lots of local supporting artists, you'd have the first assistant director shout "action" and then, a hilarious 7/8ths of a second later, you’d have the Turkish-speaking AD shout "ON-YUH!" It was like he was shouting "onions" very aggressively. The AD would go "action" and you’d be about to do a line, and someone would shout "on-yuh". So, remember the second "action".

Mitchell: He was a very nice guy, but he had a slightly strangulated voice, so he sort of sounded…

Webb: [high, even louder voice] ON-YUH!!

Mitchell: … like he was in pain, it sounded like the AD had called "action" and something had been dropped on him or the camera had rolled over his foot. Every time.

Webb: It never stopped being funny.

Mitchell: "Action. ONIONS!"

So have you got the phrasebook in the back pocket? Studied it on the way out? 

Webb: No, cause we’re not grown-ups.

Mitchell: I feel bad that when I go to France I don’t speak very good French, because I did French at school. I feel slightly bad when I go to Italy, that I don’t speak any Italian at all. Ditto Spain, Spanish. Now. Turkey. We go to Turkey, I do not feel bad that I don’t speak a word. I think it’s unreasonable. I would go before a judge in Turkey and say: what would you have me do? Be honest. I’m from Britain, how many languages would you expect me to able to speak before I got to Turkey? Turkey is not the nearest country to Britain by any means.

But does that extend to not being able to order a beer and a sandwich?

Webb: No, you can order that in English, especially at the Hilton Bursa. And also you’re not treated as a grown-up when you’re an actor on location anyway, because they don’t trust you not to get lost.

Mitchell: You're not insured to think for yourself.

But if you were abroad and you weren’t working?

Webb: I suppose if I went to Turkey – I mean, I can’t imagine going that far away, but if I did go to Turkey, yes, I would probably try to know 'please' and 'sorry' and 'thank you', and 'a beer please', and all the useful words.

You’ve got kids, haven’t you?

Webb: Yeah, two girls.

Holidays are just looking after the kids in more difficult circumstances, I find.

Webb: Oh god, screw that, yeah, no the furthest we’ve been is Lanzarote, where we went one January because it’s just like going to Spain, but it’s a bit warmer and everyone's British, there are doctors next door and it’s all fine, you can relax.

But your perfect holiday would be…somewhere nearby?

Webb: I still really like France. We nearly went this year but I refuse to hire a car, because I can’t be doing with the stress of hiring a car and two car seats, and accustomising the children to a different car, and they get carsick. When you try to book a villa in France it’s only about 20% that don’t say "car essential". Car essential is a real turn-off to me, so yeah, I just want a friendly holiday resort with a villa and a pool, but which is really private, but there again there’s a supermarket and a doctor's and a beach a five-minute walk away. That’s all I want and it’s quite difficult to find.

David, you’re unencumbered?

Mitchell: I’m childless, yes. I can’t drive a car, but fortunately my wife can drive a car. My perfect holiday is – is that what you’re asking?

Yes, you may have noticed I’ve gone for a bit of an "Englishman abroad" theme.

Webb: Ah, I like your theme.

I thought I’d just subtly introduce it over the course of a conversation, but after a while you have to 'fess up.

Mitchell: I’m not a keen traveller, to be honest. I don’t want to find out about things. I like to relax. I like to be somewhere sunny where I can read a book, and food and drink is readily available. That can be found in Italy. Italy, big fan of. France…

Webb: Corsica! Mixture of the two.

Mitchell: And also California. My wife plays a lot of poker and goes to the World Series in Las Vegas, and I’ve gone and joined her there and we’ve gone on a bit of a driving trip to California.

Webb: So she’s playing at the table, and you walk behind her wearing a devastating cocktail dress to distract all the other players.

Mitchell: That’s exactly it, that’s her secret.

Is Victoria taking your name or not? It’s causing terrible grief for our sub-editors.

Mitchell: I think the truth is: she’s sometimes using my name and not other times. 

That’s not the answer they want.

Mitchell: She has a right to use my name and I’m very proud when she chooses to. Not always, but not never.

I had almost a stand-up row with them about it. It was "Coren Mitchell" on Only Connect, and they were like: “No, the billing says, quite clearly, 'Victoria Coren'.”

Mitchell: It’s a deliberate inconsistency.


Go on holiday with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details


You say you’re embarrassed you can’t speak French and Italian, but Ambassadors reveals you both to be fluent Russian speakers. Congratulations. Have you been hiding that under your bushels?

Webb: Knocked off the whole language in a couple of months.

I’ve only seen one episode, but there’s a lot of Russian.

Webb: I worried about that, because obviously I don’t speak Russian, I didn’t have time for Russian. I had time to learn the noises.

It’s purely phonetics?

Webb: Completely. There’s no magic to it, it’s just boneheaded practising for f***ing ages. 

Mitchell: Like learning a dance with your mouth.

Webb: Yeah, it was a mouth dance. If we get to do it again that’s an aspect of the show I’m not particularly looking forward to, although when you see it you go: “Oh blimey!” So it’s a feat. It’s like being able to juggle: it looks great until you think about how many hours of practice went into it.

There was a bit when you were talking to each other in Russian, which looked to me like a corpsing nightmare.

Mitchell: No, no corpsing, because... 

Webb: Because you’re so stressed about getting it wrong.

Did you take any English luxuries away with you? If you’re staying in the Hilton maybe not, but there’s the whole thing in the first episode about Eccles cakes and steak and kidney pie.

Mitchell: Interestingly - well it interests me - we were not allowed to import Eccles cakes into Turkey for the filming of that scene, because you’re not allowed to take food into Turkey. They took a lot of things over, costumes and all that, but the Eccles cakes for that scene were commissioned from a Turkish baker.

But given the storyline, if they got them wrong that would be alright, because they're supposed to f*** up the Eccles cakes.

Webb: Oh they did f*** them up, because the script called for Eccles cakes with no raisins, and they had raisins.

Mitchell: That wasn’t the bakers’ f***-up.

Webb: No, that was the art department’s f***-up.

Mitchell: And they were actually very good Eccles cakes. They sent precise instructions to a Turkish baker, who’d gone, “OK, that seems like a very odd thing to want to eat, but we’ll do that for you.”

What do you miss most, when one travels?

Webb: I was going to say television but then when you’re on holiday you don’t much feel like it, and also sometimes you’ll get something funny like Chinese state broadcasters, so not that.

Mitchell: I know this is a cliché, but I think it is also true...

Webb: Tea.

Mitchell: It is tea. It is very difficult to get the sort of cup of tea I like anywhere but Britain.

I’ve never worked out why that is, because people have milk, and they have water…

Mitchell: It’s not a difficult recipe, is it? But in America, terrible. Basically there’s nowhere. They don’t bloody believe you that you just want the boiling water put on the tea straight away, you don’t want other options, you don’t want the water delivered to you with the tea long after it’s ceased to be hot enough to have any effect on the tea. You know, first world problems and all that, but it’s a very odd lapse. Because I don’t mind not having Eccles cakes abroad. I don’t eat them here. Food is basically better in other countries than in this country. But I rely on tea and I really miss it.

Webb: I’ve never, and I’m not sure that you have, been to China or India. One wonders how they do tea, what with them having quite a strong track record with tea, or whether we have it in a different way.

Mitchell: It may be that it’d be like trying to go to India and get a nice chicken korma like you have from the takeaway around the corner. They’d probably go, “Well that’s not - what are you talking about? That’s not what we do here.”

Why are 95% of Chinese restaurants in Britain awful? They can’t be eating that in China. They can’t have gloop on all their food every day, it’s not possible.

Webb: They’ve got a million guys in their army, they’ve got to be having something nicer.

Do you two ever holiday together, or did you as part of your nascent partnership?

Webb: Not just as part of our partnership, we went on holiday as friends. With other friends, it would be odd if it was just us. Five or six of us, for about five or six years in a row would go to France or Italy, rent a villa.

What are you like on holiday? 

Webb: We both want to sit around the pool reading books. I think I might crack open a beer a little bit earlier in the evening. I am only talking about a couple of hours. A bit of table tennis was played. Sometimes, one of the women would want to go and see a local castle or chateau. So we’d go, glumly.

Mitchell: Getting in the car, thinking: "This is time we could have spent sitting still."

Webb: But we always had a friend or two who – I never really believe these people, but they claim to really enjoy cooking - and we had other friends who claimed to enjoy organising things, so the people who enjoyed organising things would organise and the people who enjoyed cooking things would cook. 

Mitchell: And the people who enjoyed sitting still drinking beer... did that.

You’ve won there.

Webb: We just got taken on holiday like children, it was fabulous. Those days are gone.

I’ve always liked the idea of the comic partnership who go away on holiday to crack the next series.

Mitchell: No, we never did that!

Webb: We once had to finish a show or make some progress with a show and it was horrible, because we were only there for a week and we put it off for the first five days.

Mitchell: So then suddenly you had to come in from the sun and turn on a laptop. Working holidays, it’s not good.

I love the image of Fry and Laurie – because I like Fry and Laurie, not because I think you resemble Fry and Laurie - going to Italy and writing the new series of A Bit in a fortnight. They used to write it in Tuscany or somewhere.

Mitchell: We would not find the holiday environment conducive.

Webb: Yeah, it’s better to work somewhere horrible. We’re a bit nervous, we’re going to do another series of the radio show [That Mitchell and Webb Sound on Radio 4] and we’ve never written sketches together in one of the nice rooms we’ve now got. It was always easier in David’s bedroom. Neither of us really wanted to be in a small room together for too long, so the clock was always ticking. It made us very efficient first-draft artists.

Some people hire a faceless office round here.

Webb: Yeah, we draw the line at actually getting up and going out to work.

Mitchell: I know a lot of people rely on having a different place to go to. 

Webb: Some friends work in the British Library, don’t they? I find that a bit upsetting.

Mitchell: I’ve chosen to believe that wouldn’t help me be more productive.

Surely they’re not allowed to collaborate on comedy verbally in the British Library?

Webb: No, solo writers.

Mitchell: Sniggering at their own jokes.

Who’s got the best kitchen? Or the worst kitchen? Who’s got the quietest kitchen?

Mitchell: I’ve got a study now.

Webb: A room of one’s own.

Be full of books though, wouldn’t it?

Mitchell: Well exactly, it’s a disaster, it’s full of books, there’s a sofa, there’s a TV.

Webb: The TV, that’s the catastrophe, there’s a lovely big telly there.

Mitchell: It’s not like the TV doesn’t come through a computer anyway. It’s like you’ve got your maths book, but oh no it’s showing Knight Rider.

Like Jesse Armstrong says: writing on the everything in the world machine.

Webb: It was the typing machine, and now it’s the everything else in the world machine, yes. You can get software, can’t you – somebody I know uses it - that turns everything off for two hours. It turns the internet off.

Mitchell: There’s nothing you can do to reverse it. You have to go and buy another computer. 

Webb: There is an English novelist, I can’t remember his name so this isn’t much of a story but it’s someone like GK Chesterton, whose attitude to writing was, “I sit down at my desk for three hours a day. Doesn’t matter if I don’t write, but I’m not allowed to do anything else.”

Mitchell: That’s a brilliant thought! Might as well write something cause I’m here. Not allowed to get up.

Webb: Yes. But I mean, I would just go, “This is a f***ing stupid rule. I’m bored."

Mitchell: You might as well make the rule: you just have to work.

Webb: It does assume a certain amount of self-discipline.

Mitchell: Whatever you do, you come up against that problem. You’ve just basically got to f***ing do something at some point.

So, Ambassadors. It’s a little political, probably more so than things you’ve been known for before.

Webb: In Peep Show there’s a reference to George Osborne’s semen. So it’s not really new ground.

Ambassadors ends up coming down on the side of these guys who are doing their best, and they’re doing a reasonably good job for us.

Mitchell: Yeah, I think that’s the side it comes down on and I think that’s true, basically. I think the Foreign Office are…

Webb: … good guys doing their best under difficult circumstances.

Mitchell: The diplomatic service is... the people we met were pretty impressive, but what they’re expected to achieve is usually impossible, which I find funny. I find the conflict between the supposed moral aims of our civilisation and its actual craven economic requirements, and the way politicians and diplomats constantly have to conceal that truth from the public, an amusing and intriguing state of affairs. And there’s no real villain: in this one the president of the country where the embassy is is basically a villain, but in terms of the moral choices of the West, there are no individual villains, it’s just how the system has evolved. We are a democracy, but we’re a democracy where people expect economic prosperity but also expect to be told that the country is acting in the interests of world peace/justice. The two things are mutually exclusive, so the obvious answer is to act in the country’s economic interest and pretend that you’re acting in the interests of justice, and that’s basically what we, the people, have asked our politicians and diplomats to do. Then when it becomes individually exposed that they’re doing that, we go berserk at them, like we don’t collectively like money!

Webb: Or oil.

If you consider yourself to be concerned with human rights abuses abroad and arms sales, you could quite easily think, “Oh, that’s terribly unfunny, how can you do a comedy about that?”

Mitchell: The thing is, it’s a comedy drama, it’s as much a drama as it is a comedy, and we don’t mean to make light of those issues. The situation these people are in is often funny and interesting but the actual terrible things that happen in the world, which it’s set in the context of, are not something I think the programme makes light of or that anyone should make light of.

Webb: I think it’s a question of tone. I remember once somebody saying, “Do you think this is a fit subject for comedy?” and you saying, “If it’s a fit subject for drama, it’s a fit subject for comedy." I think jokes can actually go to places that drama can’t. When it’s really obvious, like a sketch, you can do a sketch about the Holocaust or you can do a sketch about cancer, it’s just a question of very carefully picking what the joke is about, who and what are we laughing at, what is the tone, who is the target. You just have to ask yourself all these questions and be able to answer them and say the sketch is on the side of the angels. Here, the fact that the president is not a million miles away from some real people in the region who are clearly bastards is not avoided, but it’s a question of tone and the aspects of it that you’re dramatising.

The human rights campaigner comes off as quite a tit.

Webb: I think that’s plausible. I think there are obviously really nice, decent people involved in that work…

Mitchell: I think we’d certainly say that human rights campaigners are not ALL bad.

That’d be too sweeping. But I mean, he’s on a level with an actor in episode one!

Webb: We only see one human rights worker and one actor, so we’re saying all actors and all human rights campaigners are like that.

Mitchell: The terrible truth is that, in reality, they were BOTH actors, so I don’t know what that says about the world.

Webb: It says there’s a lot of deceit.

It’s almost a shame it’s not on this week [the interview took place a few days after MPs surprisingly voted not to intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war], because our place in the world and whether we should go and fiddle around with stuff is in the news.

Webb: I was wondering about that, whether events have left it behind – because you know, we filmed it nearly a year ago now. But actually, that trade-off between human rights and, well, trade, is always there. It’s not like history has marooned it quite yet.

Mitchell: I think that’s because the fundamental conflicts in what an embassy’s supposed to do - saying one thing and doing another, or trying to resolve two mutually exclusive things - is a constant, and I think that will always resonate. I can’t see foreign affairs changing to a significant degree, so I imagine that whatever happens between now and transmission, or now and doomsday, the fictional things in this programme will ring true.

We’re unlikely collectively to acquire a conscience we don’t already have.

Mitchell: At the root of it is, I think, the fact that there’s no honest discussion of what diplomatic priorities are and what we expect. What I think we expect as a people is to be lied to by the politicians about what they’re doing, and about what their priorities are, because we don’t want to explicitly say: “It’s very sad that terrible things happen in the world, but please don’t compromise our economic situation FOR A MOMENT in order to help them.”

Webb: Because I’m not going to work on my wicker bicycle.

Mitchell: Exactly. “Don’t bring me face to face with what I’m part of.” The other day I was looking at the newspaper and there was some story, an awful thing in North Korea about this pop band – basically Kim Jong-un had been having an affair with one of this band and his wife didn’t like it, so the whole band was machine-gunned in front of all their friends and relatives, who were then sent to prison for ever because they were contaminated by association with these traitors. Obviously not that many people died, but that’s about as awful a thing as you can imagine. But that’s not a diplomatic incident, that’s not a problem for the West. We’re fine for him to carry on doing that, and we’re not as fine with what Assad’s doing. But the thing that never gets mentioned is that it’s not really about, primarily, human rights: for the West it’s about our national security. Obviously the deploying of chemical weapons is something that we quite rightly don’t want to be happening in the world, we want the only chemical weapons to be the secret ones we’ve got stashed away somewhere and for other regimes not to have them, thanks very much. The machine-gunning of a pop group, awful though it is, is not really an issue for British national security. But it never gets expressed like that: we constantly pretend that all we care about is the Syrian people when it clearly isn’t.

Webb: Yes, and there’s also the time when you’ve got a choice and when you haven’t got a choice - we don’t have a choice about attacking North Korea, they’re a nuclear power. We do have a choice about attacking Syria. So when liberal democracies, the five or six of them that have got a serious army, when they are capable of making an intervention, then you have a big old discussion about it.

Mitchell: And the thing is, the practicalities don’t make anyone involved in the Foreign Office or the government necessarily bad or evil people, they’re just compromises everyone has to face. What I find a potentially fertile area for a drama, and where there are dark jokes as well, is the fact that it remains unsaid, that so many elements of the compromise remain unexpressed, and hopefully there are scenes in the programme that bring that out in a way that’s sometimes dramatic, sometimes funny.

So is Ambassadors one of those where the writers have spoken to real diplomats, and have got stories out of them that they wish they could tell? I always thought Spooks was sometimes quite overtly political in saying stuff that, if it were on a current affairs programme, someone would have gone, “You can’t say that! I mean it’s true, but you can't say it…“

Webb: Well of course Rupert Walters [who co-wrote Ambassadors with Rev creator James Wood] wrote for Spooks. They’ve been in contact with lots of diplomats, and some quite important ones at that, and we met some as well, there was an evening where we met quite a few. It’s not so much the stories that come out - I think it’s just the slightly world-weary attitude.

Mitchell: Yeah. “There’s a limit to what we can do, our priorities are muddled by politics, we get these contradictory instructions and we can’t really carry them out anyway because we’re only the embassy of a diminished power.”

Webb: They’re very clever, understated people and we were both quite reassured that they’re the people who represent us.

Where did you go to meet them, was it a good embassy do?

Mitchell: Foreign Office.

Webb: Yeah, the FCO.

Canapés?

Mitchell: No canapés! We went there and had a meeting…

Webb: It was Doritos, wasn’t it?

Mitchell: …and there was nothing.

Webb: Did we take them snacks?

Mitchell: Yeah, the producer had to go out and get some crisps and a couple of bottles of wine from the shop on the corner.

He had to nip out of the Foreign Office?

Webb: Yeah. He nipped out.

Mitchell: He had to nip out. We did a read-through of the script at the Foreign Office as well.

Webb: Oh there was food then.

Mitchell: We did have sandwiches and tea then, yes.

Wait. Was there some kind of script approval going on? Are there things that you tried to say that you couldn’t say?

Webb: No, there was none of that.

Mitchell: I imagine what happened is the Foreign Office thought, “Let’s help this production to be informed of what we do, and hope that by doing that we’ll come out well, and they’ll not think we’re arseholes.” And they were very helpful and informative but in no sense did they have any say over what we said – if we'd made the ambassador a drug-addled crook they wouldn’t have been able to stop us.

But you’re talking about the deception that these people carry out, and then you go with the script to the people who are doing that.

Mitchell: Well no, when I talk about the deception I’m not pointing a finger at the Foreign Office or at the diplomatic service, I’m saying that’s a political thing, that’s what the politicians command our diplomatic service to do. You can’t have ambassadors saying, “Well the government wants us to get this helicopter contract but I don’t give a damn, I’m going to help this charity here.” There’s got to be a chain of command.

Webb: And the politicians are taking their cue from us.

I enjoyed your trademark rant at the end of the first episode, David. Are the writers writing in a David Mitchell rant for you?

Mitchell: I didn’t ask them to put a rant in. There’s obviously... something about me.

Webb: I’m not sure there’s another standout rant like that. Neil and Keith have big arguments again, but no more rants. But I like the idea that in your contract you’ve asked for your trademark rant.

Mitchell: I need to rant at least once every 45 minutes of screen time.

Webb: And I need to shrug and roll my eyes.

Did you worry about doing a comedy drama - I don’t think either of you have done much of this sort of thing - which can very easily be not that funny and not that dramatic?

Mitchell: Well obviously you worry that everything you do won’t be as good as you hope.

But a lot of people get that wrong, so you must have an idea of how you got it right.

Mitchell: The key to it for us is the subject matter and it being an interesting environment. I mean you obviously could do a straight drama there and you could do a sitcom there, but the way we wanted to do it, and the way the writers wanted to do it, a comedy drama seemed right. We like jokes and we like funny things, so we wanted there to be that element. But I think a straight comic treatment of the subject would…

Webb: There could be tonal problems.

Mitchell: Yeah, although it’s a wonderful opportunity for racist jokes.

Webb: Of course, and they’re always difficult to overlook.

Mitchell: So it sort of just seemed to be the right thing. The slightly dark compromises that diplomats have to make that we were talking about.

Webb: It was one of those “Why hasn’t anyone done this?” sort of moments, and then when the first draft came in we were very pleased with the job that they’d done. It always starts with the script, doesn’t it, you go, “If we screw this up slightly it’ll still be a good show,” and I’m not sure that we’ve screwed it up. We might even have made it better by doing the actions and the voices.

Do you think you’ll do any straight drama, or more straight drama? Do you think of yourself as comic actors? Because a lot of actors say, “There’s no comic actors, there’s only actors.” But you’re very much comic actors, so far.

Webb: We call ourselves comedy writer-performers, and that encompasses everything, and I certainly have a very open mind about it. I was in a Marple where there were many opportunities to get laughs that would have been deeply inappropriate, so that was a completely straight role. One thing I would say is that I don’t see it as a promotion when you stop being funny. It’s not, “Now you’re proper.” I think comedians are proper, but I’m happy to do anything good that comes along really.

David, you have a new C4 panel show, about quotations, called Was It Something I Said? Why should I watch that? What’s good about it?

Mitchell: It’s funny, and that’s the only reason.

I think there are too many panel shows now. Stop doing so many panel shows.

Mitchell: If you think that, I would say it’s not the show for you, because it is one.

Are there too many? Could there ever be too many?

Mitchell: I don’t know. I think it is not for me to decide the number of panel shows, cause I’m biased. I must say, I do derive a certain amount of employment from them and so if you asked me to decide the number, I might decide a larger number even than there are already.

Are they killing scripted comedy, because they’re cheaper and easier to make?

Mitchell: I don’t think they’re killing scripted comedy. What I think is: because they are cheaper and easier to make, they don’t take the financial or time investment that something like Ambassadors or Peep Show does, and it’s one of the challenges if you’re making comedy to persuade a broadcaster to invest the amount of money that a comedy requires. I think they’re a way of having comedy on television that can begin to compete in budgetary terms with a cookery show. So I don’t think panel shows stop there being sitcoms, but panel shows might reduce the number of recipes.

That’s a bloody good answer.

Mitchell: Thank you.

But when you’ve done a panel show, surely the level of creative satisfaction is not as high as it is when you’ve done a really good sitcom. Or is it?

Webb: Different kind of satisfaction, isn’t it.

Mitchell: It’s different, yeah. The thing about doing a panel show, and I love doing them, is you get to sit in front of an audience and make them laugh off the top of your head, then and there. And that is tremendous fun when it works, but you’re aware that what you’re making is flawed, and more disposable than when you spend weeks filming and/or writing a comedy drama or a sitcom. Ultimately I would be creatively less satisfied as a person if I only did panel shows, but the individual buzz from performing on a panel show is more fun than the hours of filming a [scripted] thing, so it’s very nice to be able to do both things.

Do you feel you have a god-given talent for panel shows?

Mitchell: I don’t know. No, I don’t.

Webb: I think David has a god-given talent for panel shows.

Mitchell: I like doing them and I’m glad that people continue to want me to do them and I feel very grateful for that, but I’m agnostic.

Webb: It’s not a question for you.

That is for others to say. One more of my travel questions in case I get back to the office and they say, “Just give us the travel questions, that’s what we told you to ask” which is actually true. What’s your worst experience going abroad, ever?

Webb: Getting spotted at – this is after becoming slightly famous – Heathrow by a group of 100 or so sixth-formers while I was minding the bags while my wife was in the loo, so I couldn’t move and I was surrounded.

And they thought you were Jez?

Webb: And they thought I was David Mitchell. No, they saw Jez off of Peep Show and they came to have a picture, or 50.

When you were probably not looking at your best.

Webb: No, I hate airports, and I get very stressed about – although David’s worries about checking in and gates and all that make me feel like James Bond, because he does worry even more than me - but I do hate the “Are we” “when do we” “the gate, when’s it open” and “the bags” and “have I put the label on” and “am I in the right queue” and all that stuff. It makes me very stressed, so I wasn’t at my most receptive. I mean I didn’t have any choice than to be nice, because I couldn’t even run away. I didn’t even have to leave British soil…

Mitchell:… before the horror began.

Webb: … but basically that’s a way of saying I haven’t had a bad experience abroad really.

Mitchell: I remember, I think it might have been a Cherbourg to Portsmouth ferry coming back from my French exchange when I was 13, and it was in March, and it was a very rough day, and basically the whole ferry was filling up with sick. I was not myself sick, although I felt tremendously sick the whole time because – and when you’re already feeling sick – it’s like laughter, you know, if people start throwing up you feel like throwing up yourself.

Are there special celebrity places that you go to now, where you’re sequestered?

Mitchell: Celebritaria, a beautiful Mediterranean country that’s reserved for...

Webb: The celebrity travel agent, Celebritaria. No shit-munchers allowed, that’s what it says on the brochure.

Mitchell: It’s basically a branch of Soho House about twice the size of Sardinia.

Webb: I saw Elysium last night and that looks like what Celebritaria would look like, it would be manicured lawns in space.

Mitchell: I did see Eamonn Holmes in an airport earlier this year.

You saw Eamonn Holmes?

Mitchell: Yes, in an airport earlier this year.

And said hello? 

Mitchell: No we didn’t cross – he’d been on Would I Lie To You, and I didn’t know whether I was supposed to say hello, but I find it awkward saying hello to people I don’t really know very well, you know, and it was an airport so I was stressed about gates and that sort of thing. But I spotted him.

Webb: Did you go: “LOL, spotted Eamonn Holmes…"

Mitchell: I didn’t tweet it.

Webb: "… looking rough.”

Mitchell: He was looking quite dapper, I thought.

Webb: I only say that because on the masochistic occasions I have a quick look – I suppose I’ve done it every six months – on Google for “Robert Webb spotted”, quite often it says: “Saw him walking down West Hampstead looking rough”; “Saw him smoking in the garden of a pub looking like a tramp”. Oh well, at least it doesn’t look like I’m over-vain.

That’ll teach you for doing that.

Mitchell: You’re no Posh Spice.

Webb: No, although if you ever see her – no.

Ambassadors starts tonight at 9pm on BBC2


Go on holiday with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details


 


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