There was a brief moment during the official opening of the new billion-dollar US embassy in Vauxhall, London, when Ambassador Robert Wood Johnson feared that they wouldn’t be able to raise the American flag.
“We saw this giant flag go up,” he tells a group of journalists at an early screening of Channel 4’s new documentary, Inside The Embassy. “It went up slowly, because it was hard to crank up, and I thought, ‘I hope this makes it all the way to the top!’”
The path to the embassy’s completion has not run smooth. In the new three-part Channel 4 series, we see Johnson – just months into his tenure – forced to defend the building’s existence after President Trump branded it a “bad deal” and criticised its “off” location in January, before apparently refusing to attend the opening.
The cameras also follow the anxious flurry of activity at the embassy after Trump engages in a Twitter spat with Theresa May.
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But “Woody” Johnson, a businessman, philanthropist and co-owner of American football team the New York Jets, is an optimist. He bemoans the British people’s attitude towards Brexit: “This defeatist attitude towards Brexit is a bit startling to me,” he says. “I read nothing about anyone having a positive attitude towards Brexit or towards the future. As an American,” he adds, “I’m just not used to hearing that.”
To a group of UK businessmen, he enthuses, “Brexit – I don’t think that’s a major challenge”.
Take a virtual tour inside the US embassy
He’s also a firm supporter of the president. “I have two little boys and we’re raising them just like Donald Trump – without the hair,” he proclaims.
Of course, Channel 4’s cameras – which captured roughly 300 hours of behind-the-scenes footage – don’t just follow Johnson. We’re introduced to a variety of characters over the three instalments, starting in episode one with Johnson’s press team anxiously prepping him for his first grilling on Radio 4’s Today programme.
Director of press Matt Goshko, pretending to be Radio 4’s Justin Webb, asks the ambassador a question on Trump’s ‘slurring’. “Maybe he had a dry mouth?” Johnson offers.
Reason I canceled my trip to London is that I am not a big fan of the Obama Administration having sold perhaps the best located and finest embassy in London for “peanuts,” only to build a new one in an off location for 1.2 billion dollars. Bad deal. Wanted me to cut ribbon-NO!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2018
Johnson also faces a rising tide of public anger in the UK over Trump’s public policies, including his controversial travel ban.
In the second episode, we’re introduced to the consular section of the embassy, whose stressful tasks it is to identify the would-be fraudsters and terrorists among the Disneyland tourists – and all within a three-minute conversation. The documentary captures a consular officer struggle to inform one man that, due to the travel ban, he’ll be unable to attend the birth of his nephew. Later, the same officer breathes a sigh of relief after he grants a visa to woman who’s been unable to visit her daughter for over a decade.
Perhaps the most surreal part of the documentary comes when the cameras follow various British MPs attempting to garner Johnson’s attention, apparently unaware of the small mic attached to the ambassador’s lapel.
Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, insists that he pop round to the ambassador’s new office. Several officials take in the embassy itself, which is, despite its “off location”, impressive, and even boasts its own pub, complete with dartboard. “I wish we could spend $1 billion on an embassy,” Sir Alan Duncan, the foreign minister, admits gloomily.
Inside the American Embassy is on Mondays at 10pm on Channel 4