Dec 06

New BBC Comedy on Central Asia: What impact do popular discourses have on public perceptions of the region?

HM Ambassador to Tazbekistan Keith Davis (David Mitchell) and his deputy Neil Tilly (Robert Webb).
Credit: BBC

Central Asia is frequently represented in popular culture as obscure, dangerous and oriental (See for example Heathershaw and Megoran, 2011). Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat is perhaps the most famous of these representations and one of the few that elicited an angry response from within the region itself. In other media, Central Asia has been portrayed as an oil-rich but unstable part of the world (Syriana, Spooks), a site of nuclear testing  (The World is Not Enough) and a battleground for World War III (The West Wing, Operation Flashpoint: Red River).

I argue that these representations matter and are crucial ways in which people less familiar with the region understand it. When I tell people about my research and spending time in Central Asia, they often make Borat jokes or ask me whether it is safe. For most people these popular discourses, along with the occasional news report related to the region (for example the links between the Boston bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers, and Kyrgyzstan). As such, depsite being a comedy and despite being fiction, Ambassadors, the latest of these popular representations which aired on BBC2 on Wednesday 23 October, warrants analysis.

Set in the British embassy in Tazbekistan, the show follows the lives of newly arrived Ambassador Keith Davis (David Mitchell) and long-term embassy employee Neil Tilly (Robert Webb) as they attempt to manage Britain’s relationship with this oil-rich, human-rights-poor post-Soviet republic.

During the opening credits the viewer is taken an animated flight to Central Asia. After Europe, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, we arrive in Tajikistan- which is occupied by radiation warnings, a derelict nuclear power plant and horse merrily playing in toxic waste. Next comes Kazakhstan which is populated by oil wells and finally Tazbekistan which has at its centre a large yurt.

In the first episode the British ambassador to Tazbekistan is tasked with securing a £2 billion helicopter contract for the UK.  To complicate the matter, a British human rights activist has been arrested and framed for murder. This theme of the balance between different strategic imperatives is seen in embassies around the world. On the one hand the UK pushes for trade agreements with authoritarian states (signing £20 billion in arms deals with them this year) and on the other they, rhetorically at least, claim to defend human rights.  Here there is a hint of Craig Murray, who was removed from his post as Ambassador to Uzbekistan in 2004 after complaining about human rights.

Although packed with stereotypes and comic exaggeration, the show has a familiarity to those who have spent time in Central Asia. The endless toast-making (Toasts — 1st to the great nation of Tazbekistan, 2nd to the President, 3rd for those who never returned, 4th for women, 5th for the President’s family, 6th for nuclear disarmament, 7th for the mighty ibex), reluctance to eat another plate of plov, the often personalised nature of doing politics in Central Asia, pork and alcohol being readily available in these majority Muslim countries and the corrupt nature of the regime, are all things that I have experienced in Central Asia.

Perhaps this relatively realistic portrayal is the product of the writers spending two weeks in Astana shadowing embassy staff. It is clear that they have drawn on the anecdotes of FCO staff. In next week’s episode, for example, British trade envoy Prince Mark will visit Tazbekistan to secure oil extraction deals. This is reminiscent of former Special Representative for Trade and Investment, Prince Andrew, who visited Central Asia and sold his £15 million house Sunninghill Park to Kazakh oligarch (and son-in-law to the President) Timur Kulibayev.

This program upholds many of the stereotypes about the dangerous, obscure and oriental nature of the region, some of which will ring true for those who have been in the region. It is not as bizarre as Borat or as sensationalist as Simon Reeve’s Holidays in the Danger Zone. However, it does not challenge the commonly held views of the region, rather it reproduces them in a more balanced way. By doing so the impression of the average Westerner about the meaning of the “stans” is perpetuated.