It’s not often I get to post about the Olympics, the British Ambassador to Washington, and my favourite nonsense spy fest, Burn Notice, in one fell swoop, but that’s this week’s task.
In a strange turn of events all three recently appeared on US cable within a couple of days of each other, and all provided an unusually candid glimpse of what makes modern Britain tick.
If the opening ceremony of the Olympics can be used as a bell-weather, it would seem this involves attention to detail, understated confidence, satisfaction in a job well done, tolerance and liberal values, multiculturalism, self-deprecation and humour, a lot of catchy music, and a significant dose of quirkiness.
The Olympics is proving something of a hit back home. I’ve heard nothing but praise from friends and relatives, the country’s collection of often cynical newspapers have been almost universally gushing about the proceedings, and even the most jaded of Londoners looks to be getting into the Olympiad swing of things, enjoying the games alongside the unusually good weather.
Will it prove to be a home run? Well, for the most part, it would so far seem not. Certainly the press on the other side of the pond is being pretty forgiving. One of the major channels is offering a daily guide to the country’s idiosyncratic language, while a high-profile paper went so far as to provide a guide to the cultural references and in-jokes of the opening ceremony.
That said, as Sir Peter Westmacott (could he have a more British foreign office name?!), HM’s Ambassador to Washington pointed out during a spot on The Colbert Report, the two countries have that ‘special relationship’. By dint of this, it would surely be pretty unsporting for America to criticise its most solid ally.
In many respects, Sir Peter epitomises modern Britain. The country’s days of glory and global power have long receded, but it continues to forge a respectable, intelligent, self-confident presence on the world stage.
Pressing the boundaries of career civil service, the relatively new Ambassador is proving a savvy political operator in DC, and has shown an unusual willingness to embrace the media with an array of interesting media appearances, as well as regular blog spots on the Huffington Post, and well-placed interviews in top-notch papers.
He held his own well against Stephen Colbert and his narcissistic, right-wing, cunningly intelligent comedic creation. Westmacott was professional, personable, engaging and engaged, and reflected in his devilishly dashing socks, quirky. But what the Brits may view fondly as quirky, I’ve come to realise others see as eccentric.
Frankly it’s almost impossible to avoid this aspect of the British character, and it’s this ‘quirkiness’ that perhaps came across most strongly in the Olympics opening ceremony leading some foreign news commentators to describe it – fondly or otherwise – as ‘bizarre’, ‘bonkers’ and ‘random’.
As Burn Notice shows, this trait feeds easily into a tenuous plotline. Enter a stuffy British Embassy official into last week’s episode on a mission to outdo the CIA (really, just how plausible is that?) and bleed a confession out of plucky Fi just as she was about to get released from a high-security, dangerous-inmate-infested prison facility.
The official booted and suited in a three-piece suit, with pocket-handkerchief no less (seriously, in the heat of Miami?), sported a risible British accent, and came bearing a completely nonsensical IRA-related red herring to the episode’s storyline. My husband sat on the sofa laughing and shaking his head in disbelief at the character. He was a long way from the real thing, but sadly conformed nicely to the stereotype of a mildly eccentric, well-to-do, if not somewhat evil, British diplomat.
So, will the Olympics and figures like Westmacott do much to change the perception of Britain to outsiders, and with it, Burn Notice’s plot lines? I doubt it. They play to the country’s strengths, and eccentricity just happens to be one of those.