That Mitchell & Webb Crook 132

Robert Webb gave the following highly revealing answers to a Guardian interview in 2005:

Which living person do you most admire and why?
Christopher Hitchens

What makes you depressed?
Suicide bombers and their apologists

Which living person do you most despise?
George Galloway

he has now found a way to channel his hatred of the anti-necon movement into “comedy”, by making a sitcom poking fun at me, and making light of our government’s alliance with the Uzbek dictatorship.

Our Men, commissioned by the BBC, is a hilarious comedy about the drunken and incompetent British Ambassador in Tazbekistan [which the BBC says does not represent Tashkent, Uzbekistan] and the jolly despot President Kairat [No relation, says the BBC, to President Karimov].

Let us remind ourselves about the Uzbek regime with which the UK has a close military alliance. There are over 11,000 political prisoners held in terrible conditions. Thousands are tortured every year. There is absolutely zero freedom of speech, media, religion or assembly. All opposition parties are banned. Millions are forced into slave Labour in the state cotton plantations, including many thousands of children as young as eight years old.

Over 800 pro-democracy demonstrators were killed in a massacre at Andijan in 2005. Routine torture includes beating with rifle butts, smashing of knees and elbows with hammers, suffocation by gas mask with closed vent, electrocution,
mutilation of genitals, rape, both homosexual and heterosexual, rape with objects, and torture of children in front of their parents. There are properly documented instances of the most extreme torture imaginable, including Mr Avazov, on whom whilst Ambassador there, I obtained a pathology report from the University of Glasgow which said he had died of immersion in boiling liquid.

(Click for full size)

Good for a laugh, that, isn’t it?

But something is happening with Mitchell & Webb more sinister than an argument about the limits of comedy. World War 1 was terrible, but Blackadder Goes Forth is still funny and legitimate, while Mash and Catch 22 undermined war with humour. But this Mitchell & Webb vehicle is being written with the active cooperation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Because the Uzbek government, the fifth most corrupt in the world according to Transparency International, is being sustained and protected by its alliance with the United Kingdom. Just last week the Defence Secretary announced to Parliament a new partnership with this vicious ductatorship which will see most of the equipment of British forces from Afghanistan leaving through Uzbekistan:

The Republic of Uzbekistan has already played a constructive role in helping to secure Afghanistan’s stability but will face increased security challenges once ISAF has withdrawn from Afghanistan. We have therefore been examining options for gifting surplus UK equipment to help meet those challenges. The departmental minute which I have today laid before Parliament describes a gifting package to the Republic of Uzbekistan of surplus Leyland DAF trucks and Land Rover spares that is intended to contribute to this. Both items have been examined and cleared against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria, which include an assessment of whether the equipment might be used for human rights violations or internal repression.

The last sentence is as breathtakingly tendentious as anything that has ever been said to parliament, but it is only about Uzbekistan, so nobody cares. In the last three years nobody, on any side of the House, has ever said anything about the appalling human rights record of the Uzbek government.

There is certainly huge room for satire in the British government’s support of this despotism – Bremner, Bird & Fortune did it to great effect. But the Mitchell and Webb comedy is coming from quite a different direction.

The comedy in “Our Men” comes from the exposure not of the hypocrisy of foreign policy, but from the exposure of our drunken and incompetent Ambassador. That is exactly what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has put a huge media effort into telling everybody I was, ever since I blew the whistle on the Uzbek regime and our complicity with it.

The comedy also aims to defuse the horror of our alliance with Uzbekistan and make it banal, accepted and safe.

There is an obvious issue of copyright here, as the substance and themes of Our Men are clearly taken from my book Murder in Samarkand. My literary agent therefore contacted the man of business at Mitchell & Webb’s production company, Big Talk. He said that the series is completely different from Murder in Samarkand ; it has nothing to do with human rights and “the writers have researched the project with the diplomatic service“. That is a direct quote from my agent’s record of the conversation.

Talk about comedy at the service of the establishment. Big Talk also deny having heard of me or Murder in Samarkand, and say that Tazbekistan is not meant to be Uzbekistan. They lie. Here is a quote from their advice to actors, issued through the actors’ website Spotlight:

The accent is mild Russian. Perhaps have a listen to an Uzbek national speaking English to get an idea.

When David Hare went to Tashkent to research his adaptation of Murder in Samarkand, (which became the radio play starring David Tennant), which strongly attacks the government stance, he was not allowed even to enter the grounds of the Embassy to discuss it. Sir David Hare was left standing outside a locked gate. Yet the Diplomatic Service has been working with the writers of Our Men. The reason why lies in the quotes from Robert Webb right at the start of this article.

This is comedy in the service of the state; where the victims are the butt.

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132 thoughts on “That Mitchell & Webb Crook

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  • MJ

    Craig: you seemed a lot more sanguine about all this last August when you spoke to the Independent. You seem to have had a change of heart.

    “I’m a believer in free speech and a great fan of David Mitchell, so I’m not too upset. There certainly were comedic moments in Uzbekistan but the issues of torture and rendition were serious”

  • craig Post author


    I have learnt a lot more about the angle they are taking since – and I didn’t know they were doing it in cooperation with the FCO. Also I don’t think the quote above is an entirely fair reflection of what I said, which was rather more nuanced and the “but” a lot longer. It is a genuine quote, but shortened.

  • A Node

    Look at the tone of that Independent article. All the smears and lies which were bandied about when the story was current are aired again, only this time in a showbiz context so no need to justify them.
    Character assassination in the guise of light comedy, and anybody who objects is a killjoy who doesn’t have a sense of humour.

  • MJ

    This could be good for Craig. If the show is funny and popular it will raise his profile and broaden public awareness of the issues of torture and rendition in Uzbekistan. He might even get invited onto chat shows.

  • craig Post author


    Robert Webb seems pretty damn close to it in the article in the Independent linked to by MJ above. If you are saying that Mitchell and Webb have no creative input into the shows they appear in, that is quite interesting.

    Who the precise tools are who do the writing is not exactly the point. If Mitchell & Webb had any genuine political concerns, they would not be going along with this project as at present formulated.

  • John Goss

    Craig Murray, I applaud you for being one of the few people from the diplomatic service to speak out against corruption and torture instead of greasing the palms of bent governments. This approval by the foreign and commonwealth office of Mitchell and Webb’s Our Men shows the deplorable state the UK has reached in its support for despotic regimes.

    There is something very disturbing about the way Theresa May has recently attacked the judiciary for giving occasional protection to citizens from abroad with a criminal record being allowed to stay with their family in this country. And how the wicked witch sent good people back to Uzbekistan despite protests about the sickness of the regimes to which they are being sent (I won’t mention the specific case but regular readers of this blog over the last two years know who I mean).

    Keep at them Mr. Murray. It adds to your integrity, which rates much higher than any other UK embassy and former embassy staff or member of the diplomatic service of whom I have heard.

  • craig Post author


    You are not skim-reading, you are trolling. Stop writing and read the article first. But due to your limited attention span, here is the relevant quote:

    ” My literary agent therefore contacted the man of business at Mitchell & Webb’s production company, Big Talk. He said that the series is completely different from Murder in Samarkand ; it has nothing to do with human rights and “the writers have researched the project with the diplomatic service“. That is a direct quote from my agent’s record of the conversation.”

    The diplomatic service is the operative part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in case that is what is confusing you.

  • Jim

    Well if he’s going to star in it he’s going to have to be told what its going to be like. He’s an actor starring in a programme, he doesn’t have to write/be behind every thing that he stars in. Its called being an actor.

  • Jim

    Craig – not trolling, was looking for the quote in the wrong article, the one listed in the comments above. Im just saying direct your anger at producers, writers but not the actors who are just playing roles in a show.

  • craig Post author


    That is true of the actors playing the other characters who have just been recruited within the last month to play parts. But it’s not true of Mitchell and Webb and their role with Big Talk in creating and pitching this vehicle for them; they do not stand in that regard as ordinary jobbing actors. They have been much more involved since inception, and indeed since the idea was only a short pitch document.

  • JimmyGiro

    State sponsored laughter is just as divisive as the ‘importance’ of gay marriage. The BBC propaganda unit is dismantling our minds, by equivocating [conflating] our sense of ‘reasonableness’ with disgust. We all like a ‘good’ laugh, and unfortunately the mechanism of diffusing our emotional fluxes, is being used to diffuse the evil of the State.

  • DoNNyDarKo

    It’s all in time to justify using Uzbekistan to ferry our troops and equipment out of Afghanistan. We couldn’t supply our boys in Afghanistan with the right equipment and 12 years on we’re going to give much of it away to a repressive regime.
    And it wont be the first time that Film / TV has been used for propaganda purposes.
    And why should you as a whistle blower be treated any differently than all the other people trying to get the truth out.Our very own NHS is now 100% censored to avoid the truth coming out as a National Treasure is sold.
    I hope you find a way of prosecuting them before they soften up the British public to more of the correct Dictator ass licking that our Govt seems to wallow in.

  • Bena

    Your point is correct. The government of Uzbekistan is one of the most repressive, corrupt and torture-inclined in the world, yet it is supported and assisted by the United Kingdom. One means of blunting the human rights outrage is to trivialise the issue, and to this end the Foreign Office is supporting a comedy based on an imaginary country which resembles Uzbekistan.

    I know nothing of the people making or acting in this comedy. But surely the comedy, whatever the government and comedy writers intend, also focuses the popular mind on this country, which makes it easier to talk about the terrible human rights abuses happening there.

  • crab

    Being a bit more familiar with TV than some better focused people here, i will report that David Mitchell has made some exceptional comedy and made some outstanding condemnations of war lies, bankers, poitical ills etc.
    But the hopeful ’10 O’clock Live’ show which David was the most effective host in, despite delivering some rare passion and information in the early episodes, it descended into a conflicted angry news farce, with low points including Charlie Brooker denigrating people for working in Supermarkets and Mitchell schmoozing compliantly with previously condemned warconman Alistar Campbell.
    David Mitchell has been one of the most soulful and sharpest of the tv chatty comedians; self deprecating and now with success moving on to deprecating other things. Things that wont get him into trouble with his media colleagues, and perhaps his devastingly sweet and clever, establishment friendly, culture cogitating media wife Victoria Coren.

  • Frazer

    I think a few commentators here are right…This could be a great opportunity for you to jump in and grab the spotlight…I would wait for the first episode to air and then blitz the newspapers with a media campaign of some sort…maybe create your own “Our Men” alternative website ? Sure some people on this blog could help you on that..with some forethought and a lot of devious planning this could be a great opportunity to knee the FO and the BBC straight in the balls !

  • Frazer

    Oh, and I just read a comment by David Mitchell and I quote ” Its such a good subject, we couldn’t believe that something along these lines hadn’t been written before ”
    Maybe you should send him a copy of Murder in Samarkend, or actually turn up at rehersals to give him a copy personally !

  • JimmyGiro

    @crab 19 Feb, 2013 – 12:12 pm

    Totally agree, the “10 O’clock Live” should have been funny as hell, with the best of the best; but it became a party political platform for State-Marxism.

    Consider this, regarding the politicization of BBC ‘comedy’, Ben Elton could hardly be removed from our screens, then suddenly he is a none-person, like some Soviet dissident undergoing internal exile. What happened?

  • N_

    What we need is someone to spill the beans on how FCO propaganda works – what the offices are called, who’s in charge, what editors and production editors are on the payroll, how they are paid or ‘helped’, who picks up the phone and calls whom when something’s urgent, etc. Sounds like this was information you were kept away from, Craig.

    That’s one of the areas that remains largely in the dark. Another is control over the judiciary and civil service. Yet another is the influence of the royal family.

    Communications between the BBC and the FCO wouldn’t be gettable under FOI from the BBC, but someone might try from the FCO side, I suppose.

    Of course it’s not just the FCO. Something like the Archers on Radio 4 is obviously used for propaganda purposes by the ‘home’ authorities. What issues are current; what range of opinions is on offer. ‘Ooh – going to college? I expect you’ll be doing a lot of drinking!’

    The FCO were also involved in ‘Cool Britannia’ in the late 1990s. Easy to laugh, but this was a serious propaganda effort to win ‘friends’ for ‘Britain’, where ‘Britain’ denotes a tower block in Vauxhall and the money-grabbing interests it serves. (How’s that for metonymy? 🙂 )

    Looking at the big historical picture requires considering what’s new and what isn’t. I haven’t watched ‘Blackadder’ and so can’t comment in detail, but surely turning the experience of WW1 into comedy discourages people from effectively opposing today’s warfare state and military-industrial complex. Or are the BBC just filling a space? I doubt it. Probably a lot of the themes and motifs and what-makes-people-laugh could easily be transferred to some non-war context and work just as well. There’s little creativity in what passes for ‘creativity’.

    I doubt that such a series could be made in Russia about WW2.

    In Britain, ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ was broadcast as early as 1961. Good for a laugh, what happened to British prisoners held by Japanese forces, wasn’t it? But context is everything…people were relieved that conscription had just ended.

  • Mary

    The BBC are also making comedy out of the horror of Afghanistan.

    BBC to air comedy-drama on British soldiers serving in Afghanistan
    Bluestone 42 follows bomb disposal squad on tour of duty in warzone, with military advisers working on show’s production

    On the previous thread this morning I posted a link to Hammond announcing a £6m MoD grant for microprocessor artificial legs for 160 of our brave boys rendered limbless in Afghanistan.

    “I am delighted, therefore, that we have been able to make funding available for this cutting edge prosthetic technology, which will go a long way to improving the lives of people who have done so much for the UK.”

    What exactly have they done “for the UK”? Under orders they illegally invaded a couple of countries. They did not defend the country from Iraqis and Afghans massing at our borders and they chose to take the risks. How many legless, armless Afghans and Iraqis of all ages are just stuck with it? UKUSIsNATO Inc should be paying for their ‘cutting edge’ prosthetic limbs plus compensation.

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