TV review: Inside the Foreign Office, and Tomorrow’s World Live: For one night only

30 November 2018


Sir Simon McDonald, the Head of the Diplomatic Service, in his office at the FCO, the subject of Inside the Foreign Office (BBC2, Thursdays)

Sir Simon McDonald, the Head of the Diplomatic Service, in his office at the FCO, the subject of Inside the Foreign Office (BBC2, Thursdays)

WHAT do you look for in your vicar? Unwavering commitment to absolute truth, however unpalatable, off-putting, or isolating that might prove; or diplomacy — a willingness to discern which battles are winnable, and what compromises will have to be swallowed for the greater good.

This constant moral dilemma is nicely presented by Inside the Foreign Office (BBC2, Thursdays), a three-part documentary. Here, we meet Britain’s civil servants — incorruptable, meritorious, brilliant, suave, just a little superior, perhaps — extolling their traditional virtues of faithfully enabling whatever policy their political master of the day requires of them; of seeking to maximise whatever remains of our national prestige (they appear to be under little illusion about how diminished that might be); of building alliances with other international powers (however distasteful such powers might be) to further British interests; and — although rather less frequently than I would hope — pursuing righteous actions, whether they bring profit or loss.

It is a stylish, sophisticated programme, as befits the subject: now eavesdropping on ministerial briefings held amid Whitehall opulence; now following our representatives at the UN as they seek to build coalitions in support of peace, reconciliation, and justice; now following our woman in Ulan Bator as she rides through the snow-bound tundra.

The unspoken subtext of Tomorrow's World Live: For one night only (BBC4, Thursday of last week), 15 years after the long-running series came to an end — especially as leading scientists lined up to say how the programme had been the main factor in encouraging them to pursue their vocation — was why on earth was it terminated?

I found it a faithful re-animation of the original (i.e. with embarassing joshing between the presenters), but there were insights to be gleaned from the updating of technologies, especially in the world of robotics.

A cutting-edge conversational robot was put through its paces, and, although fulsome and accurate when the answer finally came, there was an uncomfortable gap after the question — just as when “The Lord be with you” is met with universal silence. Surprisingly cute robotic “pets” elicit genuine affection and concern from almost everyone, demonstrating how completely we humans are wired to turn objects we know to be entirely artificial into living beings, imputing to them emotions and affections, and building relationship with them.

As loneliness becomes an ever greater problem, these machines have an obvious social purpose. We saw that static robots can perform accurate and minute tasks; but creating one that can mimic even a toddler’s ability to negotiate an unfamiliar terrain is extraordinarily difficult. In other words, robots teach us how complex and infinitely adjustable we fallible humans are.

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