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Inside The American Embassy
A Channel 4 documentary Inside The American Embassy aims to shine a light behind the scenes. We talk to the executive producer and an embassy spokesperson.
Catch it on Mondays from June 26 to July 16 at 10pm on Channel 4. Catch up on All 4.
The US Embassy in London recently moved from its home of two centuries, Grosvenor Square in Mayfair, to a brand new billion dollar state-of-the-art building in Nine Elms, Battersea. Inside the American Embassy, a Channel 4 documentary series, takes you behind the scenes, to see how the staff manage one of the biggest ‘house moves’ imaginable and how the famous Special Relationship between the USA and the UK works in practise. The American chatted with Jennifer Williams, an embassy press officer who is featured in the documentary, and Sally Angel of Field Day Productions, one of the executive producers, to find out all about the documentary.
Whose idea was the documentary – the embassy’s, Channel 4’s or Field Day’s?
Sally: It was our idea. We were interested in the Special Relationship and the story behind it. Knowing that the embassy was going to move looked like good timing for us to tell that story, so we approached Jen with a view to doing a historical series about diplomacy and embassies. As we spoke, the idea emerged of filming something with a present-day narrative, illuminated by that Special Relationship.
Jennifer: We recognized the historic nature of some the the events we had coming up, including the move to the new embassy. We actually started the conversation before the US Presidential elections in 2016, so the project wasn’t tied to any particular political outcome. But given we had a new administration coming in, and a new ambassador, it seemed like a really interesting time to capture some of that history in action.
What were the goals of the embassy and the producers and broadcasters?
Jennifer: The specific focus of this series is how close, and how wide ranging, the Special Relationship is across every sector you could possibly imagine. We wanted to highlight that close cooperation. More broadly, we hope that it will also be seen by an American audience, to shine a light on diplomacy. In the US there’s a lot of focus on the important work that our military and border security colleagues do, but not a lot is understood or known about what our diplomats do. This is an opportunity to show real life diplomats in action.
Sally: We wanted to break down some of the myths about the men and women who do the job regardless of who is in power. It was very important that there was a bedrock of trust between us, the embassy and Channel 4 as well. We all agreed ground rules, and it was fantastic for me as a producer that Channel 4 and the embassy were equally supportive in bringing this about.
The series’ co-executive director Roger Graef is a highly respected veteran filmmaker and a New York-born long term expat in the UK. How did he come to be involved?
Sally: Roger's a friend, I’ve known him for a long time, and when we got the green light to go ahead I thought he would bring something special to it – his wealth of experience, and the fact that he has dual nationality too. There’s nobody better at observational documentary, and he has such a wise head about how to go about thngs. We knew it would be a complex project, with sensitive aspects, and Roger brought reassurance to everybody.
Jennifer: Bringing Roger on board an already great team added a confidence that the final product would be something that we would all be proud of. We were able to point his previous work out to my colleagues who were rightly nervous about bringing cameras into their work environment. Diplomats are not used to having cameras following them around, especially in a dynamic political environment like we have now. It was important to build trust not only at the beginning but all the way through so that as issues came up we could resolve them. Having someone of Roger's stellar reputation put people at ease and helped us put the case to the ambassador and our colleagues in Washington. As equal partners in this project we had a responsibility to provide real content, not just limit access to what we thought would be easy or popular. Nothing that would be too sensitive or with security concerns, but showing things with real substance, and that means we had to take a bit of risk.
Sally: It was also important to Channel 4 that this was journalistically solid. We were mindful of OFCOM - we couldn't make a puff piece that promotes the interests of the embassy if it’s going out on Channel 4.
How much access did the camera crews have?
Sally: We always regarded our access as a privilege and not a right, so we were very sensitive. We spent a few months hanging out at the embassy without filming anything, just to find out what people did and for them to get to know us. There were obviously areas we weren’t allowed in, but the teams were given extraordinary access. We never assumed we’d get anything, but nine times out of ten we’d look at our wish list and the answer would be yes. For example, in Episode 2 we filmed extensively in the consular section. The details of how people do their jobs at the windows with the public has never been seen before. That one tugs at your heart.
The ‘hook’ for the series is the embassy’s move south of the Thames. Any move is tricky, did having film crews around make it more difficult?
Jennifer: I have to say our colleagues who were planning the move were very understanding! It was an incredibly complex operation and they’d been planning it for years, and the most important thing was that we could continue to do our jobs. It was quite an ask, but they were really considerate and we made it work. We don’t move embassies very frequently – this is the first time in 60 years – and we wanted to capture some of the process for posterity.
Sally: We talked about it being history in the making, and the move is symbolic of that. The embassy now has an archive record of both the old building and the move into the new one. Your question is very true – moving house is stressful enough, moving an entire embassy with three film crews in tow is pretty demanding. People were just great, it was a relationship-built programme. Our teams went 110%. They were committed to the filming, but they cared about the people they were filming too.
While you were planning the documentary there was an election, bringing a new president and a new ambassador. Could that have ended with the whole venture being vetoed?
Jennifer: That was a real concern. It was a project that had been developed and approved before Ambassador Johnson’s arrival. Earning his support was critical, and we were delighted that he saw it as a really positive investment of our time and resources.
Did the presidential election make your story more interesting?
Sally: Interest doesn’t cover it! We were excited by all of that happening, and being up close to it all and bearing witness to it was amazing. We wanted to provide a ringside seat for our audience.
The new president has a new way of working that affects diplomats, for example you have to deal with unexpected tweets. The documentary shows you learning to handle that.
Jennifer: I think it does. It’s quite compelling seeing how we in the press office, or my political or economic or consular colleagues, deal with these changes. Every administration makes policy changes but as Courtney Austrian [Minister Counselor for Public Affairs] notes in Episode 1, this is an unorthodox method of communication, which we’re all adjusting to. We have to think on our feet, but the Ambassador makes an insightful comment that it’s about looking beyond the tweet of the day and focusing on the relationship and the bigger picture.
What can we look forward to in Episode 3?
Sally: The third episode is called ‘Guns, Diplomacy and Chlorinated chicken’, and it’s about trade among other things.
Jennifer: It focuses on some of the more substantial issues within our security and economic relationship, and how the embassy is trying to further both of those huge priorities.
Episode 3 of Inside the American Embassy, ‘Guns, Diplomacy and Chlorinated Chicken’, screens July 9 at 10pm on Channel 4.