BBC diplomatic drama in late 1990s raised security fears for British ambassador

Veronica Sutherland was alarmed that the depiction of a female British ambassador in Ireland might lead viewers to believe it was based on her

The British ambassador to Ireland in the late 1990s Veronica Sutherland complained about a BBC drama series ahead of its broadcast as she felt it could put her security at risk.

The Ambassador ran for two series between January 1998 and May 1999 on the BBC.

It starred Pauline Collins as Harriet Smith, the female British ambassador to Ireland, who has come to the country following the murder of her husband. She is immediately embroiled in a controversy over the sinking of an Irish fishing trawler by a British submarine.

The series was produced by Ecosse Films, a production company based in London.

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On December 17th, 1996, Ms Sutherland wrote to the producer, Stephen Smallwood, about the series.

She complained that it could be seen as a personal portrayal of herself as, at the time, she was the first female British ambassador to Ireland.

“Viewers are likely to conclude that the choice of a woman to play the leading role in your series is no coincidence. And that could lead to obvious difficulties,” she wrote.

“Given the existing security risk from the staff of this embassy, I hope you will also recognise my concern that there should be nothing in your programmes which, by the way they depict the embassy and its staff, might provoke hostility or even violence against the building or personnel who work here.”

Ms Sutherland said she would have no difficulty with the portrayal of a woman ambassador to an imagined country “but the sensitivities here are such that your plan does cause concerns. I hope you will recognise that these are legitimate”.

Frank Murray the secretary to the government, responded to Ms Sutherland a month later promising to bring it up with the taoiseach and the minister for arts.

“On a personal level I have full sympathy with the concerns and sensitivities which you outlined. I hope that the end will not live up (or down) to your worst expectations.”

Ms Sutherland was British ambassador to Ireland from 1995 to 1999 at a critical time in the peace process and was present during the negotiations that led to the Belfast Agreement.

Her protestations about The Ambassador would appear to have been in vain as the programme went ahead as scheduled.

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