Babylon: Danny Boyle depicts cops paralysed by crisis – and PR

Where 'The Thick of It' portrayed inept politicos, Babylon's police officers are stricken by doubt

Column LAST UPDATED AT 10:30 ON Mon 10 Feb 2014

I ALMOST gave up after the first five minutes of Babylon, Channel 4's new police comedy drama. It was neither comic nor dramatic, and straining desperately hard to be both.

Then it settled down and, scene by scene, became ever more confident and compelling.

Directed by Danny Boyle and written by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (whose past credits include Peep Show and Four Lions), this 90-minute pilot had moments of real tension and plenty to raise a smile.

James Nesbitt plays a forward-thinking Metropolitan Police commissioner who brings in an American PR guru (Brit Marling) to overhaul the image of the force.

"We’re dumping the journalists,” she says, “and asking the public for a date instead."

Her mantra of radical transparency riles the Met's old guard even before a sniper starts picking off Londoners. With panic taking hold across the city, even her allies begin to think that honesty might not be the best policy.

Babylon follows an unusually large cast of characters, from senior commanders to armed response units and rank-and-file plod on the pavement. The tone may be a little uneven – subtlety too often makes way for comic overstatement – but what does seem convincing is the portrait of an organisation paralysed by crisis.

Rumours multiply and information of uncertain provenance swirls around Scotland Yard. Everyone knows that the shootings are linked, yet no one knows how they know it.

Comparisons have been drawn with The Thick of It and its dismally inept politicos, but in Babylon incompetence is less prevalent than doubt – and it's unclear whether we should be reassured or alarmed by the presence in our police force of that very human quality.

The script swerves away from moral certainty, which sets this programme apart from most police dramas. Officers are neither heroic nor corrupt. The climactic armed operation is hesitantly commanded, to the extent that it’s commanded at all. A police marksman waiting, finger on the trigger, is told: “You have authorisation to act as you see fit until we have strategic directions and goals as to what the interpretation of the situation is.” 

And from this dark, unsettling brew drip good, deadpan jokes. The gunman is seeking attention, says one senior officer, “and to some extent his plan is working”.

A series of six one-hour episodes follows in the spring, and the writers have said they have hopes of a second series. First five minutes aside, this pilot bodes well for their ambition. · 

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It was very disjointed, but got there in the end. It could end up being something great, though I'm not yet convinced.

Oops,I thought it was a documentary, seemed pretty realistic in portraying incompetent,dodgy ,self serving public servants.

It was "strategic direction from Gold," the codename for headquarters.