Police line-up: the cast of Danny Boyle's Babylon. Image: Channel 4.
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Channel 4's Babylon: not much cop

So much seemed right about this show, but it failed to deliver a grin.

Babylon
Channel 4

I saw the moderately hyped Babylon (9 February, 9pm) around the time PC Keith Wallis was jailed for a year for lying during the “Plebgate” affair: in other words, at a moment when I should have been predisposed to enjoy a programme that supposedly takes the piss out of the Metropolitan Police, or a force much like it. In the end, not even my savage and no doubt tumour-inducing feelings about the way so many areas of public life now seem to be corrupted could power me through the muddle on-screen.

Ostensibly, so much was so right: the director (Danny Boyle – yes, that Danny Boyle); the writers (Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong of Peep Show and Fresh Meat); the cast (Paterson Joseph, Nicola Walker and, best of all, Bertie Carvel, trying successfully to put his role as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda behind him). And yet, so much was wrong. It was uncomfortable in a bad way and a bit boring; the jokes – aren’t coppers thick? – were awful.

The set-up (this was a pilot; doubtless a series is on the way) goes like this. Richard Miller (James Nesbitt), the chief constable of the Metropolitan Police, has hired a new PR chief, Liz Garvey (Brit Marling), whose Ted talk he saw online and droolingly admired. Garvey is a fox but she also talks PR drivel. Her last job was at Instagram and she’s apt to drone on about transparency and “owning” stuff. When she holds her first meeting with her hard-pressed police press officers, she wanders through them like Moses and they part like the Red Sea. Her rival in her new role is Finn (Carvel). He’s old school: the Met equivalent of Malcolm Tucker, by which I mean he’s always hanging out by the urinals, making secret calls to the Mirror.

Garvey’s first day proved to be trying. Not only was Finn trying to stitch her up, but there was a shooter at large in the city, victims falling by the minute. Meanwhile, a television crew was trying to get her to sign off an episode of its documentary about one of her units and the mayor’s office was stealing all of the good news. A side plot (the show was amazingly overburdened) involved one of the TV company’s cameramen joining a patrol unit whose most voluble member, Robbie (Adam Deacon), was a moron even by the half-witted standards of his colleagues: semi-illiterate and with a fuse as short as my fingernails.

Another side plot involved a copper who had shot and killed a member of the public returning to work, even though he was clearly troubled. It’s something of an understatement to say that this copper’s post-traumatic stress disorder sat rather oddly in the mix. Having invited us to laugh at policemen for their immense and unparalleled stupidity, their extraordinary inability ever to tell the truth, their crazed lust for unnecessary overtime and their tendency to regard members of the public as “scrotes”, we were suddenly expected to have sympathy for one.

Even this wasn’t as odd as some of the performances. Marling was great and so was Carvel – but elsewhere, the overacting was like a contagion. It was hard not to feel, sometimes, that this was little more than a glossy, very-pleased-with-itself version of Ben Elton’s 1990s sitcom The Thin Blue Line. A special nod on this score to Nesbitt, who wore an “I’m doing comedy” expression on his face throughout, a rictus that seemed especially weird given how little Babylon made me laugh – or even smile in recognition.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage