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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.

The cast of Babylon.
Police line-up: the cast of Danny Boyle's Babylon. Image: Channel 4.

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.