Babylon, Ch4, with Brit Marling, James Nesbitt, Jill Halfpenny, Paterson Joseph PREVIEW

Martin Trenaman, Jim Howick, Cavan Clerkin, Jill Halfpenny, Adam Deacon, Paterson Joseph, Bertie Carvel, Brit Marling, James Nesbitt, Ella Smith, Jonny Sweet, Nick Blood, Stuart Martin, Andrew Brooke and Daniel Kaluuya, in Ch4's Babylon
London’s thin blue line in Babylon. Pics: Ch4

Rating: ★★★½

Channel 4: starts Sunday, 9 February, 9pm

Story: London’s police force is in need of a public image revamp. And Chief Constable Richard Miller has found just the woman to do it. Liz Garvey is an American visionary from the world of new media parachuted in to revolutionise the force’s PR department…

‘DO NOT TASER my knob-end,’ says a guy at home facing armed fire-arms officers in the opening moments of Babylon, his knob-end a-dangle because he was in the lavvie as they battered his street door in.

In a nutshell, this intro captures the chaos at the heart of this off-kilter comedy-drama. It’s bit of a cross between Twenty Twelve, last year’s very funny Olympic satire, and The Thick of It.

Babylon takes a similarly jaundiced view of the arse-covering and ineptitude behind the scenes of a major public service in the age of social media and instant news management.

Directed by Danny Boyle

James Nesbitt as Richard Miller and Jonny Sweet as Tom Oliver, in Ch4's Babylon
James Nesbitt as Richard Miller; Jonny Sweet as Tom Oliver

The only slight disappointment is that the hilarious beginning isn’t followed through. The police and the public relations worlds take direct hits in some delightful scenes, but as Babylon settles down into a pacy narrative about the Metropolitan police hierarchy fumbling a major incident involving a random gunman on the loose in London, the tone becomes less humorous.

So in order not be disappointed, it’s important to know what kind of show this is. As Jesse Armstrong, who wrote Babylon with Sam Bain, says, ‘It quickly became apparent that it wasn’t going to become a sitcom version of the police. I would really say that it’s more of a drama than a comedy drama, even.’

Director Danny Boyle – whose creative credibility is sky high following last year’s Olympics opening ceremony and hits such as Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting – drives the story with verve and thumping beat, as we spin round documentary-style with the cops on the street or the brass at police HQ.

Brit Marling as PR guru Liz Garvey

Brit Marling as Liz Garvey, in Ch4's Babylon
Brit Marling as Liz Garvey

Central to the story is Brit Marling (Arbitrage, Another Earth) as PR guru Liz Garvey, who takes over the Met’s PR operation and believes in ‘transparency’ – not the first quality one associates with the police.

Her first day is consumed by a crisis, as a gunman goes on the rampage. While Liz wants to make statements and be straight with the media, Chief Constable Richard Miller (James Nesbitt) is concerned about saying anything for which he might be ‘crucified’.

Paterson Joseph is excellent as Miller’s deputy, who is superb at not making decisions for which he might be held accountable, and we get to ride alongside the police at the sharp end, who range from the competent Territorial Support officer Davina (Jill Halfpenny) to nutter Robbie (Adam Deacon).

Six-part series to follow

Jill Halfpenny as TSG officer Davina, in Ch4's Babylon
Jill Halfpenny as TSG officer Davina

Nicola Walker is underused, but this is a 90-minute pilot. Presumably, she will feature more when the six-part series, which starts shooting in the spring, follows later.

Babylon a bit scattergun, but it has wonderful performances, is extensively researched and shifts along with the urgency of a Specialist Firearms Unit.

Anyone who blanches at a lot of swear words should stay away. But once the series gets into its groove it has the potential to become a razor-sharp drama that breaks out of the cop procedural/whodunit formula littering the TV schedules.

Cast: Brit Marling Liz Garvey, James Nesbitt Chief Constable Richard Miller James Robinson Mr Lovett, Adam Deacon TSG Officer Robbie, Paterson Joseph Deputy Commissioner Charles Inglis, Daniel Kaluuya Matt Coward, Nick Blood Warwick, Andrew Brooke Officer Neil, Deborah Rosan Reporter, Lee Nicholas Harris Desk Sergeant, Jill Halfpenny TSG Officer Davina

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