Babylon: a hilarious, unsettling drama from Danny Boyle and the Peep Show creators

Ben Dowell gets down and dirty with London's police in Channel 4's new feature length drama Babylon, written by Peep Show creators Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong and directed by Danny Boyle

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Babylon: a hilarious, unsettling drama from Danny Boyle and the Peep Show creators
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Fans of Peep Show expecting the latest Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong Channel 4 project Babylon to be a laugh-a- minute – well, you’re in for a disappointment. Of sorts. Because while it is their most serious work to date (according to Bain) their drama about modern policing is no less satisfying for that.

“This is more drama with a bit of comedy where Four Lions was comedy with a bit of drama,” Sam Bain tells RadioTimes.com, referring to the pair’s 2010 satire about a group of Islamic terrorists written with Chris Morris.

And he’s not wrong.

You may tune in to Channel 4 on Sunday night hoping to have a giggle, but you'll leave reflecting on the state of the nation. And having a bit of a giggle...

It’s a top to bottom view of London police, from James Nesbitt’s commissioner, down to the plods on the ground (and there's also an appearance from a Boris Johnson impersonator, acting suitably buffoonish as the London Mayor). Somewhere near the top of this pyramid is Brit Marlin’s new PR, Liz Garvey, a sex bomb hired from America after the commissioner spotted her spouting various bits of jargon at a TED talk in the US.

You might think a Bain and Armstrong piece would poke fun at her. In fact modern comedy tradition sort of demands it, because if shows like Twenty Twelve have taught us anything it's that PR usually spells nonsense-fuelled jargon.

And yes, we can have a hearty chuckle at lines like “We’re dumping the journalists, we’re asking the public for a date instead”. And yes, these do echo some of the worse excesses of Siobhan Sharpe from Twenty Twelve’s Olympics Deliverance Commission (let's “roll the tortoise here guys and not boil the ocean” being my favourite). 

But in Babylon the tone gets deadly series once a sniper starts picking off random members of the public, and the killer is hunted down by a police force increasingly panicked by a crisis unfolding under the glare of social media.

Like Four Lions, there are many tones and registers packed in. Bovine plod Robbie arses around while policing a demonstration – “Get back in the coach or I will verbally dominate you” made me chuckle; but this is all before we witness another victim on the streets of London being seen off by the sniper.

There is also a brilliant performance from comedian Jonny Sweet as the nice but dim assistant to James Nesbitt’s commissioner, who comes up with some of the most toe-curlingly imbecilic lines in the film (at one point he observes that one victim has been shot outside a health food shop and suggests the killing spree may be “Holland & Barrett-related?")

It is a funny, troubling, unsettling film, but then Channel 4 is selling this as a drama, made by the drama department, and that seems right. It also boasts one of the best performances ever by James Nesbitt, an actor I have always admired, who manages to command great authority in the role; I believe in him as a man to have risen up the greasy pole of modern policing, especially as he seems to have just the right amount of flaws (fancying the pants off his new PR guru being perhaps just one).

It has the visual delights of all Boyle’s work – the high octane ravey look – and the verbal dexterity we have come to know from Armstrong and Bain.

Yet Babylon may not be at all what you expect.

The pilot episode of Babylon airs on Channel 4 on Sunday 9 February at 9pm with a six part series shooting in the spring