At the end of the first episode of Channel 4 police drama Babylon, James Nesbitt – playing Richard Miller, a dour Metropolitan Police Commissioner – complains that no matter how well the police do, the rest of us only ever notice the mistakes that they make. There’s no glory in getting things right 98 per cent of the time. “Do you know what 98 per cent right is?” Miller grumbles. “A big f***ing story on the two per cent.”
Babylon is a slightly surreal cop show that was created by Danny Boyle of Slumdog Millionaire fame for a one-off pilot in February this year, and now it’s returning as a six-part series. There’s plenty of action, but it’s played for humour as much as drama and the tone of the dialogue is similar to spoof documentaries like Twenty Twelve and W1A. Yet the show is also trying to make some serious points: wondering aloud whether the police are obsessed with their public image, and whether the top brass are in touch with life on the ground.
But how accurate is this portrayal of British policing? Well, who better to ask than two coppers from the C4 documentary 24 Hours in Police Custody? If you’ve been watching that magnificent series – and you really ought to have been – you’ll recall Bedfordshire police officers Martin Hart and Chris Hutton from the first episode, which catalogued a fascinating investigation into an alleged murder conspiracy.
So what do the two real-life detectives make of Jimmy Nesbitt and his team on Babylon?
Well, Detective Constable Hart (the cheery former holiday rep) liked it rather more than Detective Sergeant Hutton (the more matter-of-fact, bespectacled one). But both noticed the two per cent rather more than the 98. In fact, their scorecard would be rather more damning than that. “They got certain nuances right,” declares DC Hart. “But the bits they got wrong, they got hugely wrong.”
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But first of all, the bits that Babylon got right. Early on, inmates at a prison go on the rampage, attacking people and property. You’d call it a riot. I’d call it a riot. But in Babylon, the bosses are extremely reluctant to use the word. Rather better to label it a “severe disturbance”.
“That made me laugh,” says DS Hutton. “The reason for that is that if it’s officially a riot, all the costs to repair the damage come out of the public purse.” It’s for this reason that the protagonists in the riots that gripped towns and cities in 2011 were charged with offences such as violent disorder or burglary. “So that did make me chuckle. But I think only police officers would probably get the joke.”
The other true-to-life aspect of the show: bad- taste banter on display among the cops. DC Hart says: “You saw it on 24 Hours in Police Custody too. When you encounter things that are absolutely horrendous, if you don’t have a sense of humour, you’d have a breakdown. People on the outside might say: ‘How could you say that?’ Well, I say: ‘How can we walk towards these things when you run from them?’ ”
And from there on in Hart and Hutton can only find holes in Babylon. Early on, an armed officer shoots an unarmed man dead. In the show, he's back at work the next day (though not terribly competently). "Not a chance," says DC Hart."No way on this earth."
"He'd be suspended, have his gun taken away, put into counselling. You'd be lucky if you were back on the streets within three months. And the worst part is then you’d be investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. That’s the joy of being an armed officer.”
Of course, this show – like every other cop show on earth – massively overstates the prevalence of violent crime: last year, in the whole of the UK, police fired their weapons just three times. And there were precisely zero fatalities.
There are more faults. The Commander’s “bag man” is a wimp who’d never have been appointed to the job. Two police vans turn up to a prison riot that would have needed dozens more. And the cops wouldn’t then sit around chatting and eating chicken nuggets. And there’s no way that the police’s PR team would allow TV news channels to broadcast live briefings of the force’s efforts to quell the riots – how would it be in their interests for the rioters to know what was going to happen to them?
DS Hutton says the show “makes us look like a lot of bumbling idiots – buffoons, really”. Then he says something surprising: his wife, who works in heart surgery, has in the past worked as an expert consultant on a well-known and much-loved medical drama. Sometimes the programme makers took her advice, often they ignored it. On one occasion, he says, they told her: “It looks good, we’re going to do it anyway.”
“So I think often with these programmes, it doesn’t really matter how it compares to reality. They just want to make something that’s entertaining. Any copper who watches Babylon probably won’t like it. But other members of the public probably will.”
Babylon begins on Channel 4 tonight (13th November) at 10.00pm