Danny Boyle’s hard hitting police drama Babylon begins soon on Channel 4, here star James Nesbitt (currently starring in BBC drama The Missing) talks about his role as Richard Miller, Commissioner of the London Police Force.
Who do you play, and what are they like?
I play the Commissioner of the London Police Force, Richard Miller. He’s an imposing, charming, authoritative man who’s worked his way up through the police force. He started in Northern Ireland; he was probably in the RUC in very difficult times in the mid-80s. He was probably quite progressive, and remains progressive. He was likely to have been involved in the peace process. He’s a man with ambitions to change the police force and take it into the 21st Century. He’s someone who is forceful, and has to deal with the pressure of the most challenging job in policing. There’s also another side to him, and his personal life is hugely under pressure.
What do you think are the chief strengths of Sam and Jesse’s writing?
Clearly I knew their work before. They have natural quite dark humour, and they’re constantly evolving. They created a very rounded, complex character in Richard Miller. I think their observation of how policing is changing, and communications are changing and the news is changing, is very acute. I think their voices are very original, and they marry humour and drama together very well. They create very good characters, but they also will occasionally throw in some very funny lines as well.
Whenever you switch on the TV, there’s a police drama on. But this is very different from all the others, isn’t it? Was that part of the attraction for you?
It was the writing, really. That was the attraction. And the fact that it felt like something I hadn’t really done. It felt very much of its time, very different from formulaic police dramas. Not to say that a lot of them aren’t very good. I’ve been involved in cop dramas myself. But what was attractive about this was, of course, Danny [Boyle] at first, and Sam and Jesse’s writing, and then when it was taken on as a series, Jon S Baird was hugely important to me. He’s a brilliant, collaborative director. It was like nothing I’d seen. I think Miller is an extraordinary man. Often what you try to do is create ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. I think this is an extraordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.
Has your opinion of the job that the police do changed as a result of working on the show?
Yes. I think that’s an important question. I think publications beforehand, particularly on the right of the political spectrum, might have thought that this was going to be a police-bashing exercise. And I think, if anything, it’s the opposite of that. I think I’ve taken from it the enormous difficulty the police are under. Of course I’d seen that, growing up in Northern Ireland. But I think nowadays, with the fact that everyone is a news cameraman, it makes it harder than ever. Cameraphones are slightly the bane of my life, but they’re certainly the bane of the police’s life as well. When we filmed in Miller’s office, I’d stand there and look out over the whole of London, and it was very helpful in reminding you of the impossibility of that job, of trying to govern and protect an entire city. Of trying to make the right decisions when there are those in politics who are against you, and the public are against you. But one of the things that it was important for me to remember was that kids still want to join the police when they grow up, and that says something about the police. That doesn’t seem to have been lost.