One of the sleeper hits of recent years has been the BBC’s Life on Mars. Part crime drama, part science fiction, part nothing like anything that’d been on before it. For anyone who managed to miss the media onslaught, the central idea is simple but mind-boggling. DCI Sam Tyler is hit by a car in the present day and wakes to find himself in 1973. He must find out what’s happened to him – is he in a coma, dead, insane or a time traveller? – and find a way home. To add to his confusion, he receives voices and messages from the present over the television (from Open University lecturers and a supremely creepy Test Card girl – remember her? – who occasionally makes more corporeal visits), over the radio or on his police transmitter that only he can hear. Millions tuned in to the final episode to see how it all played out. A delicious, tautly written hour of tears, joy, drama, swearing and laughter – and that was just me!
Although it got very respectable viewing figures, like many people, I was initially put off by the quirky, sci-fi premise of the show. But my other half loved the show and so I came to see that it was a jewel. If you could remember the 1970s, there was fun to be had seeing the clothes, the cars, the sweets, the brownness everything is reconstructed in loving detail (the stars even dabbed on Old Spice and Brut before going on set). It seems a very distant land now.
You’d be hard put to find a more accomplished cast, who all inhabited their roles as if born to them. And they got to speak dialogue that was both tightly plotted and sparkling. And so eminently quotable that, on Wednesday morning, our offices rang to it (hey, we were in the playground in 1973 and we simply reverted) tho much of it wasn’t for the easily offended. John Simm is one of our finest actors and he held the action together as the bewildered Sam Tyler.
But for me, the standout of the show (although it seems unfair to pick one) is Philip Glenister’s fantastically swaggering Gene Hunt, who looks like Malcolm Allison and has a gift for the pithy and usually amazingly offensive one-liner. He’s never heard of political correctness and there is again a playground joy in listening to dialogue you couldn’t say in any other context. He’s racist, sexist (indeed, every ist you can think of) violent, corrupt and you find yourself loving him for it and sighing nostalgically for a time when the police actually cleaned up the streets. Unsurprisingly, Mr Glenister now finds himself a hero to our boys in blue.
And an object of desire to quite a surprising chunk of the female population. No-one should really be surprised to find me in that group, given my recent taste for Gordon Ramsay and Jeremy Clarkson.
And now he’s back – and in the 1980s this time, in Ashes to Ashes, a sequel of sorts to Life on Mars. Now Gene and his team have to deal with a new city (London), a whole new way of life (Gene’s now divorced) and policing, and life in all the garish, candy-coloured kaleidoscope that was the early Eighties. They also have to deal with a new DI, Alex Drake (played by Spooks’ Keeley Hawes), who was shot in 2008 and finds herself in the same world that she learned about while listening to a tape Sam Tyler made of his experiences. Her nemesis appears in the form of the clown that David Bowie played in the Ashes to Ashes video – and which is guaranteed to scare the pants off me, having seen the trailer! Something happened in 1981 that shattered her childhood (as was the case with Sam) – has she gone back to stop it?
If you loved Life, you’ll also love this judging by the trailer and the clips I’ve seen so far (Gene entrance is a total joy). If you didn’t see the first series, don’t worry, you’ll catch up. And don’t worry if, like me, you have to watch it through your fingers as the decade that taste forgot come flooding back…
Welcome back, Gene – we’ve missed you.
Ashes to Ashes begins on BBC1 at 9pm on Thursday, February 7 (the last episode of Life on Mars will be shown at 10pm on BBC4 that night)