I know Gene Hunt is a right wing anti-hero. I know he’s a poster boy for the Daily Mail. I know he’s “an overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline-alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding”. If he were to exist in real life, he would be repulsive. As a fictional construct, I adore him. He was Jack Sparrow to Sam Tyler’s Will Turner, or Arthur Fonzarelli to Richie Cunningham: the intended comic foil who became the focal point of the show. He got the best lines, the most interesting scenes, the fancy cinematography. The camera loved him, and so did we.
Life on Mars explored Sam’s fish-out-of-water dilemma, and its outcome – be careful what you wish for – was fairly predictable, if brilliantly executed. Its follow-up began in the same way, but our inside knowledge of Alex’s situation would have made for less interesting television had the writers not sensibly decided to switch focus to Gene. The third series is almost entirely about him, with hidden pasts unearthed, old wounds re-opened, and as many questions rewritten as answered. Come the end of the show we know more or less what’s going on, but the revelation that Gene Hunt is <WHOPPING GREAT SPOILER> doesn’t actually resolve very much at all besides give us only the vaguest idea of how this all works. For instance, why did Sam <SPOILER>? How is the <SPOILER>? Does everyone <SPOILER>? And if that’s the case, what about Shaz and <SPOILER>?
Ultimately there were so many questions asked because if you examine it, the whole construct was far less watertight than it may have been. There are all manner of loose ends and inconsistencies. Put simply, it just doesn’t work, at least not under scrutiny. And yet the nature of the show’s resolution (which I will not give away here) somehow allowed for a certain suspension of our disbelief – we were prepared to let certain things go because stylistically it fitted. It’s a far cry from the conclusion of the US version of Life on Mars, which included an interesting (if highly derivative) twist that nonetheless seemed to completely undermine everything that had gone before. (Look it up. Your jaw will drop, and not in a good way.)
The point is that Emily and I devoured every episode: it was compulsive television for both of us. As I’m sure I have said before there was comparatively little that we would watch regularly, with the exception of Doctor Who and 24. Never mind audience retention; I watch so little TV that to even make me want to switch on in the first place a series has to offer something pretty special. Life on Mars had John Simm, whom I remembered from Human Traffic (which I loved at the time, but now can’t stand) and 24 Hour Party People (in which he plays a convincing Bernard Sumner). Eagle-eyed viewers over the age of twenty may also recognise him from his ad for Cellnet.
Many people preferred Mars to Ashes. I love both. Mars is all muted browns and greens in the style of seventies cop shows that never really existed except somewhere in our imaginations. Ashes is stylistically as bold and brassy as the decade it lampoons – those who criticised the ridiculously OTT approach of the first episode have missed the point that this is (more or less) taking place inside Alex’s head, and is therefore ripe for pastiche – from a certain point of view, it’s a very, very long dream sequence. Likewise the critical mauling that Keeley Hawes received after her first episode was completely unjustified – Alex was incredibly irritating for her first few stories, before she settled down and started to enjoy herself, but the people who felt it ruined the show would do well to go back and watch the first episode of Life on Mars again, and see if they didn’t find Sam equally tiresome.
There is a Who / Ashes mashup waiting to happen, if it hasn’t been done already. This is not it. (When the first series aired, I did have the idea of Sam Tyler coming out of his coma only to wake up in the TARDIS wearing Christopher Eccleston’s leather jacket, with Rose Tyler looking down at him and saying “Doctor? Are you feeling alright?”. In a slightly warped fashion, I almost got my wish.) No, this is another music video. Part of the joy behind Ashes was its soundtrack – a song selection that seemed to lean heavily on the New Romantic side of things, perhaps at the expense of other innovative material that was being produced at around the same time, but that doesn’t really matter as long as it suited the show.
And it did. It really did. Look at the opening episode and its use of the Clash, as Alex and Gene bomb through London to the strains of ‘I Fought the Law’ . Or episode 1.6, in which Glenister shoots out the window of a restaurant, stepping over the glass in slow motion as ‘Vienna’ plays in the background. Or the gypsy birth sequence that’s scored to ‘Come on Eileen’. Or pick your own. There are so many. But there are other songs I wish they’d included, such as ‘Cars’, which has always been one of my favourite driving anthems. Or Joy Division’s ‘Transmission’, which is coming next week.
Assembling this was easy: I just went through each episode, ripped out anything that involved driving (and there’s a lot of that), and spliced them all together. The source material was so good there was a wealth of stuff to choose from. There’s a little speedup on the car explosion and the clown morph, but aside from that it was a simple cut-and-paste job. Fandabbydosey.