Saturday, February 16, 2008

Funeral for a Friend

We're two weeks into the new series of Ashes to Ashes and, sadly, I have to give it a major thumbs down. It's awful. And it's indicative of lazy TV programming being carried aloft on the shoulders of previous series and assuming any old malarkey will do as there's now a fan-base. Oh no. Oh dear me no. It's lazy. And it's insulting to us, the licence-paying viewers.

If you haven't caught it yet, Ashes to Ashes is a kind of sequel to 2006/7's Life on Mars. In that series, modern day cop Sam Tyler (John Simm) is knocked down by a car and wakes up in 1973. We were never sure if he was bonkers, living inside his own coma-induced imagination or whether he'd really travelled back in time. The show featured some strong drama - often based on the frequent culture clashes between 1973 and 2007 (the episode about racism was particularly good). Similar clashes between 21st century Tyler's new-man political correctness and Philip Glenister's superb mysogynistic anti-hero, DCI Gene Hunt added a spice of humour. The two series of Life on Mars were a big hit with viewers, full of wry humour and subtle nods of the head to beloved 1970s TV shows like The Sweeney and Special Branch. Gene Hunt was such a hugely popular character that we always knew that there would be a sequel ...

So when I heard that Gene Hunt was to get his own series, I cheered. What I expected was that, now that the Sam Tyler time-travel element was gone, we'd get a wonderful series of great retro-comedy dramas following Hunt's further adventures; a kind of 1970s period costume drama. What we've ended up with is a sad imitation of Life on Mars. It's a mess.

To begin with, the set-up is all wrong. Life on Mars was set in Manchester and Gene Hunt hated 'soft Southern jessies'. By 1981, everyone knew that Thatcher hated the North; the North/South divide had been strengthened and the crippling Miners' Strike was just over the horizon. And yet, inexplicably, Hunt has somehow transferred to the Met in London, as have his two sidekicks Chris Skelton and Ray Carling. One is thick, the other thicker. It was always a wonder how they got into the police in the first place ... so how did they all manage a successful transfer and stay together as a unit? It just doesn't make sense. And Hunt would never have transferred. Never.

Then, there's the fact that it's now set in 1981. It's eight years on from the orignal series and yet all of the characters look and act exactly the same. There's been no character development at all. If Skelton had been in his late 20s in Life on Mars, he'd now be early to mid-thirties ... would he really be just as uninformed about police procedure? And there are all kinds of mistakes ... the WPC uniforms have black hats when they were actually white back then. Hunt refers to the A Team ... a series that started in 1983. Some of the music is off-beam too and Hunt's car -a red Audi Quattro - wasn't actually available in right hand drive in 1981. All right, they're tiny niggling points, but they are a symptom of a greater malaise. This would never happen with Bleak House or Pride and Prejudice or even a WWII drama. Bigger mistakes exist too. The police have never been regularly armed in the UK and they take the whole of issue of firearms very seriously. Just look at the huge inquiry that resulted from the Menendez shooting. Hunt and his boys would not be armed even today and certainly wouldn't have zoomed up the Thames in a speedboat firing off machine guns willy-nilly. It's just stupid.

But the biggest mistakes lie with DI Alex Drake. When Sam Tyler arrived, he was a bemused visitor who had to fit in. He explains his sudden appearance as a transfer. When Drake arrives, she's all too aware of Tyler's story and immediately starts to analyse all about her (I love her cry of 'Good morning Constructs!' when she enters the office). The viewer is given no opportunity to warm to her or sympathise with her plight. And, she wakes up in the body of an existing DI Alex Drake who is posing as a prostitute. And there's a warrant card waiting on the desk for her ... does that mean that there was already an Alex Drake in existence? If so, where is she?

Okay, maybe I'm not giving the series a chance. Maybe the character will develop. But we are two episodes in ... shouldn't they have grabbed the viewers by now? The reviews don't seem to think so ...

I didn't watch Spooks so I don't really know Keeley Hawes' work (although I do remember her as the sister of Dawn French's husband-to-be in the final Vicar of Dibley). All I can say is that she's a very good actress ... if her intention is to create one of the most irritating characters on British TV. Maybe it's just me but she just comes across as arrogant, superior and generally obnoxious. That may be the idea, of course - her facade crumbled a little at the end of episode 2 when Gene and boys mooned her from the street below - but if the intention is to create a sympathetic character ('I need to get home to my daughter!') like they did with Sam Tyler, they've failed dismally.

All in all, a real disappointment. And I'm not alone in saying this. There have been mixed reviews across the media and most of my friends - who were big fans of Life on Mars - are similarly disappointed. The BBC has missed a huge opportunity here to develop the myth of Gene Hunt. All they've done is simply create a bad copy of the previous series. The opportunity was there for something truly wonderful ... but the BBC fluffed it. It's glaringly obvious that the shift of location to London is all about sales - the first episode ladled the famous locations on like treacle and, frankly, insulted the intelligence. Believe it or not, there are some Americans who have heard of places outside of London. And having Keeley Hawes running around in short skirts and stockings? All very nice but come on ...

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Sam Tyler must be spinning in his grave.


Anonymous said...

The burndept radio on show this week was identical to one used in the counties in 1983 when I joined.
My first hat was made out of black felt with a sort of white rubberised cap which went in the centre. The whole thing flattened in the rain! Some local authorities still use the same hat as uniform for lollipop wardens.
Sadly the bum stamping episode this week was all to true - but unline Alex most women found it degrading and humilitating and certainly not a win win team building event as portrayed!!!

Stevyn Colgan said...

In the Met, they used the Storno radios; a handset and base unit assembly linked by a cable that always managed to fall off your belt clip and wrap itself around your legs when chasing suspects. The WPCs' hats were flat-topped and white. And the bum stamping? Yes, sadly it did go on. But men reciprocating by mooning? Didn't happen. Or if it did, I never saw it. The bum stamp was all about insecure older coppers putting women in their place. They felt threatened, hence the nicknames like 'plonk' and 'plank'. The younger coppers often refused to take part in the bum stamping - male and female. Thankfully, we now live in more enlightened times.

Stevyn Colgan said...

One other comment ... those of you who know me will know that I was a Met copper in 1981. So, yes, it would be easy to pick holes in procedure, policy, uniform etc. But the fact is that they've got almost nothing right. Just look at photos of that era. Look at the cars we were all driving. Look at what was going on politically and socially. They simply haven't bothered to check their details and that smacks of laziness. The series seems to exist solely as a quick and dirty way to laugh at people's clothes and hairstyles. If you want to do that, just watch Top of the Pops 2. They do it better and more convincingly.