It’s déjà vu all over again on ABC1’ s time­trav­el­ling new se­ries Ashes to Ashes. Guy Davis spoke with se­ries cocre­ator Matthew Gra­ham.

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Life on Mars, the Bri­tish se­ries that pro­pelled 21st cen­tury cop Sam Tyler ( played by John Simm) back to the pre-PC 1970s, was such an orig­i­nal piece of work that a spin-off se­ries seemed like, well, a bit of a stretch.

But the mak­ers of the show are a pretty cluey bunch, and they’ve come up with an in­ge­nious way of putting a new spin on the for­mat in Ashes to Ashes, which has mod­ern-day po­lice psy­chol­o­gist Alex Drake ( Kee­ley Hawes, from Spooks) trans­ported back to 1981, where she teams with Life on Mars’ iras­ci­ble, rough-edged cop Gene Hunt ( Philip Glenis­ter).

Matthew Gra­ham, co-cre­ator of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, ex­plains fur­ther …

Life on Mars re­solved it­self in a way that made Ashes to Ashes pos­si­ble. Was that al­ways your in­ten­tion, Matthew?

When we were do­ing the sec­ond sea­son of Life on Mars, we thought there might be a third. We had ev­ery in­ten­tion of do­ing a third. And John Simm, who’s in al­most ev­ery scene, was ex­hausted and had a new baby on the way, and he came to us and said: ‘ Guys, I’m re­ally sorry but I’ve had enough. I don’t think my mar­riage will sur­vive an­other year of fi lm­ing away from home.’ We went to the BBC and asked what we could do. They told us to tie it up, but have a think about whether we’d be in­ter­ested in tak­ing Gene Hunt into a spin-off se­ries. At the time, we weren’t re­ally sure, but we put in the scene of Sam record­ing his ex­pe­ri­ence so we’d at least have the po­ten­tial for a story. If the per­son who went back and en­coun­tered the Life on Mars gang had some knowl­edge of Sam’s ex­pe­ri­ence, it was con­ceiv­able. When sea­son two ended, we asked the BBC for a few days to go away and come up with an idea – we wanted to see if we could make some­thing work. And it ac­tu­ally hap­pened quite quickly, and hap­pened in a way that would re­ju­ve­nate the show.

I imag­ine one of the great joys and great chal­lenges of cre­at­ing shows like Mars and Ashes is strik­ing the bal­ance be­tween the re­al­ism and the ‘ fan­tasy’, be­cause it would be easy to tie the sto­ry­lines up in knots.

As you get deeper into Ashes to Ashes, the bal­ance be­tween the two be­comes more strained in a very in­ter­est­ing way. In the sec­ond sea­son, we pull a lot of rugs out from un­der the viewer – we’ve mis­led about the way you may have thought this world op­er­ated. That’s been a lot of fun to do, and it seems to have paid off re­ally well.

As you said, the BBC was keen to have Gene Hunt re­turn. Now that he’s in the ’ 80s, is he be­com­ing more of a Sen­si­tive New Age Guy?

The trick with Gene is try­ing not to change him at all, re­ally. What’s in­ter­est­ing about Gene in Ashes is that he’s ex­actly the same, but the world around him has al­tered. In the ’ 70s in the UK, cops were pretty much un­ques­tioned – they had moral su­pe­ri­or­ity and phys­i­cal pres­ence that was undis­puted. Just as we’d al­ways hoped John Simm would play Sam Tyler, we al­ways had it in our head that Kee­ley should play Alex. But I thought that she prob­a­bly wouldn’t want to go back to se­ries TV af­ter Spooks – she was now do­ing movies and big minis­eries. But she loved Life on Mars and was re­ally ex­cited about Ashes to Ashes. We did screen tests with her and Phil Glenis­ter and they hit it off very quickly, which was very en­cour­ag­ing. She got a bit of a rough time from the press here when the fi rst sea­son went on, but I think they might have been pun­ish­ing her for not be­ing John. And I think it might also be be­cause we’d asked her to put some­thing of an ironic twist on her per­for­mance, be­cause she knew Sam’s story – she’d ba­si­cally seen life on Mars! I think she caught some fl ak for that ini­tially, but she re­ally comes into her own as the se­ries pro­gresses, and we be­came much more confi dent in writ­ing for her. Then, in the ’ 80s, things started to change. There were ac­cu­sa­tions of racism, bru­tal­ity, cor­rup­tion – sud­denly they were be­ing called pigs and spat upon in the street. And Gene is baffl ed by this. In his eyes, he’s al­ways been the good guy, so he can’t un­der­stand why the pub­lic has turned on him.

What prompted you to cast Kee­ley Hawes as Alex?

Busi­ness as­so­ci­ates: Kee­ley Hawes and Philip Glenis­ter.

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