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