ASHES TO ASHES
1980S DCI GENE IN AND NEW RECUIT DI ALEX DRAKE FOUGHT LONDON VILLAINS AND EXISTENTIAL DILEMMAS ROBERT FAIRCLOUGH FIRES THE QUATTRO...
Fire up the Quattro and reverse into the 1980s with Bollyknickers and the Guv. We’re happy, hope you’re happy too.
APOPULAR BBC FANTASY SERIES, THE LEADING MAN replaced by a younger woman, airing to a mixed reaction from fans and some lukewarm reviews… SFX isn’t in 2019 discussing Doctor Who, but back in 2008, when matthew graham and ashley pharoah’s inspector sam tyler (John simm), a 21st century cop trapped in the 1970s in Life On Mars (2006-07), was replaced by inspector alex drake (Keeley hawes) in the sequel, Ashes To Ashes (2008-10). What made the relaunch possible was the popularity of tyler’s boss, the defiantly un-PC Chief inspector gene hunt (philip glenister), who’d bullied, insulted and thumped his way into viewers’ affections over two series. With the action relocated from manchester in 1973 to london in 1981, hunt returned with his sergeants ray Carling (dean andrews) and Chris skelton (marshall lancaster). “at the time i remember being very sad that John had decided to leave,” the jovial andrews tells SFX. “i understood his reasons, as his family were very young at the time and he was under immense pressure, not only being the lead in Life On Mars, but being in every single scene... nevertheless, i wasn’t ready for it to end so soon and i was disappointed. i had no idea then about Ashes To Ashes but when i did find out about it, i was a very happy bunny.” “We talked and said, ‘is there any way we can do a Doctor Who and regenerate him into somebody else?’” laughs co-creator and writer matthew graham. “in the end, we had to think up a truncated ending to Life On Mars that hopefully dealt with the sam part of the story. i built something into the last episode that referenced the alex drake character which said, ‘there is a police psychologist who knows everything that sam went through. she could end up in his world, because she has all the things in her head that sam had in his.’ “the BBC were very, very keen that we thought about doing a sequel,” reveals graham. “they had a big, hit show that they felt should have really been running for another couple of years. to be honest, they felt short-changed that we were going to end Life On Mars. you don’t get a hit show very often, so when you do, the temptation is to find a way to keep it going a little bit longer.” pairing hunt with a new, female partner against the backdrop of london in the early 1980s proved
a vibrant combination. apart from the sexual tension between alex and “the guv”, the uK’s capital city in the early 1980s was at the forefront of the social, political and cultural changes sweeping the country. after what london’s free newspaper the Metro called a “dodgy start”, Ashes To Ashes delivered stories every bit as vivid, dramatic and funny as those in
Life On Mars, focusing on – among other subjects – the redevelopment of docklands, gay culture, the falklands War, student activism and the new romantics’ Blitz Club (in which Blitz dJ and Visage singer steve strange appeared as himself ).
With a change of gender in one of the two leading characters, writer Julie rutterford took the opportunity to explore one of the 1980s’ most notorious attitudes. “it was the time of the yorkshire ripper, who attacked prostitutes, and nothing was done,” she explains. “there was a classic quote from the head of West yorkshire police, who said something like, ‘We need to find this man, because he’s now targeting innocent women.’ What must it have been like if you were a sex worker at that time? you get raped, you try and report it to the police, and they’re like, ‘you what?’ that was the premise of my story, and it worked much better with alex as the second lead, because she could empathise with the victim.”
rocking the boat
as with Life On Mars, there was a soundtrack of great pop music. Viewers were treated to a golden age of singles that included “into the Valley” by the skids, “reward” by the teardrop explodes and “there there my dear” by dexys midnight runners. it was a great moment when gene commanded “fire up the Quattro” for the first time and the team went into action to the Clash’s “i fought the law”, later bettered when hunt, Chris and ray powered down the thames in a speedboat, equipped with automatic weapons, as the stranglers’ “no more heroes” thundered on the soundtrack. “to be part of such an iconic shot was very exciting and we thought we were the coolest of the cool that day,” andrews remembers happily. “We got many ‘boys with toys’ moments on Ashes. maybe that was the ultimate.”
the thames sequence was there for a specific reason, as graham points out: “the critics were quite hard on us, particularly because of that scene. they said we were jumping the shark, but the ’80s were all about jumping the shark. you couldn’t do The Sweeney in the ’80s, you had to do The
Professionals or Magnum PI – that was the whole point. We were deliberately reflecting the decade that we were in, which was brash and larger than life, rather than dour and domestic. the ’80s was about being big, brassy and bold.”
andrews and the regular cast also had the chance to indulge in the recreation of a pop video, one of the era’s significant pop culture developments, with Billy Joel’s “uptown girl”. “it was a lot of fun,” andrews says. “i’m from an entertainment background so dancing around is pretty straightforward for me. marshall was also comfortable with it. i’m not sure phil would ever be asked on Strictly Come Dancing…”
heading into light
every series of Ashes To Ashes was structured around a distinct narrative. the first had alex trying to save the lives of her parents, killed in 1981 in a bomb explosion. in series two, she met martin summers (adrian dunbar), another cop in a coma in the future but alive in the 1980s. in the third and final year, the
enigmatic superintendent Jim Keats (daniel mays) manoeuvres alex towards the truth about hunt and the world drake is trapped in.
handling the crucial opening and closing episodes of series three was director david drury. “i came to Ashes To Ashes in a state of grace; by that, i mean i had no idea what it was,” he admits. “you can be blinded or overly influenced by seeing too much of what’s gone before, and i hadn’t seen Life On Mars, either. i started reading the first script i was sent and i burst out laughing after five pages. i thought, ‘this is great!’, went along and met phil, Keeley and the other actors individually, then we made a start. i got on extremely well with the gang, and it was my idea to cast daniel mays – he’s terrific.” talking about the overall plan for Ashes to
Ashes, graham suggests, “i wanted to find out who gene was and i wanted to find out what this world actually was… the idea developed that it was a kind of purgatory for cops, for police who’d died in terrible circumstances to work out their issues, and that gene was an unwitting guardian angel of coppers. it was a very bold and crazy notion.”
in the last episode, alex comes to terms with the fact that she is about to go into the afterlife and does so with Chris and ray – entering the railway arms, the pub from Life On Mars – while gene stays behind. “i thought it was a very moving ending,” considers andrews. “Keeley’s performance was heartbreaking. the end of Ashes epitomised the series and i thought it was very well thought out. it was very clever and quite a surprise for the audience, as well as being a surprise for me.” drury agrees: “there’s that lovely moment between phil and Keeley right at the end outside the pub, when nelson the barman comes out and you think, ‘Will-she, won’t-she, will-she, won’t-she stay with gene?’ – but she doesn’t. it was perfect. Beautiful. a very satisfying ending.”
after three successful years, such a high concept conclusion to a high concept series didn’t please everybody. graham recalls, “some fans felt very bereft that gene and alex didn’t get married, have babies and buy a house. i had letters from distraught women saying, ‘how could you do this?! how could you leave gene on his own, and alex has gone!’ i wrote back and said, ‘for a start, all the greatest love stories in the world nearly always end in tragedy or with the lovers separating: Romeo And Juliet, Casablanca, Love Story, Gone With The Wind… the best love stories should leave you yearning for more, rather than just leaving everyone to live happily ever after.’ and gene’s happy – ultimately, he doesn’t want to live with alex and have babies. he wants to be the guv.”
The cast got a chance to go big on the hairspray.
Keats hinted at the truth in series three.
Why so serious?
All change from the yellows and browns of ’70s Manchester.