08 February, 2008

What the Papers Say: "Ashes to Ashes"

Helen Rumbelow, The Times:

"I had a bit of a head rush when I got up from the sofa after watching TV for four solid hours, and suddenly, it was 2006 and all anyone was talking about was a time-warp series called Life on Mars. It was confusing: not just all that 2006 music and fashion, but not knowing who on earth “Sam Tyler” was, or even “Gene Hunt”, when these characters from a 1970s cop show seemed to dominate every conversation. Was I mad, in a coma, or a time traveller? Or just really, really out of it?

I recovered, with the help of the internet and some well-meaning friends, to get the hang of one of the biggest TV hits of recent years. But with the premiere of Ashes to Ashes, the 1980s cop show spin-off to Life on Mars, on BBC One last night, I was determined to follow slavishly so I too could fit in down the pub. But, what's this? Before Ashes to Ashes even aired, the buzz was all about how it wasn't as good as the old days, you know, way back in 2006 and 2007.

The format was tired, the replacement lead, now a woman called Alex Drake, couldn't compare, and the tough guy-turned-cult hero Gene Hunt had lost his best lines. Never go back, they said. Strong stuff for fans of a series about revisiting the past.

Actually the right advice would be “don't compare”. Of course, Ashes to Ashes will never have the impact of the original. But let's focus on the positives. First Keeley Hawes is truly wonderful as Alex Drake, an extremely difficult part to pull off. Not just as a follow-up act, but because the plot required her to convince us of quite some preposterousness.

Drake is a detective who specialises in psychological profiling, and, also a supposedly devoted single mother. The episode opened with her daughter nearly killed at the hands of an evil psycho. Although this was also the girl's birthday, Drake didn't hug her rescued child close, but got rid of her by saying that she had a “stack of reports” to fill in, “life's tough” and all that. A few minutes later, the same killer psycho turned up in the back of Drake's car and shot her in the head. Drake came round from her blackout, only to find herself transported back to 1981. Ultravox was playing, and men wore pastel.

Somehow - and boy, is this a Rada audition and a half - Hawes managed to make credible the fact that she spent the rest of the hour lurching around in a hooker's skirt, in charge of a 1980s police drugs bust, fainting and having deranged fits by turns. Life on Mars virgins may have found the going a little tough by this point. It helps that Hawes has that Helen Mirren-esque intelligence that humanises her toughness without weakening it.

Personally, I prefer the idea of a woman as the lead. Yes, she has to play along with the male delusion, so common in TV and film, of chemistry between her and a horrible old codger (one of Hunt's first lines: “Blimey, if your skirt was hitched any higher, I'd see what you had for breakfast”). But Drake livens up what was an oppressive laddishness to Life on Mars.

This has a downside. Life on Mars took the 1970s cop show The Sweeney as its inspiration, while the source materials for Ashes to Ashes are the considerably less cool Moonlighting, Dempsey and Makepeace and Miami Vice. All of these 1980s classics were a bit silly, and whenever Ashes to Ashes has much in the way of plot, it gets even sillier (baddies running around clutching sacks of cocaine, Hunt cruising to the rescue in a commandeered speedboat).

Add to this appearances of the Pierrot clown, escaped from the David Bowie Ashes to Ashes video, and you have a serious problem of tone. All the ostentatious 1980s visual bingo - the tennis girl poster, tick! phonecards, tick! - and the slapstick plot, gets in the way of the darker elements. A shame, because that is what will hold our interest.

The fact that the new show is set in the Metropolitan Police in 1981, year of Brixton riots, hints at a compelling theme: the unthinking racism of Life on Mars finally brought to book. And hopefully, the pace will slow to take full advantage of Hawes, giving her inner turmoil much more room to breathe. If the show can focus on these last two, I think it may win Life on Mars loyalists round. Because, for all that disappoints and surprises about Ashes to Ashes, it has one very good, and very 1980s, thing going for it: ambition."

*************************

Caitlin Moran, The Times:

"Why Ashes to Ashes doesn't work

We love Gene Hunt. That’s just a fact. As soon as Life on Mars broadcast, Hunt become that rare thing, in these creatively timid and threadbare days for British drama: an instant icon. The first since Anna chopping out lines of coke in This Life, perhaps, or Mr Darcy and his big wet nightie.

Let’s face it – he’s why Ashes to Ashes has been made. Neither we nor, more importantly, the BBC, could let him go quite yet. Even though Sam Tyler jumped off the rooftop in Life on Mars, and ended his coma-version of 1973, the idea of bringing Gene back was too irresistible.

A five-minute perusal of the David Bowie back-catalogue revealed a loophole in the lyrics to Ashes to Ashes (“Do you remember a guy. . . from an early song?”) and, well, here’s Gene again, now in 1981. And this time playing opposite a Sexy Lady Cop time-traveller (Keeley Hawes), so that Hunt can extend his repertoire of drinking, smoking, swearing and fighting to include chat-up and fornication, too.

Personally, I am, in theory, pro a spin-off to Life on Mars. I can’t understand people who go “Oh it’s a bit silly. A bit too much.”

Come on! Once you’ve invented a time-travelling copper living in Camberwick Green, suddenly shifting it to 1981 and putting that bird from Spooks in it is neither here nor there. You can set it during the Reformation and cast Dev from Corriein it for all it would stretch my credulity envelope. BRING IT ON!

Alas, however, on watching Ashes to Ashes, it’s quite clear that my envelope is far more tender than I had presumed. It’s no longer depressing, threatening Seventies Manchester, but bright, brash Eighties London, and – in 200 miles, eight years and one sequel – Gene has gone from being a complex antihero to a cartoon hero.

It’s not Phil Glenister’s fault – he continues to play Hunt with malicious, controlled glee. The problem is with the show itself. It has lost its innocence. It’s gone from being a little bit in love with Hunt – as any rational programme would be – to borderline stalking him. Every Hunt entrance is a “Hero Shot” – slow pans, moody lighting, orchestral upswell. Every scene is waiting for Hunt to enter, or animate, or conclude it. The show will give him anything he wants – machineguns, a speedboat, a ludicrous plot resolution.

Most crucially and, I think, eventually fatally, Hunt’s just not being serviced with the kind of dialogue he should be getting. On The Thick of It, Armando Iannucci and Jesse Armstrong employ a third writer, solely to come up with imaginative swearing for the Alastair Campbell figure (“Wake up and smell the c*ck!”) For Ashes to Ashes, Hunt sorely needs an equivalent specialist in sexist, racist, homophobic northern alpha-male dialogue. His epithet for the posh Alex Drake (Hawes) – “Bollinger knickers” – is as close to sparky as it gets; and while the much-vaunted sexual tension between them works, you feel their eventual shag will be a hollow victory, given how poor the preceding chat-up lines have been. In episode one, in his opening speech, he’s already using dialogue (“armed bastards”) that he has used before. A Gene Hunt greatest hits package, so soon? It’s inexplicable laziness.

While, in the event, the new time-travelling cop, Keeley Hawes, more than holds her own – she does the old “on her knees in front of a television weeping ‘Talk to me!’ ” thing like a trouper – it scarcely matters, because the clown ruins everything in the end. Oh God, the clown. The pierrot from David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes video fills the role the “spooky Test Card girl” provided in Life on Marsand, so far, stands as the most mortifying thing to happen on TV in 2008. Although it has tough competition from various cast members having to sing, deadpan, the lyrics to Ashes to Ashes at crucial moments.

You do wonder why on earth – after the first, excited script-meeting in the pub – they insisted on calling it Ashes to Ashes.Naming it anything else would have made it unnecessary to crowbar in a) the singing of chart hits during an armed siege and b) a malignant shouting Bowie clown – scarcely two of the easiest briefs within a serious drama.

On this showing, Gene Hunt – tragically – isn’t going to make it to the 1990s, and Hello Spaceboy."

*************************

Gerard O'Donovan, Daily Telegraph:

"I’m betting that “Right, let’s fire up the Quattro!” will be one of the big catchphrases of 2008. Either that or “Now then, Bolly Knickers, are you gonna punch me or kiss me?” Both are lines that could only have been written for DCI Gene Hunt, one of the few truly iconic British TV characters of recent years, from the hugely successful drama Life on Mars. And last nighthe delivered them with such aplomb he virtually guaranteed the success of the much anticipated sequel Ashes to Ashes (BBC1). Yup, the “Gene genie” was back in business with a bang.

How do you follow up a quirky series about a cop who falls into a coma and finds himself back in 1973, now that the main character Sam Tyler is dead? Well, you simply repeat the formula. With somebody else. The fact is, the real star of Life on Mars was Tyler’s scum-bashing boss, Hunt (Philip Glenister), anyway. And the conceit of having someone from our own time trapped in the pre-PC minefield of late 20th-century attitudes proved surprisingly easy to relocate wholesale.

Thus for the first 15 minutes of last night’s opener we got the story of how ultra-modern Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes), a single mother and a Met detective, got a bullet in the brain and found herself transported back to July 1981. There to meet her was none other than Gene Hunt and his crew of lovably old-school numbskulls, miraculously transferred en bloc from Seventies Manchester to a London already in the grip of Thatcher era excess. This shift of geography and decade opened up a cornucopia of new possibilities for nostalgic irony in Ashes to Ashes. Just as the Audi Quattro replaced Hunt’s Ford Cortina, and Bollinger the endless pints of bitter, so spooky encounters with BBC TV’s test card girl were updated here to freaky appearances from Rainbow puppets Zippy and George. As with Life on Mars, a constant checklist of cultural reference points was provided (Sony Walkmans, Ultravox etc) for viewers to tick off.

The best twist was Drake herself. Not simply in being female and therefore more attuned to the casual chauvinism of the times. Her brilliance as a character lay in the fact that she was studying Tyler’s case when she was shot and, unlike him, thought she understood what was happening to her from the outset. Which made it all the more frustrating for her – and both funny and discomfiting for us – that she couldn’t do anything about it.

Unlike Tyler she believed that if she analysed the situation well enough she’d find a means of getting back to 2008 and her beloved daughter. Much as I sympathised with her dilemma, I’m hoping it will take her, too, at least a couple of series to discover whether or not she’s right. "


*************************

Sam Wollaston, The Guardian:

Ah, Ashes to Ashes (BBC1), the much anticipated follow-up to Life On Mars. Sam Tyler's dead (I think), so we have a new time-travelling rozzer, Detective Inspector Alex Drake. Very lovely she is, too. Here she is, in London, with her little girl. But when? Look, there's the Gherkin, and the daughter says "wha'evah". This must be some time around now. And young Molly's getting a BlackBerry for her birthday. OK, OK, this is the present, we get it, no need to bash us over the head with it. And anyway, what nine-year-old has a BlackBerry?

Oops, DI Drake has been shot - down by the river, by a guy who said something about knowing her parents. Sam was run over, Alex is shot, but the result is the same: a trip to the past. Whereabouts exactly? That's a familiar sound ... the ostentatious tinkling of a new-romantics keyboard. "This means nothing to me ... Oh, Vienna!"

Oh, the 80s. Or rather THE 80s!

Because, if we were being hit over the head by the present, this is now a full-on assault, from all sides, by the 80s. When Alex comes round, she's got a perm and a tiny red skirt and black stockings. She looks as if she's stepped straight out of a Human League video. Adam Ant is all over the walls (every inch of wall in Ashes to Ashes is covered in 80s posters, including the inevitable Athena on-court arse-scratcher). It isn't long before an evil city-trader/coke-dealer turns up on the scene. Where's the Porsche? Ah, an Audi (Suzi) Quattro, even better. Nice wheels. Duran Duran, the Clash, the Stranglers, a Sony Walkman, Zippy and George, basement wine bars, those shirts with the white collars that city boys used to wear, primrose tanktops, hairspray, is she or isn't she? And dodgy 80s geezers wherever you look - Scary Monsters and Super Creeps. This is actually more than assault, it's (about as easy as a) nuclear war.

And it's fun for a bit, for us oldies - to spot, to remember, to sing along, to miss and reminisce, or to be thankful we're no longer there. But just because a drama is set in the 80s doesn't mean it can get away with being all style over content. And Ashes to Ashes doesn't get away with it. It's actually pretty bad. Philip Glenister, who stole the show last time round as the thuggish Gene Hunt, is still here. But he and his unreconstructed sidekicks are so over the top, and the innuendo and groan-inducing jokes come so fast, that the whole thing can't decide whether it's a police drama or a comedy parody of The Professionals.

And Keeley Hawes, as DI Alex Drake, is awful. She may be totally shagworthy and have a cracking pair of puppies (those are one of Hunt's sidekick's words, not mine, before you start complaining), but, as a copper, even a psychologist copper, she's very unconvincing. She's neurotic and unpredictable, moody and constantly out of breath, and just really irritating. She lies on the bonnet of the Audi, to compare curves, and again on the sofa to give Hunt a private show. I'm sorry, that's not a senior police officer (except perhaps in her male colleagues' fantasies), that's, well, an actor. She should tear a leaf out of Dame Helen's police notebook.

Add in a muddled plot and a premise that was wearing thin in Life On Mars and is now stretched to breaking point (Alex is on the trail of the man who shoots her, in the future), and what you're left with is a big mess. It's pretty, but that's not enough. Maybe Ashes to Ashes dispensed with a director altogether, and handed control to the art director. I'm trying to tell from the credits, but (of course) they're flickery green, as if on an early Amstrad screen, and I can hardly read them. Arrrgggh.


*************************

Robert Hanks, The Independent

"At the end of Life on Mars, as fans, and come to that anybody who happened to be in the country, will recall, time-travelling policeman Sam Tyler, fed up with the dreary, form-filling routine of the 21st century, chucked himself off a tall building and ended up in the paradise of 1973. (If only, we now think, Sir Ronnie Flanagan had managed to file his recommendations for cutting police bureaucracy a few months earlier.) And since this version of 1973 seemed to have been proved fairly conclusively to exist solely in Sam's head, that seemed to wrap things up.

But good TV ideas never die; they only get spun off into a slightly different format. Ashes to Ashes (another David Bowie reference: "Ashes to ashes/ Funk to funky") opened, like its predecessor, in the present day, though now the action is set in London rather than Manchester. The series started with shots of familiar city landmarks such as the Gherkin towering upwards and spinning around, as if the cameraman was being stretchered about the place by cackhanded ambulance men. To locate things even more precisely in time, the view took in one of Antony Gormley's life-size statues, which perched on rooftops in sight of the Hayward Gallery all last summer, looking poised to jump, an echo of what happened to Sam Tyler.

This time around, the action revolves around a woman, Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes), a psychologist employed by the police as a negotiator, who has been studying Tyler's case and knows his fantasies intimately. Driving her daughter to school in last night's opening episode, she was interrupted by a call to a hostage situation, which happened to be taking place right by Tate Modern (you get the impression this is made by people who don't actually know London but have got a pretty hip guide book). A madman was holding a passerby at gunpoint, but the appearance of randomness was deceptive. It turned out that the madman, Arthur Layton, had asked for Alex, knowing her from childhood, and knowing something about her life that she didn't. Having vanished from the scene, he turned up again to drag her down to the Thames (this time, we were across from the Millennium Dome) and shoot her. Next thing, it was 1981: the Dome was replaced by a flat patch of wasteland, there were Adam Ant posters on the walls, Ultravox were playing in the background; the women had bubble curls heaped up extravagantly on top of their heads, and the men were disfigured by floppy, asymmetric new romantic fringes. Now she was DI Drake, seconded to DCI Gene Hunt's team as he fought the drug-dealers flooding London with cocaine; and one of the dealers was Layton.

Since both Alex and the viewers are acquainted with Sam Tyler's version, it didn't take long to get up to speed. She was not really in the past, she was in a particularly vivid hallucination, which must have been taking place as she hovered between life and death. If she could pick up the clues and track down Layton, she could find out what he knew and get back to reality and her daughter. Mixed up in all this were allusions to Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes", including a scary clown from the video, who turned up every now and then to say something enigmatic and menacing.

At bottom, this is the mixture as before: a bit of pop culture, a bit of sci-fi, a bit of weirdness, and a lot of Philip Glenister hamming it up as old-style macho copper DCI Hunt. This time around, though, there's a bit more self-awareness. A couple of times, Hunt's appearance was accompanied by swelling choirs and orchestras, the kind Hollywood traditionally uses to signal the appearance of the deity, or at any rate Charlton Heston. Hunt joined in the fun: cut off from a gang of drug dealers by the Thames, he quipped, "Even I can't walk on water." The range of influences has expanded. Life on Mars took The Sweeney as its jumping-off point; this one has the same home-grown roughness – signalled mainly by referring to prostitutes, rather repetitively, as "toms" – but mashed together with Yankee slickness: a climactic shot of Hunt and his team on a speedboat, brandishing Uzis, screamed Miami Vice. I suspect a more important transatlantic influence is Lost, the show that demonstrates how just a hint of something a little bit paranormal gives a writer licence for any amount of incoherence and general silliness. Still, as David Bowie almost said, I'm moderately happy: hope you're moderately happy too."

1 comment:

Lucy said...

Never really got "into" Life on Mars: I know it's tantamount to full-on sacrilege to say that, but I was a kid in the 80s, growing up on a diet of Thomas Covenant, The Never Ending Story etc and then in the 90s was bombarded with the likes of Quantum Leap. So all this: have I travelled back in time? Am I in a coma? blah blah blah didn't cut it for me... OF COURSE he is in a coma, it seemed pretty obvious, esp with the phones ringing, the messages... There was some good writing, I enjoyed it, but I felt like I'd seen this story before. And all the 70s stuff didn't have the same resonance for me as it did, say, my parents - I wasn't there.

So the fact then that Alex KNOWS what is going on is proving more of an interesting hook for me - or is it? After all, I was loving the music last night, the fashions, the refs to stuff like Miami Vice etc, stuff I watched and remembered from when I was a child a child. The pull of arena maybe?

I feel a long-winded arena post coming on again.