Ashes to Ashes: Bang to rights - Features - Films - The Independent

Ashes to Ashes: Bang to rights

Sexist, bigoted DCI Gene Hunt of time-travelling cop show 'Life on Mars' is back – and his new sidekick is a woman. Has he met his match? Gerard Gilbert thinks so

The Sopranos was not the only concluding TV drama that left its devotees baffled last year. Also departing on an enigmatic note was BBC1's time-travel cop show Life on Mars, in which a sensitive, modern-day policeman, Sam Tyler (played by John Simm), was transported back – either bodily or mentally (we were never to be told) – to the world of law and order as allegedly practised in 1970s Manchester. As Tyler asked himself each week, "Am I mad or in a coma or back in time?"

Tempering the disappointment felt by those who enjoy their dramas with definite endings was the knowledge that the hero of Life on Mars was going to have his own series. But it wasn't nice Sam Tyler that seven million viewers had fallen for, but his unreconstructed Seventies copper sidekick, DCI Gene Hunt. Played by Philip Glenister in a camel coat, kipper tie and black leather driving gloves, Hunt was the runaway success of the series – not bad for a man assessed by his 21st-century counterpart as being "an overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline-alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding". (To which Hunt replied: "You make that sound like a bad thing.")

"When Life on Mars came to end through natural causes, I think we all thought: 'Hang on, this character, Gene Hunt, is a fairly extraordinary man and we're not quite done with him yet'," says executive producer Jane Featherstone. The BBC was quick to agree, and commissioned a spin-off, again named after a David Bowie song: Ashes to Ashes, which not only relocates our Neanderthal copper from Manchester to proto-yuppie London, but also dumps him into one of the most eventful 12 months of Margaret Thatcher's premiership. It's safe to say there'll be culture clashes – another of Hunt's famous utterances was: "There will never be a woman prime minister as long as I have a hole in my arse."

The year 1981 was a time of inner-city riots as well as Charles and Diana's wedding, while those looking for fashion pointers need only look as far as London's Blitz club, where New Romantics were poised to take over the style world. On the other end of the fashion spectrum, Bucks Fizz won the Eurovision Song Contest – all rich pickings for a time-travel drama with a keen eye and a savvy sense of humour.

"I'm a child of the Eighties," says Featherstone, "and so is Matthew [co-producer Matthew Graham], and we sat down and thought, 'Let's plonk Gene Hunt in the Eighties and see what happens.' We thought 1981 would be particularly interesting because of the Scarman Report and the whole different attitude towards policing that was just beginning."

Lord Scarman's inquiry followed the Brixton riots of April 1981, which had ignited largely because of the sort of racist policing lampooned in Not the Nine O'Clock News's "Constable Savage" sketch. This had Griff Rhys Jones's copper arresting a Mr Codogo for "possession of curly hair and thick lips", a joke that would no doubt have left Gene Hunt feeling nonplussed.

Updating the characters and concept of Life of Mars was one thing, but it was providing Hunt with a self-confident, 21st-century female sidekick that gave Featherstone what she calls her "light-bulb moment". "Putting him with a woman was the moment when we thought: 'you know what, this thing could actually work,'" she says. "The dynamic will be different, and everything will feel different, but we'll build on the essence of Life on Mars."

And Glenister thought he knew just the woman for the job – Spooks actress Keeley Hawes. He says: "Very early on when we were talking about doing this, Jane Featherstone said she wanted to have a woman, and I said that if she could get Keeley I would be very interested. I thought she'd be just right."

Glenister's instinct turns out to have been spot on. Hawes's Alex Drake, a self-confident hostage negotiator, reveals hitherto hidden aspects of an actress who often seems rather aloof on screen. Here she's both earthily comic and sexy, and, as Featherstone says, she brings a whole new dynamic to the Life on Mars concept. "I think Ashes to Ashes is funnier, actually. It wasn't particularly designed that way, but I think Alex Drake is a funnier character, and that's down to Keeley."

This tallies with the original desire for a vibe that "crossed Moonlighting with Miami Vice", but didn't answer the tricky question of how to get Hawes's 21st-century character into the 1980s world of Gene Hunt. Their solution was to start Ashes to Ashes in modern-day London, where Alex Drake has been investigating the tape handed over to the police by Sam Tyler in the final episode of Life on Mars. "All that tape business in the final episode [recording instances of Gene Hunt's alleged professional misconduct] was deliberate because we knew by then that we were already going to be making Ashes to Ashes," reveals Featherstone. In the opening episode of the new series, Alex Drake is shot during a hostage negotiation, "waking up" in 1981, dressed as a hooker, at a party on a Thames riverboat hosted by a City big shot. Hawes has been given a wonderful look, reminiscent of Guy Bourdin's fashion shoots of that era for Vogue. I ask Hawes if it's time for an early Eighties fashion revival. "If you walked through Hoxton [dressed like that] right now nobody would bat an eyelid – everybody looks like that now," she corrects me.

Locations were harder to source than clothes. When I congratulate Featherstone on finding one of the last undeveloped warehouses with a view of Tower Bridge, she tells me the derelict lot was in fact further east, near Bermondsey, with Tower Bridge added using CGI. "It was really hard finding locations in London. In Manchester it was easier, but London is so developed."

If authentic-looking Eighties locations proved hard to find, they were luckier with human relics of the decade. New Romantic impresario Steve Strange plays himself in the second episode, set in the Blitz Club, while Zippy and George from Rainbow have slightly sinister cameos. The late Lord Scarman is played by Geoffrey Palmer, in a key scene in a later episode.

Is the show reactionary? After all, by 1981 the BBC had already screened GF Newman's damning quartet of films about "rotten apples" in uniform, Law and Order, while Roger Graef's influential 1982 documentary about insensitive handling by the Thames Valley Police of rape cases was just around the corner. And, of course, such high-profile miscarriages of justice as the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and the Birmingham Six were partly a result of Gene Hunt-style policing methods.

But Glenister thinks there is something refreshingly straightforward about the character. "I think it's his lack of self-awareness in a very image-conscious age; this man comes along and just says: 'This is who I am.' It's quite refreshing." Hawes is also a staunch defender. "Everybody gets it from Gene Hunt. I don't think you could say: 'you're being racist, or you're being homophobic...' And he has such generosity of spirit. I think it might be different without that."

But of course Gene Hunt is a reactionary figure – a reaction to the contemporary perception of the police as ineffective, pen-pushing social workers. If so, it seems to have struck a note across the Atlantic, where LA Law and Ally McBeal producer David E Kelley has just finished filming an American version of Life on Mars. Meanwhile, Featherstone would love to produce a second series of Ashes to Ashes.

What about a future series updating Gene Hunt to the early Nineties – perhaps named after a song by Bowie's band Tin Machine? Featherstone laughs in horror at the thought. "Don't we need to get further away from the early 1990s? God, please don't, not yet..."

'Ashes to Ashes' starts on Thursday 7 February at 9pm on BBC1

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week