American TV networks go in search of 'Life on Mars'

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BBC Worldwide is in discussions with US networks about the series ahead of its "Showcase" event in Brighton later this month, where it is expected to be one of the hottest properties for the assembled ranks of 500 of the world's top television executives. The programme may even make it to the big screen, with at least one studio examining the possibility of an adaptation.

The global appetite for the Manchester-based drama is extraordinary, considering the number of commissioning editors who turned it down before the head of drama at BBC Wales finally accepted the script.

On the face of it, the early setbacks were understandable given that that the plot revolves, highly implausibly, around a contemporary detective travelling back in time to 1973 after he is run over by a car on the Mancunian Way in Manchester. But Tony Jordan's drama has been a huge success, winning a weekly audience of six million and earning a second series, filming for which begins in April.

Much of the success is attributable to the cast, particularly John Simm, who plays Sam Tyler, the detective who awakes in a world without mobiles or DNA testing, and Philip Glenister who plays Gene Hunt, a throwback to John Thaw's Jack Regan character in The Sweeney. The ambiguity of Tyler's situation also helps. He is lodged in a past that is occasionally interrupted with messages from 2006, making it unclear if he really is in the 1970s or just hallucinating from his life support machine.

The shifting time zones are a source comedy too. "Don't leave me," Tyler tells an Open University lecturer on his battered black and white television who morphs into his hospital consultant. "I'm in Bupa!" He also asks colleagues where he can get access to a PC terminal, to which a bemused receptionist replies that they don't have an officer by that name.

Recent experience suggests that the programme will translate for a US audience. Interest in it reflects the huge appetite for British television in the US. Broadcasters have clamoured for programmes as diverse as the crime series Midsomer Murders and alternative comedy such as Green Wing. Northern-based dramas have a particularly good track record. The BBC's 55 Degrees North was bought in the US unexpectedly quickly, ahead of Australian and Canadian networks who tend to buy first.

One of the secrets of Life on Mars's success is the 1970s setting, which has been "perfect for fast car chases, great music, classic clothes and juicy stories", says the programme's producer, Claire Parker. "The twist is that the audience is teased with the question of what has happened: Has he gone back in time? Is he in a coma? Is he mad? How can he get home?"