It was when they were strolling down Oxford Street in central London during the first series of BBC1's Life on Mars two years ago that Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah, the creators of that memorable time-travel drama, realised they had a major hit on their hands. Pharaoh takes up the story. "A man walked past wearing a T-shirt which carried the famous line said by Gene Hunt [the Neanderthal 1970's copper who has since become an unlikely cult hero] in the very first episode of Life on Mars: 'It's 1973. Nearly dinner time. I'm 'aving hoops!' That was the moment when I first thought, 'what have we created here?'"
What they had created was the most original mainstream drama in years. The story of Sam Tyler (John Simm), a PC from the present day who is catapulted back to 1973 and finds he is walking with dinosaurs in a police squad led by the defiantly Mesozoic DCI Hunt (Philip Glenister), captured the imagination of viewers and reviewers alike.
Life on Mars weighed in with weekly ratings in excess of seven million and the show was accorded the quadruple honour of a Bafta, an Emmy, a regular spoof on Harry Hill's TV Burp and a homoerotic internet "tribute". Life on Mars is now being adapted by David E Kelley (the creator of Ally McBeal and Boston Legal) for the ABC network in America.
The show marked the beginning of a beautiful relationship between Graham and Pharoah, who have become two of the most in-demand writers in television, with their own production company Monastic. Sitting next to each other on a plush sofa in a central London office, the tall, dark, straight-haired Graham and the smaller, fair, curly Pharoah have the air of a seasoned double act. They possess an obvious chemistry, finishing each other's sentences and feeding each other punchlines.
Pharoah starts by explaining why they founded a company together. "We had so much fun making Life on Mars, it would have seemed churlish not to!"
Their motivation was the traditional writers' cry. "We wanted a bit more say in how our work ended up on screen."
With a wry grin, Graham adds that, "the only thing worse than failing is failing and knowing that someone else screwed it up. At least we can now go to bed safe in the knowledge that we've screwed it up." "I'm sure we'll still manage to find someone else to blame," Pharoah chips in. "After all, we're writers," adds Graham.
The pair are part of a growing trend towards writers taking control of TV drama. "There is no danger of TV writers being underestimated in Britain anymore, those days are gone," reckons Pharoah, who has also written for Hustle, Silent Witness, Wild at Heart, Where the Heart Is and Casualty.
"The stars of TV nowadays are writers. People like Russell T Davies, Paul Abbott, Jimmy McGovern, Anthony Horowitz, Tony Jordan, Steven Moffat, Tony Marchant and Dominic Minghella are famous. People know their names. Could you name any TV directors?"
Monastic's first production, made in conjunction with Kudos, was the follow-up series to Life on Mars. In BBC1's Ashes to Ashes, Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes), a right-on police profiler from 2008, is transported back to Gene Hunt's Jurassic Park department in 1981. The show was another ratings hit and a second series has been commissioned.
Now Graham and Pharoah have teamed up once again to make Bonekickers, a co-production between Monastic and Mammoth Screen. This lively new BBC 1 series centres on a team of unconventional archaeologists from Wessex University, headed by the sparky Gillian (Julie Graham). Their discoveries trigger investigations into historical events as wide-ranging as the Legend of the True Cross, the 18th-century slave trade and the First World War. It's a cross between Time Team, CSI and Indiana Jones. It is high-concept telly that is not afraid of big ideas or big performances. "Why is the audience up for these high-concept shows now?" Pharoah wonders. "Viewers are much more sophisticated than they're given credit for. They're quite capable of grasping high-concept TV. We had two decades of social realism where if it wasn't a series about unemployed postmen in Liverpool, you couldn't get it made. But audiences have always lapped up high-concept shows. The number one drama during the 1960s was The Avengers – that was hardly social realism, was it?" Graham, who has also penned scripts for Doctor Who, Spooks, Hustle, This Life, The Last Train and Byker Grove, chimes in that, "high concept does not have to mean infantile. The influx of popular American shows such as Lost and Heroes has been very influential.
"They deal with big issues with fun and verve. We wanted to apply that to British drama. We had a lot of snobbery to break down. Some makers of social realism dramas resent us. They see us as all surface and smoke and mirrors. But I maintain that you can address bold, daft ideas, and if you do it through identifiable characters, viewers will enjoy it."
Which brings us to Bonekickers (the title is their invented nickname for archaeologists). "Archaeology is a very good prism through which to look at ourselves," muses Graham, who had the idea for the series after watching Time Team with his children and thinking what an inherently dramatic arena archaeology provides.
"We can reflect on the present by telling stories about the past. I'm not very grown up. I struggle with social realism in my life, let alone in my work. If I wanted to tell a story about the damaging effect of religious fundamentalism, I couldn't write The Mark of Cain. But I can use the Knights Templar as a way of tackling that subject. I like whiz-bang tales. I sometimes think I'm the most immature writer on television."
Graham continues that, "I love those moments where they find the remains of a Roman battle underneath a shopping centre in Rhyl. Without us even knowing it, history is happening right under our feet. The remnants of slaughtered monks from the dissolution of the monasteries may be hidden in your back garden and you have no idea about it. In Bonekickers, we wanted to tap into the magic of history. It's got all the elements viewers love: war, violence, sex."
The two writers first met on EastEnders in 1995 and immediately hit it off. With fellow writer Tony Jordan, Graham and Pharoah spent eight years trying to get Life on Mars away. They recall rewriting the first episode 36 times. When BBC1 finally commissioned the series, the writers were astounded by how quickly it took off. In particular, they were amazed by the speed with which Gene Hunt was adopted as a popular icon. Pharaoh reckons, however, that many people have got the wrong end of the stick about the unreconstructed detective. "Cabbies are forever telling me, 'he's spot-on, that Gene Hunt. We need more coppers like him'. In the same way, I remember Johnny Speight saying he was amazed that Alf Garnett was a hero to some people. A bloke came up to us at the Edinburgh TV Festival and gave me a right going-over because his son had started using some of Gene's more offensive phrases.
He said that was my fault, so I told him to look up the word 'irony'. You hope people will get the joke, but you can't legislate for idiots."
Graham and Pharoah's aim is always to keep pushing the boundaries of mainstream drama. "Look how many British formats are being developed in the States. They adore shows from over here like Torchwood and Shameless. In British drama right now, we're in the middle of a golden era. It's an 'all-bets-are-off' age."
Bonekickers is on BBC1, Tuesdays, 9pm.Reuse content