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10 On TV Drama: Mark Greig, Ashes To Ashes Vs. Life On Mars

It’s no surprise that the sequel/spin off to the celebrated Life On Mars has caused quite a stir: it was kind of inevitable that Ashes To Ashes would be considered not quite as good by critics. All manner of negatives have been chucked its way: it lacks the ambiguity of LoM. It takes inspiration from stuff like Dempsey And Makepeace instead of The Sweeney. Even Gene Hunt has been accused of being more like a “horrible dirty old man” than in the original where he was apparently infinitely cooler.

This hasn’t stopped ATA being a big hit of course: myself, I prefer AtA to LoM. I have to admit I was somewhat underwhelmed by the leviathon that was Life on Mars. It wasn’t that I thought it was bad, far from it: there was some fantastic talent attached both acting and writing-wise and I can’t say I wasn’t entertained when I watched it. I suppose it lacked resonance for me. I wasn’t alive in the 70s (bar just under four months of 1979); I never liked The Sweeney which was on repeat by the time I watched it; I wasn’t keen on the supposed ambiguity. As far as I was concerned, it was OBVIOUS Sam Tyler was in a coma; not only did the phones give it away I thought, I was raised on an 80s/90s diet of Thomas Covenant, Labyrinth, Quantum Leap etc where people would enter other worlds thanks to accidents, invitations from goblin kings, time portals and so it goes on.

But hey, what do I know? I didn’t write on either show – more’s the pity. So I asked a man who has, the lovely Mark Greig who incidentally has written the last TWO episodes of Ashes to Ashes as well as an episode of the second series of LoM, but we won’t hold that jealously against him. Much! Over to you Mark…

Who would win in a fight, Alex Drake or Sam Tyler?

Alex. Not only is she smarter, she’d smack Sam senseless whilst he was still discussing what the rules of engagement should be, and does Gene really have to be the referee?

I like ATA more than LoM: does this mean I should be smeared in honey and left for the ants?

Not to rob ants of a hard-earned meal, but no – that is not a bad thing. I think I’m with you. Though I reckon LoM was more consistent in tone, the period in which ATA is set is more personally meaningful (I lived it! That soundtrack is that of my teenage years, whilst LoM’s was that of the dreary Radio ruddy Two I was forced to listen to on long car journeys. Bloody Stewpot Stewart). I find its protagonist much more interesting than LoM’s. Alex feels more complex and recognisably human to me than Sam, and better reflects 21st century attitudes and conflicts.

I get the sense that for people who engaged with LoM so much that the very idea of ATA drives them into a frenzy of loathing, what they responded to was a nostalgia for the certainty and clarity of issues in the 70s. Wouldn’t it be great if life was so simple that Gene could solve every problem with a swift knee to the goolies? Well maybe, but Britain changed. A lot. And has continued to change at an accelerating pace. ATA reflects the insecurities, paradoxes, and complexities that change brings. I hope.

While I have the opportunity, I’ll stand up for Keeley, who I think has been a revelation in this part; a real career maker, I hope. Keeley as Alex got a bit of a pasting early on from some critics who were, typically, confusing the female actor with the female character – I reckon what they really objected to was the image of a professional woman who is smart, articulate, funny, confident enough to take on anyone – and who binge drinks and likes sex. Would a male actor have been criticised in the same way? I suspect not.

And Ashes is more fun.

Some critics say they can’t invest in Alex’s journey like they could Sam’s because ATA lacks the ambiguity of LoM: it’s apparent from the outset that it’s make believe. What’s your take on this?

Whereas LoM wasn’t? There are other reasons for not investing in Alex that I could understand, but that? Dimwits.

There was some confusion re: Sam’s demise in LoM – so much so that his case file had SUICIDE stamped on it in ATA, just to clear it up. Why do you think People weren’t sure what had happened to Sam?

Because they didn’t want his story to end, they would create a tangled logic web that would somehow allow him to carry on living both in a ‘real’ 1973 and a ‘real’ 2008. Whatever – he’ll always be alive in their hearts.

In isolation, which are you more proud of: your LoM episode or one of your ATA episodes? Why?

Ep 4 of Ashes – it’s got so many levels. It (more or less) works as a conspiracy thriller whilst being a pastiche of the same, it’s got a meaty mother/daughter betrayal element that helps illuminates Alex’s motivations, it’s an affectionate satire of socialist politics of the early 80s, particularly feminism (the woman converting Chris to the cause in the ‘wimmin in the cop shop’ sequence? That was me, that was. God help me), it’s an extended homage to one of my favourite tv series of all time, ‘Edge of Darkness’ (not only does the ep reference it on numerous occasions, the structure itself is an homage. It’s even got a dead daughter putting in an appearance!), I thought Catherine did a great job and paced it brilliantly (often a bugbear in stuff I’ve had on), it makes me laugh, and I wrote it very fast to an unexpectedly tight deadline. And I got Philip and Keeley in their underwear. Sometimes stuff just works, and this one did.

One review I read accuses ATA of “stalking” Gene Hunt, like we’ve become fixated on him. what do you think of this comment? If we are “fixated” on Gene Hunt, why do you think this is?

If we are – and I hope we’re not – it’s because Gene makes things simple. There’s a bad man. I will hit him, and then I will put him in jail, and he will go away, and life will be safe and simple, and you can leave your front door open all day, and neighbours will talk to each other, and children will walk to school instead of being driven in urban tanks, and we will be a community rather than a group of individuals living in the same place.

See what I mean? Of course it’s a fantasy…
Thanks Mark!

UPDATE: Any Keeley Hawes fans out there, check out her unofficial fansite here…The marvellous Cubbie has also provided a link to this site and Mark’s Q&A as well. Thanks Cubbie!

So, which show do you prefer and why? Over to you and have a fab weekend…

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21 thoughts on “10 On TV Drama: Mark Greig, Ashes To Ashes Vs. Life On Mars”

  1. Oh, ooooohhhhh Geeeeeeeeeeeeeeno!

    Gotta love that 80s backdrop, Ashes has got my vote. Love Gene in his new capacity where he goes off by himself from time to time.

    But then I am too an 80s kid, so no accident methinks.

  2. Hey Dazza or Mike…Which one is it today? I can never tell now you never put your actual name too.

    I went to a seminar with Tony Jordan a couple of years ago… He said that writers make the WORST casting agents, underlining his point by saying he was AGAINST Philip Glenister being Gene and Adrian Wotsisface as Micky Briggs in Hustle! Hard to think of those characters as being anyone else now TJ said… Too right.

  3. I too prefer Ashes To Ashes — partly probably because of having no nostalgia for the 1970s (which is why I didn’t watch Life On Mars first tim aroudn and had to catch it on the repeats) but mostly because of Alex.

    I dispute that there’s no ambiguity, too: there’s a nice tension over exactly how much Alex really belives she’s in a hallucination. For example, though she addresses Gene and the others as ‘imaginary constructs’, when she hears that Sam lived seven years with them she takes it as evidence that her theory of living many year sin the final seconds of one’s life is correct — except that of course if she’s within her own mind it’s nothing of the sort!

    And there’s the stuff with her mother, as well: she seems to believe it, but (if it is all a delusion) all she’s going on are reinterpretations of fragmentary, suppressed childhood memories.

    I’m assuming that this is a deliberate decision by the writers, of course, to depict Alex as someone who intellectually knows that she’s inside a delusion but is unable to not commit to its reality on some level, in which case it’s very nicely done, and not just a case of writing lines without thinging about it too hard.

    Not that I would be terribly surprised if there wasn’t some kind of twist at the end of Ashes to Ashes to undermine the non-twist ending to Life On Mars. I’m reckoning on about a 50% chance of that.

    And having said all that, I have to say that I was incredibly annoyed by one aspect of the Edge of Darkness episode, which was the lack of actual security at this military institution. Gene waves a cleaner’s security pass and gets in despite being dressed in a suit and driving an Audi; they walk through corridors full of people in uniform looking totally out of place without being challenged; and then at the end Chris et al appear in the military base despite having had no pass at all!

    Which is doubly annoying because up to that point the episode was doing very well, but that completely spoiled it. Not just the implausibility either: it was the fact that the plot relied on this base being impossible to get into (which is why the lefties needed someone on the inside). When actually it turns out any DC and DS can waltz in anytime they want.

    The defence could be that as it’s all Alex’s dream it’s dream-logic, but one of the nice things about the Gene Hunt franchise is that they don’t tend to rely on that cop-out.

  4. Yes SK I’m waiting for a twist too – maybe she really DID go back in time or she’s an imaginary construct in GENE HUNT’S mind? That would be fun.

  5. I have never seen LOM (I was almost slain by my brother in law for saying that) so I cant really comment on which is better but im loving Ashes to Ashes.

    Probably because, like evil twinz i am an 80’s kid.

    And they have an Audi Quattro!

    But if im not mistaken, Ashes still has a higher viewing figure than Life on Mars.

    Is that right or did i just make that up?

  6. Actually, they’re all still in Sam’s mind and Alex is no more real that Gene et al, since the whole 2007 sequence at the end of Life on Mars was just another level of Sam’s delusion.

    That’s why there are so many scenes not from Alex’s viewpoint; we’re still seeing things from Sam’s perspective. His body was never found because he ascended (John a’Dreams style, Invisibles fans – not such a stretch, considering the Doom Patrol parallels in Life on Mars) and is now the Supreme Demiurge of the Geneverse.

    That’s my thoery and I’m sticking with it. All it would take to totally vidicate it would be if John Simm were to ever write an episode of Ashes to Ashes

  7. I don’t know which programme has the higher figures (maybe they have the same or similar? It’s the same scheduling slot, though now of course there is the iPlayer, dunno if they can count that: if so, AtA would presumably be higher) – a quick look on BARB’s website should answer that though on both counts.

  8. Oooh, Lee: you were commenting while I was, GREAT MINDS – unless we’re both imaginary constructs in someone else’s of course!!! : ) Love your theory and the fact it still includes Sam.

  9. I lived through both eras and I like them both equally, but for different reasons.

    In LoM he didn’t understand what was going on … in AtA she thinks she does, but I don’t think so.

    Yes, the insecure military base annoyed me as well, the IRA were still very active at this time. Still fun though.

    Can’t talk more, should be working.


  10. There were scenes that didn’t include Sam in Life On Mars too (I was specifically watching because, as I said, I didn’t see it the first time and caught it on repeats so I already knew the ending).

  11. Interesting blog, but I still think ATA *does* lose something without LOM’s ambiguity over Alex’s situation, sorry.

    Episode 5 even had Alex think she could change her 2008 destiny by stopping the ’81 villain — which would be true… if this were time-travel. But she’s spent the past 4 episodes reminding us that it’s NOT!

    I will concede that Alex is a more entertaining presence than Sam was on LOM, but I still prefer the Simm/Glenister partnership over Hawes/Glenister.

    And just because ATSs 80s-setting “speaks” to you more than LOMs 70s one (because of your age) isn’t really any way to judge the quality of the show — just your own personal reaction to its setting. I “understand” the vibe of ATA more than LOM — being born in ’79 — but that’s ultimately by-the-by. I was still only 10 when the 80s finished anyway!

    Mark Greig’s certainly written the best 2 episodes of a conceptually-thin spin-off, and ATAs entertained me enough to keep me watching every week, so I don’t want to *lambast* it…

    I quite like it, but it’s not a patch on LOM. It’s a somewhat lazy “cash-in” on the unexpected public reaction to Gene Hunt — probably made because John Simm (correctly) realized there was no mileage left in the idea after 2 seasons. With or without a jump to the 80s.

  12. “And just because ATSs 80s-setting “speaks” to you more than LOMs 70s one (because of your age) isn’t really any way to judge the quality of the show — just your own personal reaction to its setting.”

    Gotta take issue with that, Dan.

    “Quality” as far as I’m concerned has to have some level of personal interpretation to it, else how on earth can anyone judge what is “quality” and what is not?
    This is why not all people like the same thing – regardless of how good it actually is, as I point out in the post: LoM was a good show. I like AtA better.

  13. ATA, for me. The nostalgia thing, yes, because I wasn’t alive in the 70’s. But also, it’s more fun, and one of things I was worried about – the lack of ambiguity – works just fine because of the way Alex is reacting to it, treating it as a puzzle to be solved.

    One issue for me… the writers are all taking a hard-line “Sam was definitely in a regular, usual coma” stance – however in the first episodes of series 1 and 2 of LOM, Sam appears to change the future/present – putting the serial killer away for good (hence Maya never being kidnapped and turning up in a later episode) and having Marc Warren’s character committed – unless, of course, he imagined the changes, and not all of the “coma voices” were real. Mark?

  14. Life on Mars has the edge for me, and I also only experienced a few months of the 70’s! For me, the fact that Sam just doesn’t know whether he is mad, in a coma or back in time just has more tension. There was a very real sense of Sam’s torment in LOM. I like Alex but the fact that she is quite sure of what is happening to her (even if it turns out after all that she is wrong) just doesn’t have quite the same pull for me. Ashes is definitely more fun than Mars and I particularly like the will-they, won’t-they thing between Gene and Alex but for me Life on Mars has much more emotional resonance and poignancy.

  15. Have to say I prefer Life on Mars. I guess the 80s is my decade too but apart from the odd pang of nostalgia A2A leaves me cold. I don’t think Gene Hunt really fits in the 80s. And the way that they whack another 80s tune into the soundtrack every two minutes really annoys me. It strikes me more as an exercise in nostalgia rather than a drama.

  16. I actually like them both equally. I think it’s cos I realise that A2A could not be LOM in the 80’s.

    Does that make me a freak?

  17. Erm. I was born in ’92 and I can not choose between them. I love LOM because there was more of the maverick style of policing depicted within the episodes. Also ATA, as it is now, wouldn’t be anything without LOM appearing before it. However, because we know how LOM ended, that is why I think ATA has been said to have less ambiguity. We think that Alex is only experiencing the same thing as Sam and it makes us feel like the same is going to happen again. I think there is also a lot more character development in LOM as we get to see not only Sam’s relationship with Gene, we see more emphatic story’s between all the characters, unlike ATA.

    However, ATA setting does appeal to me more. Even though I never lived in the 80’s I love the style and the music. It is a little more modern and upbeat than the greyish browns of LOM and its slow music. The 80’s appeal to me as a lot of historical events, especially the gay rights campaigns, effect my life now. It is very interesting to see historical events, important to those who never knew about them, be incorporated into a hit BBC drama.

    I just can’t choose between them, the bits I don’t like in them are the bits I like about the other… If only there was a way to mix the two.

    P.S. As for my theory on Sam, I don’t have no explanations for it but, I think he will return somehow. He will reappear if only for an episode. I hope so anyway 😛

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