ASHES TO ASHES - SERIES 1: 'EPISODE ONE'



"Female superiors shouldn't look shaggable...they should look like a cross between Betty Turpin and the HMS Ark Royal"

It's a difficult one. 'Life On Mars' is a very hard act to follow and the makers, in deciding to provide us with a sequel, could quite easily have just dished up more of the same. And trying to do that whilst remaining loyal to nitpicking fans who pull apart everything from incorrect number plates and anachronistic music is also a tall order.

The first episode of the sequel - 'Ashes To Ashes' - is thoroughly entertaining on its own terms and that is the key statement because the air will be filled with the gnashing and wailing of 'Mars' fans who will simply hate this series with every fibre of their collective beings. I think that the bridging between the two shows is planted as an olive branch to those fans but it doesn't mean the show has to conform itself to the same parametres. There are issues with how incoming character Alex Drake could possibly imagine Gene Hunt and his cohorts in such detail simply from reading and listening to Sam Tyler's reports and it is sad to learn that Sam has apparently died in a bank raid (but intriguingly they never found his body) as both of these observations simultaneously open up and close down the potential for a darker narrative development. But never mind that, Drake has her own demons to wrestle with - namely a vengeful looking pierrot clown that's leapt out of the 'Ashes To Ashes' video, a raddled drug dealer who seems to be her link between 1981 and 2008, visions of her daughter chatting to Zippy and George and the stark chequer board lighting of the Met's offices, Gene's choice of footware and Ray's bubble perm. That's enough for us to be getting on with I think.

The 2008 sequences, evoking an inverted silver metropolis of weird angles and surfaces, is suitably now and the 1981 sequences are drenched in sunlight, sans the Dome developments, and humourously riff on such 80s source material as 'Miami Vice'. Nitpickers are already glibly having a go at the fact that this isn't accurate enough for 1981 (said number plates are an issue apparently) but who gives a sod about that. It's '1981' in Alex's head as she remembers it and that should allow for all sorts of shifts in her '1981' reality because you can bet your ass that anyone entering that reality wouldn't accurately know precisely which records were in the chart of that time or what number plates looked like. Listen, they got 'Vienna' and 'Shaddapa You Face' in context in the programme and that's good enough for me. The sequence where Alex wakes up on the boat, now in '1981', was very cleverly done. As 'Vienna' boomed onto the soundtrack, director Jonny Campbell's homework pays off and Alex's bewildered wandering through the crowd on the boat is pretty much shot for shot the same as the party scene in the 'Vienna' pop video. Hey, it's my era. And I now demand further homages to those wonderful 80s pop videos.

My only reticence in giving this first episode a whopping approval rating is that Keeley Hawes is trying a little bit too hard as the feisty foil to Phil Glenister's Gene. She overplayed it slightly for me and that's a symptom of ensuring that she stands in great contrast to the cultural edifice that is Gene Hunt. However, she's very good at getting the humanism behind the bolshie exterior and is right on the nail in communicating her loss and dislocation in this alien version of '1981'. It's the confrontations with Gene that just need a bit more control and with that she'll pretty much get the tone perfect. I have also been assured that her insistence on wearing a tiny red leather skirt and stockings is a highlight of the episode for those of a heterosexual male persuasion.

Gene's arrival is fairly late into the proceedings and is handled beautifully, all swirling dust from a skidding car, crocodile shoes, big hero shot and pithy one liners. The Manc Lion is back. Some have complained that Gene has been reduced to a comedy caricature in this but I would say they're being ungenerous in expecting the first episode to give you a complete character arc. We know his marriage has ended and he's dealing with 'Southern ponces' in London and he's aware of what is happening in policing enough to be in fear of his job (rather like Jack Regan's experience in the conclusion to 'The Sweeney'). Isn't that also enough to be getting on with? There are darker edges to the character here that no doubt will develop as we go along.

If Keeley Hawes' performance is a barometer of the tone of the episode then it's safe to say that this spiraled from edgy, surreal psycho-drama to outright slapstick within the span of 40 minutes. The surreal visions of Zippy and George and the Bowie clown were replaced by a rather silly bit of Keystone Kops meets 'Miami Vice' in the conclusion where we get Chris dancing madly to dodge machine gun fire, a commandeered speed boat crashing onto the scene to the sound of The Stranglers when perhaps Harold Faltermeyer or even the theme from The A Team might have been more appropriate (the Faltermeyer would probably not please the anally retentive fans as it's from 1984). It is comic excess that off balances the grittier tone but it's an appropriately depressing denoument for Alex because the arrest of the man she thought would sort out her vision of '1981' has no effect on her predicament. She realises that her knowledge of Sam Tyler's own 1973 psychosis does not give her an advantage after all.

Despite the uneven tone, this has a great deal of potential and is highly entertaining with some very surreal and dark moments lightened by Gene's non PC wisecracks. Add in the nostalgia factor of wine bars, yuppies, cars and, in particular, a clever use of pop music to an interesting story arc and the series should be able to step out of the shadow of its much loved parent. It will be interesting to see how they develop Alex's psychosis and I'm sure that the creators will be careful simply not to replicate the achievements of 'Life On Mars'. I suspect they have a different game plan in store for Alex and we've only just seen the first glimmerings of that. As long as 'Ashes To Ashes" keeps surprising me then I will feel that creators Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah were justified in making a sequel to their original series.

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