ASHES TO ASHES - SERIES 1: 'EPISODE FIVE'



BBC1 - 6th March 2008 - 9.00pm

'Now, hang on a minute, let me get this straight: I'm imagining you imagining paying for sex with me in my imaginary role as an imaginary street-whore?'

'You must have a filthy mind'

'Absolute sewer, apparently...'

Another strong script from Mark Greig, perhaps not as satisfying as last week's episode, but again he's concentrated more on police procedural and solving cases rather than making great advances in the puzzle over Alex's 'death' and her presence in '1981'.

It's clear that the construction of masculinity, male sexual power and what constitutes manliness is a no brainer as subject matter in a script that basically is one huge culture clash between Gene and his boys and Alex and her (gay)boys...and girls, if you count Shaz. Shaz has an interesting role as commentator on all this. In her attitudes and in her male/female androgyny she's emerging as an embryonic metrosexual and observes the maleness around her as 'role playing' in much the same way that Alex does. Her burgeoning empowerment is in antithesis to the bluffness of Alex (simply because she's from 2008 and would appear rather bluff to anyone with 1981 attitudes) and to the strident feminism of last week's episode. Shaz's is a quiet revolution, a revolution of the mind as well as of physicality.

There are various aspects of male-bonding being unpacked here too. From the very obvious football match metaphors through to the more subtle relationship between Gene and his snout Reeks which is underlined by the fact that in an act of sympathy Gene gives the man his clothes but then Reeks unfortunately ends up dead. The 'friendly fire' between Chris and Ray over their respective roles continues here and Ray is again given an interesting role in the under cover operation in the gay club. This is all about role playing again, about male heterosexual assumptions. Ray asks how to behave as a gay man to which Chris crassly counters with a Mr. Humphreys impression, which would be the automatic reaction/impersonation from other 'straight' men of the time. Dean Andrews manages to convey a 'man's man' who momentarily has to drop the mask of assumed straight male attitudes to 'play' a gay man. That violence is a result of this interruption to Ray's mode of male/female desire is pretty much a given. But then Ray is toying with a gay man who isn't 'Mr. Humphreys' in any form, is he? He's faced by a very non stereotypically gay, threating male presence. Gender power can take on many guises.

At the other end of this scale is the character of Marcus. He could be described now as a gay stereotype but in 1981 he was probably the cutting edge. He isn't effeminate in the mode of Mr. Humphreys but is a sensitive, confused masculine being in denial about violent male power (his own and Neary's). I have to say that Russell Tovey stole this episode's acting honours with an amazingly detailed performance. His inner conflicts with gangster boyfriend Neary and his relationship to his parents and Alex were truthful, emotional and, in the ultimate AIDS coda, devastatingly sad. Tovey even managed to get in a reference to his role in 'The History Boys' with his singing of 'Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye'. And that of course is a nod to a reconstructed more male specific Marcus who eventually shoots Neary. A lovely performance. As a reflection of this we also see a more emotional Gene. He cared very much about Reeks and is prepared to put his prejudices aside to help Marcus. His reaction to the death of Reeks - to hit out - is yet another facet to the emotional make up of the masculine ego. Gene is hanging on - to being the man he is and to the job he tries to do - and his sense of 'doing the right thing' is expertly evoked by Philip Glenister's performance.

Whilst the episode does try to unpack the complexities of both fragile and impregnable male identities with some seriousness it also drives it home with some very funny moments. The three bastions of maleness, Ray, Chris and Gene, unsuspectingly enter a gay club and their reactions are priceless. It's coarseness in using perjorative terms for homosexuality isn't offensive, which was one of my main concerns, and are actually appropriate for 1981. It's a little worrying that the counter to these is weaker than I would want and there is still a penchant for making gay characters villains and rent boys in the series (and 'Life On Mars' could be equally guilty of this) but I think the character of Marcus goes a long way in compensating, especially with his 'coming out' storyline. It's very sensitively done. Of course, now, Marcus would be on trial for the murder of Neary and that really does show up the huge differences in the attitudes to law, personal freedom and identity that this episode strives to depict.

The image of Alex on the slab, bullet hole in her brain, is a searing, shocking reminder of where all this started and the continuing presence of the clown of death and the images of the car bomb allow the surreal aspects of the series to keep puncturing the 'cop show' format at appropriate moments. Alex is progressing, her 'imaginary construct' of 1981 is starting to become acceptable to her. She may be 'obnoxious' and a figure of fun to her colleagues but like Sam Tyler she's trying to carve a role out for herself to challenge the accepted parameters of police work and office politics in 1981. Keeley Hawes improves with each episode but I do wish they would a) buy her some more clothes as the off the shoulder top and white leather jacket must be getting rather whiffy by now and b) try and find her a different cover than 'tart of the week'. Although I'm sure some of the straight boys in the audience would disagree!

A good episode, almost as strong as Mark Greig's last script (he's a good find) with some stunning performances from Glenister and Tovey, with more great work from Dean Andrews as Ray. Ironically, its accepted histrionics about gender roles aside, it's a subtler piece of material that does require time to digest.

Episode Four review
Episode Three review
Episode Two review
Episode One review

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