BBC 1 - 21st February 2008 - 9.00pm

"Who's your mother, Marianne Faithfull?"

An interesting episode simply because it clears away a great deal of the deliberate spoofing of the 1980s and pithy one-liners in favour of characterisation and plot. In an apt reflection of today's headlines (the conviction of Steve Wright which almost made the BBC pull this episode) it tries to discuss the very sensitive subject matter of prostitution and rape. To try and do this from both a 2008 and '1981' context with the contradictory policing styles of Gene and Alex, the complex attitudes towards women and the sex industry of both eras...well that's asking a lot from a drama that has so far tended to veer off into slapstick and pastiche in either an avoidance of such weighty matters or in relying on thin plotting.

Writer Julie Rutterford only partially manages to get the complexity of such issues across, which in the frame of a series such as this, is actually a welcome change. It also gives us a chance to get below the skin of Ray and Chris in particular and features a very subdued, melancholic Gene, almost similar in tone to the very despondent Jack Regan in the final series of 'The Sweeney'. It is clear that Gene is getting grief from the fifth floor and is disillusioned with the sort of modern day policing he's being asked to buy into. Glenister is playing this as brooding and reflective and yet still manages to make Gene sympathetic. His relationship with Alex is changing too and he's becoming very protective of her.

Keeley Hawes improves each week and in this episode manages to make Alex both sexy and vulnerable as well as seriously concerned for the women working in the sex industry. This does open up issues about how women are depicted, how their sexuality is manipulated and exploited and it does become contentious - we see Alex as a sultry Cat Woman at the fancy dress party, we see her drunk and seducing a red-braces wearing yuppie, flirting with a younger Evan White (Molly's godfather) and see how power constantly changes hands between male and female characters. It shows Alex as resourceful and reckless, both complicit to and rejecting of the way women behave with men. The theme of equality is not clear cut. Alex gives Gene a thumping but how would she feel if he turned round and returned the favour? And she's constantly undermined by Gene, Ray and Chris but then exhibits traits that prevent you from sympathising with her fate. The fancy dress party is emblematic of the polarity between male and female roles - it's about stereotypes, I suppose, and whether you conform to these or simply wear them as a disguise.

These human flaws bring both a greater emotional depth to Gene and Alex and a requirement of us to accept Alex's indiscretions. This does however triumphantly open up misogynistic characters like Ray and Chris. Dean Andrews performance as Ray is superb and his scene with rape victim Nina is a fine piece of acting and shows another side to a man who previously had been pretending to be that uber-male symbol James Bond. That he failed to be that icon and ended up flooring party goers who kept insisting he was a waiter actually uncovers a rather sensitive side to our Ray which is then revealed in the conversation with Nina. It's difficult to accept Ray as a man who actually, deep down, cares and I hope that this is the beginning of a development that we'll see more of. Otherwise it's simply tokenistic.

From discussions I've had, it's also clear that religious themes and symbols are a big part of this series. Here, we have a rapist with instructions from the Bible but also observe the comment that Gene makes as he walks past the crucifix 'Where were you when she needed you?' - is he simply referring to the rape victim or to Alex? Alex also admits that she's 'lapsed' - does that indicate she had a strict Catholic upbringing? In the glimpses we see of the past where young Alex is left on her own by her mother there is a banner behind her mother proclaiming 'God Is Love'. And is Gene some sort of protecting angel? It would seem to be a subtext that is expanding as the series progresses.

Another curious thing that should be flagged up is that in this series many scenes are taking place without Alex being present (the scene between Ray and Nina here springs to mind) whereas in 'Life On Mars' John Simm was in every scene or at least observing every scene as Sam Tyler as a result of his coma induced version of 1973. The makers of the series have either learned that this is too exhausting for an actor to cope with and also restricts the way narrative can be presented or they have one huge surprise up their sleeves that will put all of the 1981 narrative into perspective. It's interesting how the dynamics are so different here.

So with this third episode we do get the low comedy capers - the gnomes and the boat party - but also an effort to try and deal with powerful issues, still troubling us here in 2008, and an attempt to work through the male and female roles in the series. How much will this affect the rest of the series is something we'll have to wait and see. I thought this was an absorbing episode, but flawed because these issues need a 'Cracker' or a 'Prime Suspect' framework to enable further opening out of the issues of morality and 'Ashes To Ashes' is neither of those programmes. It's welcome that writers like Rutterford are working on the series and can unpack some of this and provide good character development but the imbalance in tone in this episode around such an emotive subject is something the makers need to be more observant about. I think it can deal with weighter matters but the danger is that it'll tip the series over into something too dark or its flippancy will simply diffuse the issue. The latter did seem to be in operation at this stage.

MUSIC PRIMER - Episode 3 (not a full review this week. But at least a list for you to be getting on with)

The Ruts - Staring at the Rude Boys
Joe Jackson - Different for Girls
Brian Ferry - Let's Stick Together
Roxy Music - Over You
Bucks Fizz - Making Your Mind Up
Modern Romance - Ay-Ay-Ay-Ay-Moosey
Duran Duran - Planet Earth
Altered Images - Happy Birthday
Buzzcocks - Autonomy
The Beat - Doors of My Heart

Episode Two review
Episode One review

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