ASHES TO ASHES - Series 2: Episode Five

BBC1 - 18th May 2009 - 9.00pm

'I told you, I'm having nothing to do with this' 'You...girl!'

'TV in the afternoons? It's for students with greasy 'air and the clinically insane'

'Bols. Don't cry. That's an order.'

'I have seen a bloke from Billericay balance a budgie on 'is 'ampton Wick...but I have never, ever seen anything like that before'

Hold on to your bootstraps for a terrific opening including the slightly creepy Keith Harris and Orville the Duck sending us messages about Alex's status in the future, the dumping of one of the criminal fraternity on the back of a French juggernaut and Chris' hilarious aversion to mime artists. Meanwhile Gene and Alex ponder the media treatment of the Met and are suddenly called to the house of Molly's father. And he's fourteen.

I wasn't totally bowled over by this episode. The story about notorious gangster George Staines defying his own death only to undergo a sex change and return to his, or should that be her, old manor as Gaynor Mason was crude and rather unpleasant. The subject matter didn't bother me as it's yet another variation on the theme of the threat to the series' depiction of masculinity by all manner of 'other' - be they gays, strong women, prossies et al - that is rapidly running out of steam. I mean, how many more times do we have to see Ray Carling fumble his way through a story, either as a lure for a gay criminal or, in this case, on the receiving end of the words of transexual wisdom, only for his maleness to be ritually humiliated. Far more interesting here was the doubt in Ray's mind about his career in the Met and a possible future in the army. It's the lack of sensitivity, using the transexual angle simply as a plot twist (and a rather obvious one at that) and the feeling that we've been here too many times before that marks out the weaknesses in Julie Rutterford's script. Not Gene's finest hour either, it has to be said, even if Rutterford attempts to ease our consciences by showing how sensitive Gene really is by the lovely way he treats old ladies.

...a real disappointment that a popular drama isn't clever enough to destabilise ingrained prejudices with real wit

Sara Stewart's performance as Gaynor also teetered into kitsch, almost too broad to be contained within the television frame, and whilst often amusing ('found 'im doing the fandango with my best friend, so I told 'im where to shove his castanets') she never really managed to untangle the character from the caricature and offer us more empathy. She was, however, very strong in her confrontation with Gene, at least insisting on a transexualism that stood up to the hardships and resistance encountered when undergoing transition, and where gender identity is not, in and of itself, the thing in question for transexual people.

Alex's bedside conversation almost rescues Gaynor from stereotype and there is yet again another undercurrent about Ray's sexuality in that last scene between him and Gaynor. However, this stereotyping is again illustrative of one of the series major faults; where it crudely brandishes its gender politics, racial or immigrant issues as 'issue of the week' and often does little more than pay lip service and is often left to do little more than mock the issues. It's a very fine line and the series has only fitfully managed to attempt anything resembling a sensitive approach. It can be argued that this is a period drama and the identity politics featured in it would reflect the very non-PC attitudes of the times but I was always under the impression that it was a period drama that had a unique perspective by allowing its main character, be that Sam Tyler or Alex Drake, to redress these expressions with at least some form of critique. Alex barely managed to articulate any kind of criticism of the heterosexual male attitudes to transexualism, those then purely played for Carry On style laughs, and that's a real disappointment that a popular drama isn't clever enough to destabilise ingrained prejudices with real wit.

A shame really, because the sub-plots involving Alex are far more refined. Her eventual meeting with the teenage Peter Drake, later to become her ex-husband and father to Molly, is much better stuff and played excellently by Keeley Hawes and Perry Millward. Again, it picks up on the the series' ongoing themes of the relationship between adults and children but here does give it a genuinely interesting twist in that it's also the relationship between a wife and a husband too. It's interesting too that Alex's own prejudices against a father who eventually abandons Molly are reversed to a point when Peter clobbers Gaynor after realising it was she who burgled the Drakes' house. I also thought Keeley was rather good when she's chatting to Bryan Drake in hospital about how he'll be a fantastic grandparent and how he was the only one who supported her when Peter left her with Molly. The unresolved sexual tension between Alex and Gene is also very present, with little flickers of jealousy about Alex meeting 'Boris Johnson' and that moving scene in the office when Alex is crying about Gaynor's treatment of the Drakes.
Is Martin Summers just another Frank Morgan?

The major reason for enjoying this, apart from the interaction between Alex and Peter, and Alex persuading Ray to stay in the force, is the first meeting between Alex and Martin Summers. It's a marvellous scene because it doesn't provide any easy answers. If this is all a coma induced reverie being provided by Alex's subconscious then Martin Summers is a product of her own mind and will know everything she knows. He isn't from 2008, is he? However, the series teases us constantly (there have been plenty of red herrings so far this year about people knowing about Alex and 2008) and what compels us to watch is the idea that 1982 is real, that Gene and company are real, this is time travel, an alternate reality and that Martin is from the same place as Alex. Life On Mars was about a coma survivor returning to the 1973 in his head. Is Ashes To Ashes necessarily going to be the same? Is Martin Summers just another Frank Morgan, another figure attempting to get Alex to undertake an act of betrayal, to become corrupt? When he describes his own 'slow and painful death' is he in fact referring to the man in the 2008 hospital bed we saw right at the beginning of the series?

Director Philip John makes a pretty decent job out of a flawed script - that great point of view shot of Metal Mickey's head down the loo, that sudden close up of Elsie Staines' gas fire and then the neatly edited sequence of Gene's grilling by the Commissioner on the phone; Alex's rather Gene like interrogation of Metal Mickey; and Chris suffering from nicotine withdrawal whilst planting a seed of parental doubt in Mickey's mind (nicely played by Neal Barry) - all underscored by 'Under Pressure' by Queen/Bowie. The scene between Alex and Martin in the empty office is atmospherically shot too and full of menace that is carried through to Alex's rejection of his Faustian pact in Luigi's. And as a result of her choice Operation Rose is on it's way and Bowie's 'The Man Who Sold The World' ironically plays over the end credits.

Series Two Reviews:

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

Series One Reviews:

Episode Eight review
Episode Seven review
Episode Six review
Episode Five review
Episode Four review
Episode Three review
Episode Two review
Episode One review

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