This week’s crime – something about diamonds and a Dutch gangster – and 80s music were no more than trimming on the big reveal: what have ‘Ashes To Ashes’ and ‘Life On Mars’ actually been all about?
In answer to that, the writers came up with something slightly different to, yet not a million miles from, Bobby Ewing in the shower. It turns out that ‘Ashes To Ashes’ is the first British cop drama to have C.S. Lewis as a script consultant, so what we got was a quasi-religious allegory with Keats as Satan, Gene as a kind of St Peter, and (as predicted here) a lot of dead cops. It was a conclusion which just about made sense in the context of season 3 of ‘Ashes’, but required you to ignore both previous seasons. And the whole of ‘Life On Mars’.
Still, it’s not often that UK drama attempts something as ambitious as this, so it would be churlish to quibble too much, and it would be good to think that it’ll represent something of an incentive to other British programme-makers. It’s also been the opportunity of a lifetime for jobbing actor Philip Glenister, and he’s seized it gratefully; he was as good this week as ever. And for the most part I’ve been entertained by the ‘Mars’/’Ashes’ shows: there was a perceptible losing of the way in the first season of ‘Ashes’ after John Simm’s departure from ‘Mars’, but Keeley Hawes and the writers stuck to the job. So overall an ungrudging thumbs-up.
When reviewing season 1 I complained that in their attempts to recreate ‘Moonlighting’ the writers were trying to force non-existent chemistry on the Gene/Alex relationship. The show has been much better, I would argue, since they left that idea alone and concentrated on making it the best cop show it could be. And what do you know? While everyone’s backs have been turned Philip Glenister and Keeley Hawes have turned Gene and Alex into a somewhat more plausible couple, as they (nearly) showed this week. But with only one more episode to go after this one it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to dwell too much on that. In keeping with recent episodes the focus was once again away from the music – in fact, this week’s highlight was a rather lovely John Martyn song dating from the ’70s – and firmly on the drama, as a London-based ANC cell was under investigation for murder. Alex telling one of the activists that within a few years Nelson Mandela would be the elected president of South Africa was a nice reminder of how unlikely that seemed at the time, and frankly as much historical context as was needed. But now that Chris, Shaz and Ray are sharing visions, Keats claims to have finished his report into the Gene Hunt method of policing, and Alex is apparently on the verge of solving the Sam Tyler mystery everything is set up for the last ever episode from the ‘Mars’/’Ashes’ team.
We were promised the death of a series regular in this episode and we got it, I suppose, but only in the same way that Marcy in ‘FlashForward’ was an integral member of the team. Still, it was a pretty good episode: there’s a prison riot and siege going on, and Gene decides that the best form of diplomacy is charging in. This ultimately results in three members of his team being taken hostage. One dies. Elsewhere, with two episodes to go, Sam Tyler is moving centre-stage again, suggesting that he will play a major part in whatever the conclusion holds. It seems to me that the writers have thrown out most of season 2, and taken quite a long time to get anywhere with the mysteries in season 3 – the stars, the wounded copper – but ‘Ashes To Ashes’ continues to be above-average British drama.
One of the strongest episodes of this show yet. Two of Gene Hunt’s former Manchester colleagues, both sporting sinister moustaches, turn up in Hunt’s new manor. Purportedly chasing a raddled old comedian (the reliable Roy Hudd) accused of theft from the police widows’ fund, they turn out to be at the centre of a satisfyingly gritty tale of police corruption. On top of that, there’s a decent selection of 80s music, some actual Sam Tyler footage, a nice sideswipe at the alternative comedy of the time, and further hints that – as I speculated a couple of weeks ago – not all of the characters are necessarily alive. This was really good.
Stripped of much of its period frippery, music, and Sam Tyler shout-outs ‘Ashes To Ashes’ stands to be evaluated as a standard police procedural: better some weeks than others. This week’s tale of a feuding family of Sarf Lahndan drug-dealing gangsters and a troubled (and attractive) undercover cop was better than average, with a nicely brutal edge to it. The twist was pretty obvious, but as no-one got the ‘Life On Mars’ music this week presumably none of the regulars died. (Still my working theory.) With only four episodes to go, though, one would guess that the show will need to start addressing the bigger story arcs again soon.
After last week’s startling episode, a return to normal business. There’s a fireraiser on the loose, and the investigation brings Gene Hunt and the team into contact with a damaged Falklands War veteran, which seems to affect Chris deeply. Meantime Keats is trying to sow dissension among the team. This week’s candidate for the near-death experience followed by the ‘Life on Mars’ musical sting is Chris; so he’s dead as well, then. Wonder who it’ll be next week?
The episode was set during the 1983 election campaign – ironically enough, Gene himself has become something of a battleground issue in the present UK election. British broadcasting rules require balance during an election period, which might have meant that the producers had to pull their punches a little bit: the 1983 election was perhaps the most acrimonious and significant of the last 30 years, as a post-Falklands and miners’ strike Margaret Thatcher defeated a divided opposition, and it would have been interesting to see that remarkable period dealt with in more detail in a drama. Notably, though, ‘Ashes to Ashes’ is making less and less of its historical setting. I criticised season 1 for being little more than a music video designed to sell soundtrack albums, but this season the contemporaneous music’s been less prominent (although there was a telling ‘Shipbuilding’ over this week’s end credits). This has focussed more attention on the plotting, and this episode was typical: decent enough if somewhat flat. And compared to US procedural drama it all seems a bit laboured: each episode of ‘Ashes To Ashes’ clocks in at just under 60 minutes. Compare that to, say, ‘The Mentalist’ or a ‘CSI’, which take 15 minutes less but cover much more ground.
After last week’s limp return, this was almost a different show. The opening ‘Uptown Girl’ routine might not have worked but for the years of experience Philip Glenister now has in calibrating precisely the amount of irony with which to play Gene Hunt. From then on, though, the show took a much darker tone, as the cops investigated the serial murder of lonely women who were clients of a dating agency. As ever, when Gene has to do more than just spit out non-PC soundbites it’s a much better programme, and given the chance to do some enjoyably sparky acting opposite his offscreen wife Glenister had a good week. Not as good, though, as Montserrat Lombard as a near-hysterical Shaz, desperate to leave the police. Lombard isn’t generally my favourite actor on ‘Ashes’, but she nailed it and then some this week; there have been few more disturbing scenes in the show’s history than the one where Hunt asked her to act as bait for their prime suspect.
As to the significance of the quick burst of ‘Life On Mars’ as Shaz changed her mind about leaving the police – well, she’s dead, isn’t she? With Gene as either God or Satan…? Together with Alex edging closer to the secrets about Sam Tyler’s death, this was a much more satisfying episode by some distance.