Life on Mars — Killer TV No.36

BBC, 2006-2007
‘A word in your shell-like… Don’t ever waltz into my kingdom playing king of the jungle.’
– DCI Gene Hunt
‘Who the hell are you?’ – DI Sam Tyler
‘Gene Hunt, your DCI, and it’s 1973, almost dinner time, and I’m having hoops.’ – DCI Gene Hunt
John Simm, Philip Glenister, Liz White, Dean Andrews
Identikit: A detective has an accident and is plunged 33 years back in time to an era when policing was more ‘robust’.
HIGH-CONCEPT crime drama – time-travel being the concept – that won a following through its freshness and cheekyness, principally in the character of Gene Hunt, the 1970s cop with unenlightened views on everything from women to coppering. Played with gusto by Philip Glenister, this throwback to 70s shows such as The Sweeney was the show’s star, making a straight man out of John Simm’s Sam Tyler, the contemporary cop pitched back in time. Sam, circa 2006, is distracted when his girlfriend, also a detective with Greater Manchester Police, is abducted by a killer. While David Bowie’s Life on Mars plays on his iPod, he is hit by a car – and wakes up in flares and butterfly collars on his shirt, with Life on Mars again playing, this time on an 8-track tape in his new car, a 1970s Rover P6. ‘I need my mobile,’ he tells the PC who finds him. ‘Mobile what?’ Plod responds. And so Sam finds himself part of Gene Hunt’s team, investigating a killer who may be related to the killer who has abducted his girlfriend in 2006. The first series is great fun, with Sam struggling with voices coming from his telly, apparently from a doctor treating him while he is in a coma in 2006, dealing with Hunt’s instinctual approach to crime solving – ‘Anything you say will be taken down, ripped up and shoved down your scrawny little throat until you’ve choked to death’ – and trying to find his way back to the present day. The culture clash between Sam, used to do everything according to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, and bullying, bigoted, boozing Gene was beautifully written and played. The series – created by Tony Jordan, Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharaoh – juggled its crime plots and Sam’s story well, but is best-remembered for the chance it offered to chortle at the good old/bad old days when women were ‘birds’, offices were thick with fag smoke and fingerprints took two weeks to process. Forgotten how we used to booze heavily at work? Gene reminded us – ‘I’ve got to get down the pub and give the papers a statement, and if I don’t get a move on, they’ll all be half cut.’ Two series of Life on Mars were followed by three further series of 80s-set Ashes to Ashes, with the focus on Keeley Hawes’s Alex Drake, but the retro-novelty and humour deflated during this run. Still, inspired mergings of the crime and sci-fi genres are rare, particularly ones with characters as memorable as Gene Hunt – ‘What I call a dream involves Diana Doors and a bottle of chip oil.’ It won an International Emmy for best drama in 2006 and 2008.
Classic episode: The finale of the first series was emotional and clever, with Sam coming across his parents in 1973 and trying to prevent his father, Vic, from running away, which he thinks will enable him to emerge from his coma. Gene reveals that Vic is a ruthless gangster, and Sam’s flashbacks through the series are revealed to be memories of his younger self that he only now remembers.

Watercooler fact: Life on Mars was remade in America, lasting one season; in Spain, where it was called The Girl from Yesterday; and Russia, which gave it the title The Dark Side of the Moon.

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Third Degree: Pauline Rowson

Crime novelist Pauline Rowson, author of the Marine series of mysteries, is pulled into crimetimepreview headquarters for questioning. 
Your favourite British crime series or thriller on TV?
I have quite a few favourites so selecting one is rather difficult, but here is my shortlist:  Morse because the production, music and acting are superb; Frost, because I like the shambolic air that pervades Frost’s investigations along with the humour; Poirot because I enjoy the classic murder mystery and historical aspect, the latter of which also applies to Foyle’s War, which I enjoy because of the gorgeous Michael Kitchen. Then there is New Tricks because of the great actors and that tongue-in-cheek humour, and how can I possibly leave out DCI Gene Hunt. He’s a maverick, a cowboy who rides out into the big bad world seeking justice.
Top TV cop?
And the award goes to … whoever said I was indecisive?
Which unfilmed book/character should be made into a TV drama?
My Inspector Andy Horton of course, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?  I’ve been re-reading the classic novels of Josephine Tey and think her Inspector Grant novels would make a good TV drama or a series.  They’re set in the mid 1940s to 1950s. Also many of Robert Goddard’s novels would make excellent TV dramas.
If one of your novels were filmed, who would you cast to be the hero?
That’s such a tough question because how I see Andy Horton, my detective in my marine mystery police procedural novels, is not how others see him. So, I offer up suggestions made by some of my readers: Jason Statham, Daniel Craig, Dominic West, Toby Stephens, Damien Lewis, Robert Glenister. Getting the right actor plays a critical part in the success or otherwise of a television detective series adapted from the novels.
What do you watch with a guilty conscience (or what’s your guilty pleasure)?
I don’t have a guilty conscience when I watch them but I do enjoy old black and white thriller and detective movies, both British and American.
Least favourite cop show/thriller?
Anything that is too gruesome, graphic and contains rape, brutality, kids and torture. I like my crime to entertain, thrill and captivate me, not to give me nightmares.
Your favourite crime/thriller writers?
Reginald Hill, Robert Barnard, R D Wingfield, Robert Goddard and many from the classic Golden Age of Crime.
Favourite non-crime/thriller author
J B Priestley
Favourite crime movie or thriller?
The Long Arm starring Jack Hawkins – superb example of the forerunner of all the classic crime programmes ranging from Softly, Softly, Z Cars to The Bill, Frost, Morse and so on.  Plus The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford, and literally anything directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
You’ve been framed for murder. Which fictional detective would you want to call up?
Depends on who I am alleged to have murdered and how, but I reckon either Sherlock Holmes or DCI Gene Hunt would get me out of a jam.
Blood on the Sand, by Pauline Rowson (9780727868824).
In the fifth Marine Mystery, Detective Inspector Andy Horton’s Isle of Wight vacation is cut short when he encounters what appears to be the scene of a murder – and a woman who seems to be the killer, still holding the murder weapon. But there’s far more to it than that, and soon Andy is deep into an investigation that reaches far into the past.

 

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