Matthew Dancona

In praise of <em>Ashes to Ashes</em>

In praise of <em>Ashes to Ashes</em>
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Aside from news programmes, I rarely stay in specifically to watch something on television (as Hugo has written, boxed DVD sets are a very civilised invention). But last night was an exception: as a Life on Mars fanatic, I wanted to see its much-hyped sequel, Ashes to Ashes. No more John Simm as DI Sam Tyler stranded in the Seventies. In this series, we have Keeley Hawes as DI Alex Drake, shot in our own time and sent hurtling back to the (imaginary?) Eighties. All of which, frankly, is a pretext to get back on our screens the one and only DCI Gene Hunt.

The makers of Life on Mars could not have known how awesome Philip Glenister’s performance as Hunt would be, and how iconic the politically incorrect copper would become. But – sensibly – they have made no attempt to disguise the fact that he is the real star of this follow up series, and the reason why we will be tuning in. It looks as if Ashes to Ashes will be more camp, more knowing and even more post-modern than its predecessor. Which is fine, as the Eighties memorabilia lends itself to such treatment: Gene wears JR-style cowboy boots and drives an Audi now. The haircuts are hilarious, the politics evocative and unlovable City types stalk the narrative in Miami Vice pastels, flaunting their phone cards and Sony Walkmans. Plenty of memorable music for those of us who grew in the Thatcher era: Duran Duran, the Stranglers, the Clash, Ultravox’s “Vienna” – plus the clown from Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes video playing a choric role in Alex’s trauma. One of the reasons the conceit works so well is that it repositions our love of trashy retro chic – I ♥ the Eighties – in the upmarket setting of front-rank BBC drama.

But Hunt is the force that holds it all together. Just as Tyler was a right-on policeman of the new school, Drake is a police psychologist, fluent in psychobabble even as she is trying to deal with a hostage situation. And of course, Hunt is no less appalled by what he calls her “psychiatry” than he was by Sam’s squeamishness about his methods and Bernard Manning outbursts. He is as unapologetically appalling as he ever was, quite open that his breed of copper is on its way out (I would say the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 would be his death sentence). But – as in Life on Mars – the whole point of the series is that there is something good and authentic about him: stick with the guv, Alex was told more than once in the first episode, and everything will be okay. Flawed, chauvinistic and loud-mouthed, Hunt represents a heart-of-oak Britishness that – it is implied – we have lost in 2008 and that we subconsciously yearn for. At the end of series two of Life on Mars, Sam chose to commit suicide so that he could return to the gritty, real, spirited Seventies rather than remain in the anti-septic early 21st Century. What will Alex Drake do?

I shall certainly be tuning in to find out. Welcome back, Gene Genie.