"Art is not a mirror with which to reflect the world; it is a hammer with which to shape it"

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Ashes To Ashes

Sometimes I wish I was seven years old again, back then something was either brilliant or it was terrible; the best or the worst. Unfortunately, as I grew older I realised that most good things have flaws and most bad things have flashes. However, I still know people for whom there are only polar opposites… And so with due inevitability I finally get round to ‘the obligatory Ashes To Ashes post’. It probably won’t have been worth the wait! Of course, this is only my personal view and, let’s face it, oh my solitary reader, it doesn’t really amount to a whole hill of beans…

What is there to say about the programme? Do you look at it in terms of being a follow-up to Life On Mars or do you look at it as a show in its own right? It would be invidious to only consider it as a Life On Mars 2 but it is only inevitable and that’s how I’ve seen it. Thankfully, my own worst fears were not confirmed although there are still some irksome wrinkles. I did think it best to wait until a couple of episodes had aired, let the programme bed in, before putting anything down…

First off, Life On Mars had solid characters right from the start, immediately arresting (ha!), and these have been carried over. So, the Devil would be in any changes. Gene Hunt is still one helluva character, still has the best lines and now comes with a pre-established, near-iconic status the existence of which comes with its own problem: living up to it. This leads to instances where it seems this burden teeters the character on the brink of self-parody; thankfully, so far, this has not happened. Detectives Ray and Chris seemed to have been changed subtly and seem have been made to grow as characters; for me, this is a surprising and welcome development. (Commendably they haven’t changed the core characters to fill the hole of a character loss, as opposed to, for instance, Lewis or Taggart where Lewis and Jardine were both made more like their old bosses.) The notable omission is WPC Annie Cartwright, this is a significant loss as she represented an in situ and contemporaneous necessary balance to Hunt and his team. It could be that Shaz Granger will assimilate this role: I suspect not. So the project succeeds or fails on the strength of the big changes: the new period, the new clashes and the new lead character. Which leads to DI Alex Drake.

Keeley Hawes and her DI Drake always were going to have a tough job filling the gap left by John Simm’s Sam Tyler, whether this is being managed is open to debate- it could go either way. To their great credit the makers have not attempted a direct replacement. The problem is not the performance but that Drake seems to lack the strength, purpose and resolve of Tyler; this leaves Hunt without a strong enough foil, nemesis or counter-point and leaves him somewhat dominating the proceedings a little too much. This is partly a corollary of this character being a woman: when Tyler and Hunt disagreed there was always the very real threat of physical violence; if, as in episode 3, Tyler had punched Hunt the way Drake did, Tyler would have been punched back; however, it is considered as unacceptable to hit a woman in drama as it is in real life- while strangely it is perfectly acceptable in drama for men to hit men, women to hit men and women to hit women*. (The ‘Bolly-knickers’ epithet is already becoming wearing- and why do all the women wear stockings- were tights really widely abandoned in the 80s?) However, it is her special skill which, to my mind, is the stumbling block.

The key part of the original was the whole ‘fish out of water’ cultural clash: in that case 21st Century cop beset by 1970’s policing and societal attitudes. There were dislocations temporal, geographical, attitudinal, social and cultural. The most prominent and important of these was the character-specific difference between Tyler’s and Hunt’s styles of policing and the contrasting and shifting moral stances they maintained. Most people (i.e. the audience) can comprehend and sympathize with the rights and wrongs of whether planting evidence, police thumping those they consider guilty or beating confessions from suspects. There is a conflict for the audience, particularly in the light of 21st Century perceptions of crime, that while 70’s methods may be wrong they might be considered to have worked and that maybe the police are now so trammelled that the ‘bad guys’ are winning. (This could be debated ad nauseam but not by me!) However, for Ashes To Ashes this has been replaced by psychology and psychological profiling. This is a far more difficult prospect as vast swathes of the general public still have a wide-spread distrust or dismissal of psychologists (even some psychiatrists do) and, while it was accepted with Fitz in Cracker, recent disasters such as the Rachel Nickell case have left the subject popularly discredited even more**: the methodology clash has become theoretical rather than physical. Theoretical arguments tend to be less emotionally rewarding for the viewer than a clear visually and viscerally represented argument: effectively the visualized representation of a conceptual difference. This clash has also been hampered by Drake’s psychological approach being shown as pretty much wrong throughout the first two episodes- it would have been helpful if her methods had proved more successful from the beginning. After all, they get her shot in the first place!

The other issue these psychological aspects throw up is that the piece is at times a bit too knowing a bit too regularly and, while a line like ‘good morning imaginary constructs’ is amusing as a throw-away, repeatedly returning to and referencing the constructed nature of the world, not only extricates the viewer from the drama set in the 80’s, but also recalls that the whole thing (TV) is a construct: it breaks the spell. While his situation felt open to interpretation, Tyler was always clear that what was happening in the real world was a direct threat to him in the construct world and this sense of threat carried through to the audience- I remember vividly that gnawing sense of unease as all the lights started to turn off until Sam was left in virtual darkness as the threat was ratcheted up in the real world and he was left seemingly unable to counter; while Drake is too clear of her situation and not taking it seriously enough there is a lack of that threat and helplessness.

The geographical dislocation has also been removed: if Hunt and his team had only recently been brought to London there would have been an opportunity for more antipathy and yet he seems almost relaxed in this new setting (as relaxed as Hunt can ever be) and there is little disparagement of the place. (Isn’t setting a period piece in London courageous? London has been so vandalized recently by the likes of Norman Foster that it must be hard to shoot without including a recognizable too modern landmark- which could account for why so much of the programme is shot either in enclosed alleys with high walls down each side or with the camera angled down and framed quite close on the action.)

There are occasional minor things that niggle at the back of the mind: did ‘yuppies’ exist as such in 1981; did that sort of affluence and conspicuous decadence kick-in that early… I was under the impression that around this time the UK was still in a state of near-terminal decline and that that whole yuppie thing didn’t really start until the mid-eighties… certainly until post-Falklands; did Thatcherism kick in that early and would Hunt have understood the word when Drake uses it; did the Docklands redevelopment start that early; why did the bombing issues of the second episode seem ever so slightly out-of-place; would a high-ranking officer (or caring responsible mother) like Drake ever race to a ‘shout’ with her daughter in the car? Do they perhaps spend a little too much time drinking? Did anybody else think of Closely Observed Trains when the bum-stamping issue came up? Did anybody else think Carry On Screaming (‘Big Feet Smell Something Terrible’) when she spelled out her clues on the white-board and saw the letters columned behind her? Of course, all these sort of things can be written off as ‘it’s just a fantasy’. But I’m not sure the creators would like us to think that: I think they actually respect their creation too much for that sort of silliness and that’s to their credit as well.

The single thing that niggles most is the feeling that it’s a touch forced. Life On Mars had years to simmer and when it emerged it was as an entirely integrated and organically flowing whole; Ashes To Ashes has not had that long gestation (for which the creative team must be infinitely grateful) and feels at times to have been made slightly more ‘to pattern’. The layered dream-world flashes seem to have been templated from Life On Mars; instead of one children’s character (created for the original) there is now a different children’s television character (the Rainbow team); the powerful Granada becomes the powerful Quattro; test card girl has become Bowie’s Pierrot guy; red-splodged memory has become red-splodged memory; Tyler’s quest for the real world has become Drake’s quest for the real world and (slightly more manipulatively) her daughter. As patterns go it’s a good one so why complain too loudly. And I wonder is the real problem simply that Life On Mars seemed so brilliant and so entirely original that logic dictates anything patterned on it just won’t have that shock of the new. Would the first episode of Life On Mars even live up to its subsequent status?

Maybe the stories are not quite so strong; maybe the situations seem a little familiar; maybe the new characters and situations need more time to adjust to; maybe the tone’s changed and maybe its become a bit too knowing; maybe its just different but fair play to Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharaoh, they had a big task, they tried hard and they haven’t failed they just haven’t achieved perfection that everybody forced on them.

It would be terribly easy to slate Ashes To Ashes for not being Life On Mars and equally easy to shower it with superlatives for being pretty similar but the truth lies somewhere in between. Is it Life On Mars? No… Should it have tried to be? Of course not. Should it be judged on what it is rather than what it isn’t? Certainly. Is it still better than most else that’s on television? Quite possibly.

***Hope that seemed reasonably fair***

*I’d like to make it abundantly clear that I do NOT advocate or condone hitting women or indeed anyone but I do find it peculiar how this form of violence makes people particularly squeamish while most other violence is frequently left uncommented on to the point of acceptability.
**it is also very difficult to write genuine psychological profiling: it needs to be reduced to pat generalizations for the benefits of television and even in real-life the reality can be rather bland. For example, the Suffolk Strangler case: when it was realised they were after a serial killer I automatically told the policeman on the TV that they were looking for a white, middle-aged male; bit of a loner, relationship problems, probably in a more physical sort of job, living either in or near the stalking ground. Why? Because it invariably is: Sutcliffe, Nielsen, Brady, West. And when we get the arrest it’s the self-same individual. This isn’t Silence Of The Lambs: urbane serial killers are few and far between!

1 comment:

Rach said...

Nice post. As to stockings in the 80s. Everyone I knew wore them unless their Mum forced them to wear tights (aaah).

I've tried to view AtoA as a unique entity but it isn't easy. It does make me laugh and feel nostalgic. Spot the pink wafers anyone? But I miss that undercurrent of urgency and danger that Life on Mars had.

That lack of urgency seems odd when she has a daughter in the real world that I'd thought she'd be desperate to get too. Especially knowing what it feels like to lose a mother at an early age.

I'm assuming they plan to knock the legs out from under her at some point so she starts to feel vulnerable.

Also glad Chris and Ray have developed. Hey, Ray even showed a soft side!

Overall I'm enjoying it. And the clown watching her while she slept in the last episode was REALLY creepy.