The Joy of Sets: Life on Mars

Schedulers can be a bit rubbish over the summer months. They seem to think we’re all going to be dining al fresco every night and in no need of decent telly. Clearly they also live somewhere where that’s possible. Malta perhaps.

So while they phone in their schedules of blandness, we sit upon our sofas listening to the rain driving against the window and wondering whether watching Lord of the Rings for the fourth time will kill the magic.

What you need gentle viewer is to get your hands on some good TV that doesn’t seem to merit repeating by the broadcasters. So, let us celebrate the glory that is the DVD boxed set…

First up: Life on Mars – a programme that was immediately rated unmissable here at Hat Towers when it was first aired in 2006.

The first 5 minutes could have come from any modern police procedural if it wasn’t for the fact that our hero DCI Sam Tyler isn’t a rule-breaking, heavy-drinking, chain-smoking maverick. He doesn’t even follow his gut anymore…

It’s a testament to both the writers and to the phenomenal talents of John Simm, that those few minutes in the 21st century provide a perfect miniature portrait of Sam before the shocking sight of him being taken out of shot (and out of this reality) by a speeding car.

Now, it’s just possible that you don’t know the answer to the conundrum that was posed throughout two series of LoM and three series of Ashes to Ashes – are Sam and Alex dead, in a coma or time-travellers? – so I’m not going to spoil it for you. Even rewatching LoM without the mystery of what Sam’s doing back in 1973 is a complete joy.

John Simm is a seriously good actor, as is Philip Glenister  – but put the two together and the chemistry is outstanding. Throughout the first series you could practically smell the testosterone coming off the screen (though thankfully not the fag smoke, Brut or stale beer). From the moment a thoroughly discombobulated Sam encounters DCI Gene Hunt in the strip-lit hell of the CID squad room and learns that it’s “1973, almost dinner time. I’m ‘aving hoops.” we know we’re getting something extraordinary.

And that’s before the sounds of a 21st century hospital start bleeding through to disturb Sam even further. LoM messes with our heads and Sam’s throughout both series – from the creepy Test Card girl and the Open University lecturers talking to Sam through the TV to use of lights and sounds to signify (perhaps) that Sam’s body in the present is in trouble.

On top of this big puzzle lies the Case of the Week – often with a sort-of connection to Sam – that serve to show us that whatever we might think of modern policing we should certainly be grateful things have moved on the last 35 years.

Columns of newsprint (not to mention a Lustbox) have been dedicated to trying to unravel the allure of DCI Hunt, famously described by Sam Tyler as an “overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding”.

Slacker writing and/or less wonderful acting might have rendered the Gene Genie a two-dimensional cartoon character – but even before we hit Ashes to Ashes (which showed us a whole new side to our favourite Sheriff) – there’s clearly so much more to him than a racist, sexist thug.

It certainly helps that he gets the lion’s share of the funny dialogue (though Sam can match him in pithy one-liners too). Rewatchers will already have their favourite Huntisms, like “She’s as nervous as a very small nun at a penguin shoot”, and LoM virgins should be left to discover these jewels for themselves. Also, if I start listing them, we’ll be here all night.

What you need to know is that Life on Mars was joyous to watch (when it wasn’t inducing nail-biting tension or tears). It had a fabulous ensemble cast led by two actors clearly relishing excellent scripts and original story-telling. It even had a Camberwick Green moment in the second series that will tickle anyone who watched children’s TV in the ’70s as pink as Jane Goldman’s hair. The almost penultimate scene (atop Manchester police headquarters) still gives me goosebumps and a chill down the spine and the final scene is as happy an ending as you could wish for.

It’s the perfect antidote to the CSI-ation of TV (and I speak as someone who loved the first few series of CSI). Gene Hunt wanting results on fingerprints (sorry “dabs”)  inside of two days or Sam instructing a line of ‘plods’ in marigolds on how to conduct a fingertip search, will make you smile. And if that doesn’t, the sight of Simm and Glenister in dodgy seventies swimming trunks belting along a canal after a bad guy definitely will. And if that doesn’t bring you joy, then perhaps a different boxed set is required to be honest.

Posted by Jo the Hat

Available from LoveFilm and Amazon


Filed under Detective/police drama, Joy of Sets

3 responses to “The Joy of Sets: Life on Mars

  1. Corumba Love

    Thanks for the reminder.

    Hooked, from the very first minute, we were.

    And may I add my uneliable memory of Gene’s rejoinder to the: “overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding,” riff?

    “You make that sound like a bad thing.”


  2. Tim

    Even with the passage of time, this remains a modern, er, retro, er, masterpiece. I bought the full boxset for myself a couple of years ago, intending to view it at leisure over the course of the summer. I watched it in a week.

    I loved Sam Tyler and the Gene Genie. And Chris and Ray and Annie. And the Test Card Girl. (And I adored the payoff with her in the very final scene of the entire series, which had me grinning at the sheer perfection of it all.)

    With the benefit of hindsight it all seems so obviously right that it’s easy to take the magic for granted. But then I watched the first five episodes of the US remake, which was so execrably bad it really made me appreciate what we had here. Lightning in a bottle. 🙂

  3. Vindaloo

    Personally, I prefer the ending of Life on Mars as it stood, rather than the hash that was made in Ashes to Ashes.