Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Questions Raised By Ashes To Ashes Episodes 1.1-1.3

1. Isn’t it lucky that all of Britain’s race problems were solved between 1973 and 1981?

Life On Mars occasionally addressed the racial issues that Britain faced in the mid-1970s, notably in episode 2.2 when Sam Tyler offered support to a black detective who had joined the division, and episode 2.6 in which the team investigated violent incidents involving south Asian drug dealers. It also had Nelson, the barman who disguised his Northern accent with a Caribbean one so as not to confuse his Mancunian regulars. In Ashes To Ashes, we have already met Viv (Geff Francis), the black desk sergeant in the London station, and seen a couple of other non-white officers lurking in the background. In episode 1.3, a white man was accused of raping and murdering one black woman, and raping and assaulting another, and not a word was said about the racial aspect of the crime. Hmm.

Are the showrunners attempting to contrast 1973 and 1981? Or Manchester and London? Or 1973 Manchester and 1981 London? No doubt race relations had improved in the intervening period, and I’m inclined to believe London would be ahead of other UK cities in diversifying its police personnel successfully – but not enough that viewers should be prepared simply to accept Viv as a respected, even popular, member of the team. As episode 1.1 was at pains to point out, 1981 was the year of the Brixton riots, for goodness’ sake.

And what about the sensibilities of the characters? Is it credible that the same detective who greeted DC Glen Fletcher in Mars episode 2.2 with comments such as “You here to do the spade work?” and “First women, now a coloured. What’s going to be next – dwarves?” has been completely reconstructed in a matter of a mere eight years? We’re only three episodes in, of course, but I hope that this glib treatment of the race issue isn’t all Ashes To Ashes has to offer, because it’s far from satisfactory.

2. Is Chris Skelton now just silly comic relief?

Improbably, Ray Carling – who gave us the discomforting lines quoted above – has proven to have layers lurking under his gruff exterior. After his touching explanation of how Tyler returned to the team in its hour of need in episode 1.1, last week he took a shine to a victim of abuse who refused to leave the station and ensured that she was looked after. Skelton, meanwhile, when he’s not mooning around over the fickle affections of Shaz Granger, has variously punched an unmoving goon in the guts, sat in the midst of a horde of garden gnomes, gone to a New Romantic club in full-on eyeliner and Flock Of Seagulls hair, and dressed up as both Clark Kent and Superman at the same time.

This doesn’t even make sense. Why would anyone be Clark Kent and Superman? Skelton may be sweet, naïve, cautious, even a little slow sometimes, but he’s not an idiot and surely doesn’t need telling that Clark and Superman are never seen together. Especially within a year of Superman II’s theatrical release.

Worst of all, he threw aside his customary prudence to rush headlong into a gunfight when Granger was threatened, only to dive behind the traditional pile of abandoned crates when he realised he was in over his head. This is now repeated every week in the credits, with a freeze-frame as Marshall Lancaster’s name appears. Is this how we’re meant to think of Skelton? A slapstick stooge who needs protecting? Skelton’s progression from cheerful lunkhead to perceptive investigator as he embraced Tyler’s methods was one of the best things about Life On Mars. Don’t abandon him to a predictable romantic storyline, showrunners!

3. What is everyone’s problem with Keeley Hawes?

Various critics commented negatively on Hawes’s performance in episode 1.1. In his Sunday Times review, AA Gill said of the show’s star:
Keeley Hawes couldn’t arrest an audience if she came on naked with a “This Way Up” sticker on her bottom.

I bet you’d like to see her try though, you old lech! The Guardian’s Sam Wollaston (“awful… very unconvincing… just really irritating”) and The Observer’s Kathryn Flett (“either spectacularly miscast or woefully misdirected… just short of hysteria”) were similarly uncomplimentary and both, perhaps inevitably, compared her unfavourably with John Simm in Life On Mars.

Naturally anyone’s enjoyment of a given actor’s performance is subjective, but I think (a) Hawes has been terrific and (b) people have been exceedingly quick to forget what Simm actually did in Mars. There was enough wailing, whooping, hollering and howling in those scripts to fill a series of Most Haunted. Despite the critical carping over her “hysterical” or “shrieking” performance, Hawes has actually been relatively restrained, at least since episode 1.1. Oh, apart from that moment when she thought the car she was in WAS ABOUT TO EXPLODE! She got a bit fidgety then.

Even in the admittedly below-par episode 1.2, which tried to cram in far too much (sexual politics! The royal wedding! Class warfare! Drake meeting her mother! The development of Docklands! Drake’s liaison with the first ludicrously caricatured Thatcherite she met! He even drove a DeLorean!), we got several bravura moments from Hawes. Chief among these were when Drake refused point-blank to have her arse stamped by her colleagues, supposedly a long-standing tradition for “plonks”, and then her subsequent submission – when she was doing it on her own terms, because she wanted something from Gene Hunt in return.

The excellent episode 1.3 vindicated both Hawes and her casting in the show. Faced with a struggle to get Hunt to understand that a prostitute who reports a rape should not be dismissed out of hand, Drake’s incredulity and outrage were palpable. In dealing with sort-of-bogus complainant Trixie (a fiery guest turn from Claire Rushbrook), Hawes went effortlessly from motherly sympathy to quiet exasperation to resigned despair without a false note. And in one scene she made it clear why Drake needed to be a strapping lass rather than a diminutive type who might be easily cowed by Hunt.

I also liked her fiercely shameless response when Hunt accused her of acquiring a “reputation” after sleeping with another smarmy City trader in red braces. (Perhaps this is a fetish she was unable to indulge among the chest-waxed, floppy-fringed girly-men of 2008.) It’s no surprise that Ashes To Ashes is more upfront about gender politics than Life On Mars was, and Hawes – especially when Drake confronts Hunt’s prejudices about prostitutes in episode 1.3 – is handling this, um, manfully.

4. Will Gene Hunt get something to do soon?

Most of the publicity for Ashes To Ashes has focused on Philip Glenister and, if you watch the show on BBC iPlayer, the blurb on its front page actually says, “Drama series following the exploits of Life On Mars’ DCI Gene Hunt.” Now there’s just a tiny chance that the marketing department has told a wee fib here, having decided that an established character is more of a draw than a new one. But it seems perverse that Hunt has had very little to do yet apart from react to Drake and her crazy feminine ways. There was a funny scene in episode 1.2 in which he weeded out a villain by getting a load of blokes to strip naked in a snooker hall, but other than that Glenister has had to be satisfied with looking alternately smug and frustrated.

The trailer for episode 1.4 suggests it’s going to be a Drake/Hunt two-hander, which augurs well. Because I’m concerned that if the people who tune in to see their favourite politically incorrect old-school copper switch off when they don’t see him enough, Ashes To Ashes won't last even as long as Life On Mars did.

5. Is Keeley Hawes related to former Sunday Telegraph editor Sarah Sands?

I think we should be told.

6. How much better is Ashes To Ashes than BBC1’s other big new drama, The Last Enemy?

Much, much better. Although Ashes lacks the slickness and high production values of The Last Enemy – there’s certainly no sign that it escaped the BBC cost-cutting that reduced Life On Mars’s budget between the first and second series – it’s tightly plotted and coherent, and everyone involved seems fully committed to it. The Last Enemy, a vaguely futuristic conspiracy thriller, is hamstrung from the start by its casting of Benedict Cumberbatch in the central role. He may have the best name in all of Equity but he also has Amazing Permanent Blankface. In fairness, he’s not meant to know what’s going on, but he could at least try to look interested in finding out.

In fact, no-one in this show seems to know or care much about the plot. Faintly familiar people keep dropping in and out to offer up moderately cryptic titbits of non-information – look, there’s Geraldine James! Hello, David Harewood! – and, even after two and a half hours, I’ve only the dimmest inkling who or where or why they are. This indecipherable hotchpotch is further disgraced by a performance of surpassing awfulness from Eva Birthistle as a misguidedly idealistic government minister. Birthistle, whose Ulster accent is even less convincing than her English one in 2006’s similarly frenetic but far superior The State Within, is evidently of the Briskness Indicates Authority school and seems to be going for a sort of distaff Don Logan effect, even when she’s trying to gently cajole Cumberbatch into doing something for her.

Thank goodness for the marvellous Robert Carlyle and Anamaria Marinca, whose emotional, wholehearted performances are keeping the show afloat for now. Their characters met for the first time in episode 2 when Carlyle forced Marinca and Cumberbatch into the back of his van and ordered them to strip because one or both were bugged, and the crackling tension between the two almost physically pushed Cumberbatch off the screen. The episode ended with Carlyle striding off through a graveyard, ignoring Marinca’s passionate entreaties to come back and tell her what was going on (and the rest of us for that matter, thanks Bob!). I fervently hope it isn’t their last meeting.

The quality of these two actors has allowed them to overcome the handicap of an app-ar-ent di-rec-tive to ov-er en-un-ci-ate at all times, presumably so our friends in overseas territories will be able to understand them when the show is exported. Those wacky foreigners and their crazy accents! Another actor who suffered this indignity was Paul Higgins, who made a brief appearance (as a professor of um ah er yes) but did not get the opportunity to forcibly insert an iPod in anyone’s urethra.

Which is a shame.


McCy said...

OMG, I've only just realised, Viv is Michael from Desmond's!1!!1!1!

I only got an hour into The Last Enemy. I managed to get over the Cumberbatch being a romantic lead, due to my love of Anamaria Marinca, but then I found myself doing anything and everything except actually paying attention to the TV and gave up.

Admiral Neck said...

The worst thing about the Guardian (yes, worse even than the out-of-the-blue return of Julie Burchill in the most recent Weekend magazine, which was like finding a rat head in a can of Heinz spaghetti) is the presence of the witless Wollaston, so don't get too bothered about him criticising Hawes.

I cannot understand why he was not only hired by the Guardian but promoted as the next big thing (big pictures heralding his arrival featured in the week before his first piss-poor column). This considering his fellow critics include the excellent Nancy Banks-Smith (who is practically a national treasure, Gareth McLean, and Friday Night Lights fan Sarah Dempster. Even The Mangan writes him into the ground. And don't get me started on Kathryn Flett.

Masticator said...

Wollaston never used to bother me, but recently I've found myself getting more and more irate at his would-be-irreverent nonsense. He clearly fancies himself a Peter Bradshaw type with a devil-may-care attitude to the form and a healthy iconoclasm, but he has failed to realise that actual writing talent is required. I too am baffled as to why the Guardian sticks with him, especially when they have so many superior reviewers. (Although Sarah Dempster put Ashes To Ashes at the bottom of the taste barometer “The Mast” and said, “Erratic tone + ghastly scripts + Keeley Hawes = crashing disappointment”, so yah boo sucks to her! I find her very snide and not in a good way.)

I can’t remember much before 1992 so Desmond’s is a bit of a blur. Was Michael the sharp-suited businessman type?

Jack Yan said...

An excellent summary of the Ashes to Ashes episodes up to that point, particularly about Hawes’s development.

Masticator said...

Thanks Jack Yan. I don't suppose you can help me with my Desmond's query?