2006: Looking Back At LIFE ON MARS

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Tom Pheby goes back to 1973 via 2006.

"My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever's happened, it's like I've landed on a different planet. Now, maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home."
The story goes that Kudos Productions gave writers Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan and Ashley Pharoah a bag of cash and sent them to Blackpool for three days to come up with ideas for a prime-time television series. They spent the majority of the money in the games arcade and, by all accounts, had what is commonly known as a 'jolly up', yet they still found some time to brainstorm and come up with ideas from the confines of their shabby hotel room. Once they started to focus, the assembled scribes began reminiscing about their favourite television cop shows, which included The Sweeney, but they actually had no intention of developing that idea any further.

The Kudos gang arrived expecting to be wowed in the less than palatial seaside surroundings, but instead they were presented with five possible formats, none of which seemed destined to become a long running series. So they left confused and unsatisfied, but one idea in particular seemed to endure in the minds of the writers, although it would not resurface again for another 8 years.

That idea featured a young, ambitious Greater Manchester DCI called Sam Williams who was involved in a murder case. When a romantic entanglement leads to his girlfriends abduction, the emotional detective heads off in his car to clear his head. After being involved in near fatal accident he is taken to hospital, but instead of waking up in ICU, he finds himself on wasteland in the year 1973 - 33 years in his past.

The writers entitled the piece 'Ford Granada' and continued to pitch it intermittently to the drama departments at the BBC and Channel 4. Both dismissed the project politely, and at this point the trio thought that it was over. But instead of the script languishing in a drawer for another few years, Graham, Jordan and Pharoah reworked the story, tweaking it where necessary (Sam Williams became Sam Tyler) and turning it into 'Life on Mars'. The revamped script then ended up on the desk of BBC Wales Head of Drama, Julie Gardner, who then persuaded Head of Drama at the BBC, Jane Tranter, to commission the programme.

At the time all three writers were concerned that the concept of time travel was too similar to another programme that Julie Gardner was working on with a certain Russell T Davis (I wonder what happened to that ?). But despite those earlier reservations Gardner and Tranter had complete faith in the venture and this resulted in Life On Mars finally premiering on the BBC in January of 2006.


The production was exceptional in almost every area. It borrowed heavily from stylised classic films, such as Get Carter, and blended it together with shows like Starsky and Hutch and The Sweeney. Although it never denied its origins, Life On Mars managed to create something unique, muddled, intricate and yet exciting.

John Simm was cast in the lead role of Sam Tyler, which writer Matthew Graham has said was written with him in mind. Joining him was Phillip Glenister in the role of hard nosed misogynist dinosaur DCI Gene Hunt. The casting here was key, the story arc of a time traveling detective remains constant throughout but its the clashes in approach, ideology and practices between the two which provide the spice and intrigue.
Hunt: They reckon you've got concussion – but personally, I couldn't give a tart's furry cup if half your brains are falling out. Don't ever waltz into my kingdom playing king of the jungle.
Tyler: Who the hell are you?
Hunt: I'm Gene Hunt. Your DCI. And it's 1973. Nearly dinner time...I'm 'aving hoops.
Tyler is a by the book copper who relies on strong evidence to build a case, whereas Hunt is more likely to shake a tree or two until someone or something falls out. He is oblivious to political correctness, speaks first, thinks later, punches suspects and gets his man or woman at any price. His methods, in the eyes of many, are as questionable as his choice of footwear, something that he acknowledges when he declares...
"I've never fitted anyone up who didn't deserve it."
This is uttered without regret or the faintest hint of embarrassment, but strangely enough as a viewer you ignore his flaws because he is the necessary reaction within an imperfect world, in the mould of The Sweeneys Jack Reagan or Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry.


Both Simm and Glenister compliment each other incredibly well in completely contrasting ways. Simm plays Tyler as a slight, serious, dedicated and deeply troubled individual whilst Glenister's Hunt is a mountainous lump of unbridled rage who reacts on instinct. The glaring differences between the two leads ensures that they lock horns regularly, although we are provided with glimpses of mutual respect as the show develops, but this is not achieved without loud disagreements, the odd punch up and a bottle of 'blended'.

It has to be said that although Simm is excellent, Life On Mars would be less memorable without the larger than life character of Gene Hunt. Glenister harnesses the essence of the character and fills the screen from corner to corner by delivering the stereotypical man/copper from the 70's to the point where it becomes part caricature. Hunt is every inch the neanderthal sheriff, out to cleanse a town of baddies and wrong doings with his own unique form of retribution and justice. He represents the obnoxious general, goading the troops into action with the aim of closing a case before last orders are called. Females will baulk at his uneducated observations, volatile temperament and sexist outbursts which seem to be employed as frequently as a police whistle.


In one scene, as if to illustrate his social incompetence and ignorance. Hunt notices a woman in her mid to late Thirties talking to a colleague and blurts out
"Tits in a jumper"
It's all tongue in cheek fun and is executed for shock and laughs in equal measure but it genuinely mirrors real attitudes and prejudices of the time, even if they are comically exaggerated by a greasy northerner in a camel haired coat, wearing white loafers and a pair of black driving gloves.

Life On Mars encourages the viewer to become detective to establish whether Sam is actually in a coma, has gone insane or has indeed been transported back in time, and that's half the fun of the opening series. The answer seems obvious at first but the writers are clever enough to sow seeds of doubt for the viewer to latch on to. There are plenty of clues peppered within the scripts, from those seemingly insignificant scenes that don't appear to require much dissection or analysis but which, over time, lead us to the ultimate conclusion in the last episode of the shows sequel Ashes To Ashes.

Although it was never quite the series of its predecessor, Ashes To Ashes did allow us to come to terms with our suspicions, and it answered the nagging questions on not only Sam Tyler and Alex Drakes reality but also that of Gene Hunt. I recommend that once you decide to commit to the series that you stay the course because the journey has a sad and prophetic end as Hunt remembers something that he has tried so hard to forget.


At first glance Life On Mars seemed like a lightweight piece of chuck away entertainment, but it achieved its iconic status because it was the absolute opposite. It had a great cast of characters and satisfied our need for nostalgia, but it also had many layers as a story, combining science fiction, police drama and abstract fantasy. Like the way Tyler remains in touch with 2006 by surreal methods such as 'the test card girl' who manages to leave the confines of the television for a late night chinwag.

The series was gritty, authentic and had an almost cinematic quality about it, managing to capture the spirit of the times in almost greyish tones as if it had been bottled awaiting release. The script was clever, witty and intelligent, with the general intent behind it to highlight the differences of two opposing societies in terms of attitudes and policing methods through its two leads. Gone were the invaluable modern day computers that helped collate essential data and lists of previous offenders. 1973 was as basic as it got and consisted of many, many hours spent interviewing villains and thumbing through endless stacks of files in a smokey office with the sound of clacking typewriters, something the series etches firmly in the memory.

It also shows a society that was undeniably less tolerant, one which was in desperate need of change and lacked sophistication. From the time Tyler wakes he is pushed into confronting and challenging established rules and conventions that surround him, in his job, from those around him, from his environment and within himself.


One of those that suffers from being heavily under appreciated  is the gorgeous Liz White's character, Annie. She is restricted to the role of an obliging WPC but has so much more to give. Tyler enlists her help in episode one to better understand an attacker that has somehow offended  in 2006 and 1973. It's clear to everyone at this point that there is a developing chemistry between the two that will eventually lead to them sharing a truncheon.

It wouldn't seem right to ignore the music from the series, which is really the under appreciated star and punctuates the drama by giving it genuine heart as much as any set of flares or tank top. There was an impressive line up of superb tracks featured, such as;
  • Free – Wishing Well
  • Atomic Rooster – Head in the Sky
  • Hawkwind – Brainstorm
  • David Bowie – The Jean Genie
  • Jethro Tull – Cross-Eyed Mary
  • Hawkwind – Silver Machine
  • Slade – Gudbuy T’ Jane
  • Rolling Stones – Wild Horses
  • Sweet – Blockbuster
  • Thin Lizzy – Call The Police
  • Status Quo – Good Thinking
  • Thin Lizzy – The Rocker
  • Cream – White Room
  • T Rex – Jeepster
And of course...



David Bowie's lyrics from 1973 could have been written especially for the show...
Look at those cavemen go
It's the freakiest show
Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best selling show
If you are just into nostalgia Life On Mars is a perfect view. With classic cars, party sevens, dial telephones, greenshield stamps and record shops that had booths. If that's not you then what about a cracking police drama that allows the armchair detective to draw their own conclusions from the action. If that wasn't enough, Life On Mars also caters for the ardent science fiction fan with the time traveling aspect of the storyline. If we were to speculate on its success then it may just be that it appeals to a great many for the reasons just stated, and by creating its own diverse audience in the process.

Life on Mars was a rarity, a magical piece of television that just wanted to tell great stories in a new and refreshing way. It succeeded beyond all expectations and is still regarded as one of the best shows of its kind by simply avoiding the trap of becoming just another worn out police drama.

Script Writer, Poet, Blogger and junk television specialist. Half English, half Irish and half Alsatian, Tom is well known for insisting on being called Demetri for reasons best known to himself. A former film abuser and telly addict who shamefully skulks around his home town of Canterbury after dark dressed as Julie Andrews. Follow Tom on Twitter

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