Monday, April 20, 2009


Ashes to Ashes – Bad Timing For Bad Policing?

Have you seen the trailer for Ashes To Ashes Series Two? Classy, fun, cinematically shot and set to one of Spandau Ballet’s better tunes, it’s been all over the BBC for weeks, and I’ve been looking forward to tonight’s first episode… But not without doubts gnawing at me. I’d already had more problems with Ashes To Ashes than its predecessor Life On Mars – and, after Red Riding made old-fashioned violent policing seem less funny, and the death of Ian Tomlinson warned us that the Met’s changed less than we’d all hoped, will we still be laughing with Gene Hunt?

Life On Mars was a brilliant concept, superbly delivered, with two great leads. John Simm’s Sam Tyler was the ideal modern cop – efficient, intelligent, compassionate and brave – transported back to ‘simpler’ days of arrest first, ask questions when you know which answers you want to beat into the crook. But Philip Glenister’s Gene Hunt, like that other ’70s invention Judge Dredd, was such a ludicrously authoritarian parody that people couldn’t help falling for him, so naturally he became the big hit. If Sam Tyler was an echo of Jane Tennison, this time he was never going to convert the team; the bunch of old scrotes he was stuck in with won him over more than the other way round. Still, the scripts were sharp, the overarching mystery was intriguing, and Gene was funny because he was played and written straight down the line, with entertaining lines opposite the solid, respectable Noughties man.

Eventually, Sam Tyler made his exit, and the ’70s-set Manchester show – filmed around places I remember when I was a kid up there – moved, like me, down to London. With a new title, a new decade, and a new lead called Alex. What could be better?

Well, despite the music being more to my taste, I didn’t warm as much to the first series of Ashes To Ashes as I had to the two of the earlier model. And there were two key reasons – both relating to the leads. Now he’s become a well-loved folk hero, Gene Hunt’s off the leash; he is, god help us, our audience identification character, there’s no longer any tension that he might not be entirely trusted, and even his least appealing underling Ray Carling, who was initially a brutal, corrupt thug, has been airbrushed. And permed.

The other was Keeley Hawes’ Alex Drake, a perfectly good performance, but a real problem of a character for me. While Sam Tyler had been the one with his feet on the ground that you could recognise from normal life, in this series the lead from ‘now’ is far more of a stereotype than even DI Hunt, shallow and peripheral. Despite a chilling through-line of the story of her parents in last year’s series, I couldn’t help thinking that for most of the time she was more the comic relief than ‘funny’ Gene. Structurally, her character was in a much more difficult position than Sam had been: where Sam was the lead, she was just the ‘new girl’; with Gene fully established and her already in a side job rather than in the thick of it, she becomes far more peripheral; and, after Sam’s inner mystery was solved when he woke up, there was never going to be the serious tension about the extent to which the series was real.

So, with both Alex and the audience knowing that the whole thing’s a comatose delusion, she knows that it’s literally all about her. The problem with that is that, while Sam would be torn – like Thomas Covenant – between treating people as if they mattered deadly seriously and not wanting to give in to what could be madness, she can treat the whole thing as if it’s one big laugh, because she ‘knows’ that no-one else matters. So, when we have serious subjects and the ‘serious’ character is the one who’s pissing about the most, there’s something very offputting about it. She’s become the stereotype of a ‘flighty’ woman who doesn’t take anything seriously, a much older stereotype even than Gene Hunt, mixed with the lady psychiatrist in a ’30s screwball comedy. That part was pretty advanced feminism for the ’30s, but three-quarters of a century later and without nearly as many sassy lines as Rosalind Russell or Katharine Hepburn would have been given, it seems like a backwards step. And, let’s face it, I just don’t find a solipsist leading character appealing, and if she’s meant to personify the ’80s as the ‘me’ decade… Well, I didn’t like ‘me, me, me’ ’80s characters in the ’80s, and I’m no more likely to identify with them now.

Last year’s final episode crystallised the good and the bad of the series for me. The revelations about her father were predictable, but brilliantly executed; Take the Long Way Home made such a haunting closing track that I picked it up on CD. But, while I enjoyed the fictionalised version of Tom Robinson, someone I’ve met a few times, it couldn’t help dragging me back to the police attitude to gays in the ’80s. When I first started going out in Manchester in the late ’80s, noticeably illegal by some years according to the law at the time, I had a bit of a culture shock; I’d always been brought up to think well of the police, yet there all the stories I heard were of thugs and rapists who either laughed off homophobic violence, perpetrated it, or arrested the victims. And it didn’t help that our local Chief Constable at the time was a raving bigot who was determined to cast us into Hell.

So, when Alex Drake laughed and made postmodern remarks about how funny gays were because she was fine with that sort of thing, I noticed that the men she was laughing at were in the cells, and thought how repulsively smug she was. And when a fictionalised – but, again, real name, real person, just an actor playing him and fictional lines – Lord Scarman came in and the team lionised Gene Hunt and said what a waste of time the busybody Scarman Report was, getting in the way of good policing, I just felt rather ill.

I was at my most politically active in the ’90s, yet despite realisation of my sexuality triggering my political involvement and always being out, among the dozens of policy issues that I pressed I was always wary of being seen as ‘the gay one’. I knew that no matter how many other things I pressed, that was what would get me labelled as a single-issue politician. Eventually, I decided ‘oh, fuck it,’ because if I didn’t press for what I was pressing on LGBT issues, no-one else was going to do it (the one Manifesto for the last 15 years until today that I wasn’t on the FPC for is the only one that didn’t mention sexual orientation. I look forward to reading the new Euro-Elections Manifesto with a tiny amount of trepidation). And the issue that I fought hardest to raise our profile on was hate crime, right up until I eventually piloted a full motion on the subject through Conference in 1999. I started by picking up and running with the issue of Police Racial Attack Squads, which was knocking about the party ineffectually in the early ’90s; it wasn’t just because I wanted us to bang on about homophobic violence too that, when I started getting the idea into major policy proposals, I made sure we gave them a different name. Because too many people assumed the police already had “Racial Attack Squads,” and that they might be on the receiving end of them. It was a policy I pushed because it tackled an issue that most police forces at the time were shamefully ignoring; because hate crimes were something that the other parties would go nowhere near, making it both distinctively Liberal and tough on crime; and because I knew from first-hand experience that there were plenty of places and communities where, unless the police made it absolutely clear that they’d changed by taking such issues seriously, there were an awful lot of law-abiding people who would never trust or help a police officer.

Perhaps Gene Hunt could be funny and loveable because he and his attitudes were safely in the past. And perhaps the ’80s version of the series was just a little too much closer to the present for me to be comfortable with it last year. Reminders that there are still times when we can’t always trust the police, that the other side of them always getting the right man was the police always knowing what ‘sort’ the right man would be, don’t chime in with the jolly advertising that the ’80s are back, and it’s criminal.

So, again, I’m looking forward to this show. But more than ever before, I’m worried what it’ll laugh away. And, after the past few weeks (with more fallout daily), I wonder just how many other people will be laughing with it any more at the idea that the police should just beat up whoever they like, because they’re always right and only evildoers get in their way.

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And it ended up being a dark tale about a corrupt cop who killed a colleague, with an arc plot seemingly about the boss being dodgy as hell with Gene possibly joining in.

Not, at all, what I expected, and not the jovial Gene genie that we got last season. Interesting...
I liked the first series of A2A far more than LOM, because I felt, like Annie, utterly excluded from LOM, there just to fawn over Sam, who is morose and irritating and unattractive. I don't WANT to fawn over Sam, and I resent the fatc that the programme so clearly expects me to.

Alex might be just a cliche to you, but *I* identify with her. And yes, some of the lauding of Gene is cringeworthy, but that is what people want to see - believe me, I hear about it at work all the time - and I'd rather that sort of shit was out in the open where we can fight it than under the carpet where we can be lulled into it's not there until it jumps up and bites us in the arse. THAT'S how we get to the sort of thing that we saw at the G20 protests - the thought, propagated by the telly, that things aren't like that any more.

They bloody well are, and we need to be reminded of it.
Finally getting round to some replies via Richard's computer, while that's connecting to the Internet… Sorry for the big delay. Not an ideal few weeks! Blimey, nearly a month. Oops.

Anyway… I'm liking it a lot more this year, and liking Alex a lot more, too. Glad you liked her to begin with, Jennie, and you have a point about police. On fawning over Sam, I didn't get that nearly so much, but I'd agree that Annie did a lot of that – I suspect my irritation with Alex was in part that while Shaz has a lot more spark than her previous 'junior female officer' equivalent Annie, Alex seemed to be there a lot of the time to fawn over Gene.

Still, darker this year, much less Gene-worship, stronger stories, and a lot more interesting stuff with Alex. Looking much better at the half-way point (and Ray's been repositioned as a lot less cuddly, too).
LOL I also am having bad timing with replying to things. What did you think of the ending?
I thought it was pretty good, actually (very memorable last scene) – on the whole, I thought this was a much better series than last year’s, and the build-up of Alex’s fellow Twenty-First-Centuryer’s plan was done jolly well. Chris was just the right person to be exposed (I thought it might be Shaz, too), though I’m mildly disappointed that Ray went back to being one of the good guys. His character oscillated much more wildly than the others over the series.

How about you?

PS Sorry for the comment moderation; it’s only on posts more than a month old, after I had a flood of spam across the last couple of years’ worth and it was a pain to find them and pick them all out!
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