In Praise of Life On Mars

In a Sweeney meets Wizard of Oz scenario, twenty-first century detective, DI Sam Tyler, crashes his car and wakes up in the 1970s

In Praise of Life on Mars by Paul Caulfield 

"Don't talk to me. Trousers!". DCI Gene Hunt (played with unnerving intensity by Philip Glenister), has locked a man in an upright freezer and is demanding that his shivering suspect spill the beans or strip to his underwear. It was one of the best scenes from Life On Mars, the slow-burning police drama that took a while to catch on, before gripping the attention to its very last line.

Life On Mars UK TV series

It was not the most promising storyline. In a Sweeney meets Wizard of Oz scenario, twenty-first century detective, DI Sam Tyler (John Simm), crashes his car and wakes up in the 1970s. I mean, how ridiculous is that? Gradually, though you identify with the hapless post-PACE DCI, who tries to convince his disbelieving colleagues that he knows what will happen in the future because that is where he is from.

It's a sign of a good drama that you care about the characters. You care when Tyler falls foul of colleague and love interest WPC Cartwright, (Liz White) or misjudges a case, leading to the death of a witness. And you learn to fear the test-card girl, his sole companion in his dingy bedsit.

Life On Mars UK TV series

The performances as well as the storyline, make the series. Liz White's character grows from put-upon constable to insightful detective by series two. Dean Andrews' puts genuine malevolence into the role of DS Carling, Tyler's snarling rival in the Ops room, Marshall Lancaster provides naughty schoolboy support as DC Skelton and Tony Marshall (Noel Garcia in Casualty) is perfect as Nelson, barman-philosopher of The Railway Arms. But it's Philip Glenister in a career-defining role as DCI Gene Hunt, who dominates the screen, his presence intimidating crooks and colleagues alike.  

Naturally, the Seventies and its influence is everywhere. The lingo and wardrobe owe much to The Sweeney, while some of the car chases (Mk3 Cortina lays waste to cardboard boxes) are pure Starsky and Hutch. Things are rounded off by the glorious glamfest of a soundtrack, ranging from Bowie's theme tune to contributions by Ananda Shankar, Mott the Hoople and Lindisfarne - the wonderful 'Meet Me On The Corner'. My personal favourite though, is a perfectly pitched 10538 Overture by ELO. Watch it and you'll see what I mean.

Life on Mars TV series UK

The opening credits pose the question; 'Am I dead, in a coma or back in time?' And really, who knows? No-one can read the mind of the comatose, and fans of the series are left none the wiser by a dark, clever ending. Clever too was the decision to leave us with just sixteen episodes (and no, Ashes to Ashes doesn't count). As Simm himself said. "Finishing after two series, how cool is that?"

Life On Mars failed to make an impact at the BAFTAs; its popularity possibly grating with the purist judges, but it struck a chord with the viewing public, and their nostalgia for police officers whose methods, tall freezers included, weren't always madness.

Published on March 21st, 2022. Paul Caulfield.