WAS he mad, in a coma, back in time, or all three?
Millions of viewers saw the stunning finale to Life On Mars last night at the end of a two year TV rollercoaster ride.
In an exclusive first interview, lead writer and co-creator Matthew Graham spoke to me about both the conclusion of the BBC1 drama and the new spin-off series Ashes To Ashes.
And he revealed that – at its heart – Life On Mars was all about Sam In Wonderland.
There’s a feature in today’s MEN, but I thought fans of the show, including the regulars at The Railway Arms, would appreciate the long version, plus a few extras..
After all, there are things that people just need to know about LoM, nominated today as Best Drama Series in next month’s BAFTA TV Awards, with John Simm winning a hugely deserved Best Actor nomination.
The series is also nominated for the Pioneer Audience Award, voted for by the public.
So with apologies for a very unusual blog entry today, below are some of the secrets of the Life On Mars universe.
First, more good news, as I revealed here last night.
It was already known that Philip Glenister would return to the role of DCI Gene Hunt in Ashes To Ashes, set in 1981 London.
Now it can be confirmed that filming begins this summer, when the Gene Genie will be joined by DS Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) and DC Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster), with all three transferred from North West District CID to the Metropolitan Police.
The eight-part series will be screened on BBC1 next year.
Aside from Eighties’ fashions, Gene will also have to cope with a sexy new female sidekick, DCI Alex Drake, who has yet to be cast.
After an accident in 2008, the no-nonsense detective finds herself back in time, interacting with characters she’d previously read about in reports logged by a certain Sam Tyler.
“We like to say it’s Moonlighting meets Miami Vice with a smattering of Howard’s Way,” laughed Matthew.
Gene will also swap his Ford Cortina for the original Audi Quattro. “The car has got to be something butch, big and gas-guzzling. At the moment it’s spanking red. We’ve already coined Gene’s new catchphrase, which is, ‘Ray, fire up the Quattro!’
“We started working on it right back in October last year. And then I started writing the scripts a couple of months ago. So episode one is written and Ashley Pharoah is delivering episode two.”
So why the switch to London? “We felt like we had to really change things, make it look different and feel different. And it’s really hard in Manchester. We’ve used a lot of the locations and were already repeating ourselves a little bit on Mars.
“It would have been quite a struggle to find a fresh look in a city without showing anything too modern.
“And London was going through a slightly more interesting transition than Manchester in 1981, so we thought there was more to exploit.
“Musically it was kicking off a bit more, you’ve got the Docklands development starting, the riots – there just seemed to be more we could do.
“Manchester, Bolton, Stockport and the other locations were fantastic for Life On Mars.
“We only moved the show to Manchester about two months before we started filming. Up until then it had been Leeds, before that it was London
“And I’m so glad we went to Manchester because it was an absolutely fantastic place to film.”
But how do you follow a drama as brilliant and loved as the two series of Life On Mars?
“There were huge qualms. I was really unsure about the whole idea. I thought we were milking the cash cow – until I started writing.
“We had story conferences where brilliant ideas were thrown around and we got very excited. But still lurking at the back of my mind was that feeling, ‘Is this right? Shouldn’t we just be leaving it now?’
“And then I started writing it and the world just sprung into my head. It felt so clear what we were trying to do.
“It’s going to feel like Life On Mars but bigger and with a real sexual chemistry between the two leads – Gene and Alex. She’s very different to Sam. We’ve opened up the universe without breaking the logic.
“There’s more to know about Gene Hunt, about what he represents and what he is. I think Ashes will take us on a bit of a journey.”
There was even a clue about the set up of the new series in last night’s farewell Life On Mars.
Which brings us to that ending.
It saw Sam (John Simm) waking up from his coma back in the modern day, where he struggled to feel alive.
Viewers later saw him jump from the roof of his Manchester police HQ, back into 1973, where he saved the lives of Gene and the rest of his A-Division colleagues.
He then finally agreed to stay forever with Annie (Liz White) – did you notice the rainbow in their “Meet Me On The Corner” moment? – before the CID team drove off into the distance.
As has been said several times, you can’t please everyone.
But judging by the online reaction across the web, the vast majority of LoM fans were both thrilled and satisfied by the conclusion.
It was the ending that Matthew and his co-creators had planned from the very start.
“We had to be strong and stay true to the line that we always intended.
“For me, it was much more important that there was a strong emotional closure to the story. That was more important than a massive twist, although I still think we managed to try and pull the rug out from under the audience a little bit.
“I have to say, it’s nice to be able to talk about it openly,” he laughed. “I’ve always had to be so coy in the past.
“To be honest with you, I was always slightly surprised that people thought there was a genuine mystery. To me, it was very obvious – he got hit by a car, the doctors and nurses were speaking to him over the radio and through the television and he was in a coma.
“The fact is that he just began to suspect that there seemed to be a way in which he could change his world and so, obviously, naturally once he’s there for quite a period of time, he begins to assimilate so much of that world into himself. He starts to question whether he was ever anywhere else.
“There was always a bit of that, but I never thought the audience would fall for that. And it was brilliant when they did, the first time around. But then we realised we had to start being a little bit more careful about saying definitively, on the record, that he was in a coma.
“We realised that that mystery was one of the things that gave the show some spice. So then we just kept that going.
“But I’d always intended for him to wake up.
“When it actually came to writing him waking up, I just couldn’t bear him staying in 2007. I just couldn’t stand it. It was horrible, even writing him waking up. I thought, ‘Oh God, I hate this, I don’t want him here.’
“And so, originally, we were going to end it on him waking up, but literally having him find some kind of resolution.
“I think we were going to have a scene where he went into a modern pub and the landlord was trying to kick some guys out – and they were just giving the landlord a load of gyp.
“And the landlord pushes one of the guys and the guy says, ‘Hey mate, you touch me and I can sue you for assault.’
“Sam just watches this moment and then imagines Gene Hunt bursting into the pub, beating the crap out of these guys.
“The idea was going to be that Sam had brought a little of Gene’s methodology into the modern world.
“It was all very intellectual and fine, but it was just so cold and I suddenly realised I didn’t care. I just wanted him to go back.
“So we all got together, talked about it and then we came up with this idea of having them trapped in the tunnel and having him say to Annie, ‘I promise I’ll be back for you,’ and playing it that way.
“But it was a tough one, because we had to persuade the BBC that the main character of this hit show should commit suicide – they asked some questions about it. There was a certain reservation, initially, because, obviously, Sam has a big following.”
The “false ending” where Sam jumps got a huge round of applause when the final episode was premiered at BAFTA in London last week. “That amazed me, that people saw it as such a positive act.
“I think that’s slightly a testament to John’s brilliant acting at that moment, as well.”
Matthew added: “It’s not supposed to be a searing indictment on modern society, but more a comment on Sam. He was clearly a deeply repressed human being – I don’t think 2006 or 2007 brought out the best in Sam Tyler.
“He was caught up in his emotional red tape. He couldn’t seem to do his job without feeling he needed to sign forms in triplicate.
“And clearly, when he went to sleep he wanted to be in a freer place, a place where his mother was a young, beautiful woman and his dad was his hero, and it was a world of fast cars – that was his liberation.
“So I think it was more about him personally than us trying to say, ‘It was all better then.’”
Whatever Matthew intended, fans have taken ownership of Life On Mars, and the ending, with Sam back in 1973, can still be viewed in different ways.
Simm, himself, believes his character may not even have returned to the modern day.
It depends on what you want to believe.
“I think it does,” agrees Matthew. “The truth is, when I wrote it, what I was trying to say is that’s he’s died, and that for however long that last second of life is going to be, it will stretch out for an age, as an eternity for him. And so when he drives off in that car, he’s really driving off into the afterlife.”
Life On Mars was more than just a hit drama. It made a real emotional connection with its audience.
What is it about the series that really stirred people?
“A lot’s made of the nostalgic aspect of it. But I don’t think it is that. I think if it was nostalgia, it would only hit one demographic, and it hasn’t hit just one at all.
“I think it’s purely the characters. People love to watch those characters. They feel a great affection for them and, ultimately, it’s not a cop show and it’s not a time travel show, it’s Alice In Wonderland, that’s what it is.
“And that template of a journeyman, going through the looking glass into a magical world is an archetypal story, and people respond to archetypal stories.
“I don’t think it’s the music or the car or the Seventies. I think that’s an added bonus.
“But I know kids who watch the show and love it, who don’t even know who David Bowie is, let alone who Mott The Hoople are.
“It’s something else. It’s the fantasy journey. Stranger in a strange land. I think that’s the thing that people are responding to.
John Simm made clear last year that he would not be appearing in the spin-off and there are no plans to involve him.
So is this the last we’ll see of Sam Tyler, happy in 1973 cop heaven?
Matthew’s not sure. “You shouldn’t write him off completely.
“You never know with Life On Mars.”
Update: Click here for more from Matthew and episode eight director SJ Clarkson on Sam’s leap from the rooftop.
The final moments of Life On Mars featured the scary Test Card Girl – “none of this is real” – skipping down the alley to switch off our TVs.
“It was written in the full knowledge that the show, and that episode, would be analysed to pieces, because we obviously knew by then that it was a show that people liked to analyse,” revealed Matthew.
“And that last moment is really me saying, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s just a piece of television, it’s just a story and it’s come to an end.’
“It is an in-joke, but it’s certainly not meant in any way disparagingly or arrogantly.
“It’s just supposed to be, ‘That’s enough of that, off you go, do something else now, we’ll turn the telly off.’
“I felt that was very much in the spirit of the show.”
LIFE On Mars sent fans into a frenzy of speculation. But sometimes they read too much into certain “clues”.
The phone number Hyde 2612 turned out to be the number of Sam’s hospital room on Hyde Ward. “It had no greater reference than that.
“It just came out of nowhere, because it scanned,” added Matthew, who was fascinated to learn that some fans had spotted a biblical link.
“I love the fact that Life On Mars has inspired people. It’s absolutely wonderful.
“I sometimes get worried that they get so frustrated and very irate about things that they want to happen and haven’t happened, and they compare everything so closely.
“I always worry. I think – nothing can survive under this much scrutiny. It’s impossible.
“But as long as they’re enjoying it and getting huge pleasure from it, then that gives me a lot of satisfaction.
“In both series, though, we have put in a cheeky dig at Channel 4, who, of course, turned the show down a couple of years ago, said it was very stupid and no-one would want to watch it.
“In series one they’re watching porn films and Sam says, ‘I’ve seen a lot worse on Channel 4.’
“And then last night, the moment when Frank Morgan says, ‘If you need me,’ gives Sam the radio, and says, ‘You’ll find me on Channel 4.’ That’s just our cheeky little nothing. An innocent sideswipe at Channel 4.”
Many picked up on the name of the the incoming Acting DCI from Hyde – Frank Morgan. That was also the name of the actor who played the title role in the Wizard of Oz film.
There were also obvious references in the David Bowie song Life On Mars to the lawman beating up the wrong guy and a sunken dream.
“It’s just a nice way of resonating things. It doesn’t have a big meaning but for some reason it feels like we can make those little connections.”
He adds: “We found the phone ringing at the end of the Life On Mars track very haunting. Somebody pointed out that it sounded like we ended up in CID, because you hear a couple of people talking and a phone ringing.
“So in episode one of the first series, the director carried on the track – he allowed those effects to blend in from the end of the song into CID.
“And, yes, we’ve deliberately made sure the phone sounded like the phone at the end of the Life On Mars song.”
Matthew has already revealed the choice of Hyde was inspired by Sam and Gene as Jekyll and Hyde.- the classic good versus evil story.
“I thought people might pick up on that but no-one really did. Maybe it’s because I referenced it to Sam, rather than made it that Gene came from Hyde.
“We actually had to fight to get Hyde because Harold Shipman comes from Hyde, and there was a worry about it.
“I can’t remember why. It’s one of those strange things that sometimes happen in production, that people suddenly express a concern about a political reference or a connection to something in current affairs.
“It bugged people for a while, and we were going to have to change it. But I’m really glad we didn’t in the end.”
The “we filmed two endings” line was a white lie, designed to try and protect the one ending that was filmed.
“We can only just about afford to film one ending. We put that out because we had a couple of close calls with journalists trying to get on to the set.
“A couple of guys were threatening they were going to find out the ending and blow it.
“We thought, ‘We can’t really stop people getting access to ordinary streets and it’s really easy when you’re filming in the middle of Manchester to just come along, stand around and watch what’s going on.’
“So we thought we’d put out some disinformation about two endings. But I’m not sure if anyone really falls for it.”
Matthew (pictured right) has the “Here Lies Sam Tyler. Born May 1831. Died Nov 1881” Victorian gravestone in pride of place at the top of the stairs in his house.
“The babysitter came round and it totally threw her. She walked in and said, ‘Hang on, it says Sam Tyler 1881? That’s impossible, there’s no way you can fit that into the show.’
“She simply couldn’t imagine how we could get a Victorian Sam Tyler into the show.”
It was just one of the script deflections designed to keep viewers on their toes.
“I was really pleased with that because I knew it would throw everybody.
“It’s a wonderful plasterboard gravestone that just looks totally real. I’ve kept the grass around it – at night it’s lit by one single light from above…Sam Tyler’s illuminated gravestone. It has freaked out a few people.”
Many fans felt barman Nelson – Sam’s spirit guide in more ways than one – was underused in the second series.
“I feel we underserved Nelson, ultimately. I wanted more from him. I wanted to use the character more, always intended to use the character more,” said Matthew.
“I can’t really pinpoint exactly why we haven’t. I think it’s partly because the stories filled up a lot of the screen time and became very important.
“It actually became a level of introspection too much, if we had more scenes of Sam discussing with Nelson.
“I was originally going to have a scene where Sam, towards the end of series two, decided he was going to abandon the world and escape from it – literally just leave the city and keep walking until he fell off the edge.
“And Nelson warned him against it. And Sam said, ‘I don’t need you Nelson.’
“And at that moment he literally turns away and turns back, and Nelson’s not in the bar. He’s gone.
“It was supposed to fill the audience with dread that he’d actually got rid of his good spirit guide and that meant he was going to get into a lot of trouble.
“In the end, we decided not to overplay Nelson, and just keep him as a slightly enigmatic pub landlord.
“But I love the stuff he comes up with in episode eight, I like that scene where he says, ‘I see a darkness in you.’”
Was it just a co-incidence that Nelson was named after the Lancashire town where Simm was raised? Did John have any say in that?
“He may have done, because originally Nelson was called Xavier – saviour, and then he became Abraham. Maybe John did come up with Nelson.”
*Nelson’s pivotal last episode advice to Sam is in last night’s blog. Check out the Life On Mars: Ashes To Ashes link at the bottom of this blog.
Did anyone ever try to hack into Matthew’s computer to discover the ending?
“I haven’t noticed anything, no. But I’ve had a few strange letters and a couple of bribes.
“One guy, who was anonymous, was basically offering me money – he wouldn’t say how much – to tell him how it ended.
“I was supposed to post the answer into his PO Box and then just presumably sit around twiddling my thumbs waiting for him to send me a cheque.
“So in the end I sent him a letter to the PO Box, saying that we knew who he was and we’d bugged his car. I reminded him I used to work on Spooks and I knew all about surveillence! I never heard from him again.”
Extras 6: The Official Ashes To Ashes Press Release
After a gripping finale to the critically acclaimed and multi award winning Life on Mars, Kudos, Monastic Productions and the BBC are delighted to announce the next chapter: Ashes to Ashes.
DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) is back but he’s no longer the self styled ‘Sheriff of Manchester’. Flanked by his faithful sidekicks, Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) and Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster), and drawn by the action and intrigue of the London Met, Gene’s turned his attentions to taking on the ‘southern nancy’ criminal scum. However, Gene did not expect to be thrown together with a sexy, intelligent, DCI Alex Drake.
Single mother to daughter Molly, Alex has rapidly risen through the ranks of the Met, and in the modern world of 2008, skilfully uses psychological profiling to capture suspects. When Alex and her daughter are kidnapped, she makes a daring attempt at escape, resulting in a horrific accident. Alex suddenly finds herself in 1981 interacting with familiar characters, not just from her own life-time, but also from the detailed reports logged by none other than Sam Tyler, which Alex has previously spent months pouring over.
Alex is ripped from her current world of sexual equality and respect in 2008, and finds herself opposite an arrogant fellow DCI, in a two tone, ‘New Romantic’ 80’s London with a soundtrack of Adam Ant, Roxy Music and The Human League ringing in her ears.
Alex finds some of Gene’s team has dispersed yet others, loyal as ever, are still in tow. Now a technological whiz kid in the squad’s surveillance team, DC Chris Skelton has clearly moved with the times, along with a tight-permed DS Ray Carling who’s keen to experience London’s nightlife.
Frustrated by each other’s stubbornness, the friction between Alex and Gene heats up. However, as the two titans collide, it becomes apparent there is more than just a professional tension emerging.
With the producers’ search to cast the strong willed, DCI Alex Drake currently underway, filming is due to begin in London this summer, for transmission on BBC ONE next year.
Jane Featherstone, executive producer for Kudos commented; “Ashes to Ashes is the next chapter in the life of Gene Hunt, as seen through the eyes of a modern, no nonsense woman. It’s a touch of Moonlighting teamed with a measure of Miami Vice! The search for Gene’s sexy side-kick is definitely on; she’ll hopefully give him a serious run for his money!”
BBC Wales Head of Drama, Julie Gardner continues; “Sam Tyler took us on an amazing journey with Life on Mars but his story always had a definite life span. However, fans will be excited to learn that Gene Hunt lives on through Ashes to Ashes and we’re certain they will love his eighties escapades.”
Ashes to Ashes is written and created by Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharaoh, two creators of the award winning Life on Mars. With additional writing credits for Mark Greig (Life on Mars), Mick Ford (William and Mary) and Julie Rutterford (Life on Mars). It is produced by Kudos, in association with Monastic Productions, the new production company of Graham and Pharaoh.
Graham also executive produces for Monastic Productions, alongside Jane Featherstone and Simon Crawford Collins for Kudos and BBC Wales Head of Drama, Julie Gardner, who has also commissioned the series. Ashes to Ashes is produced by Beth Willis.
*The Life On Mars Series Two DVD is released next Monday.
Update: Click here for more from both Matthew Graham and episode eight director SJ Clarkson about Sam’s leap from the rooftop.
Life On Mars: Ashes To Ashes
Life On Mars Blogs
Life On Mars MEN TV Stories
The Railway Arms
Vote for the BAFTA Pioneer Audience Award here.