Ashes To Ashes: The Inside Story

THE day after the night before.
Seven million viewers watched the first episode of Ashes To Ashes, according to the first overnight figures.
And that doesn’t include those who recorded it to watch later.
As predicted, there are mixed reviews – some hate it, some can’t decide and some want to marry it.
It’s a good start in terms of the ratings, but only a start.
Personally, as already discussed, I loved the opening episode and watched it yet again (for the seventh time) as it went out last night.
Yes, the shootout scene was a bit daft and a little overblown.
And it didn’t seem right that Alex would go out on duty in those stockings, even if she only had half a wardrobe.
But most of it was glorious television – remembering that, yes, this is only a TV programme.
Philip Glenister is magnificent as Gene Hunt, both when riding to the rescue and in more melancholic alcoholic moments, knowing his time is running out.

I first inteviewed Keeley Hawes almost 10 years ago.
She really impresses in Ashes – and does some brilliant work in later episodes.
Anyway, if it wasn’t your glass of Asti, then I obviously respect your opinion.
We all can’t like the same things. But if you’re wavering, give it another go next Thursday.

So far I’ve only used a few quotes from a small round table interview with Ashes To Ashes producer Beth Willis.
It was conducted in a room beside the London set on October 29 last year.
But not before a sleeping extra had to be woken up and asked – nicely – to leave, so Beth could talk freely.
Many fans like to read the full detail, so here it is immediately below.
You can also fire up other Ashes To Ashes Blogs and read the Ashes To Ashes TV Features.
And scroll to the bottom of this page for a YouTube video of the song that provided the soundtrack to that classy closing 95 seconds of episode one.
I began by asking Beth where the Ashes filming schedule was at on that day.
“We have the read through of our final two episodes this afternoon and we’re filming episodes five and six at the moment. So, we’re nearing the end. Filming finishes in December,” Beth replied.
“We shoot two episodes at the same time, so we do it in blocks of two.”
Beth was a first time producer and didn’t work on Life On Mars.
“I’m new. How have I landed this plum job? I worked at Kudos Film and TV, who made Life On Mars, and I was staff there, I was working in development and was lucky enough to be involved in the development process of Ashes To Ashes with Jane Featherstone, Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah, who were the creators of Life On Mars.
“It was just incredibly exciting sitting in a secret location many, many months ago…how to follow up Life On Mars with Ashes To Ashes. The next minute I’m here, turfing extras out of the Green Room.”
What were the main challenges of a series set in 1981?

“I think in a way what really excited us, the biggest challenge, but, for me, the most exciting aspect of it that is different from Life On Mars, is that we’ve now got a woman as our DI and a match made in Heaven or Hell for Gene Hunt.
“So the chemistry between the two of them is just completely exciting and it’s added this whole other element that wasn’t there with the Sam Tyler relationship, which was more the sort of buddy-buddy, love to hate each other cop show.
“Whereas, with Alex Drake, played by Keeley Hawes, Gene has really met his match because he fancies the pants off her, knows he’ll never ever be able to sleep with her and can’t believe that he’s fallen for a woman in a way that we never really explored in Life On Mars. So that’s really exciting.”
Could she see Alex Drake being Gene’s love interest?
“It’s will they, won’t they. Will they even ever admit it, but they definitely need each other and they realise that as the series goes on. So that’s a really exciting element to it.
“Time has moved on. Gene’s left Manchester, where he was the king of all and the Sheriff of that place and he’s in London, it’s 1981, Charles and Di are getting married, it’s the Brixton riots, suddenly the police are hated by people on the streets, whereas in Life On Mars, if you knocked on a housewife’s dooor, she would invite you in for a Garibaldi and a cup of tea.
“Now they’re calling them ‘scum’ in the street. And so Gene hasn’t changed but the world around him is changing, so that’s a really exciting element for him, because it’s a challenge. He’s got to keep his claws in this new, difficult 80s world. And then on top of that you’ve got all the fun and colour of 80s madness.”

How difficult was it to source props from that era?
“It’s harder than you think, actually. I guess everybody cringes at the 80s, so they’ve thrown everything away. But our design team sourced and sourced and sourced and we’ve got some fantastic cars and computers.
“In episode one there’s a wonderful scene where Alex wants to find the strongest radio she can possibly find, because she knows that Sam Tyler heard voices through the telly and radio.
So she thinks, ‘Right, I’ve just got to hear voices and find a radio.’ So Chris shows her their surveillance room. They walk in and he says, ‘It’s like Tomorrow’s World, isn’t it ma’am?’ And you just look round and go, ‘Oh God, were computers really like this in the 80s?’
“And Gene’s very offended when she says, ‘You haven’t got anything on this hard drive apart from the time and date.’ And he says, ‘Well, I’ve got Pong.’ It was a real challenge but they did a fantastic job of finding them.”
How much time is spent explaining why Gene moved south?
“Very quickly you realise that Alex is in 1981 for a reason. It’s the year her parents died. So there is a puzzle there that goes on throughout the series with her trying to understand what she is supposed to achieve in 1981 and how that might be able to get her home, whether she’s supposed to stop her parents dying or whether she’s supposed to find out why they died or what, and how that will get her home. So we do learn quite quickly why 1981 is a significant year for Alex.
“In terms of why Gene is there, there are lots of different possibilities, but what Alex thinks is the reason is that she was, in 2008, Sam Tyler’s psychologist and had read all the files and listened to the tapes that he recorded at the end of Life On Mars about his experiences in this 1973 world and these characters that he had met.

“So when she finds herself in 1981, with some of these characters, her understanding of it is that she has assimilated Sam Tyler’s fantasies with her own. Whether that’s the case or not, remains to be seen.”
Is there still a mystery about whether Alex in a coma, back in time or going mad?
“Yes. It’s similar but different. There are lots of things that happened to Sam that she expects to happen to her. She thinks, ‘OK, I know what’s going on here.’ And very quickly the rug is taken from beneath her and she finds she doesn’t really know how this world works at all, because it isn’t the same as Sam’s.”
Why have Gene, Ray and Chris moved from Manchester to London?
“They transferred to London a year prior to Alex’s arrival and they have had various experiences in that time but we don’t go into a massive amount of detail about the last few years of their lives, although we do find out what happened to Sam Tyler.” (See previous Ashes blogs)
Does she think Ashes will appeal to an audience that has never seen Life On Mars?
“Yes. It’s a very different show. It’s got fantastic characters and actors in it, and they haven’t changed. And it’s got a similar premise to Life On Mars. But the look and feel of it is completely different. So I hope we will attract a new audience, but that Life On Mars people will be pleased that we’re back in a different form as well.
“And in terms of being a slightly different generation. I wasn’t around in 1973, but hearing 80s music and seeing 80s clothes that we wore and cringing at some of the things that we thought were new and fantastic then is an added element for me enjoying it, that I didn’t have with Life On Mars. My mum did , but…so I think it will appeal to different people.”
Will Ashes have more appeal to women with a strong female lead character up against Gene?
“I think it will. You’ve still got all the car chases and the fights and the blokey humour, but Alex is a really fantastic sassy, sexy, strong, single mother who really gives as good as she gets. She’s quite a lot more fun than Sam Tyler was, in that he was quite po-faced and took the world incredibly seriously. Wheras she sometimes just thinks, ‘I’m in the 80s, I don’t know why, I’m just going to enjoy it.’ That allows us to enjoy it as well, which is great fun.
“And, you know, Sam wore the same outfit all the time, partly because he was a bloke. You kind of imagined he’d roll out of bed and put on his leather jacket, whereas Keeley’s outfits do change. You get that whole added element that might appeal to girls.”
Was she daunted producing a sequel?
“Life On Mars was probably my favourite show that I’ve watched in the last 10 years, just as a viewer. So I hope that people feel that we’ve respected it and loved it as much as I did as an audience member. They are massive shoes to fill but I think we’ve made a very good stab at it. And it is a sequel, the story does follow on, but we’re not trying to say this is the same show, but with a different date. I hope we’ve re-invented it in a really exciting way.”

Do Gene, Ray and Chris remember Sam?
“Yes, they do. The information she learns about Sam Tyler has an impact on the way she views what’s happened to her. So it is useful information, definitely.”
What about the sexual tension between Gene and Alex?
“Mrs Hunt left Gene Hunt back in Manchester. So when we meet him again, he’s still Gene Hunt but he’s not the King of Manchester anymore. He’s trying to find his feet in London. He’s got his team around him but his wife’s left him,. Sam’s not there, he needs Alex Drake to make him the man he once was.”
Gene leaving Manchester?
“It was a transfer that he wanted to make.”
London in 1981 provides both new locations and topical storylines in terms of the Brixton Riots, Charles and Di’s wedding, the Docklands development, the Scarman report, compared to Manchester?
“Also, you sort of feel like you’ve told that story and that if you’re going to a different era, the 1981 we’re showing is very London, really. It’s very much drug dealers in sharp suits, gun dealers, it’s not over the counter blaggers anymore. So I think with the change in period, a change in location felt like a really exciting thing. And I think London is a character in the show, in the same way that Manchester was.”
Did the TV team look at 1980s TV programmes for references?
“We looked at lots of things. Certainly for the sexual tension, I’d say there’s definitely a cheeky nod at Moonlighting, for instance. Hill Street Blues, quite a few American references, actually, because in 1981 here it was things like Juliet Bravo, which is absolutely fantastic but maybe not quite as punchy as something like Hill Street Blues. So we have allowed ourselves to be influenced by some of those American references. But, yeah, of course we’ve looked at all the 80s shows and music and books. It was an exciting time.”
Can we talk about the set-piece scenes like the speedboat on the Thames in episode one and The Blitz Club in episode two?

“Our speedboat on the Thames moment was a pretty exciting moment. Being on a speedboat with Dean and Marshall and Phil with guns and Phil’s driving gloves and Ray-Bans with Tower Bridge behind you, I thought, ‘Oohh, what am I doing here?’ The three of them taking photos of each other with their phones and sending them off to their wives. It was pretty surreal. That was fantastic.
“I think one of the really exciting things about the 80s is the challenge of it. You think, ‘OK, the 80s wasn’t that long ago.’ But, actually, if you look around at every street in London, you have stuff beyond the 80s everywhere. So finding places where you can not see that is a real challenge. But it means you end up in really exciting places.
“Where we saw the speedboat is a disused wharf down by the Royal Docks, which from various angles looks like Butlers Wharf, as now, was then. And that’s really exciting finding those kind of places and thinking, ‘No, actually, that’s what it would have looked like in the 80s, which is a lot different to how it looks now.”
What were the location headaches during filming?
“Speed bumps. And, obviously, signs are just very different now. Sky satellite dishes, modern cars. But we had a fantastic locations team who spent a lot of time knocking on people’s doors and politely begging them to move their modern vehicles so we can 80s-up our streets.”
No Test Card Girl in this series?.
“We won’t see the return of the Test Card Girl but we will see something else. Alex is haunted by this figure. She doesn’t know why it’s there and it is there for a reason. But whether it’s a friend or a foe remains to be seen.”
Prospects for a second and possibly third series?
“I think so long as there are good stories to tell, then it can go on. But let’s just get to the end of this one.”
At what point did the idea for Ashes emerge?
“I think it was probably towards the end of the second series of Life On Mars. When I first started talking about stories with Jane Featherstone and Matthew Graham, it was probably Christmas last year (2006). So we developed it for quite a few months before filming.”
Guest actors and the Blitz Club in episode two?
“Alex finds herself in The Blitz Club with Steve Strange singing, which was pretty exciting. I was sitting by the monitor with Ashley Pharoah, who wrote episode two which features The Blitz Club, and he turned to me and said, ‘If in 1981 as I was putting my eyeliner on, someone had told me I’d meet Steve Strange in The Blitz Club and that I’d written the script, I’d never have believed you.’ (Again, see previous Ashes blog)

“We’ve had some fantastic guest actors like Rupert Graves, Matthew Macfadyen is in episode seven. Claire Rushbrook…”
So will Matthew get romantically involved with his real life wife – Keeley Hawes?
“No, he won’t. Everybody in the show wants to get romantically involved with his Mrs and maybe that would be one too many.”
Her favourite prop?
“For me, it’s probably the computers. Just them being familiar but yet just being gobsmacked by how clunky and huge and pointless they were. That really tickles you.”
The music in Ashes?
“We were lucky enough to get Ed Butt, who was the composer for Life On Mars. He’s coming back and giving us a whole new set of music. So on the composer front that’s really fantastic. And then lots of commercial tracks, some of them unknown, which kind of jog your memory in a really, lovely familiar way, and others that are blatantly 80s and in your face colourful fun.
“Generally, in terms of the look and feel of Ashes To Ashes, it is much more colourful and bright than Life On Mars was, which was quite muted colours and browns and dark reds. Whereas I think everybody associates 80s much more with bold primary colours like bright blue and bright red, and the music probably matches that.”

Do the music tracks have to be from 1981 or before?
“Yes. We’re pushing it as much as we possibly can, but we’re staying in 81 and prior to 81. No cheating.”
Did the huge press interest in Ashes cause any problems on location?
“No, everybody’s been very good. It’s such a fantastic team and they’re all working so hard together, that they all feel a desire to protect it and look after it, as much as I do.”
Several people connected to the production have said it is better than they ever dared hope?
“Yes. Something that Jane Featherstone and Matthew Graham were very keen to do was not do it just for the sake of doing it. They really had to believe that there was a new show to be made from that premise. And I think we’ve found it. So everybody’s very happy.”
Do we learn more about Gene’s personal life?
“He’s still very enigmatic and there are lots of unanswered questions about Gene which I hope we never find the answer to. But we definitely see a different side to him, which I think he struggles with – this feeling of attraction, tenderness, hatred, frustration, towards Alex Drake. So there’s definitely a new bit of Gene to be discovered but his history is still pretty enigmatic.”
Alex talks about constructs and imagining the people and world of 1981?
“That confusion and fun is still there.”
I then suggested that there was no need for the writers to ever definitively answer all the questions – leaving it up to viewers to decide.
“Yes. Life On Mars finished brilliantly for me, and I felt that it answered the questions it needed to answer, but allowed you to interpret it as you wanted to. And I know that talking to lots of people who watched Life On Mars, there are so many different opinions about what actually happened at the end. And I think that’s fantastic, that a show can allow you to make those choices for yourself.”
There is a lot of goodwill towards Ashes – as with Life On Mars – from both the press and the public?
“I think so. I think Life On Mars was such a ground-breaking exciting show that people were desperate to watch something like that, so I feel very lucky that people are being positive about it. I hope it’s deserved, that we live up to expectations.”
Is there a Camberwick Green equivalent in Ashes?
“We’ve got quite a few, but something I was watching this morning was a visit from Zippy and George from Rainbow, which is very, very funny. That’s in episode one. Which was just a joy. It was fantastic. So, yes, there are moments like that as well.”
Ashes To Ashes Blogs
Ashes To Ashes TV Features
Life On Mars Blogs
Ashes Composer Edmund Butt
Butlers Wharf History
The Railway Arms
Roxy Music: Same Old Scene (YouTube):