ASHES To Ashes is set to get slightly darker in series two, on the road to unveiling greater mysteries.
That was one of the revelations at last night’s BBC Writersroom talk by Ashley Pharoah and Matthew Graham.
They are the Emmy Award-winning creators and writers of Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes, among many other things.
Ashley and Matthew told a packed audience of some 140 people about their sheer excitement for series two, following the first storyline meeting last Friday.
They also explained how they lost a few of the battles about the tone of Ashes series one.
And how they plan to pull the rug from under viewers in the second, and possible third, series.
The event was held at the Soho Theatre in London.
I took these post-talk photos of Ashley and Matthew in the back bar – just a short tube ride away from Luigi’s – sadly with no mural behind them.
They also shunned beer for that white wine stuff, so beloved of Italian trattorias.
For those who were unable to attend, here are extended highlights from their 70 minute talk.
It opened with the screening of a short promo tape for Life On Mars series two, after which Ashley and Matthew were in initial discussion on stage with Kate Rowland, the BBC’s Creative Director of New Writing.
1) Did the BBC make any stipulations when Ashley and Matthew were creating Ashes To Ashes? Ashley replied: “No. They just said please.”
2) Matthew: “Then we started talking about what we call our three year plan, which is if, all things being equal, we can run Ashes To Ashes – if we have a series two – if we can run it beyond series two to series three, as is our hope, we can actually unveil a bigger mystery, a bigger plan. And ultimately reveal a lot more about the characters.”
3) Matthew: “The first series of Ashes To Ashes was more about laying the ground rules again, and just kind of having fun and getting people into the ’81 groove. And then we’ll start playing out the bigger mysteries.”
4) Matthew: “It’s not difficult to come up with an exciting episode one of series one. You have to work out what you’re going to be doing in series three, episode six. The great British drama shows have never been about stories. The stories are the delivery mechanism for the characters. I can’t think of a single storyline for Minder – what I remember is Terry and ‘George’ and how they interacted. And I think that’s true for a lot of shows. With Mars and probably with Ashes it’ll be true as well. People never really contact us and say, ‘I loved the story with the armed robber,’ or the one where they’re trying to stop the jewellery heist or the one on the train. They say, ‘I like the bit where Gene does this,’ – it’s the character moments that people want to re-live and the banter.”
5) How important is the authenticity of the world where the characters live? Ashley said it was very important. “It’s accurate but it’s not documentary accurate. It’s all in someone’s head.”
6) Ashley: “The strange thing about that gang of police officers is – we don’t know much about them. We don’t go home with them, because they’re not conventional characters in that sense. Who knows? I dread to think what Chris and Ray’s home life is like. But they don’t have one, because they’re in someone’s imagination.” Matthew then interrupted and got a big laugh when he said: “Or are they?”
7) Matthew explained how they didn’t need to make the Life On Mars characters very different for Ashes To Ashes. “There’s not a lot that’s different in them. And that was intentional. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be, or that we don’t have plans for them now. I mean, we do have plans for them.”
8) “Also, the other thing about it was,” added Matthew, “we tried to make Ashes To Ashes a little bit as though no-one had seen Life On Mars as well. It was for a new audience, and there has been a new audience that didn’t watch Life On Mars and came to this show. So we wanted to kind of re-establish them in everybody’s minds before we started to bend and distort them and do the wonderful horrible things we’ve got planned for them.”
9) Gene Hunt? “He has a good strong sense of justice in him and he’s very smart,” said Matthew.
10) Ashes To Ashes series two. Ashley: “We had our first storyline meeting for Ashes To Ashes 2 on Friday – I like being with other writers. My favourite part of the whole process was Friday, sitting in a room, coming up with ideas…it’s the most exciting thing. We came out of that room bouncing. We were so excited.”
11) The first full project from Ashley and Matthew’s company Monastic Productions is Bonekickers – due on BBC1 in May or June. Matthew: “Bonekickers is about a team or archeologists operating in the West country who, each week, get involved in a historical mystery to do with either a dig that they’re on or somebody comes to them with an artefact. We always go into the period of history as well that they’re investigating, so that we see some of the context of the dig that they’re working on. But there’s also a modern thread. I’d describe it as a cross between CSI and the Da Vinci Code each week.”
The short promo DVD for Ashes To Ashes series one was screened – the same DVD sent out to the media in November 2007, which included Once In A Lifetime by Talking Heads on the soundtrack. Then came questions from the audience:
12) The importance of Gene Hunt. Matthew: “Philip Glenister brought such amazing magnetism to it, that right from the first couple of days’ filming, we thought, ‘Oh bloody hell, this guy’s really good and this character could really catch fire. So let’s make sure we feed that character as much as we feed Sam.’ If the casting had been wrong, I think we would have probably focused much more heavily on Sam. It would have been much less a buddy show – we thought people would just hate him. That’s fine. You can hate him and love Sam. Sam’s the hero, you don’t have to love Gene. And then we thought, ‘Oh, actually, he’s a bit loveable or likeable, or something’s going on there we can’t quite explain.’”
13) Series two of Ashes To Ashes? Matthew: “Now we can start darkening it, now we can start doing some of the things we did in Mars. We’re bringing in biggest mysteries and more textured stuff, I think. We weren’t sure about doing it in this initially.”
14) Matthew: “We changed the mystery in Ashes To Ashes for series one, in that we made it about what the clown represented and what the clown was, and we played a twist with the clown. Because what we wanted to do was play with the idea of someone who thought they knew exactly what was going on, and establish all of that, because we thought that the audience knew exactly what was going on. So we thought, ‘Let’s have a character who is the audience, who has seen Life On Mars and knows what’s happening.’ And then, as I say, refer to the three year plan. The next phase of the three year plan is to undermine that, so that you realise you don’t know what’s going on, and nor does Alex. So it was a bit of a gamble, but we kind of thought we’d get away with that a little bit in the first series because we wanted it to be fun. And we wanted to establish a different tone. And if we’d put a big esoteric mystery into Ashes To Ashes – I mean, I think we’ve got a fairly big mystery. She’s pursued by death, who turns out to be her father. That’s pretty esoteric. But if we’d gone even further with that, I think it would have felt that we were just replaying Life On Mars.”
15) Matthew explained how it would have been impossible to carry on with the central mystery from Life On Mars, with references to Lost. “I actually don’t think we could have done that. I think that would be very difficult to achieve. The thing is, when we did Life On Mars, we were starting from a standing start. You didn’t know what was coming. With Ashes To Ashes, you know exactly what’s coming. The mystery would have to be, quite frankly…I mean, this is why people put polar bears in shows, on desert islands, and why they suddenly have helicopters appearing when there shouldn’t be helicopters and they take them off the island, and then put them back on the island. It’s because they can’t top themselves. They just can’t do it. And they promise you so much, and they don’t know where they’re going and don’t know how to deliver an even bigger sense of wonder and mystery. So, we do have a plan. We’re not a rudderless ship. I can assure you about that.” Ashley smiled: “We’ve got to lose the polar bear.”
16) Ashley: “One of the things we talk about in series two of Ashes is how much more muscular the early Eighties’ cops would be – obviously I can’t give too much away. But you can tell we’re excited by series two.”
17) The importance of music. Matthew: “I do think that writers should put in their wish list.” Ashley: “Music is very important to both these shows.”
18) Ashley and Matthew re-told the story about Life On Mars taking seven or eight years to get to the screen, with 37 drafts of the first episode.
19) Ashley: “I still think it’s really weird that series television, which costs so much money, you start filming it on day one and you haven’t got a clue how it’s going to end. Even Ashes To Ashes, we had written two scripts when we started shooting. So it’s quite stressful. You can’t sort of wait for your muse to visit you.”
20) Doubts about whether to make Ashes To Ashes. Ashley: “I remember Boxing Day at Matthew’s house, saying, ‘Are we doing the right thing? Is this going to be a show we’re proud of?’” Matthew: “And I said, ‘No, we’re not doing the right thing, it’s Boxing Day and we’re working.’”
21) Getting Philip Glenister on board for Ashes To Ashes. Ashley: “Phil wanted a very nice lunch to talk about it. Quite rightly, because he said. ‘Where do I go?’ It’s a very radical re-balance of the show too – there was a lot of pressure on Phil. I think if Ashes To Ashes had bombed it would have been hard on him, because it would have looked like, without John Simm…so he, rightly, made us really interrogate the idea.”
22) The wide age range of viewers attracted to both Mars and Ashes, including young teens. Ashley: “That did surprise me a little bit, that teen element, especially the Seventies. I think they looked at it and went, ‘My God. Was everything brown?’ And, sadly, it was.” A member of the audience commented that it must be like period drama to them. Matthew: “I think it is. I’ve heard people lump Life On Mars and even Ashes To Ashes, in with Lark Rise To Candleford. ‘Oh, the olden days of Lark Rise, Life On Mars…’”
23) Ashley explained how he and Matthew write two episodes each of Ashes in an eight episode series, bringing in other writers to write the other four.
24) Ashley and Matthew met while writing for EastEnders. Writers needed to be fairly experienced in the world of television to work on Mars or Ashes. Matthew: “There’s a big difference, I think, in starting out, with respect, for Doctors or for EastEnders and starting out on Silent Witness or Life On Mars – the pressures are so intense and you’re dealing with very big politics as well, usually. There’s budget issues and you’re having to write with that in mind, there are very big egos at work. You’re not protected from very much of that when you’re working on those kinds of shows. And it’s very hard for writers to thrive and not feel intimidated or beleaguered in those situations. It does help if you can start from shows like Doctors. There are pressures in that – I’m sure they have huge pressures. But they also have systems, I believe, in place that try and nurture those writers. We don’t have time to nurture anyone on Ashes To Ashes. It’s a bit like Doctor Who. Doctor Who’s a very, very hard show to write because there are a lot of people who think they can do it but they have the very powerful personality behind that show. And you’re not just writing Doctor Who. You’re writing for that very powerful personality, and I don’t mean the Doctor. I mean the Master! (Russell T Davies). And that person’s there for very good reason. But, it’s hard. And if you don’t do it right, you’ll have a bad experience. It can set you back a long time in terms of confidence.”
25) Returning to the story of how Life On Mars took several years to come to the screen. Ashley recalled the initial pitch. “The first one was excruciating. We pitched it to the Controller of BBC1. The BBC passed on Life On Mars – eight, nine years ago. And he is a very nice man, but he didn’t know much about drama in the first place – he looked at us if we were insane. He got all confused. He thought David Bowie was going to be in it. Then he thought – is it about astronauts? And he actually did look at his shoe for a long time – a lot of very serious people in very nice suits told us it was rubbish.” Matthew said most of the first episode re-writes were during the period Mars was at Channel 4, with executives looking for different things from the script.
26) Ashley on other writers. “Tony Jordan wrote an episode of the first series of Life On Mars where he showed a young Sam Tyler going to a football match. And I thought it was wrong, and I still think it was wrong – we had all those sort of arguments about it. But you have give up some stuff.”
27) Nostalgia for the Seventies. Matthew: “I think what people find attractive about it – it’s the sheer fact that they didn’t worry about…people did worry about loads of things in the Seventies, but what they didn’t worry about so much was what they ate and what they drank and what they smoked. And I think that we’re so paranoid now about it. I read today that having water is now apparently ******. Salt apparently now isn’t as bad for you…Gene Hunt doesn’t worry about that. Whether that’s right or wrong, he’ll still drop dead at 53, but he will be dead. He won’t mind,” joked Matthew.
28) The American version of Life On Mars. Ashley: “It’s being re-made by a guy called David E Kelley, who is a hero of both of ours – so we went out to Los Angeles to meet him. He was very charming. And, no, we’re having nothing to do with it. We’ve seen a script and it’s…interesting.”
29) British writers are “guns for hire” unless they form their own production company to make shows. Kudos own the rights to Mars and Ashes, having bought the scripts. Matthew explained how people in America thought he was joking when he said he wasn’t rich. “They said, ‘Apart from being fabulously wealthy now, how do you feel about David E Kelley making it…’ And I said, ‘I’m not.’ And they just laughed. They thought I was being modest, but it’s true.”
30) Pressure of politics and the attitudes of Gene Hunt. Ashley recalled how he was “slightly pilloried” by a man at another TV event. “I just told him to look up the word irony. I try not to think about it when I’m writing. I try and let Gene Hunt say what he would say.” Matthew: “We never created Gene Hunt to be a likeable character. He was the dark creature that Sam got saddled with.”
31) The ending of Life On Mars, with Sam choosing 1973 over 2007. Matthew: “Sam wants to be in that car – he suddenly realises that there was a freedom. It’s the Wild West, he’s actually wanting to live in the Wild West, really. That’s what it is.”
32) What they would like to have seen in the first series re the tone of Ashes. Ashley: “You always have to fight and battle at the start of a new series, especially one with the inheritance that Ashes had. And I think Matthew and I lost a few of those battles, it would be fair to say. We wanted it darker. And I think we proved our point, to an extent. I think it’s a very good start, that first series, but it’s not the finished series by any means.” He repeated that series two would be slightly darker.
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