Matthew Graham interview: the Ashes To Ashes finale
We talk to the co-creator of Ashes To Ashes about the upcoming final episode, which he just happened to write too…
Ashes To Ashes finally comes to end on Friday, bringing the journeys of Gene Hunt and co to their conclusion. Ahead of that, we had a chance to chat with series co-creator Matthew Graham, who's penned the last instalment of the show.
Before we start, though, please read this:
Please note that there are no spoilers that we've noticed here, although we do obviously ask Matthew about the last episode.
If you want to go into it 100% cold, then it might be an idea to give this interview a miss until after you've seen it. However, as we write this interview, we've deliberately not seen the final episode, and there's nothing in here that's spoiled anything for us!
There are, however, spoilers for the show Torchwood: Children Of Earth if you've not seen it. We clearly mark where these are, so they're easily avoidable.
Without further ado...
Firstly, many congratulations on the current run! How closely have you been following the online reaction to series three so far?
I do follow it a bit. I don't go onto the fan sites really any more, because they're just slightly too torrid for my tastes! It's also sort of not really what the show creators and writers and producers should do.
The fan sites are there for the fans, and they should be there to debate and express themselves. If I start reading that stuff, I start wading in. And if I start wading in, sometimes it winds people up, sometimes it intimidates people into not talking. And I think they should be allowed to do what they want to do
But is has been mental. I know The Railway Arms has crashed a number of times, and I know it had something like 500,000 hits last week [after the broadcast of episode six]. And that's only going to get worse until the end!
The one thing I picked up on before the series started was that there was a particular trailer that was issued where Gene Hunt hit Alex. It went down incredibly badly, and then the furore almost magically disappeared as soon as context kicked in. Did you catch any of that.
I did, actually. Janet Goggins, who runs The Railways Arms, said to me that it was their fourth anniversary, and could I write something, a happy birthday Railway Arms. I used that as an opportunity to write to the fans and say, look, you mustn't get angry about something you haven't seen yet. What you're doing is you're making supposition, then you're making that supposition fact, and then you're getting angry about the fact as though you have just seen it all happen.
They were saying crazy things like Gene's now a wife-beater, I hate him, I hate him. And I just felt it needed to calm down.
I also said that it was a nine o'clock show. This is not a photo novel in Jackie magazine. It's not about the day that Gene fell in love with Alex, and Alex loved him but couldn't tell Gene, and Gene was so grumpy most of the time that really deep down he loved Alex, and he wanted to adopt Molly, and they were all going to live in a house.
And a lot of people started to go down that route and I was saying guys, you know, this may still be a fantasy show but it is a grown-up show, and it's for adults, and it's on after nine o'clock. It will take you on journeys that you may not always choose for those characters, but it's our show, our story, and sometimes you have to remember where Gene comes from. Where he came from, what he was born from. A tough, hard-bitten world.
I also said that some people clearly didn't mind homophobia, sexism, stitching up suspects who are innocent, planting evidence. They just don't like him hitting Alex!
And, of course, when it's all seen in context, there wasn't a peep!
Torchwood: Children Of Earth spoilers start here and end after the next picture.
Have you caught up on Torchwood: Children Of Earth by any chance?
I have, I finally watched it. I was away in American when it was on, but I've watched it now.
Obviously, there was an episode of that which attracted quite a fallout, where a major character is killed at the end of an episode. It got very personal against the writers, the fan feedback from that. Where do you stand on it? It must be complementary that something you've created from scratch can incite such a reaction, but on the other hand, it's a little bit scary?
It is scary. It's also a bit skewed. Ianto's death was sad, and powerful. But it wasn't as disturbing as the fact that they sacrificed a child at the end of the final episode. They blow a child's brain open in order to save the world. To me, that was far more upsetting. I didn't like that bit. I went ‘oh my God, the hero has just killed the kid.' Surely there was a way that he could have saved the kid and still saved the world?
It was Russell's [T Davies] decision, and it was a dark one and a brave one. But I guess the fans weren't worried about that, because blowing kids' heads up is cool, in a Frank Miller way, but it's not cool to kill a character that you know. I think that's where it's all a bit skewed sometimes.
I speak as a fan. I'm a fan of movies and TV, and certainly when I was younger I'd have been all over those sites. So, I do have sympathy!
Torchwood: Children Of Earth spoilers end here
Going back to Ashes, you must have seen some of the breadth of theories about the show coming up. Obviously, my first question is how close are we all getting?
Most seem to touch on something that is right! The only person who has got it completely right is Alison Graham of the Radio Times, who sent me an e-mail out of the blue saying, "Don't reply to this, because I don't want to know. But this is what I think happened." She got absolutely everything right. And she hadn't seen the ending - she'd just got to the end of episode seven. She got one thing slightly wrong, actually, but apart from that, spot on.
The thing is that you should be able to guess. When you get to the end, you should be able to say ‘oh yes'. It's not an out-of-nowhere thing, because I think that would be a cheat.
I think if Gene whipped his mask off and said, "I'm actually from Venus, it's all an experiment aliens are conducting on humans," everyone would feel completely cheated. So ,everything that happens at the end, you can naturally take from the series.
So, yes, fans do get some of it right. What they do do is overthink it.
The best way I've found of describing it is when you're in a room with all the lights off, it's confusing, you're bumping into things all the time. But when we turn the lights on, just the living room, you don't go ‘Oh my God, it's a room I never imagined, it's so complex. It's the most complex thing I've ever seen.' You just think. ‘Oh, it's a room, and I couldn't see anything because I was bumping into stuff.'
It's exactly like that with this show. The revelations are big, and they're powerful, and I think there's a couple - maybe one - that no one will see coming. But not so twisted and complex that you're going to have to get a chart out afterwards to work it all out.
Do you have a particular favourite theory that's missed the mark wildly?
Well, people have a big time travel thing going on, so they talk about what if Ray is the son of Gene, Gene's son that he didn't know about, and Ray's the one that's gone back in time, and he's recreated himself.
There was another one someone said to me: Sam is Jesus. And I said to him, "Wow," and he said, "No, I know it, I can prove it." I thought, "My God, mate, if you can work out Sam is Jesus..." [laughs]
Sometimes, they're well, well off. But occasionally someone will come up and they'll get one bit absolutely spot on. But they're just a voice in the wilderness, so nobody picks up on it. So, we just leave them!
Clearly we're going to get a narrative resolution. You've been clear about that. One of things I've really enjoyed about this series, though, is how much Ray, Shaz and Chris have really stepped forward. Will we get character resolutions for them too?
You absolutely will. We certainly don't leave any character dangling. Oh, yeah. I don't mind saying that, because I think that's what the show's telling the audience anyway. That these people are obviously affected by things in this world in a way that's more profound than ever before. They all have to have answers, they all have to have resolutions.
Some people, I think quite wisely, are saying please don't explain everything, because there is a bit of magic to be had, using your own imagination. Everything is there for you. There should be no frustrating ambiguity.
But at the same time, we are not explicit about where we are and what's going on. We don't say, "This is this, this is happening, that's what happening to that person." We just kind of show it and play it out.
In the end, you should be pretty au fait with what's going on, but there'll be little bits where you're left to imagine what that might be or where that might be headed.
Are you happy that it's comfortably fitted an hour, the final episode?
The first cut, which was brilliant, was 20 minutes overlong, and they sent it to me and said,"Work out where you want the cuts." And I said, "I can't do it."
I phoned Kudos and the director David Drury and said, "You do it. You cut it down. Because I can't bear to, and you'll make proper, hard decisions about it."
And they did. They brilliantly cut it down, and the BBC generously gave us a slight extra 40 seconds of screen time, which you can get in some circumstances, so the episode can come in a fraction longer than it would normally.
But you've got The 10 O'Clock News, and you can't move the news!
Are you tempted to put the longer cut out?
Yes, in a funny way, I am. If there's ever a big box set of the whole Life On Mars/Ashes To Ashes thing, which we've been talking about, then I'd want to do it with loads of extras in, because we all know that it's a cheat otherwise.
I'd want to do something like that, show all the scenes we cut out. That would be fun.
Did you get a cast and crew screening of the final episode?
No, no! We didn't, because they're all over the place! Montserrat was in Spain, Phil was filming somewhere, Keeley was in America, or was certainly off doing something. We couldn't get them all together.
How was your moment when you sat down with the final episode?
I loved it. I'm so proud of it. I'm scared of it, because there's a lot riding on it, and everyone wants a different conclusion. And you watch what happened with Battlestar Galactica, when Ronald Moore, Jane and those people all assumed that everyone would love it like they did. And they got a tidal wave of reaction that they weren't expecting.
So, I am thinking that we'll probably get some of that. But I'm so proud of it, and I was delighted to watch it. We only watched the finished episode the other day.
Is there any part of the Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes world that you would ever revisit in the future, or is this definitely the line?
In terms of television, definitely. This is it, I think. We're always going to leave a door open if Hollywood came calling, and then we'd think about. But who wouldn't?
Yet, I think when you get to the end of the episode, you'll think there's no sequel to be had.
The character that we've really hooked into is Jim Keats, a terrific creation.
That's Danny [Mays].
I've gone back and rewatched the episodes, and Jim Keats has a Hannibal Lecter quality. He isn't in it anywhere near as much as we think. You seem to have been very restrained in how much we're allowed to see of him.
We had that conversation with Danny right from day one. We said, "Sometimes, you might feel a little frustrated. Sometimes you may feel a little on the sidelines. But it's a slow burn character." That's why I think his impact in episode six is so strong. Suddenly, there's this naked malevolence. It's gone from a petulant guy with a superiority complex to someone who is clearly very bad.
There is no ambiguity now that Jim Keats is not a good person. And I think it's more powerful because we've played that nerdy gauche guy for five weeks prior to that.
Danny was totally up for that. He was totally prepared to go on that journey. Really, from the read through of episode one, I was saying, "This is what you're doing in episode eight. I can't speak for the other episodes yet, but I know where your character's going." And he was, "Great, oh brilliant, I'll sit it out until that moment comes."
I'd say he had us very early, though. I thought episode one was outstanding, as confident an opening instalment as I can remember seeing. He had us all the way through, and then you came in at the end and hit us over the head again, and built a twist on a character whom we'd only known for 50 minutes by that point.
What's interesting about him is that he was a late addition. I'd written several drafts of episode one, and Ashley [Pharoah] was working on episode two. Actually, that's not quite true. There was a guy who came in for just the one episode, because I didn't think Gene could shoot somebody, run away to Spain for three months and just come back and put his coat on. Logically, they'd have to be an internal enquiry.
I thought what would be fun would be to do an internal enquiry strand as part of the story of the week, and we'll create this character of Jim Keats, who's a bit of a nerdy, Guy Pearce from L.A. Confidential kind of character, and we'll have a bit of fun with him. And at the end of episode one he'll be gone.
And then we started talking about what we thought was missing as we storyboarded the show. We all felt we were missing Supermac. We all loved Supermac, and we all regret killing him off half-way through series two. We wished we'd kept him. So, we all started thinking we all need Supermac.
So, I said, "What if Jim Keats sticks around? What if he says, ‘I've got my eye on you, Hunt, and I'm not going anywhere. I'm staying.'" And then we've got an ongoing enemy within story.
From there we began to talk more about the character, and what he could represent and what he could be. And we worked out what we wanted from Jim Keats, and said, "Yeah, he's now a major player."
The other thing that struck me was that you're having a lot of fun with people's perceptions over what a last series is allowed to do.
Take, for instance, the episode where Shaz is under threat at the end. Usually you'd automatically think she's going to escape. But because it's the last series of the show where you've chosen to put her in such danger, there was a real sense that she might actually die, given that there are only so many episodes left.
Was it liberating to play with that level of expectation?
Oh, definitely. It also...what happens is, because it's the last one, everything has a momentum that you don't have in any other series. I would argue that series two is the hardest in that respect, because you really are in the middle, you're in the midst of the trilogy. You can't ever tie it up conclusively then.
So, yeah, it was great. It gave all the scripts a real energy, and, of course, all the writers were totally briefed on where the show was headed, and the directors.
So, that gave them a sense of purpose, and it meant we could give them much stronger steers on where to take things, and how to play things out. Rather than say, ultimately, it doesn't really matter, it's an ongoing mystery that we're not going to tie up for another year. And I think it's benefitted the show enormously.
Just going back to Supermac for a minute. His death really mattered. You spent many episodes bringing him in, and you killed him at a point where it was a massive surprise. You almost sound like you regret it?
I don't regret it. Supermac's death plays into the bigger mystery, and when you know all the answers, Supermac's death and Summers' death, hopefully, make a lot more sense.
I don't regret it from a dramatic point of view. We had to kill Supermac. But when we lost him in episode four, we lost a brilliant dynamic.
Yes, because you didn't even hold it back until the penultimate episode. He was gone half-way through.
He did do a great job of propping the middle of the show up and giving it momentum. And I think there was an argument for keeping Mac alive for another two episodes. But I think what was nice about it was then we had space to do Summers, of course.
So, in episode seven and eight, they would have been clogged up if they still had Supermac running around. The absence of Supermac, and the fact that we missed him, meant that we were focusing harder on Keats.
The Friday night slot that the show has had has been unusual. Do you think it's been a help?
In all honesty, I don't think it's a help. I don't think we could ever say that. I do think we're blessed at this stage in the show of not having the pressure that others have.
Ashes is robust. When you put Gene Hunt into the schedule, we're pretty confident that you could throw pretty much everything up against us and we can win our slot, because we've seen that happen in the past.
It's a difficult one, because we knew by the time you get to episode six and things were getting dark, it might not fit so comfortably on a Friday. But what's interesting is that the audience is growing.
We've had our blip, we've had the bit in the middle where the audience was slightly losing it.
The other thing to say, though, is that I get the consolidated figures, and we still get over six million people every week. It's just not all of them watch it on the night.
In terms of figures really, we're fine.
Finally, what next for you?
It's really exciting for us at the moment. We've got a number of projects in development which we'd be thrilled to do. We've got a 60s spy series which is very early days, there's no script in existence yet, we're just researching it. A really cool show, a big challenge for us to get off the ground.
We're developing a movie, a big thriller set in Baltmore in the 1940s. Amongst other things it's about the birth of modern police forensics. It's almost got that Sam Tyler in Life On Mars element to it, one cop who wants to think outside the box and he's surrounded by detectives who don't think like that, who just want to throw people against the wall.
It's a more rooted historically version of Life On Mars, I guess, but it's got a mad Tim Burton-esque element to it too.
It's a really exciting project, and again it's early days, but we're hoping that'll go places.
Matthew Graham, thank you very much!