Ashes to Ashes series 3 interview: co-creator & writer Matthew Graham

He co-created Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes. He's written for Doctor Who. And he's telling us all about the further adventures of Gene Hunt. It's Mr Matthew Graham...

We’ve got a lot to thank Matthew Graham for. He’s the co-creator – along with Ashley Pharoah – of Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes. He’s also executive-produced and overseen both shows, written several key episodes, and still fitted in time to work on Doctor Who.

As the third and final series of Ashes To Ashes approached, he also spared us a generous amount of time to talk about what’s coming up, and just what DCI Gene Hunt is up against…

The only spoilers that lie ahead are for those of you who haven’t caught up with the last series yet…!

Going back to the very start of Ashes To Ashes, when people were expecting a very straight follow-on to Life On Mars, just set in the 1980s, was that first episode the trickiest you’ve ever written?

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Yeah, it was a weird one. A lot of people reacted I think that when we did Ashes To Ashes, we did it for financial reasons. Or for safety reasons, because the BBC said give us more and we were like, ‘Okay, that’s a shoo-in commission, we’ll do that.’

Actually, it was borne out of a frustration that we couldn’t carry on with Life On Mars. We had this whole plan about exploring Gene Hunt in greater detail, and finding out more about the world. And we didn’t really have time to tie up everything in the last episode of Mars. All we could do was tie up Sam’s journey to some extent.

So, what we did, not knowing or not whether we would get a chance to do a spin-off, I put in this Easter egg scene of Sam recording all his thoughts and feelings. Effectively, what we discovered with Alex Drake. At the time, what we wanted was for it to be a woman, and if we got a spin-off that we would send a woman, a police psychologist who knew everything Sam knew. Therefore, we had a legitimate ambiguity to play. Because, if the world is real, you can go to the same place as Sam. But even if Sam’s world is completely in his head, you can still go to it because she knew everything he knew.

That was the big trick, to try and find a way into Ashes where we still keep the ambiguity so people didn’t just go, ‘Oh,well, she must be in Sam Tyler, because we now know that it was all in Sam Tyler’s head, he’s in a coma, and none of it is real.’ We wanted to generate a new ambiguity.

But what we didn’t want to do was make Ashes To Ashes just feel like Life On Mars. And we thought, ‘We have to be bold, we have to go for something different. And if we’re in the 80s, and we’re going to be in London, let’s embrace the 80s. Let’s make it more garish, let’s make it more aspirational. Let’s push it and make it bright and bolder.’

I did find it hard to write, but I always thought that, initially, people who liked Life On Mars would baulk at it. I thought that was inevitable. Because everyone’s got something in their head. They’ve not got Ashes To Ashes in their head, they’ve got Life On Mars. It just feels wrong, it feels all askew.

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But we knew it would bed in, and we thought series one is going to be a bit tricky. Coming into Ashes we had this three year plan that we’d finish in three years. The idea was to make each show progressively darker, so Life On Mars would bleed in.

Sorry, that’s a long answer! But I was expecting a certain bumpy ride from it.

You’ve talked in the past about your plans for a third Life On Mars series, and to use it to extend the Gene Hunt character. But where else would you have taken Sam Tyler?

Well, it’s a difficult one because we never really got that far, so I can’t say what we would have done. I think it would always have been a stretch. I think we’d have had to have done something very radical with series three to generate enough stories. We wouldn’t have had the ending to series two, for a start. We’d have held that bit back. We’d have told a different set of stories and put Sam in a different position.

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I think we could have told a lot of the Gene Hunt journey that we wanted to tell and we are now telling in Ashes.

Presumably, that’s where series three of Ashes comes in? This really is the Gene Hunt story, and that’s the primary focus?

Yes, it is. And it’s also about unifying, as much as we can, Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes. This is where Life On Mars really bleeds in to Ashes To Ashes. More and more as the show goes on.

It must have been odd to write. It seemed the idea of the first few episodes of Ashes To Ashes was to de-unify it from Life On Mars, a conscious hard effort to turn off the path and go somewhere else. And now this is the bringing it full circle?

That’s right. That was always the intention. Keeley [Hawes, Alex Drake] got a bit of a hammering in some quarters of the press for the way she presented Alex in those early episodes. Which was very unfair, although I understand where it was coming from.

But it wasn’t her, it was us. We’d written it like that. We had said to her we want this arch-ironic approach, and as the show progressed, we stripped that away. And then by series two it was clear from all of us that we wanted to ground it more and more, and we want to do more of that in series three. To the point where we know Alex does actually say in series three, ‘I never used to take this world seriously, but bloody hell, now I do.’

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It’s a bit of a gamble, a long investment. But we knew it was going to pay off.

You’ve talked about how the series are getting darker and darker. For us, the flat-out standout of the last series was the penultimate episode of season two with the revelation of Chris.

The thing that really got us, taking it deeper than ever before, wasn’t even any words that were written, it was the long empty stare from Philip Glenister, one of the most haunting TV moments of last year. It was, of course, the pay off to the plotting, and I’m curious how you go about laying something that intense out?

That was written by Mark Greig, and I wish he’d come and done series three, because it would have been lovely to have had him back. I think what we’re doing now is, if you like those moments, you’re going to get a lot more of that in series three. Because, without giving too much away, we go very personal on all our characters.

We shine spotlights on Ray, Chris and Shaz in a way we’ve never done before. On the characters we always take for granted as the peripheral characters. So I think you’re going to get a lot more revelation and a lot more of those intense moments.

And especially now, as we’re down to the last few days of filming, and the way the schedule has worked is we’re filming the last scenes, the really big final scenes, in the last week. And the intensity of the performances that director David is getting out of the cast, and what they’re getting out of the script, is pretty magical, actually.

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And I think it’s the equal of anything we’ve done in either of the shows.

Going back to the scene before, that’s your character. The character that you’ve built up and invested so much in over four series. Appreciating you obviously don’t write every episode, how do you go about handing a major plot point like that to another writer?

Well, we don’t hand it over and walk away. We basically storyline the show in advance. We know the big journeys, we know where all the big serial elements are going to come. What we encourage the writers to do when they come on board is to think of a crime story of the week that they want to do. But we give them all the big serial moments. We don’t write them, but we present them and say these are the things you’re covering.

And then the smart writers like Mark find ways of blending their story of the week with the serial arcs that they’ve got to address. I think we work with them. Certainly with a writer of Mark’s character we don’t need to do any tinkering ourselves. We do trust him to go all the way with it. With some writers we do sit down with them and go through the scripts in more detail, and suggest moments. We’re very hands on, even though it doesn’t say written by us.

This one I can pin entirely on you. You left us with an absolute bastard of a cliffhanger. And from where we’re sitting at the moment, that looks like a fairly game-changing cliffhanger.

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Can you offer any hints as to how you begin to address something like that? Presumably, you’ve got to find a way to get us quickly to 1983?

Yeah. Of course we can’t be too spoilerific. Yes, we do go back to ’83. Yes, the show isn’t going to take place in 2008. But, and I hope that people don’t feel it’s too much of a cheat, but it’s not going to be Gene Hunt coming forward in the 21st century. I think that’d be a bad move, and it really wouldn’t work.

There will be people thinking that we’ve created an artificial cliffhanger, but we haven’t. Because the things that Alex learned and her experiences in the first 10-15 minutes of the new series are the kickstart to the entire series. They are threads that are very front and centre.

Our serial stories are more front and centre than they’ve ever been. In a way, it’s more serial now. There are crime stories where you have some fun, but it is a serial.

The game-changer for me is that all of a sudden Gene Hunt could understand properly for the first time what Drake and Sam Tyler have been through? And that what they’ve been saying is actually true?

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I think the journey you’ll see, I’d say denial features very heavily in Gene in series three. But revelations come eventually. You’re not going to see a Gene up front who walks in and says, ‘I get it now.’

We have promised answers, and we do intend to deliver answers. We’ll leave some ambiguity, because I think a little bit of mystery doesn’t do any harm. You can’t sit down with a blackboard and explain the whole thing like Doc Brown.

I’d watch that…!

Oh, I love it! But you knew there was a moment when the writers went, ‘Oh fuck it, just have him explain it with a blackboard!’

I think you’ll get 95% of your answers, and it should be enough to satisfy it, and it should be enough to make you go, ‘I can now explain that world to someone who’s not seen it.’

You’re not going to go all Lost on us?

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[Laughs] No, I don’t think so. There’s no way you can tie it all up in a neat, very simple thing. It was all a dream, it turns out they were all aliens. There’s no neat way of doing it. The revelations have to filter through the whole series, because, otherwise, the last episode is a series explanation.

It is quite head-fucking. What I’m more interested in is the emotional journeys feeling correct. When it’s finished, I think people will come to me and say, ‘That doesn’t make sense, because in episode three of series one of Life On Mars this happens.’ And I know they’ll do that. And you have to say that we’re human, there are always going to be things and glitches because we’re human, and that’s the nature of television.

But what I do think is that the emotional journeys are absolutely spot-on, and I think you’ll be able to trace them all back to the very beginning. It will all make sense. We won’t be doing a Lost!

The crucial question about series three: we’ve had the likes of Roland Rat so far. Are you bringing back any more 80s faces?

Actually, a little bit, but when you see the series, you’ll see that the stakes are kind of raised now. There’s a little bit less of the things from the 80s. It’s a little bit more now about the characters and the journeys. I suppose it’s a little bit more like Life On Mars in that regard. There are blasts from the pasts, but we bring back blasts from our own pasts. There’ll be plenty of weird shit!

The hints thus far is that we are going to see Life On Mars characters crop back up, but I assume you can’t expand on that right now?

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I can’t, but Life On Mars feels very integral to Ashes in this last series!

We’ve been following your Twitter feed, and you heading off to the last read through, and the last day of shooting. How satisfying is it now to look back at the five year journey? That it’s all coming to an end now, presumably with some quite powerful stuff?

Yes. It’s a little bit scary. I’m delighted, and I think we all are. We haven’t seen the last episodes cut together yet, so we don’t actually know how they’re going to play. But what I’ve seen on screen so far and in the cutting room, I’m really blown away.

I’m getting that old fear I had with Life On Mars, that fucking hell we’re really close to the wire on this. This is strange stuff. This is unusual stuff. You don’t see this on mainstream BBC One post-watershed drama very often. That’s a good feeling I think.

We remind ourselves that Life On Mars took those amazing risks, and I think we’re taking those kind of risks again in series three. But taking it very seriously. As seriously as we’ve ever taken it. There are lots of laughs in this show, but I do think there are less laughs. Certainly in the last block of episodes.

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It’s much less about making us giggle. The stakes are too high now. People just want to see what happens to these characters, and where their journeys end.

Do you think the BBC Compliance Unit will be glad to see the back of you?

[Laughs] Yes I do, I do! It is extraordinary some of the stuff we get away with. I don’t quite know how we get away with it, and I keep waiting for the headmaster to come down from Compliance and say, ‘You’re going to have to take this show off the air.’ It’s often little things we get pulled up on. The big things tend to be okay, but it’s the little tiny things we have to be careful of.

I think there’ll be a few sighs of relief!

Which episodes have you written yourself in the new series?

I’ve written episode one and eight.

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No pressure, then!

No pressure! I think I might actually leave the country for a while!

I remember seeing Ron Moore after the last ever screening. They sent him a DVD of the final cut of the last ever episode of Battlestar Galactica, and he came out of his chalet and he was in pieces. He was crying, he was so happy. And he was saying people are going to love it. And then it went out and there was this strange backlash of people upset that it wasn’t what they wanted. I thought it was brilliant, but I think there is that fear. I do have that slight fear that some people have invested so heavily in it that whatever they do isn’t what is in their heads.

I might watch it from a remote location in the Arctic!

Is this building up to Gene Hunt being a Cylon then? Is that what you’re saying?

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[Laughs] I tell you what, there is a line in episode five from Ray that… I think when he says a certain line – I can’t tell you what it is yet – he has a vision of something and he says this line, and I think half the population will go, ‘Oh my God, I know where this is heading and I don’t like it!’ You’d just go, ‘Oh shit, they’re not going to do that are they?’

And we don’t, but you’ll know the line!

Is there anything you can tell us about the project you were working on with Ron Moore?

I can’t, I’m afraid. It’s very tricky. It’s not a Ron project. We were both just hired independently of each other with a number of other writers to develop something, work on something. I can’t really say what it is or who it’s for. Hopefully, I will be able to one day if it every happens! I would have loved to have worked with Ron. He’s a genius.

Are you looking towards America next?

We’ve been in and out of America. I’ve been flying to the States now for two years, working on this project. I’ve just come to the end of my contracted time on it. And Ash and I have been developing some ideas for the States.

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It’s a different system, and we’ve been a bit frustrated by it in some areas. At the moment we’ve got a couple of really exciting projects that we’re developing over here, and we’ve got a movie to write this year, too. We’re kind of focussing on that.

After two years of doing trans-Atlantic and being permanently jetlagged, I’m actually looking forward to just hunkering down in wet and windy England and writing this movie and developing this new series.

Are you still involved with an Aardman Animations project?

No, no. We left that. They’re a strange bunch. Lovely, but they kind of want to do everything their own way. In the end we thought we were getting in the way, really. We stepped down from it and said, ‘You guys really need to do it yourselves.’

Lovely, but as soon as you make a suggestion they’re like, I don’t know really, we want to do something with teacakes. So, we just figured you guys just go and do it!

I have to ask a Doctor Who question or two before we finish! Presumably, getting the call that you’re writing for Doctor Who is a very special moment?

It’s fantastic! It is to this day still one of the nicest jobs I’ve ever done. Working with Russell and Julie, and writing that episode, was just a joy. It was lovely. Right up front Russell said, ‘I’m sorry, you’ve got the really cheap episode. You can’t have monsters and you can’t have any spaceships.’ So I knew I wasn’t going to Gallifrey!

I loved it. I’d love to come back. I went to see Piers Wenger and Steven Moffat last year about doing a two-parter for the series that they’re shooting now. And I contacted them and said, ‘Look, I’ve got this idea for a Doctor Who. Can I talk to you?’ And they were, ‘Yeah, yeah. Brilliant.’ And I just couldn’t make the time work, with going to the States and Ashes gearing up again. But I’d love to go back and do some more. I want to do one with monsters. They owe me monsters!

So, do you think you’re pencilled in somewhere for series six if the timing can work out?

Yeah, yeah. I do, actually. Piers has been really, really gracious and said that if you could come and do a Doctor Who for us, we’d really love to have you back. And I’d love to do it. It’s a fantastic job. A very, very nerve-wracking job. But since I’ve had an even bigger, more scary franchise to get involved with for a bit. And now I’ve got my own to look after as well! It’s a series of people handing me precious objects and saying don’t drop them!

It seems increasingly hard to get people talking about scripted drama now. Ashes and Doctor Who both get huge reactions, and get people talking, but there aren’t many others in the UK like it.

Why do you think now that scripted drama is having to fight harder to get noticed, and is that a bad thing?

I think scripted drama is in quite a good place, actually. I think commissioners are looking for breakout successes like Life On Mars, Torchwood and Doctor Who, and they can see that those shows really do break out.

Thank God that we have the likes of Peter Moffat writing Criminal Justice and Jimmy McGovern doing The Street. But we really need to balance that with our Ashes To Ashes, and our Spooks, and our Torchwoods. Because that’s what keeps the channel looking diverse, and young as well.

I don’t feel that there is a beleaguered drama department at the BBC at all. I think they’re very energetic, very excited and take risks.

I know what you mean. But I do think the reality thing is starting to burst now. The figures aren’t quite as high as they are now. X-Factor is still massive, but that’s okay. It was always like that. The Generation Game used to be the biggest show on television, and Doctor Who was always second or third. And it’s still the same, isn’t it?

I found it odd last year reviewing a drama series on the BBC, and we are always going into these things wanting to like them. And I didn’t warm to the show in question at all. I’m almost sat there feeling uncomfortable that it was one of the few risky projects thrown our way, and I’m feeling I have to criticise it because it simply wasn’t clicking.

The biggest fear from our point of view – and clearly this isn’t our influence, but the combined weight of many critics – is then that TV people will keep retreating to the usual comfort zones.

You’re right. The thing that worried me about everyone hating Bonekickers wasn’t that they should like it, because we took a gamble and it didn’t work. We were trying to make something that was like six multiplex movies back to back with big daft storylines with no real in-depth characters and lots of adventure. We made a couple of crashing mistakes.

One was that we made it a post-watershed show, and I completely hold up my hands because I pushed for that. The BBC wanted to make it pre-watershed, and I said, ‘Let’s make it dark and nasty,’ and that was a mistake.

The other mistake, for some reason it got seen that we were trying to take it seriously, and were making a show about history as we see it now. So, naturally, critics went, ‘It’s not, it’s stupid. It’s got killer snakes in it.’ It just fell apart, and began to look very silly and very childish in the way it was playing.

My worry was that out there, there would be a bunch of writers who read those reviews and went, ‘There’s no way I’m putting myself through this.’ And they might have had a much, much better show, a more considered show that was going to work.

And it was very hard. It was hard for us and we’re all seasoned vets. Ash and I sat there and said, ‘Oh my God, they’re nailing us to the wall on this.’ We thought we shouldn’t bother trying to do things like this. But I’ve always maintained that there’s a very fine line between a Bonekickers and a Life On Mars. It doesn’t take much to make Life On Mars a very silly show.

It’s not just about the writing, it’s about the casting, the way it’s directed, the way it’s promoted. It’s everything. I just want people to be brave again to walk that razor’s edge. You might fall on the wrong side, but it’s better to fail trying to do something new than just coming up with a Cornish detective with a sidekick a bit younger than him. Solving crimes in a rural community.

It’s the pitch meeting from I’m Alan Partridge isn’t it?!

Yes! Swallow! The Norwich detective! [Laughs] *

That was it! Matthew Graham, thank you very much!

Ashes To Ashes series 3 starts on BBC One later this month.

* If you don’t know what we’re talking about, then here’s a clip from I’m Alan Partridge, where he’s pitching ideas to the BBC’s Commissioning Editor…