Life on Mars’ Matthew Graham: There’s ‘Another Journey for Sam Tyler to Go on’

Matthew Graham looks back on Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes with Den of Geek and shares his hopes for a revival.

Life on Mars
Photo: BBC

This May, it will have been ten years since the story that began with BBC sci-fi police procedural Life on Mars in 2006 ended with sequel Ashes to Ashes, which said goodbye to Gene Hunt, Alex Drake, and the whole team.

Co-creator of both shows Matthew Graham is currently in Cornwall, in the midst of co-running historical drama The Spanish Princess with Emma Frost, a second season of which is due to arrive on STARZ very soon.

Den Of Geek caught up with Graham to look back at both shows a decade after the Ashes to Ashes finale. Below, he tells us about Life on Mars ending much sooner than originally planned, why Gene Hunt is a joke that isn’t funny anymore, and his hopes to revive John Simm’s character Sam Tyler for another fantastical, comic and dark journey that has something serious to say about our times.

With the series being ten years on, how does it feel to know that they’re both still highly regarded and loved by so many?

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It’s obviously very flattering and it’s lovely people still talk about it and reference it, which they do. I’m always amazed. There’s so much television out there now that once a few weeks have passed, there’s a new tsunami of new shows.

I think one of the reasons why it probably has lingered in people’s minds is because we were one of the first of the wave of new dramas. Not just here but also in the States, because when we were going out here, Lost was going in the States, and that was something that was changing the landscape of popular drama.

I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s stayed in people’s minds, because it’s the first time we all sat down in our living rooms, no matter what generation you were, and all got into this, even though it’s basically a bonkers science-fiction style premise. It was high-concept for the mainstream and that was kind of a new thing. It’s now very common for us all to talk about Stranger Things and whatnot, but we forget that 12, 13, 14 years ago, no-one was watching that. Television was Inspector MorseA Touch of Frost, it was Prime Suspect.

The Lost finale aired not long after the finale of Ashes to Ashes, and I couldn’t help but notice the twist being very similar between the two at the time.

The problem that they had was that I don’t believe they actually knew what their mystery was. It was opening a series of boxes going ‘inside this box, there’s another box, inside this box there’s another one!’ Whereas we’d always had a strong idea about what the overarching mystery was, and we had a strong idea about who Gene [Hunt, played by Philip Glenister] was and what they were all doing there. It was just a question of how long we could string that out really, how long we could keep that going without that becoming too repetitious or overstaying its welcome.

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Are there any moments from making both series that you now look back on and perhaps think either that was fantastic, or, that could have been done differently?

I don’t watch them again or again but I do think when I look back, there are obviously episodes that are stronger than others. Particularly in Ashes, there are episodes that are weaker. I think Ashes took a while to find its footing. I don’t regret any of the decisions we made in terms of production. I think our casting on Ashes was fantastic, I love Montserrat [Lombard, who played Shaz Granger] and Keeley [Hawes, who played Alex Drake]. I think Keeley was brilliant and had an incredibly tough job to do because she had to replace John Simm. And no-one probably wanted her to replace John Simm initially, so I think the casting was absolutely spot on.

I can’t think of the specifics but I know that there were episodes that I thought, okay, that’s just a mediocre episode of Ashes to Ashes, but that happens. We made 24 episodes of Ashes, and you can’t really 24 episodes of anything without having one or two eps that you think are a bit under par. Every show has that.

Beyond that, I don’t have any regrets about the actual choices we made. Except one thing. The thing I wish we had not done – and at the time I thought it was quite funny, but I look back and I didn’t like it – was Gene moonwalking in episode one of Ashes. He’s being fired at by some baddies and he’s trying to dodge the bullets. I’m not trying to cast any blame on anyone, it wasn’t my idea but I was there and I went ‘oh yeah, that sounds fun’ and suddenly he was doing this moonwalk. Then when I saw it in the cut at the end of the day I was like ‘that’s strayed into comedy, Gene wouldn’t do that, why would he know how to moonwalk?! Nobody knows how to bloody moonwalk except Michael Jackson’. It was too self-aware.

That was one of the hard things, when people came onto the show, they didn’t always understand what it was and I didn’t quite have the confidence as a producer back then to properly pick people up and correct them, whereas now I’m a miserable old bastard! [Laughs] I can say to people, ‘we’re not doing that, that’s stupid, move on!’

I think you put the nail on the head when you said it became self-aware; it felt like it pulled the audience away slightly when Alex kept repeating ‘You’re all constructs!’, but when it came to the second and third series it really came into its own.

Part of the problem was, we had created a character where, the only way we could think for Keeley’s character to get into Sam Tyler’s world, was if she had known the things that he had been talking about. That to us seemed like a good way in, that she was a police psychologist, and we liked that because, psychologists are the last thing you want to throw at Gene Hunt because he’s not going to like it!

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On the page, I think it works really well, that unlike Sam, who was constantly baffled, here was this woman who came in and went, ‘Right, I know exactly what’s going on here, because I understand the way the mind works. This is a construct from my mind’. I thought that was really cool and really funny. It made her different from Sam Tyler. I don’t think it played quite as we’d imagined, and it wasn’t to do with acting or directing, it was purely the reality of drama. Sometimes from page to screen, not every idea lands the way you imagine.  

But once the sexual chemistry kicked in, about episode three, four, five of Ashes series one, we got over that, because then we had something else to play off. The idea of a modern woman teamed up with this misogynistic dinosaur and this undoubted sexual attraction that they had even though she couldn’t believe that she could possibly be attracted to him. I think that started to give us much more mileage dramatically.

It seems to me that as the years have passed, Life on Mars seems to pass Ashes ro Ashes as the better series with fans, whether it’s because of the political landscape in Mars that was touched upon, what are your thoughts on that?

It’s interesting. There are people who really, really love Ashes to Ashes much more than Life on Mars, and they’re actually down on Life on Mars and say it’s not for them. They have very different… there are definitely Ashes people and there are Life on Mars people.

I think if you asked most television critics, they would say that Life on Mars was their go-to of the two. There’s a couple of reasons for that, one is it was the first time we’d done it, so it was new, and it was darker and it came at a time when television wasn’t doing things like that so it stood out. And the eighties has more of a fun, frothy nature to it, whereas there’s nothing frothy about the seventies. The seventies is fun in a different way, maybe a slightly more grown-up way, and I suppose that’s probably why ‘serious critics’ or people who read and write about television probably say Life on Mars, but fans are divided, they really are. We probably get more fan mail about Ashes than we do about Mars.

In episode six of series two of Mars, when Sam met Maya’s mum, I couldn’t help but feel it’s more relevant today than it ever was, whether that’s because of the political landscape, such as the referendum and the election. Do you think in a sense that, we can relate even more to Sam, especially in that episode, than we’ve ever been in a way now?

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I think there is something to be said for that, and that’s kind of what got me thinking and talking about something else for Sam Tyler, another journey for Sam Tyler to go on. Obviously, for reasons you understand, I’m not going to go into details of what I’ve literally been ruminating on with the new idea, but what I can tell you is that I don’t think going back into other decades is going to be the answer anymore. I think however it finally cooks itself into whatever being it is, it is definitely not going to be just ‘knockabout’ and playschool. It’s going to be something that’s got something on its mind about where we are now, in terms of our sexual politics, in terms of this polarization between ‘snowflakes’ and the right, and the polarization between men and women.

In a way, sexism and racism are worse than it’s ever been since the seventies, but in different ways, i.e. in a more polarised way. There are now people who feel empowered and I don’t think you could just throw a Gene Hunt around now the way we could even ten years ago, and just go ‘isn’t it funny, isn’t it funny? He calls women birds!’

I have got something in mind about this show, and everything that you would hope for in terms of it will be satisfying and it will be exciting, and there will be a fantastical element to it, and it will hopefully be funny, but it will be dark and it will be serious as well. It will be about something. That was the only reason we would ever go back to that world.

People have said to us for years, as you can imagine, why don’t you do another Life on Mars? Or another Gene Hunt? And we always said the idea would have to be so good and also so new. In other words, it’s got to be something that only we would come up with, in a way no-one else would second-guess us. I think that is sort of where I’ve been ruminating and it’s finally started to take shape, so I’ve got to start sitting doing with Ashley [Pharoah, co-creator] and start trying to work out what it is.

I always felt that there was an unfinished story with Sam [Tyler]. The idea of a Christmas themed-episode, with a fantastical scene of Sam and Gene in a skit with Morecambe and Wise, or even the first EU referendum in 1975, where we could relate to today’s position of the UK and EU, that would be really interesting.

Yeah, but I don’t think it would be something where we would go back to the seventies. I can tell you that, without giving too much away. I think we need to do something a little even more surprising and more shocking.

The reason we never saw any of that with Sam was, we hadn’t really planned to finish Life on Mars after two seasons. We had the biggest hit, one of the biggest hits on television, and it’s so hard to come up with hit shows that the last thing you want to do is come up with a hit show and then say, ‘right, I’m pulling the plug on it’. We had certainly planned to do at least one more series, at least series three or possibly a series four, but John [Simm] was obviously in every scene, he was very tired, he’d just had a new baby, he was away a lot from home and he just came to us and said ‘look, I want to call it a day, I want to just finish season two and call it a day’, and that came about kind of halfway through filming season two, so it was a bit of a last-minute thing.

So we sort of then had to work out, well, how are we going to bring this whole thing to an end and so the ideas that we wanted, such as what would happen to Sam, and also, where they all were, what was happening to them, who was Ray? Who was Chris? And who was Gene, most importantly of all probably is who is Gene Hunt? Who really is Gene Hunt? That stuff, we had in our heads, but we hoped we’d have a couple more series to bring it out.

We’d always had this idea of bringing in a guy who came in to police Gene, a kind of Jed Mercurio character walking straight off of Line of Duty to come in and police Gene. And this guy would turn out to be a force for evil, and we had to hold that off, so when we came up with Ashes to Ashes, we said to the BBC, ‘look, we’d love to do it, but we’d like to do three series, and we’d like the first series to be the frothiest one and then the second series will get darker and the mysteries will really start to come out, and then the third series is going to be frankly the most weirdy-woo of them all’ and they said ‘in what way?’ and we said ‘we’d like Satan to turn up in the third one’ and they were like [laughs] ‘oh, okay boys, whatever’. And that’s what we did, so in series three we got to bring Danny Mays in as Keats, who obviously turned out to be this very, very nasty Satanic figure.

In the end, we still got to do all the stuff we wanted to do with Gene, but we never got to tie up John because John had gone by then. But I have spoken… I know that John has since talked to people about being open to coming back to do something, to do some kind of final iteration, so I’m hoping he still feels that he would want to do that. I haven’t spoken to him so at some point, when we’ve got the idea to properly pitch to him, I’d like to take him and Phil [Glenister] out to a very nice lunch somewhere and pitch it to them [laughs].

Even when series two ended, there was a short time between that and then John appearing as The Master in Doctor Who, and then seeing him appear in subsequent series.

Everyone’s older now, that’s interesting. Where we’re all at in our heads is very different. John’s a few years younger than me. I’m 52 so he’s probably 47-48 maybe, and Phil’s 96 [laughs. Glenister is 57], so we’re all middle-aged men now. We’re all in a different place and it’ll be interesting to see how we relate those characters to the world. How I write them, how Ashley [Pharoah] writes them, and how they play them.

When Mars and Ashes aired, there was a roughly 20-year distance between the series and the era, and now in 2020, we’re the same distance now to the nineties. So do you think Gene Hunt’s in that nineties world now, where he’s in the center of Madchester, Oasis and Happy Mondays?

[Laughs] If we come back to do this, if we get a chance to, I think we’ll be unpacking the world-building in even a bit more of a strange way. Whether Gene’s actually gone through the nineties is going to be another matter, because it might not even be that he has.

I think that’s the fun thing about the fan fiction, they put him in all sorts of different places. They stick him in the Hacienda Club and they stick him in the Millennium and it’s great to see people putting him in those arenas, it’s fun.

With all the episodes that you had written over those five series, are there any specific episodes, even from other writers that stand out to you?

I liked the one out of Ashes that was in the prison riot [series three, episode six]. That was really good. That was one that we really started to ramp up the supernatural, metaphysical stuff. And we worked very closely with James Payne the writer and Jamie Payne the director, to explore that. That was the first time where we really started to go, ‘oh, Jim Keats isn’t just a nemesis, he is something even worse than that. He’s not just a thorn in their side’. That one always stood out for me.

I’ve always really loved the last one we did. I thought it was so audacious to blow the roof off the building and to actually have people saying ‘Come on, did anyone think honestly that this was a real police station?’ We went really meta on top of our meta, and for me that was great, that we had the bandwidth as a show to do that was very cool.

On Life on Mars, we had some great writers again. Guy Jenkins came in and wrote an episode that was very sweet in the end, very funny as it would be from him. Chris Chibnall wrote an episode about race that was I thought very moving and very interesting. A guy called Mark Greig did one of my favorite gags of all time on Life on Mars, where Gene walks into a boxing club wearing sunglasses and the bloke goes ‘get out, mate’ and he takes the sunglasses off and he says ‘I’m sorry Mr Hunt, I didn’t know it was you’. That’s one of my favorite all-time gags in the show! [Laughs]

Finally, there’s a character I have to ask about. Was Frank Morgan at the end of Life on Mars series two the same character as Jim Keats, but just in a different form?

No, no he wasn’t. Frank Morgan was genuinely the surgeon. He was the surgeon and John Simm’s character Sam was sort of filtering him and seeing him as something else, as a man who was bringing him all the answers as it were, but actually he was the surgeon cutting out this blood-clot tumor in the brain.

That was kind of the limit of our thinking at that point, although I have to say, Frank Morgan does give a very sinister look to Sam in the hospital, and everyone picked up on it and went ‘that’s really creepy, why’s he done that look?’ and we were like ‘we have no idea! He just did it, we just thought it was quite cool, so we left it in!’ People see even more things in it than we’d planned and then we go ‘Oh! We don’t know the answer to that one!’ [laughs].

It’s amazing that people still want to know about it and I’m very grateful and pleased that they do. I doubt we’ll be doing a 20 years or a 10 years since Bonekickers retrospective [laughs], though I’m waiting for it!

The Spanish Princess can currently be watched on STARZ, while Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes are available on DVD and to stream on BBC iPlayer.