Nostalgia Done Right: Ashes To Ashes

On the tenth anniversary of its finale, Paul follows up his look at the Nostalgia Done Right of Cobra Kai with a look at what made the adventures of Gene Hunt such compelling viewing. SPOILERS for Ashes to Ashes and Life On Mars follow…


Oh no, don’t say it’s true

Ten years ago to this day (21st May 2020, in case you’re reading this on a day that’s not today), the BBC brought one of their popular crime shows to a close. Nothing remarkable there; shows end all the time. However, this one, in particular, pulled off something pretty special. Ashes To Ashes tie-up pretty much every dangling plot thread from its three seasons (not to mention two years’ worth of its parent show Life On Mars) very neatly. However, in the process, it accidentally preempted and overshadowed another, far higher profile, big-budget American show’s finale by two days and utterly schooled it in how to end a TV series with wit, emotion and panache. Something JJ Abram and Damon Lindeloff’s LOST failed to do (in this writer’s opinion).

I know it has its fans who will defend it to the hilt, and this is not a piece to punch down on that show – it’s just that LOST was a victim to both that writing’s team’s penchant for plotting on the fly and, unfortunately for them, a spectacular case of bad timing. But let’s go back in time about six months to December 29th, 2009…

Sordid details following…

I had spent Christmas at my parents’ house and was loading the car up with all our goodies (including my first ever flat-screen TV, about which I was VERY excited) for the three-hour drive home in the snow. As I was descending the stairs, thanks to the armfuls of presents, I failed to see a coat on the second to last step. However, I soon discovered it when something soft and squishy under my feet sent me tumbling through the air. Two thoughts went through my head. The first was the quite sensible “Guide the fall so I don’t crash through the glass door at the bottom of the stairs”. The second thought, with hindsight, was probably rather a foolish one: “Guide the fall to protect the presents”.

Yes, while I managed to prevent each and every one of Santa’s gifts from breaking, I was unable to say the same about my left leg. Broken fibula, dislocated ankle, two operations and ten nights in hospital. To quote Gene Hunt:

Head full of brains and the common sense of a grain weevil.

I’m stuck with a valuable friend

“But what’s this got to do with Ashes To Ashes?” I hear you say. Well, you see, the thing with a broken leg is, and during the Coronavirus lockdown, I think people might understand and appreciate this a little more, you have a lot of time on your hands sitting around the house with not much to do. I was off work for nearly six months, and three of those were in a cast meaning I only got up once an hour or so to stretch or visit the bathroom.

Luckily I’m quite comfortable in my own company and can always find something to amuse myself (not that, you cheeky sort!). This was a year or two before I first signed up to Netflix so I started bingeing box-sets of DVDs, and since the final season of Ashes To Ashes was about to start, I soared through the previous two seasons of it and Life On Mars. Only this time, as we knew A2A was coming to an ending, I paid particular attention, looking for any clues or hints as to where it might go.

I never did anything out of the blue

First off, I have to tip my imaginary hat (or do it later when I put my actual hat on) to the creators Ashley Pharoah and Matthew Graham, not to mention Tony Jordan who was a co-creator and writer on the first series of LOM. Unlike LOST (OK, I’ll stop with the comparisons after this), it was tightly plotted from the beginning. Soon after the finale aired Graham, in an interview with Ian Wylie said that the Gene as a shepherd of dead policemen into heaven was always the intended final outcome, and in The Guardian, he said that keeping the secret, even from his own family, for five years had been difficult.

So, in quick succession I sat through all thirty-two episodes so far, up to the end of the second series of A2A, making mental notes, and an idea started to form of where it was going. Then the third series began and I realised I was seeing five years’ worth of hard work falling into place. By the end of the penultimate episode, I had a damn good idea about everything so I sat down (well, continued to sit, because although my cast was off by this point, I was still not quite fully back on my feet) at my laptop and wrote down all the questions I had, and then answered them based on what I had seen.

Is DI Alex Drake in a coma? Who is Gene Hunt and what is his role? What really happened to Sam? Where do Chris, Ray and Shaz fit into all of it? And what is Jim Keats’ game?

These, and many more questions, which had been bothering me and internet theorists were answered, in as much detail as I could. And then, the day before broadcast, I posted it all in a somewhat lengthy post on the official Ashes To Ashes Facebook page under the thread “How will it end? Share your theories.”

One flash of light but no smoking pistol

The next day I sat down to enjoy the show, not expecting to get any of it right (because I never guess the ending in mysteries). An hour later I had a grin plastered all over my face. Partly because I’d enjoyed the episode greatly (and still rate it as one of the finest episodes of TV of the last decade, if not the century), but also because I had got it right. Not all of my theories were 100% perfect, but I’d say I was 85-90% accurate. Of course, I immediately headed to Facebook to bask in the glory of being right. But this is the internet, and people were not happy.

“You spoiled it for me!” one person said. “Are you a BBC insider?” said another. “Took all the fun out of it”, “Have you seen a review copy?” and so on.

Oh dear.

But I was still right, and that’s what counts!

I’m happy, hope you’re happy too

And that’s where I get to the crux of this piece (Good God, it’s about time, Ed.). Yes, on the surface, you could say nostalgia is important to Ashes To Ashes because employs era-appropriate music, TV clips, fashion and current affairs (such as the Scarman Report, the London Docklands redevelopment, Falklands War et al) to set the scene and the historical context. And a very good job it does too. The A2A  soundtrack albums are a constant favourite of mine and watching the show reminds me so much of growing up in the 80s – the details, and even the public mood of the time are spot-on. However, it goes much deeper. Nostalgia is not just a tool by the programme-makers but a recurring theme in the show.

Think about the first series, where Alex is continually haunted by the clown from the then cocaine-fueled music video for Bowie’s titular single. Actually, try not to think about it too much because it’s bloody upsetting, but it is important to the show.

I said “try NOT to think about it”

The reveal at the end of the final episode of series one is that the clown Alex keeps seeing is actually an analogue for her father, and what’s haunting her is not a ghostly Pierot, but the repressed memory that her father attempted to kill his family in a murder-suicide brought on by the shock of uncovering his wife’s affair. The bomb was set to go off when the tape of Ashes To Ashes reached a certain point. Alex, chasing her escaped balloon survived the explosion and went on to become a successful behavioural psychologist for the police. When confronting the bomb-maker, Arthur Leyton, twenty-seven years later he utters the lyric “I’m happy, hope you’re happy too”. Even before the gunshot that took her back to 1981, those words unpack those horrific memories and Alex’s nostalgia glands go into action, associating the clown from the music video with the murder of her parents.

Following the bombing, she remembered being comforted by a policeman in a black greatcoat, and that memory is warped to place Gene Hunt in the place of that officer, much to Alex’s confusion. He can’t have been there, can he?

The short answer is “No”. But there’s a long answer too (and I have a horrible feeling you’re going to tell us, aren’t you? Ed.)

Yes. Yes, I am.

Time and again I tell myself

OK, so there are two levels to the meaning of Life On Mars/Ashes To Ashes. On the surface, you can just accept that it’s a fun time travel/supernatural comic-drama which both parodies and pays homage to vintage, no-longer politically correct crime shows like The Sweeney, The Professionals or The Gentle Touch (RIP, the brilliant Jill Gascoine).

But when you start to think about the nature of how Gene’s world came into being, there are so many more layers than just “Oh, yeah, I remember Walkmans” (Walkmen?). We know, from the finale that Gene was a teenage beat officer, who believes himself invincible:

Oh, no, he’s Gary Cooper in High Noon. He’s the law. Only they weren’t kids. It was a man with a shotgun.

It’s a heartbreaking scene when we realise that the almighty Gene Hunt is just as fragile, maybe more so, as everyone else. But it was during this that something struck me. All Gene’s machismo, offensive banter, name-calling and dramatic sense of self-confidence are very much like the behaviour of a cocksure teenage lad. I’m sure it’s deliberately played up in the third series, with incidents like Gene knocking Keat’s coffee cup over when he’s losing an argument. Gene’s whole persona is who he wishes he could be when he grows up. This big, brash action hero who swoops in, shoots the place up (“You’re surrounded by armed bastards!”), and drives off in the loud sports car with the girl.

When the spirits of dead or comatose coppers began to gravitate towards him, Young Gene realised this was his chance to be of The Good Guy from the Western films he loved so much. And like a teenage boy, he made himself the centre of attention. The rude jokes, the put-downs of anyone who disagrees with him, the one-track attitude to romance and sex, the awkwardness talking about feelings – it all makes sense when you realise.

But Gene Hunt died in the 50s. How can he build a world in the 70s?

An excellent question and with an answer which in my mind is Graham and Pharoah’s masterstroke. One of the criticisms of both LOM and A2A is occasional anachronisms. Yes, there were obviously deliberate ones, like Sam having visions (like newspaper headlines) from his real time, or Alex meeting Adrian Dunbar’s Summers who had extensive knowledge of the “future”, but what the creators have done with Gene is they have critic-proofed the historical details of the show. Gene doesn’t just build his world from his own memories. The world of LOM/A2A is built from the memories of every copper who passes through Gene’s doors.

But Gene never lived in the 70s or 80s!

It doesn’t matter, because Ray did. Shaz did. Sam did. Alex did.

The Audi Quattro wasn’t made until a year after the show was set!

That’s OK because the person who provided that memory obviously didn’t quite remember the details correctly. Gene’s world isn’t a precise science, it’s founded on emotion. Think of The Mandela Effect, where you swear blind you remember something happening, but in actual fact, it never did. Thanks to Gene’s unique power, that thing could still happen in his world. It explains the occasional out-of-their-own-time aspects of the show quite elegantly. You can even blame the accidental anachronisms on it and everybody is none the wiser!

British coppers regularly carrying and discharging firearms is unrealistic!

In bombastic crime shows they did it, and TV from one’s childhood can be as, if not sometimes more vivid than real memories. As far as I am aware, real police officers don’t actually say “Get your knickers on love, you’re nicked!”. But if it’s there in the back of one of Gene’s subordinates, then HE says it.

Chris moonwalking his way out of a hail of bullets or Gene riding in to save the day on a speedboat packing an Uzi is just ridiculous!

Ridiculous? Us?

Of course, it is! That’s the point! Alex has recently read Sam’s report on Gene and his world. In her head, he’s a caricature of an action hero like one of Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal’s characters. Until she gets to know him on a more personal level, she gets EXACTLY what she thinks she will, crafting the world around her from her own expectations and memories of the period. It’s no accident that almost every episode is based around one of Alex’s strong (or occasionally repressed) memories. Just like the show, Gene’s realm wouldn’t even exist if people, fictional or real, didn’t have a deep need for good old-fashioned nostalgia (I see what you did there. Very good, Ed.).

In the world of Gene Hunt, memory and nostalgia are literally everything.

Paul Childs

As well as writing for Den of Geek and Your Truth, Paul also runs Badgers Crossing, a site for ghost stories. He loves the 1980s and thanks to a keen interest in Public Information Films he has never been electrocuted or set himself on fire.

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