Believe it or not, I do watch things other than Top Model.
The last time I wrote about British TV was when I got all excited for the new season of Doctor Who. I never really followed it up on here because, in truth, I was a little disappointed with the final results, with the quality varying wildly with each different writer and an oddly underwhelming finale. The hiring of Stephen ‘Blink’ Moffat to take over the helm from Russell T. Davies, the return of the Stone Angels, the mystery of Alex Kingston’s River Song and the arrival of a brand new doctor and a spunky new companion had all boded so well… alas, it turned out to be a series not only bursting with potential, but also with the inability to live up to it.
Contrast with Ashes To Ashes, a show I’d all but given up on. Right from the beginning, it was an audition for Stars In The Eyes, saying ‘Tonight Matthew, I want to be Life On Mars.’ The right bits were all there but, like a Madame Tussaud’s waxwork, there was something about it that wasn’t quite right. Philip Glenister’s DCI Gene Hunt was as watchable as ever, churning out one-liners with the speed and ease of a machine-gun, but the character, the performance and the writing made him so inherently watchable that you’d probably sit through Hunt attempting to do Hamlet. Keeley Hawes softly psycho-babbling away could never compete with the mastery of John Simm, and she verged on annoying the viewer as much as she did Gene. And the change of era to the glib, superficial, flashy 80s seemed to set the tone for a series that appeared happy to rest on its laurels by providing a few good laughs, a few good car chases and a few good punch-ups each week. The website even has Gene Hunt’s Quattro listed as a character! Whilst the first season showed some promise, with the brilliant climax of a final big reveal, I found Season 2 near unwatchable. Dull, slow and ponderous, I only found the energy to struggle through (albeit usually with something else going on in another tab on my PC) once I’d learnt that Season 3 would be the definitive ending and provide some answers to the whole saga as begun by Simm’s Sam Tyler. And by ‘eck, it did.
Right from the first episode of the third season, I sensed a gear change, with the whole thing really accelerating around Episode 6. The plots were tighter, the pace was faster, characters were evolving and clues were being dropped at an appetite-whetting rate. A new character, DCI Jim Keats (Daniel May), was introduced and was just the kind of series-driving antagonist Season 2 so desperately needed to give it a greater sense of purpose. But I don’t want this review to include spoilers and become my thesis on the finale, because frankly, the Internet has enough playgrounds for fanboys. Instead, I just hope that this finds its way to someone who hasn’t watched and decides to give it a go. [And for my money, the much-maligned Season 2 isn’t essential to watching the last season anyway.]
The finale was simply a beautiful piece of television. It made everything slot together, made everything before it slot together even better and dovetailed perfectly into Life On Mars. The series creators always stated that they had wanted to do three seasons of Life On Mars, but John Simm wanting out put the cabosh on that. Despite Simm still being a no-show, the last Ashes To Ashes felt like a worthy ending to the whole affair. The door was closed gently and tenderly on five years of remarkable primetime telly, but with just enough loose ends and thought-provoking threads to inspire debate and discussion on the wastelands of the Interwebz for years to come.
It was moving, it was clever and it was startling. Other critics seem to have pieced things together well before time, but not me. It was enough of a surprise to be gripping viewing, but not so much of a left-field bolt from the blue that I was left thinking ‘WTF’ throughout. At times, the acting was hair-on-end heart-wrenching, taking you to places that you weren’t sure a retro bad haircut, a bird with an annoying voice and the chubby buffoon from Plus One were capable of. And that final realisation when everything clicked? Did I mention that it was just a rather beautiful piece of television?
Ultimately, Ashes To Ashes managed to transcend its roots from a high-concept tongue-in-cheek sci-fi time-warp cop-drama nostalgia-trip into something much much more. Sad but loving, profound but amusing, daring but populist, complex but essentially simple – and all with a much-loved misogynistic ball-breaking, tough-talking, hard-drinking, one-liner-spinning iconic anti-hero at its heart. And all this at 9pm on a Friday night on the Beeb? Quite an achievement indeed.