EXCLUSIVE: Ashes to Ashes, the spin-off from Life on Mars, will end with the third series.
As the first series premieres in Australia, co-writer Ashley Pharoah talks to TV Tonight about both dramas, new US projects and what he thought of the US adaptation of Life on Mars.
“I almost really, really liked it,” he says. “I thought they did some stuff incredibly well. I wan’t involved with it, but they were very generous and invited me over to Manhattan for the read through. I got to have dinner with Harvey Keitel and other amazing things like that!”
The US version of the BBC original lasted 17 episodes before it was cancelled. Pharoah says there were fundamental changes to the roles of ‘Sam Tyler’ (Jason O’Mara) and ‘Gene Hunt’ (Harvey Keitel) that shifted the direction of the show.
“Our Life on Mars is essentially a love story between two blokes really. They’re equal, a yin and yang –that gives it its intensity. As soon as they cast Harvey, who’s 70, they didn’t do that two-hander. It was much more of an ensemble piece, because they knew they had to do so many episodes. I think they instantly watered it down a bit,” he says.
“When they cast Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos) as Ray, I thought ‘my God that amazing actor in such a small role.’ And of course the writers did what I would have done: stuck him in the back of scenes. But he really shouldn’t have been there, because in our version it was really only a two-hander scene.”
ABC shot two pilots, rejecting the first and shifting the series to new writers.
“There was a dreadful first pilot that was written by David E. Kelley. But it was really shonky. ABC had to wrest it off him. It all got a bit messy I think,” says Pharoah.
Initially, he was excited by the idea of Kelley taking charge.
“I was delighted he got it. My American friends said, ‘he’ll f*** it up.’ But ABC were very impressive. They kept giving it another chance, they threw money at it, they rearranged the schedule. It just didn’t stick for some reason. I thought there was some amazing stuff in there, and to watch American crews work in Manhattan was an incredible experience.”
But Pharoah is yet to see all the episodes of the US adaptation. He says the writers hated the UK ending and told him they couldn’t depict a suicide on American television. Instead they took it to a whole new place, which Pharoah admits he still can’t bring himself to watch.
“I haven’t seen the infamous ending but I’ve read about it online,” he says.
“I’ve been told they all wake up on a spaceship going to Mars. ‘Gene Hunt’ is the father of the ‘Sam Tyler’ character and they are going to Mars on a ‘gene-hunt’, a DNA hunt. It appears that over the whole series, before they left home they put on some TV they wanted to watch and they got mixed up with a ’70s cop show. The last shot, apparently, is of Harvey Keitel’s white shoe landing on Mars.
“The box set is coming out soon so no doubt someone will send it to me. People that have watched it online said ‘Yikes, it’s just so literal… going on a ‘Gene Hunt,'” he sighs.
“It’s like something some of our worst online web fans would come up with. But there you go…”
Despite the American failure, the series has had a successful Spanish adaptation and a Russian version is underway. A German adaptation, in which ‘Tyler’ wakes behind the Berlin Wall, has also been touted. So successful was the UK original that the BBC were keen for a follow-up. Pharoah and co-writer Matthew Graham delivered it in the form of Ashes to Ashes.
“We thought if the BBC were so keen for us to spin it off somehow then let’s have some fun. Let’s take ‘Gene’ out of his comfort zone, which was ’70s Manchester, bring him down south to reviled London. Let’s take away his male protagonist and bring a very smart female protagonist to battle with him.”
Replacing ‘Sam Tyler’ is Detective Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes), separated from her daughter and transported back to the 1980s.
“1981 was a ‘hinge’ year in British culture, musically with the New Romantic movement, and politically with the Falklands War and the rise of Thatcherism,” says Pharoah. “In police terms it was kind of the last year of people like ‘Gene Hunt.’ There were big inquiries into police corruption and violence. So what we’ve added to his character is just a little layer of melancholy I think. He knows that he’s about to become a dinosaur. It’s not going to change him, but he knows the good days are over. And that was an interesting thing for us to write and for Phillip (Glenister) to act.”
As Drake tries to find her way back to the future, Ashes to Ashes moves through two series of menacing crime amid a bleak era.
“Series 2 of Ashes is darker still in political terms. It’s so easy when you do near-period pieces in the ’70s and ’80s to make them parodies and pastiches, with funny haircuts. That’s a 5 minute gag really. We wanted it to be a good drama series as much as anything else.
“There’s 2 or 3 episodes that really recalibrate Ashes and get it out of its Life on Mars shadow. Towards the end of series one I think it’s as good as Life on Mars.”
A third series with Glenister and Hawes begins shooting in the UK soon, which Pharoah indicates will bring to a close two shows featuring ‘Gene Hunt’ and his team.
“I’m writing that today. It starts shooting in September and that will be it then. That will be the last,” he says.
“And the end of Ashes to Ashes will also bring in some of the mythology of Life on Mars. So it will be the end of a 5 year journey really.”
Despite the experience of Life on Mars US, he is exploring further projects with ABC with Matthew Graham.
“We’re just kicking around some ideas with ABC. It’s early days and it’s completely different TV culture than we’re used to,” he says.
“But it’s interesting, I think we might get something going.”
Ashes to Ashes screens 9:35pm Mondays on ABC1.