Sunday 30 May 2010

Dennis Hopper, last of the great mavericks

Dennis Hopper's death at 74 is sad, but also something of a miracle that Hollywood's most notorious drug addict lasted for so long. For me Dennis was one of those rare actors who was always good to watch no matter how bad the movie was, and he did star in some stinkers. There are many stories about his bizarre and colourful life, and it's likely a few of them are even true.

Some of my favourites include the tales of his prima donna behaviour on the set of the 50s western From Hell to Texas. Thinking himself the new James Dean he pitted himself against old-school director Henry Hathaway, refusing directions, going all method-actory, and generally acting like a rebel without a clue. His performance wasn't much good, but he did get himself a reputation as an idiot. He might never have worked again if John Wayne hadn't helped him out in the late 60s by giving him small roles in his westerns.

Then there was his behaviour on Apocalypse Now, a movie that didn’t need a drugged out wild man going insane in the jungle to make its points any clearer. A lot of his scenes were too incomprehensible to make the final cut, but what remained was nicely odd. And then of course there was his umpteenth comeback and his definitive role as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. David Lynch asked him why he thought he could play the role. Chillingly Dennis said, "You have to let me play Frank Booth. Because I am Frank Booth." The film provides possibly my favourite movie scene in which Frank glares at Dean Stockwell as he mimes In Dreams followed by the wild car ride and his confrontation with Kyle Maclachlan.

Of all the stories, my favourite, and so in all probability one that never actually happened, is of the making of The Last Movie, the film that destroyed his career for the second time in the 70s. I can't remember now where I read this version, but the general idea was that after the success of Easy Rider, the studios were keen to cash in on independent anti-establishment movie making. So they hired the drugged-up hippy Dennis to make a movie even though they didn’t understand the pitch he provided on the back of an envelope, figuring that they didn't understand Easy Rider and that made a fortune so clearly the incomprehensible The Last Movie would be a masterpiece too.

Dennis headed off with all his best mates to Peru armed with a sack load of Hollywood money, and the executives left him to it, giving him the independence within the system he demanded. After three months they'd yet to hear anything about progress and so some executives started to worry that Dennis's choice of Peru for a location might in some small way be connected to its closeness to the source of illegal substances.

An executive was discharged, and he arrived to find that not much filming was going on, but a fun party was now well into its third month. The executive started on his report telling the studio to pull the plug. But several days later, and several obliging hippy groupies and several strange looking cigarettes later, the executive was firmly of the opinion that the film was a masterpiece and that he should stay to monitor progress. Another executive was sent to find out why the first executive had suddenly started saying 'cool' and 'dude' a lot. A week later he reported back using cool and dude a lot saying that the film was a masterpiece and that he should stay to monitor progress too. And so it went on. After six months half the studio were down in Peru monitoring progress when the studio finally decided to withdraw funding.

Dennis returned and in his rare sober moments he edited the footage he'd managed to shoot when the actors had accidentally strayed in front of the camera lens. It took him about two years and in the end he produced something that made slightly less sense than you'd expect of a movie made by a bunch of drug addicts in the drug capital of the world. The studio executives gathered to watch and they sat through about four hours of disjointed, improvised, plotless nonsense. Not one of them understood a single moment, but at the end they all rubbed their hands with glee and declared they'd got a film that would make them a fortune. If they in their corporate suits didn't get it, then clearly zoned-out hippy culture would.

Sadly, just as the movie was about to go on general release common-sense prevailed and they realized that just because they didn't understand it, it didn't mean the film was any good. The Last Movie was largely withdrawn from circulation and has been seen only rarely since. Legends have grown up around the film as to whether it really is an undiscovered masterpiece or a lot of nonsense. I saw it once many years ago and it's classic cult fodder, being pretentious, incomprehensible, badly made in a good way, and gloriously daft. And the party scenes are some of the most authentic ever filmed. If anyone does understand this movie, I'd suggest they seek help before it's too late. But well done to Dennis Hopper for being a maverick and for making a maverick movie within the system.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Novel diary #1

Since getting a blog I've occasionally wondered if I should maintain a writing progress report for a story project detailing all the ups and downs, plot changes, blind alleys etc. So far I've shied away from doing it. Such a diary felt as it'd be too self-indulgent and it probably would be of no interest to anyone but myself. Also, there's no assurance that the project I reported on would produce a story that's any good, ever get finished, or if it does get finished ever get published. In fact I can't help but think that if I did do one, I'd put some sort of curse on the project and end up writing lots of words about a story that never sees the light of day. But for better or worse I have a blog to fill with something and so I've decided to keep a record of the progress, or lack of it, of my next writing project.

I've just about finished a story so I'll do it for the next story. So far all I have is the title Legend of the Seven. That phrase has been bouncing around in my mind for a while, I think because I feel I'm the sort of writer who ought to have written lots of westerns with legend in the title. As I haven’t, I need to change that.

So that's all I have so far, a page with Legend of the Seven written at the top, oh and the two words Chapter One. Hopefully next time I'll have at least a whole sentence to talk about.

Saturday 22 May 2010

Ashes to Ashes, Final Episode

And so the series ended by providing a definitive answer to the question of what the heck it has all been about while also giving the characters closure. But it also provided a dash of ambiguity and a hint of continuity that said the series could go on if they chose to do so. Despite my doubts beforehand, the ending worked for me.

In my previous article in which I tried to predict what the final episode would reveal I said that: The implications are probably that Gene is the dead copper. He's lain buried for forty years, his story unknown and untold. Now that Nelson's babbling and Keats' vendetta is drawing everyone back to Manchester he's about to be dug up, so he's restless and with Alex and Sam being close to death, they've seen him leading the life he would have led if he'd not been killed, his ghostly form oblivious to the fact his earthly form died. His last sight before being buried was the stars above and that is what everyone will see when his body is uncovered and his bones are finally put to rest with his story now known. So in the end it wasn't Sam's world or Alex's, but Gene's, and this was his story of his life that never was and his death that should never have been, all played out in a world that others can visit to replay their own deaths, seek redemption from their perceived failings, find affirmation of their worth, and resist the evil temptations of Keats prior to moving on to the great unknown...

In the end that was it, but I can’t be too pleased with myself as I did suggest about five different potential endings with that one being the one I thought the makers were leading us towards. The fact that the show was leading us there was pleasing and it means the final series made more sense than I feared it would.

I had three hopes for the conclusion: that it wouldn't have a barking mad twist such as they were on a spaceship, that it wouldn't change the ending to Life on Mars, and that it would provide the Wow factor with something new I hadn't expected. I got two out of three, and as Meat Loaf once sang, that's not bad.

The first of these hopes was delivered by the series doing the one thing its never done before: revealing the plot in an unhurried way. I've been unhappy with the usual format of two minutes of plot development and 58 minutes devoted to the weak story of the week. The ending reversed that trend by dashing off the cop story in the blink of an eye and devoting the rest of the time to the explanation. And it goes something like this (and I've only seen this episode once and there was a lot of detail so I may have got some aspects wrong):

Gene Hunt was a copper in the 1950s. He joined the force because of his love of westerns and his aim to be a sheriff like Will Kane from High Noon. On the day of the coronation (hence the picture of the queen in his office) he went charging into a room full of bad guys alone with all guns blazing under the naïve belief that the good guys always win. But sadly the bad guys hadn't watched any westerns. They killed and buried him, and his body was left unfound until the present day. But Gene's spirit lived on and he created for himself a fantasy world in which he lived out the life he had wanted to live, a life that was so appealing he gradually forgot he was dead. It was a life where he drove fast cars, kicked down doors, said 'shut it' a lot and he always banged the blaggers to rights. There was none of that time-wasting nonsense like form-filling or worrying about the criminal's human rights because this was a copper's fantasy of the way it never was but should have been. This fantasy was so powerful it attracted other coppers who had died before their time. Sam got run over accidentally, Alex got shot by nutter Layton, Ray hung himself in a fit of remorse after killing someone, Chris got shot up in the line of duty and Shaz got stabbed over something trivial. These people then experienced the life they could have led, made sense of their deaths, and had fun before moving on to whatever lies beyond.

As an explanation it works well enough and ensures that the alternate but very unrealistic past world is bulletproof because in the end it was a fiction within a fiction. And as a retro-fitted idea it just about joins both series together. Although I wish it'd been the ending they'd been working towards from the beginning as there were many aspects that don’t fit in but which could have done with more effort. Why did Sam and Alex go into the apparent past? Why didn't Sam and Alex get to re-live their deaths...? There are dozens of such unanswerable questions, but that doesn't matter. Not every loose end has to be tied up and the explanation made as much sense as a tv series needs to do.

My only minor complaint is that it alters the Life on Mars ending (at least I think it does as this was an ambiguous area) by stating that Sam died before he returned to a present day fantasy that he then went on to reject. Alex's path also matched his experience. Unlike Ray, Chris, Shaz and possibly Annie, who died immediately and immediately forgot their deaths, she and Sam clung on to life for a while and so they had a more troubled journey to acceptance that involved a false return home. So she probably died at the end of series 2 and rejected the false present day at the start of the final series. Her adventures in series 3 then followed the path Sam would have taken after Mars ended of forgetting about real life and becoming resigned to death prior to moving on. I can accept that as a valid change to Mars because the ambiguity is there as to whether the present day was a fantasy or not, and because it's brave of the makers to avoid the trappings of the easy happy ending. In the end Alex was dead, her body lying in the hospital and she'd never return to Molly. In fact everyone died, including the Quattro, and in any popular genre that is a hard ending to make work. And yet it did. So it goes.

The ambiguity also extended to Keats and the question of what he represented. Keats was the best thing about series 3. His bizarre off-note acting performance and fourth-wall breaking speeches managed to find a new angle on evil and creepy, giving his character an other-worldly quality. The final episode used that groundwork to present something that was genuinely disturbing. Keats cringed, crawled, leapt around, barked, squealed, hissed like a creature from the dark side. It was a good move to give him freedom to do whatever he wanted to do however bizarre as it made everyone else's restrained reactions more believable. Although I guess it's hard to know how anyone ought to react to the news that they're dead and have been for some time. Gene also deserves praise for doing something different with his performance. This series I've thought the actor was fed up with the show and was phoning in his lines, but he worked hard to sell us a different Gene, one who'd lost his swagger. The sight of a broken Gene reduced to being the young copper who died in the 1950s was saddening, making his inevitable return to being the old Gene who gave Keats a thumping all the more cheering.

Despite this there was one bum note in the episode. I've said before that the makers sometimes do bad things deliberately and this always turns out to be a bad idea, and it was the same here. The implication was that Keats was the Devil, which is fine as an implication, but when Alex tells him to go to hell and he agrees, the episode lurched in a direction that made me groan. The scene in which Keats tries to get everyone to join him in a red lift that only goes down, a long way down, was a scene that would have looked awful in a 60s Twilight Zone episode. Thankfully the show then moved away from that to leave Keats as being an evil, doubting thing, perhaps even a man like Gene who wanted to create his own fantasy rather than him being the ultimate soul destroyer, or at least I hope so as that would mean Viv is now in hell.

The final aspect of the ending that worked for me was the Wow factor, in fact three Wow factors. The first was the appearance of Sam Tyler, surely top of any fan's list of things to happen in the final episode, while also probably being top of any fan's list of things that shouldn't happen in the final episode. Frankly John Simm was never going to appear and if he had it wouldn’t have worked, but they got round it well with the glimpse of a fuzzy ghostly Sam in Gene's office. The second Wow was the appearance of the one character from Mars that I really did want to see: Nelson, who appears to welcome everyone to the afterlife, depicted as the pub The Railway Arms in which the song Life on Mars is always playing. As this is Gene's fantasy, a pub is the only place where dead people should go for eternity and who better to serve them than the enigmatic Nelson, especially as the fact he now serves wine hints he was Luigi too?

The final Wow provided the one thing I'd never envisaged as being the final scene. It was corny, daft, clearly not the end they had in mind at the start, but it didn’t matter because it was the right way to end the show. Fans have often pondered about the possibility of there being a third show in the franchise, and the makers have been right to refuse to do a Gene moving on to the 90s series. But in a good move they did actually make it, it's just that it lasted for only two minutes and it said everything it needed to in that time.

With Alex and the rest heading into the Railway Arms for eternity and with Keats slinking off to the underworld, Gene found himself alone in his fantasy world. He returns to his office to find all the bit part actors and extras are still around, and they all suddenly get a line of a dialogue and hints of personalities. So Gene pours himself a whiskey and reads up on Mercedes-Benz after the death of his Quattro. Gradually the lonely man gathers his authority while in the main office a new team forms as the shadowy characters step forward to take their turn in presumably reliving their deaths, making sense of their lives, and having fun. Then a new man arrives. He's just been assigned to Gene's team, except everything looks different, he doesn’t know what year it is, and his I-phone's gone. Gene smiles, then emerges from his office to have a word in his shell-like. And so the last line in the series was Gene's first line and the show is bookended, completed, but it also carries on.

Next week I'll have to find something else to bang on about.

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Ashes to Ashes: wave goodbye to the 80s

With the conclusion to the time-travel cop show Ashes to Ashes imminent I guess now is the time for me to do what many people are doing and put in writing my guess on how the franchise's many mysteries will be resolved, all done with the full acceptance I'll be completely wrong.

But before I get it wrong, I'll go back in time myself to look at the evolution of the 5-part series, which has been something of a mixed bag. Life on Mars started strongly with a superb and consistent first series that did everything right. It had interesting stories, great characters, a seemingly effortless mixture of comedy and drama, a dash of sci-fi, and most importantly it had charm. Series 2 repeated the formula and it got most things right, but some of the charm had worn off, and the series devoted too much time to unsubtle comedy and a drawn-out set-up to the conclusion.

Then Ashes came along and the franchise fell down a big hole in the ground. The first few episodes presented some of the most dire sights I've ever willingly sat through and even the makers' later claim that they were being bad deliberately to send-up 80s cop shows didn't help to dull the pain of seeing Gene Hunt shooting up half of London without hitting anything from the back of a slow speedboat to the tune of No More Heroes. If nothing else this proved that being bad deliberately is a bad idea, although they then had to make Bonekickers to confirm it.

Thankfully series 1 improved as it went along and strangely it had enough rough and ready charm to be entertaining, which I guess is all you can ask for. Series 2 improved massively by addressing most of the things that were wrong with series 1. It wasn't as strong as either Mars series, but it could have been with a better conclusion to the mysteries of Summers and Operation Rose, something that doesn't bode well for the end to the inconsistent series 3. Several episodes this series have been even worse than the early Ashes episodes by committing the worst sin of all, being boring. But also several episodes, most notably the Litton one, have been as good as anything Mars managed.

So, how will this inconsistent but entertaining show end? The short answer is I don’t care. I did once, but not any more. I don’t mean that in a bad way as it's not stopping me speculating. It's just that the show has changed direction so many times I'm just going along for the ride now. In fact I'd suggest that the 5-part series has actually worked its way towards five different endings, and that's about four too many for me. Worse, we've been promised that the ending is so 'bonkers' nobody will have figured it out, and if that turns out to be the case, I think the point of the show has been lost somewhere along the way.

When Sam Tyler got run over ten minutes into episode 1 of Life on Mars and woke up in 1973 it was clear where the show was going. He was in a coma in the present day and his unconscious mind had created a dream world to keep his brain active and help him wake up. That was it, no mystery, no complexity. In every episode doctors talked to him through the radio and tv, and it was clear they would get him to wake up when the show had run its course. But then the writers started reading what viewers thought about the story. To their surprise, fans were debating what it all meant. It was never supposed to be a mystery and yet many viewers thought there was one. So series 2 tried to make more of a mystery out of the question of whether Sam was in a coma, back in time, or gone mad. The franchise format of minuscule plot development in the opening and closing minute was born as it tried to work towards something more mysterious and meaningful than just Sam waking up.

This ultimately worked because it directed the show to what was for me the best finale to any tv series. Sam woke up, found that real life wasn't as much fun as being dead, and so he killed himself to snog Annie and suffer one last bit of abuse from Gene. That was emotional, daring, and it didn't stand up to even a moment's thought, but it was perfect. Later I found out that many people viewed the ending differently: Sam hadn't woken up at all. When he found that he couldn’t feel pain he realized he was still in a coma and so he returned to the more exciting coma dream. That wasn't so emotional, but it didn’t matter. The final shot of the series had the Test Card Girl switching off the screen from the other side and so telling us not to fret about what it meant, it was only a tv series and we hope you enjoyed it. And I had.

Sadly though Life on Mars had only the two series. It's always assumed John Simm didn’t want to do any more and so with show ending too quickly Ashes was born, created on the unlikely premise that Sam's psychologist Alex Drake also falls into a coma and she recreates Sam's world. This required a change of focus with Alex creating versions of Gene, Ray and Chris from a female viewpoint and by making explicit the minor Mars theme that the dream world provided a form of past-life regression therapy. In a coma and hovering between life and death, the mind recreates a key past incident to resolve any outstanding issues and so make sense of the individual's existence prior to moving on. Freed from external stimuli the brain can rediscover forgotten memories and make connections it could never have formed when awake, and so like Sam and his troubling issues with his father, Alex resolves her parental issues.

This was still a clear and interesting idea, but then, with Ashes getting an extension beyond one series and with this theme being exhausted, for series two the show looked around for another direction. Rather than opting to be just a simple, fun, nostalgic cop show, the makers decided that the fans enjoyed the mystery aspect of the format more than the cop show aspect. So they chose to go down the same route as Lost had and pile mystery on top of mystery on top of mystery, which would have been fine if made to work, but I don't think this decision played to the makers' strengths. Ashes' muddled, slow, confusing complexity wasn't as much fun as the simple, controlled purity of the Mars concept, and accordingly the arrival of Summers, another coma victim, shifted the emphasis from the dream world being something Sam and then Alex had created to it being real. By the end of the series, Summers could still have been a character Alex had dreamed up, but it felt as if the dream world had been reshaped into an alternate reality that people in comas visit. Series 3 has shifted the focus again to this alternate world not just being real, but to Gene Hunt being the reality's crucial element, perhaps even its very reason for existing.

As this is at odds with how the show started, I'm no longer obsessed with finding out the latest explanation of the who, what, why and how, other than for it to leave the ending to Life on Mars intact that Sam chose death over life because it was more fun. But clearly there is an ending to come that is being worked towards very slowly with liberal red herrings, massive plot holes, and much misdirection. And the ending has to be a simple one to work within the confines of a popular tv series. The implications are probably that Gene is the dead copper. He's lain buried for forty years, his story unknown and untold. Now that Nelson's babbling and Keats' vendetta is drawing everyone back to Manchester he's about to be dug up, so he's restless and with Alex and Sam being close to death, they've seen him leading the life he would have led if he'd not been killed, his ghostly form oblivious to the fact his earthly form died. His last sight before being buried was the stars above and that is what everyone will see when his body is uncovered and his bones are finally put to rest with his story now known. So in the end it wasn't Sam's world or Alex's, but Gene's, and this was his story of his life that never was and his death that should never have been, all played out in a world that others can visit to replay their own deaths, seek redemption from their perceived failings, find affirmation of their worth, and resist the evil temptations of Keats prior to moving on to the great unknown... or something equally silly. And that's the problem.

We've been promised bonkers and as we're being led towards variations on those themes, it has to be something different and bizarre such as the Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland and Blade Runner references meaning something along the lines of them all being replicants on a generational starship who are the victims of secret government experiments, or as some fans have suggested: variations of the Jacob's Ladder solution of a dying dream within a dream. But then again the claim that the ending is bonkers should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt because every twist in the series so far has turned out to be less interesting than expected. On that basis it could be the most mundane solution possible that Gene accidentally killed the copper when he set fire to Sam's car while feigning his death and on discovering his guilty secret Alex will then wake up to find out that everything that's happened for the last five years, even getting badly hurt and going into a coma, was just a dream.

Having said that I reckon the writers are better than that and so I'm drawn towards thinking that Ashes has shown one consistent clever element to the plotting of displaying huge plot holes in full view but then later filling them, such as desk sergeant Viv leading the riot squad in episode 6, but then later showing that he did that because he was corrupt. Ashes started with an illogical plot hole of Alex visiting Sam's world, so the answer could be to fill that hole. The Alex we saw for about five seconds in episode 1 was in a coma, but she was in a completely different coma to her main coma and to the other coma to which she possibly awoke at the end of series 2. So that comatose Alex could be the only real character in the whole show. The dead copper is the real Sam Tyler and she's been uncovering the truth about his death in a car accident by dreaming both Life on Mars and Ashes, and Sam and Gene and everyone else exist only in a dream within a dream within a... oh, why am I bothering? If there's no way you can work it out, why try?

I'll cut to the chase. If I have to guess not what the makers will provide as an ending, but the ending I want, then I'll stick with the ending I've always thought the show required from the very start, the most simple one, the one where we take everything we've seen at face value and there's no twists, no surprise revelations, no lessening of the emotional impact through clever reveals: Alex fell into a coma after an unfortunate accident. And so did Sam. She's dreaming everything and making connections and solving crimes with her half-dead mind based on Sam's file, the files she's read in the police archives and the news reports she overhears on the tv. She'll solve the crime that led to the copper, who could be the real Gene, getting his face blown away then buried and it'll turn out that the Gene we've seen is like the clown from series 1, a manifestation she's created to guide her to the truth about his real death. It'll end with her giving bad clown Keats a good kicking, the bit part characters a thank you for their help in piecing together the truth, and Gene's bones eternal peace, probably by doing the cradling at the point of dying thing. And then she'll properly wake up in the real world. Molly is waiting, all spookily grown-up. She'll walk out of the hospital, happier and wiser and knowing she's a damn fine detective for solving a real crime while comatose, and then something needlessly goofy and cryptic will happen like Gene's face appearing on a tv screen... And just when we're all boggling about what it means some flaming twonk of a BBC continuity announcer will drown out the last words, an animated ident for the nonsense on next week will dance around the screen, and the plug for the last sing-along-a-Gene 80s special will scrunch the screen up. Or maybe that only happens on Doctor Who.

But I won’t mind how nonsensical or cryptic or mundane the ending is. Series 1 of Life on Mars is already sitting beside the tv and next week I'll be watching it from the start, again.

Saturday 15 May 2010

Ashes to Ashes, Series 3, Episode 7

The penultimate episode was reasonably entertaining, although with this being the first of a two-parter, most of the story was a set-up for the conclusion to the franchise. So, with this being Ashes, that set-up involved repetition and not telling us much beyond what we'd already learnt in the opening ten minutes of episode one. Luckily, with this being Ashes, a sense of the series coming to an end was provided by the characters talking about 'final chapters', 'it's all coming to an end' and 'don't you ever get the feeling that everything is about to fall apart?'

That final comment came in Chris's effective fourth-wall breaking speech and it was appropriate he got the best summation of the imminent end of the franchise as this was effectively his episode. In the earlier part of the series I was scornful of the secondary characters taking the lead to the extent I almost stopped watching, but I'm glad I didn't because after several false starts it was finally made to work. What I hadn't liked was the rigid format in which in each episode one character goes through their personal hell, works out their differences with Gene, and then gets a spooky, dark close-up with 'that black bloke from the pub' gibbering in the background. Afterwards they see stars.

Chris didn’t get a spooky moment in episode 4, and we now find out that that was because the episode was a red herring. In reality episode 7 was Chris's episode, and his finest hour has been a long-time coming. For 39 episodes Chris has been the idiot who dribbles egg-butty juice on dead bodies, but finally he grows up and looks Gene in the eye as an equal. Pleasingly his big moment mirrors other missed opportunities. Episode 7 of series 2 was the moment when we learnt that Chris was the traitor in the office. In this series his episode 7 crisis took place in a cell with a prisoner, and unlike the scene in episode 4 in which he beat up the thug who was twice his size, this time he did the right thing and let the suspected terrorist go. The sudden realization that he can think for himself was a good way to bring his character's story to an end and so he got his Nelson moment after which he could join Shaz and Ray in starry, spooky wonderment.

With plenty of Chris stuff to get through this meant that thankfully there wasn't much time left for the story, something that again showed why episodes 3 and 4 didn't work. The more time that's devoted to the main story, the more it makes you realize they're rubbish. This one was no exception as Gene yet again tackles inept terrorists, this time ANC exiles, leading to the struggle against one of the most evil political systems of the 20th century being reduced to police officers with umbrellas running around the corridors playing being Zulus. But at least Alex got to call a member of the South African police force a 'racist git' so it wasn't all a waste of time.

Aside from the Chris and the freedom-fighter scenes, the remainder of the episode was devoted to giving Alene closure. Alene has been the one character in the series who hasn't interested me, so the realization that this is where the episode was going didn’t fill me with enthusiasm. In fact I hadn't even realized Alene was a key character until I googled Ashes last year and discovered just how popular this person is. Apparently there's a rule that when two people have a relationship, the shorthand summary of their partnership comes from taking letters from both their names and joining them up. So as Alex is a girl and Gene is a bloke, they are deemed to have a relationship and it becomes Alene, or then again it might be Drunt or Hake, I forget.

Anyhow, as I have no interest in this relationship I've avoided discussing it so far, but as I'll have nothing more to say about this episode if I don't mention it, here goes. For me Alene has been the weakest part of the show, even more so than the formulaic main plots. Series 1 got a lot of things wrong, but Alene made me groan and start twitching for the remote from the moment Gene first clapped eyes on Alex's legs and quipped, 'Blimey, if that skirt was hitched any higher I could see what you had for breakfast.' The rest of series 1 continued with this crude Dempsey and Makepeace type formula of the two leads spouting bad, flirty dialogue at each other and the stories finding contrived reasons for them to be trapped and sweaty together.

I hoped back then that for series 2 the makers would forget Alene, but sadly I then discovered that lots of viewers loved this stuff and the writers knew it. So series 2 upped the quota of Alene moments and lowered my interest. For me series 2 was easily the strongest and most consistent of the three, and the only element that didn't work was the bits where Alex and Gene tried to convey that they had womanly and manly urges for each other. I don’t know why those scenes didn’t work. It's not just that I'm a bloke. I can enjoy a good Doris Day and Rock Hudson movie (or Dork flick I suppose), but Alene was plain embarrassing. It could have been the bad writing, the bad acting, or a bit of both, but every time Alex and Gene got up close and stared into each other's eyes while desperately searching for a believable 'kiss me, you fool' look, it just made them look vaguely constipated.

The actors couldn't sell it to me that a smelly alcoholic and an arrogant posh bird would have an interest in each other, and so I was left to hope that the makers would forget about it and it'd go away. And it did. And strangely I was disappointed because for series 3 not only did they get rid of Alene, they also threw away all the interaction between Alex and Gene that did work. But Episode 7 reversed that policy and gave Alene a full romantic work-out, and even more strangely it actually worked and made me wish they'd done it like that from the start.

The scenes where Alene decide to have a date, get ready for it, have the date, then are stuck in will we/won’t we limbo were perfectly judged. The episode let the scenes play out in character with no plot contrivances, with plenty of believable dialogue, and with clever, subtle humour. The actors didn't even look embarrassed, which helped a lot too. I liked the intercut sequence of them getting dressed up with Alex drinking herself into a stupor to get up the courage and Gene seemingly using whisky as an aftershave. And when Alex finally tells Gene, 'get your goat, you've pulled.' I was genuinely pleased for them (actually that line might have been on the previous night's 'You have been watching'). And I especially like Alex saying to Gene 'Let's Dance' even though the Bowie song didn't start playing. Of course having left Alene to the penultimate episode it was inevitable that it wouldn’t work out and Keatus interruptus prevailed when Keats arrived with pictures of dead coppers and weather vanes.

This brought us back to the main story arc that was resolutely failing to move forward on its own, as somewhere in their ill-fated romantic interlude, Alex had asked Gene if he'd killed Sam and irritatingly he had told her he hadn't but he had helped him feign his death. As I predicted last week, this mundane conclusion did annoy me as Gene could have flaming well told us that in episode 1 and not wasted so much time over pointless intrigue. Even Keats was bored with this answer and he quickly moved on to suggesting the ghost copper is the reason Gene left Manchester, and so presumably resolving whether or not Gene killed him along with the truth about the copper's identity will be the point of the final episode. And, as this review is already a long one, I'll stick my neck on the block in a separate article later and for better or worse say what I think that conclusion will be.

Next week, the Starman will stop waiting for Major Tom to ask him if there's Life on Mars and reveal that the truth is to do with a Laughing Gnome... or something like that.

Monday 10 May 2010

Ashes to Ashes, Series 3, Episode 6

Episode 6 completes the process of the series morphing into Life on Mars with the return of Sam Tyler... well, sort of.

After a couple of poor episodes in mid-season the series has now returned to top form, although I wasn't enthused about the choice of plot this week in which a tense hostage crisis develops at a prison. Every cop series will eventually have a hostage crisis episode and that familiarity with the clichés means they struggle to hold my interest no matter how tense and dramatic things get. As Ashes is at heart a routine cop show, it was no surprise that it delivered all those clichés in the expected manner, but as it's also a show with an original format, I was hoping it would provide something extra. In the main it succeeded.

Having said that the one element that didn’t work for me was its big dramatic twist. The show has a poor record as regards twists and the killing off of a main character (which is also something of a hostage crisis cliché) was a letdown. If Gene or Alex had been shot up, I'd have been thrilled by the makers' bravery. If it had been Chris or Ray, I'd have been suitably saddened. If it had been Keats or Shaz, I'd have been unaffected. But the bloke from Desmond's! Casual viewers probably haven’t even realized he's in the show as he gets less screentime than Luigi. The death of the extra with weird facial hair who never gets a line would have been more traumatic. Frankly as regards memorable moments of tv, the Desmond's episode where the actor's unrequited 'Niles and Daphne style' romance with his secretary finally became requited was far more emotionally packed than the demise of desk sergeant Viv.

Thankfully the rest worked. The episode continued the season's good work with its stylish art direction. I was in two minds earlier in the season about the darker style, but it worked excellently here with several well-framed sequences. The opening was particularly memorable with cops cowering behind riot shields as bricks rain down, Sunday, Bloody Sunday plays, and Gene Hunt strides out at the front in full 'you don’t negotiate with scum' mode. Season 1 of Ashes repeatedly tried to create mythic Hunt moments and it always failed. The series back then thought that all it had to do to work was to have Hunt look mean and moody, but finally it's succeeded in showing he's a man like no other, a man who takes on the bad guys armed only with the power of his stare. The episode also did well to tie the crisis into the arc story, in which the successful ending of the hostage drama was but a means to resolve the growing battle between Keats and Hunt for the hearts, minds and possibly souls of Hunt's team. And in that Keats appeared to be winning as his steady diet of doubt and bile, slightly improbably, started to convince Alex that Hunt was a bad guy.

This ultimately came to a head in another stylish, memorable scene in which Keats repeated the cradling a dying person act. Unlike the previous time he did it, this was effective and creepy as Keats stalked the abandoned, trashed prison whistling Viv's favourite song while watching Viv die with utter indifference. The fact that Hunt also wanted to cradle Viv perhaps makes explicit the idea that these two are battling for the souls of the dying, but it also reminded me oddly of Leone's spaghetti westerns. Leone believed his principle characters were mythic gods from a by-gone age whose personal battles were beyond the understanding of mere mortals. If the makers were going for that, then maybe Hunt is the Good, Keats is the Bad, and Alex is, well, the Ugly... I guess that doesn't work, but it might explain her terrible choice of make-up and hairstyle this season.

Either way, the question of whether Hunt is the Good was the main thrust of the episode as the plot again tried to convince us that Hunt has skeletons locked away in his filing cabinet. This could be leading to several possible conclusions. The first possibility is that it's all a red herring. Twists are inevitable in Ashes and if the show is trying to convince us that Hunt has killed Sam Tyler and possibly the ghost copper, then surely he hasn't. And if this turns out to be the case, I'll be disappointed that so much time has been wasted when Hunt could have just revealed the truth ten minutes into episode one and saved us all a lot of bother. The second alternative is that Hunt really is the Bad. This is possible as the theme for the season is that the good guys are bad, a theme that has been hammered into us so often that now even the characters are saying it several times an episode in case we hadn't realized that that's the theme. I'll applaud the makers if they have the courage to do this, but somehow I can’t see them risking alienating the show's fanbase.

Luckily a more interesting and believable option started to come through again in this episode: that Hunt is the Ugly. When the franchise started and Sam first waltzed into Hunt's kingdom to find he was about to have 'oops and then got a thumping, Hunt wasn't meant to be a hero. He was the antagonist that Sam had to defeat or at best an anti-hero, an overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding. Of course back then Hunt was only worried about why Sam thought that was a bad thing, but the viewers took to him as a hero and so a hero he became. But he's not perfect, and that's the point of his character. He does good but in a bad way, he demands fierce loyalty beyond all logical reason, and he's the ultimate personification of the ends justifying the means. Or to put it another way, he voted for Maggie Thatcher but that doesn't make him all bad. So when he discovers that a man on his team was the mastermind behind the prison riot and that he betrayed everything the force stands for, his reaction is to put aside his disgust, declare Viv a hero and cover up his crimes. That to me is the character of Hunt: a corrupt, flawed man or a loyal, moral man, depending on whether you’re in his team or not.

Despite all this the series also inched its way towards revealing the alternate explanation of Hunt's character that addresses the issue of none of these characters necessarily being real people. Whether this reality is Alex's dream world, an alternate reality, or an after-life reality, Hunt's role is clearly key. As is usual all of the elements that are supposed to be explaining this role remained static. Alex's tv is still silent, Molly is still missing presumed forgotten about, Ray and Shaz discussed their visions of stars only briefly, and the ghost copper had his usual blink and you'll miss it spooking. But thankfully Alex did find a picture of the copper in Hunt's drawer and the hint through clever composition grew that the copper may in fact be Hunt. The episode also shockingly revealed that the oft-repeated clue 6-6-20 was the copper's pc number, a revelation that no-doubt failed to excite a single Ashes fan as the Internet community who examine every frame of the show with a scanning electron microscope in search of wild theories had figured that one out within two minutes of the copper first appearing in episode 1.

Better still though was the new elements. We had a bizarre dream sequence that somehow managed to be even weirder than the usual weird dream sequences and we had the welcome return of Sam Tyler. The Sam in question was a con-man prisoner who tries to convince Alex that he's really Sam inhabiting a different body, and pleasingly the episode didn't confirm whether he was just trying to fool her into freeing him or whether he really was Sam. The actor had a John Simm quality to his acting style and facial features which combined to provide just the right amount of ambiguity. And it was fun to have someone ask again whether they'd gone mad, were back in time, or in a coma, especially as Alt-Sam appeared to have gone mad. It also turned out that Alt-Sam was the real Sam's last arrest before he died and so it was possible that Sam had told him the truth that this reality absorbs you and you forget your past life. Then, when you figure out the full truth about this reality, it fragments into nothingness and you move on to something else. Alt-Sam's explanation was compelling because for the first time I started to think that when the show does explain itself, it might do so in a way that doesn’t contradict the ending to Life on Mars, an ending that I like.

Next week is the penultimate episode in which Hunt and Alex go on a date and Alex finally asks Hunt for a straight answer to the straight question of: did you kill Sam Tyler? My money is on his answer being that he'll tell her next week.

Sunday 2 May 2010

Ashes to Ashes, Series 3, Episode 5

After two poor episodes the series returns to top form with an enjoyable romp. The previous episodes featured dreary stories that struggled to last for the hour, but this time round there was enough material to fill three episodes leading to a non-stop frantic mixture of comedy, drama and character.

The promise that the series would morph into Life on Mars was fulfilled with the arrival of Litton, Hunt's sparing partner from the first year of the franchise. Litton is a glorious creation, being preposterous, funny and weird while somehow also making a serious point about the behaviour of the police. Ashes usually goes to great lengths to show us that Hunt's team are dinosaurs from a bygone age, often by letting them rub up against more mature and forward thinking people. Litton turned all that on its head by taking the opposite route of saying what we've all been thinking that since Hunt went south he's gone soft. Anything that Hunt can do in being non-PC, fitting up villains, and generally riding roughshod over every rule in the book, Litton can be twice as bad. So Litton and his equally moustached partner Bevan swaggered around Hunt's patch beating up bad guys, violating several isms in every sentence, and treating all southerners with equal contempt.

Litton's macho nonsense brought out the best in Hunt as a race to solve a crime for a barrel of beer gathered pace. Better still Hunt's and Ray's realization that these days they act like a couple of great, soft, sissy, girlie, nancy, french, bender, Man United supporting poofs perfectly captured the twisted morality of Life on Mars. The cops may be corrupt under today's rules when they beat confessions out of the blaggers, fit up whomever they fancy for the crime, and take the line that evidence can always be found to please a sympathetic judge. But these cops know best what the line is between good and evil, and evil is the scumbags on the street and good is the copper who keeps decent folk safe while never taking bribes. The last element was perhaps a little strained as Litton was around in Manchester when Hunt was still taking bribes, but he still brought the basics of the old Manchester approach to crime solving down south.

I've poured a lot of scorn on the recent episodes' weak stories, and this week the main story was again slight and it again included the twist that the bad guy was decent and the good guy was bad, but with the characters interacting again that didn't matter. So Alex tried to get into the head of a northern comedian, played by the always worthwhile Roy Hudd, while Hunt thumped anyone who got in his way. The other characters also interacted with Chris being his usual awkward sensitive self and Ray struggling to work out how a bloke should behave to prove he's a bloke. I wish they'd made this episode Ray's episode instead of the dire episode 3 as we learnt more about what makes Ray tick in a few short entertaining scenes than we did during the whole of that angst filled dirge. Ray is happy to dance on stage with Chris at the police ball, but the moment the macho Litton arrives he has to show he's a real man by not dancing. As the episode progresses Ray first devolves to a Neanderthal then is reborn as a new man when he gets on stage to sing Danny Boy badly. The singing was less dramatic than the petrol can scene from episode 3, but more effective and real.

The comedic and nostalgic elements also returned to top form with Chris's terrible 80s dancing and a bizarre interlude where the bad guys shoot-up Ben Elton. I couldn’t tell if that was an affectionate joke or a cruel one as yes, as Alex said, that spared us the Queen musical, but I'd hate to think Alex's past world would never get to enjoy Blackadder.

The best element for me though was that for the first time this series the show made the lack of movement in the bigger picture work. Absolutely nothing happened that explains with any more clarity what's going on, but for once we got to see everyone's reaction to the weirdness. So the ghost copper, who was probably a bit tired after spooking Alex twice last episode, never appeared and if the weather vane shadow appeared I missed it, but that was more effective and tension-filled than the usual half-second spooky moment. What we got instead was about a hundred mentions of Sam Tyler, none of which told us anything, but they all provoked reactions or in Gene's case a stony-faced refusal to react. Later Gene sneakily destroyed all the evidence on Sam's mysterious death as he tried to convince us he was up to no good, but that only went to prove to me that he's got a good reason. It's a bit like watching Captain Kirk being accused of killing Spock. The more the evidence piles up that he did it the more you know for sure that he didn't. For what it's worth I'll stick to my theory that what Gene is covering up is the fact that he saw Sam disappear. I’d guess when Sam died in the real world he stopped existing in the fantasy world and Gene witnessed that, and it's the realization that he's not real that worried him.

Ray also faced questions about existence when like Shaz and Alex he found himself on the edge of the world confronted by stars. This was a short but effective scene as from that moment Ray's attitude changes and he gets closer to Shaz as they share their worries that reality is under threat. The strangest sequence though was Alex having flashbacks of Life on Mars with Sam modelling his leather jacket. I had the unfortunate experience of opening the Daily Telegraph newspaper this week and amidst the ranting the reviewer of this episode perfectly summed up the Sam Tyler scene as being so bizarre it'd have confused David Lynch. I therefore won’t try to read anything into that because as with everything else we again learnt nothing new, but with the characters now reacting to the odd sequences it at long last feels like the series is heading somewhere.

Next week there's a prison riot and Hunt's team goes in disguised as undercover cops. The only article I've read about the episode said avoid the spoiler and as I didn't I'd suggest you do.