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Life on Mars (2006-07)

Courtesy of Kudos Film and Television

Main image of Life on Mars (2006-07)
Kudos Film & Television/BBC Wales for BBC1, tx. 9/1/2006-10/4/2007
16 x 60-minute eps in two series, colour
Created byMatthew Graham
 Tony Jordan
 Ashley Pharoah
Produced by Claire Parker
 Cameron Roach
Directors includeS.J. Clarkson
 Bharat Nalluri
 John Alexander

Cast: John Simm (Sam Tyler), Philip Glenister (Gene Hunt), Liz White (Annie Cartwright), Ray Carling (Dean Andrews), Marshall Lancaster (Chris Skelton)

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A detective suffers a mysterious accident and wakes up in 1973, when police procedure was very different.

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'High concept' dramas - developed from a simple, striking and sometimes fantastical premise - were a 2000s success story as British television began to notice a dramatic rise in quality on American television. Life on Mars, though, was perhaps the decade's most unlikely hit, not just because its heart is in the 1970s, but because its obsession with nostalgia belonged more to the 1990s, when it was first devised.

The series was created during an all-expenses paid weekend in Blackpool, where a brief to come up with pitches for new drama series resulted in a time-travelling police drama, borne out of the writers' fondness for the politically incorrect action series of the 70s, notably The Sweeney (ITV, 1974-78). Channel Four and the BBC turned it down, but eventually BBC Wales, already committed to one time-travel drama in Doctor Who (BBC, 2005-), gave it the green light.

The story of enlightened 2000s copper Sam Tyler, who wakes from a car accident to find himself in 1973 and in a police station with a very different working practice, recalls, perhaps by coincidence, an earlier drama charting a similar journey in reverse. In The Black and Blue Lamp (BBC, tx. 7/9/1988), the killer of PC George Dixon in The Blue Lamp (d. Basil Dearden, 1950) is transported into a fictional 80s cop show, The Filth, and finds the culture shock as frightening as does Tyler on first encountering his 1973 opposite number, swaggering bully-boy Gene Hunt.

However, after a first episode that hinted at something beyond mere nostalgia for the 70s, with a sense of danger and nausea at the untamed thuggery of the era's police force, the series largely settled down into outrageous escapism, with macho anti-hero Hunt, given glorious life by Philip Glenister, becoming an icon to thirtysomething males everywhere.

While it may have squandered some of its potential, Life on Mars was lively and compelling, with a galaxy of memorable moments greatly aided by a sympathetic central performance from John Simm and an eclectic 70s rock playlist. The last episode was perhaps bound to disappoint, since it was common knowledge the writers had initially had no real explanation for Sam's predicament. But while Life on Mars arguably underestimated both the horrors of the 70s and the depth of the era's cop shows, it was nevertheless a resounding demonstration of TV's ability to lovingly recreate period, and to breathe new life into overfamiliar genres.

Simon Farquhar

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Video Clips
Sweeney, The (1975-78)
Simm, John (1971-)
TV Drama in the 2000s
TV Police Drama