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End of the (Thin Blue) Line: Televisionary Talks to "Ashes to Ashes" Co-Creator Matthew Graham About the Final Series

Who is Gene Hunt?

It's been a question that fans of Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah's Life on Mars and its sequel series, Ashes to Ashes--which stars Keely Hawes and Philip Glenister as Gene Hunt himself--have been asking themselves for years now.

The answer to that and many more of Ashes to Ashes' mind-bendng mysteries will be revealed when the trippy 1980s-set drama wraps up its run later this spring in the United Kingdom, with the third and final series set to launch on Friday evening on BBC One.

I had the opportunity to interview co-creator Matthew Graham about the upcoming third season in a one-on-one interview in which we discussed the strange journey from Life on Mars to Ashes to Ashes, the identity of Gene Hunt, where and when we find ourselves when Series Three gets underway, the new character joining the ranks of the Metropolitan Police Force, what viewers should expect from the final series of Ashes, and much more.

Televisionary: Series 3 marks the end of Ashes to Ashes and the end of a story arc that began more or less with the start of Life on Mars. What is it like coming to the end of the road and completing the story that you set out to tell?

Matthew Graham: It’s very, very satisfying. As you know more than anyone, Jace, you don’t normally get to end a show; a show is just ended for you by higher powers. You usually only find out after you’ve completed a season and then you’re just told you’re not coming back. That’s how it works in the UK. In the US, it’s a little more brutal because you can be cancelled in the middle. To be able to write the end and know that you can actually draw an underscore on your show with a conclusion and a climax is terrifically satisfying. I wondered whether I would feel sad or melancholic coming to the end but I haven’t yet. I just felt a sense of real satisfaction at being able to bring it to an end.

Televisionary: Life on Mars ending up being two series long because John Simm didn’t want to commit to a third season. When you set out to tell the story of Ashes to Ashes, was there a specific timeframe or length you had in mind ideally? Did you have three series in mind?

Graham: Absolutely. We actually gave—Ashley Pharoah and I—an interview for Series One where we said we have a three-year plan for the show. And then afterwards, we thought, wow, that’s big talk from two guys launching a show. [Laughs.] But whether we actually get three is another matter. But that was always the plan and always the hope: that the first series would be the most frivolous and frothy and fun—fun with a “big F”—and that gradually we would start to darken the world and bring Life on Mars into it, so that the feel of that show, the darkness, starts to permeate Ashes as Ashes runs on.

That was the plan but we had no idea if we would get three series out of the BBC. But after Series One, it did very well so we knew that in, UK television terms, usually if you get a second series, you’re in pretty good shape for a third. That just seems to be how audiences go. If they come back for [Series Two], they will come back a third time. We felt more confident about it. In fact, we had quite the opposite problem with the BBC in that they were trying initially to keep it running longer for obvious reasons. It’s rare to get a proper break-out show and, when you do, you don’t want to kill it.

We managed to persuade them that it was better to tell a story, develop it, and end it. We didn’t want to get tied up in too many cul-de-sacs as Lost was in danger of doing, though it sounds like they’re pulling themselves out of that with great aplomb, from what I hear. We didn’t want to get into a state where we kept having to create more and more convoluted and unusual mysteries and then think, well, how the hell do we tie those up? Three is good: three and out.

Televisionary: It’s interesting that that you mentioned Lost. Executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse were able to convince ABC to give them a timeframe to end the show, because they were treading water for so long and wanted to tell the story that they wanted to tell. In looking at Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes as a single narrative unit, is it the ending that you and Ashley wanted to tell?

Graham: It’s the ending that we wanted to tell as we began the journey with Ashes. But we didn’t have this ending in mind when we wrote Mars. What we had was a theory or a strong idea of what the world represented and what it was and who Gene Hunt was but we never really got to explore that because when we realized that we were truncating Mars and finishing it after two [series], we realized that we had to spend all our time focusing on the Sam Tyler journey. So we just concentrated on that. When we came to Ashes, we had an overall plan but it’s evolved. It has evolved; it just does along the way because you come up with better ideas and people come on board and they have ideas and you think, well that that would be great. Let’s incorporate that.

So although the world, the big mystery that we’ve created, i.e., that there’s a world that Sam Tyler and now Alex Drake find themselves in, has always been the same for us, and we will explain it. It’s bits and pieces to do with Gene and his relationship to Alex and a few other things have come on along the way and sort of stuck like little idea barnacles onto the ship and we’ve used those as well. It has changed and it has evoked.

Televisionary: Obviously, the mystery of who Gene Hunt is has been at the heart of both shows, especially in Ashes. In looking at how you were going to wrap up this series, did you have a clear, concise idea of who or what Gene was? Or has that evolved as well?

Graham: We were pretty consistent about who Gene was, up until we began storyline Series Three. An idea came up in the room that didn’t destroy what we had, but was so cool and so fascinating and flipped so much on its head but at the same time seemed to make perfect sense—it didn’t fly in the face of anything that had come before, as far as we could see with that character—that we just couldn’t resist doing it. We thought, well that’s something that I don’t think people will see coming and yet hopefully won’t feel like it’s a cheap, tacked on novelty reveal. That was a brand-new idea that I can’t, obviously, explain what that is yet, but it was a brand-new idea that came out of left field and we got very excited about.

Televisionary: Obviously, you can’t tell us who Gene Hunt is. But can you tell us who he isn’t?

Graham: [Laughs.] Um, that’s difficult too in a way, isn’t it? It seems more and more to the audience Gene represents something and that he isn’t just a big, rough, tough Northern copper. I’ve heard various Internet speculation about Gene and some people are quite closer to the truth than others. What I can tell you is that it’s a big reveal and it’s something I think that’s very fascinating for him. It works on one level as just something very exciting and, on another level, it works as something very human. It’s not going to be Gene Hunt’s an alien. It’s not going to be that. But it is something that is quite big and revelatory and at the same time play as something very human, underpinning his character, I hope. I hope we’ve managed to crack both sides of that.

Televisionary: So we’re not going to see them on an actual mission to Mars then?

Graham: What, a gene hunt? No, we’re not. [Laughs.] I never like to give anything away but I feel quite comfortable saying that to anybody who asks. No, they will not be waking up on a spaceship.

Televisionary: Thank god for that.

Graham: [Laughs.]

Televisionary: Where do we find Alex Drake and Company in Series Three? How far into the future is this next series set?

Graham: Not far, just a few months. Really, just to take us into Spring of 1983 so that she’s been unconscious in hospital for an unspecified number of weeks. And in that time, Gene has been on the run and he’s come back as he needs her conscious to clear his name and tell everyone that he shot her accidentally. So that’s pretty much where we pick it up.

It’s quite interesting, actually, because that’s the natural place to start the series. And originally I’d come up with the idea that he’d come back in, there would be a police investigation, he would run rings around them in the first episode and then they’d all leave him alone. But when I began to think about it, I thought that it was incredibly unrealistic, even for our show, that a senior officer could shoot someone, having threatened to kill them, shoot them, almost kill them, go on the run, and then within a week, the internal affairs [officers] say, ‘okay, we’ll leave you alone; you’re too clever for us.’ And we felt that was going to undermine the credibility of the world. So we created a character, played by an actor named Daniel Mays, who you may have seen in the film Atonement and he’s just had a role in Spielberg’s Tintin movie. He’s fantastic, just a brilliant actor. He got him in to play this guy from Discipline and Complaints and internal affairs.

Televisionary: And that’s Jim Keats?

Graham: Yes, Jim Keats. As soon as we created this character, we thought, he’s so fantastic that we have to keep him on board for the whole series and we have to give him an arc and a journey. That character is a portal for a whole another aspect of the story, which raises the stakes by the end of the series to as high as they can possibly be. Out of a practical consideration, we’ve got this amazing new thread for the show. And he is extraordinary! He gives you something that John Simm gave you in Life on Mars, a kind of a… hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck performance.

Televisionary: What questions should the audience be asking themselves as they’re watching the third series?

Graham: It sort of depends. Half our audience just seem to ask the question, will Gene and Alex get married and have babies and live in a house in a meadow. That seems to be on the minds of some of our fans. Now with this show, as with Mars, I don’t think people care so much whether Alex gets home. I think what they’re really interested in is finding out what the hell has really been going on and who Gene is. I think that’s sort of the overarching and salient question in everyone’s head is who is Gene and what is this place and is it real or is it just a figment of her imagination?

I think the show just now serves that purpose. The crime stories have become almost insignificant, really. [Laughs.] But they are quite clever because we tried to structure the crime stories now so that they play into the mystery rather than just stand alone. But the whole thing almost runs as a mini-series, almost. It feels like a continuous story told over eight weeks.

Televisionary: On that point, how heavily serialized is the third series?

Graham: It’s more heavily serialized than any of the others, and I include Mars in that, because the Mars mystery was fairly straightforward: is he mad? Is he in a coma? Is he back in time? And everything went to serve those things, whereas with Ashes—and especially with Series Three—we start seeding in a lot of unusual imagery and new things you’ve not seen before, darker imagery that suggests that these things that you’re seeing are going to tie into the overall picture and explain things. These are the hooks that I hope will keep people coming back week on week. We feel like, from Episode One, that we’re in the endgame.

Televisionary: In speaking of that endgame, there was a major cliffhanger ending to the second series. Should viewers expect to have a narrative resolution at the end of the final series?

Graham: I don’t think we’ve tied up every single tiny loose end. Some people will be annoyed by that because I know that some people want every single loose end to be tied up. But the answer to that criticism would be that I think that there should always be a bit of ambiguity and a bit of mystery in the cosmos. We didn’t want to do a Doc Brown and get the blackboard out and with some of these things you’d have to start inventing a theory and have a character actually explaining it with a pen and paper. What I am concerned about is that you get to the end of Series 3 and you can explain the mystery to somebody who hasn’t seen Series 3 but knew the characters. You’d be able to say, ‘This is what happened to Alex Drake. This is where she went. This is who Gene Hunt is. And this is how it ended.’ You should be able to explain the big dome of the show.

Televisionary: Life is somewhat unknowable. We don’t get that Doc Brown blackboard for our own lives and I don’t mind there being some mystery for those of us watching to piece together.

Graham: Absolutely! There will be little things [left unexplained]. But the big things are explained, absolutely.

Televisionary: What’s next for you now that Ashes is winding down?

Graham: Ahh! Well, a number of things. We’re developing a couple of new shows for the BBC. Very excited about those but it’s very early days. One is an adaptation from a series of books and the other is a new show, which I can’t talk much about at the moment but I could say that it’s European-set and it’s in the ‘60s. And that’s a very exciting show for us.

We’re developing a movie, which is set in the 40s in Baltimore. I would describe it as a little bit like if Tim Burton had directed Seven. [Laughs.] Which is about as I close as I can get to a broad, reveal-nothing description of it.

Series Three of Ashes to Ashes launches Friday evening at 9 pm on BBC One.


Larry B said…
Does anyone know if this will be released on DVD in the US?
Jace Lacob said…

That's a big unknown. Acorn Media released Life on Mars on DVD but they haven't announced, to my knowledge anyway, any release for Ashes to Ashes, which is too bad.
Anonymous said…
What about the next season of Ashes to Ashes on BBC America? Will we ever get to see it (and did season 2 of AtoA ever run here - I can only recall seeing a few eps total).

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