A sign of the times: How the Seventies were brought back to life
"I had an accident and when I woke up, I was here. Only here is 32 years in the
past. Now, that either makes me a time-traveller, a lunatic or I'm lying in a
hospital bed in 2005 and none of this is real."
The initial idea for Life on Mars came from a writers weekend set up by Kudos
seven years ago, to come up with an idea for a big new series.
Or, rather, Kudos
sent Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan and Ashley Pharaoh to Blackpool for the weekend,
armed with only a brown paper bag full of cash...
"There is still photo evidence from their brainstorming (or should that be
drinking) session," laughs Claire Parker, producer of Life on Mars.
"They had a flip chart with the words '70s Cop – Ford Granada' scrawled on it."
Writer and creator Matthew Graham explains: "None of us fancied littering the airwaves with yet more cop shows, and yet we knew that's what people love
"So, we came up with a police show that we would want to watch: a cop
falls back in time and tries to solve crimes in the midst of The Sweeney."
Three years ago, Parker, who was then the head of development for Kudos, together
with Matthew Graham and Jane Featherstone, joint MD of Kudos, developed the idea
for the series featuring a 'Seventies Cop' which eventually turned into Life on
Featherstone explains: "When Matthew, Tony and Ashley originally came up with the idea it was a little
ahead of its time, but we knew we would resurrect it at
some point in the future because it is such a brilliant idea for a TV drama."
Parker continues: "We loved the premise: an action-packed police series set in
1973, but with a unique twist – our hero is a man from the present day who wakes
up after a car accident with no idea why or how he has arrived in this alien
"The 1970s setting is perfect for fast car chases, great music, classic clothes
and juicy stories.
"But the show is also about the intense journey of a man thrown
back into the recent past. Sam Tyler is like a fish out of water, in an alien
world that has no relevance to his life in 2005.
"However, when it came to the storytelling, we needed to make sure it was designed
to appeal to a contemporary audience – stories that are fast-paced, multi-layered
and have strong moral or emotional dilemmas at the heart of them.
"There is something very compelling about the possibility of going back in time
and visiting your recent past – time travel is an ever popular subject in both TV
"The twist in Life on Mars is that the audience is teased with the
question of what has happened to Sam – has he gone back in time? Is he in a coma?
Or is he mad? And most importantly: how can he get home?"
The Seventies was a time of change and no more so than in the police force as they
introduced moves to improve media relations and 'openness' within the institution.
It was also the start of a push to recruit and integrate female officers within
the force, although the attitudes of most of their male colleagues and their
criminal catching techniques were positively archaic.
Featherstone explains: "Sam believes that his knowledge of the future gives him a superiority and a more
evolved sense of policing, but it puts him at odds with his Seventies colleagues
straight from the off.
"He is repulsed by their attitudes
to crime-solving; they are racist, sexist, conduct searches without warrants and
think fitting someone up is OK as long as they deserve it."
Parker concurs: "It initially seems obvious to Sam that his methods are far more
sophisticated than his colleagues.
"But he quickly comes to realise that he is
unable to rely on all the crutches of 21st century technology, so is forced to
fall back on his gut instincts.
"Without modern day red tape, accountability and
procedure, Sam starts to wonder whether he has just as much to learn from his
1970s colleagues as they do from him, even though they are arrogant, sexist,
insensitive, brutal, lazy, boozy, impatient and corrupt, and that's just DCI Gene
Life on Mars will remind viewers of life in the decade that taste forgot, but it
is not a trip down memory lane to get nostalgic or reminisce about the good old
days; it reflects life as it really was: an era of social and civil change.
There was considerable industrial unrest, unemployment was on the increase,
especially in the North West as the textile and mass manufacturing industries were
reaching crisis point and the unions were becoming ever more vocal and militant.
Although 1973 was the year of Suzi Quatro, Ringos, the Raleigh Chopper, The
Wombles and The Excorcist, it was also the year that Prime Minister Edward Heath announced the three day week, and measures to curb general speed limits to 50 mph
and ending TV programming at 10.30pm were introduced in an effort to reduce fuel
consumption after the Yom Kippur war in the Middle East.
In the United States, the Vietnam war finally came to an end, only to give way to the
scandal and intrigue of Watergate.
"Our ethos for the series was not to fall into the trap of over-playing the
nostalgic elements – we don't get misty eyed about what life was like back then,"
"The series both draws on and challenges the idea of nostalgia.
Were things really better in the past?
"We wanted the series to reflect the good and bad of the era and for the audience
to experience everything through Sam's eyes, as he himself is experiencing it.
"However, I'm sure it will trigger people's memories of the time and enlighten
those who are too young to remember Open University, Party Sevens, and the fact
there were only three TV channels which actually closed down overnight!"
The show, in part, is influenced by the cool, action-packed, buddy, cop shows of
the Seventies – The Professionals, Starsky & Hutch, The Sweeney – and great films
of the period too, such as All the President's Men and Get Carter.
"We looked at Seventies film and TV, from The Sweeney to Taxi Driver, for visual and
period reference,” explains Parker.
Matthew Graham agrees: "I was very keen that Life on Mars wasn't all about taking
the p**s out of Seventies fashion; I didn't want it to look naff and corny. It had to
trigger memories and be funny but it also had to be cool."
Featherstone explains: "When developing a series like this, it's critical that
not only does your director share your vision but can enhance it in ways you can
only dream about.
"I had collaborated with Bharat on Spooks and Hustle and to our mind he was the
best person to take what was Matthew's vision and turn it into a reality."
The casting of a new drama series is just as crucial as the script and the
writer's and director's vision.
Graham explains: "In this show more than any other I've done, the stories spring out of character.
"Sam and Gene are such rich creations to draw upon that you
naturally think of stories that will pit them against each other; how they deal
with women, trade unions, career criminals.
"Then it's just a matter of moulding the story to maximise these differences and
prejudices and bring Gene and Sam to the same realisation - that they must put
aside their squabbles and work together to find the real culprit.
"Funnily enough I had always written Sam with John Simm in mind, although I never
dreamed I'd get him.
"Gene was harder to picture but when they sent me casting
tapes for Phil Glenister I jumped right out of the armchair shouting 'That's him!
That's Gene Hunt!'
"Phil can simmer like no other person on this Earth... And he's got a right set of lungs on him!"