The rane in Speign falls meinly on the pleign

Dan Paton’s link to this blog describes me as a “21st century pedant” – a tag I think I dreamt up myself, but which I have so far done little to justify. So let’s set that to rights: my new pet hate is an apparently growing inability to differentiate between “reign” – which is what monarchs do – and “rein” – which is what you use to control horses. Specifically, many websites have taken to using the monarchical spelling when attempting to render the expression “to rein in”.

The most recent culprits I’ve encountered are DigitalSpy, who cocked it up when transcribing an interview with Keeley Hawes and Philip Glenister to promote the Life On Mars follow-up, Ashes to Ashes. Perhaps inevitably, the show is dividing opinion, with some critics failing to see the point, or drawing niggly comparisons between the two shows. But I thoroughly enjoyed last night’s opening instalment, and am going to stick my neck out a bit: I actually thought this looks like it could be rather better than the original series.

Above all, the contrast is that Life On Mars explored the culture clash between Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt as its principal theme, while the story arc of Sam’s mysterious appearance in the 1970s and the reasons for it was left to bubble along in the background for the most part. Early indications suggest that Ashes to Ashes will spend less time on the culture clash – it’s been done before, and given the period the real fish out of water is arguably Hunt rather more than Hawes’ character, DI Alex Drake – and more on the reasons for Drake’s presence in GeneHuntLand, which seems to involve the deaths of her parents.

This focus allows the show to explore the contrasts with Life On Mars: Drake is familiar with Sam Tyler’s exploits, which saves a lot of tedious explanation in which she gets up to speed even though the audience already knows what’s going on. If anything, the suggestion from the end of Life On Mars that Tyler and Drake are mad, rather than back in time, makes the Pierrot clown visions and inspired Zippy and George interludes even more eery than their TV testcard-girl counterparts in Life on Mars. That said, I’m not sure the series has actually said explicitly that Tyler and Drake are not transported back in time: the first episode does make great play of the “delusion” actually seeming rather more real than it ought; and neither show has had a line saying “police records show no DCI Gene Hunt ever worked for Greater Manchester Police,” which would nail the explanation very clearly.

It will be interesting to see where the characters go: Drake could become a daughter figure or love interest for Hunt, but seems unlikely to relate to him in the same way as Tyler. Hunt himself seems set to be presented as a policeman out of time, as his type of policing is rooted out and he is sent to see out his career in London, away from his home turf. It’s frustrating that Chris and Ray look set to continue as one-dimensional stooges, but I suppose it’s what they’re there for. Also unfortunate is Monserrat Lombard’s horrifically unflattering haircut, but it’s of its time.

I wonder if I like this series more because of the period and the setting: I live in London these days rather than Manchester, and actually enjoyed seeing the London locations on screen more than the Manchester ones – perhaps it’s because I have had to make a point of getting to know London recently myself, or perhaps it’s simply because there are more iconic buildings that haven’t changed much since 1981 if you shoot them from the correct angles. That said, one of the defining things about living in London is the tube, and they’ll struggle to show that: tube stations don’t change that much, but as Ken and others are keen on telling us, the trains are always being refurbished and all the rest of it – I doubt they will be able to find any Underground trains that represent 1981 very easily.

I don’t think it’s a nostalgia thing, though: 1981 is before I was born, although obviously closer than 1974 was. What I know about 80s music and culture I essentially picked up after the event – I don’t have first-hand recollections of much other than children’s TV programmes from that decade! But, given that the music seems to have been quite astutely chosen to bring the best out of the decade, I will probably find more on the soundtrack to enjoy than I did for Life On Mars.

One problem with using 1981 as a setting is that many things we associate with “the 80s” hadn’t happened yet: the palette of music, clothes and cars is a bit limited if they want to maintain authenticity. Apparently Gene’s Audi is anachronistic by a year or so, but I’m not especially bothered by that level of error.

What’s more serious, as with Life On Mars, is that everything is in perfect period style: all the decor, all the cars, all the hair, all the clothes. Real life isn’t like that: houses do not get redecorated, furniture does not get replaced and new cars do not get bought every five years, and still less did they in the less consumer-driven early ’80s. Ironically, Life On Mars gave me a modest amount of nostalgia in as much as I remember horribly swirly brown curtains, orange sofas and similar monstrosities from my own childhood, albeit that the objects were ten or more years old by then. So, while I’m glad not to have a load of brown and orange inflicted on me by the new show, there really should be more of the 1970s and 1960s in evidence – just as in Life On Mars there should have been some 1950s remnants here and there.

But never mind: Ashes to Ashes was the second of maybe four or five new series I’m anticipating keenly early this year: if the others – Skins, Love Soup and House – are equally successful, I’ll be very pleased.


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