Saturday, April 14, 2007

End of “Life” as We Know It

This seems to have been a week of endings--for American novelist Kurt Vonnegut, for British mystery writer Jill McGown, and also for BBC TV’s wonderfully retro 1970s cop drama, Life on Mars, which finished its second and last series to great acclaim, with more than 7 million people tuning in to see the final episode.

For those of you not intimately familiar with Life on Mars, its premise was that Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler (John Simm), with England’s Greater Manchester Police, was hit by an automobile in 2006 and somehow (the science-fiction aspect of this story was never adequately explained) transported back to 1973. In that latter timeframe, Tyler is a detective inspector working with what was then the Manchester and Salford Police Criminal Investigation Department, under DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister).

Glancing back at the conceits and conquests of this series, TV critic Mark Lawson writes in today’s edition of The Guardian:
Forty years ago, when the TV series The Prisoner captivated viewers with the predicament of a central character trapped in a surreal landscape, there was much public discussion about how the show might be resolved. Newspaper reports from the period reveal a nervous popular joke going that the final scene would cheat the viewers by showing the protagonist waking to find that he had dreamed the whole programme.

The subsequent fattening of channels and thinning of audiences makes such excitement over a televisual dénouement less likely now, but
Life on Mars managed to match that speculation with competitive predictions about the eventual fate of DCI Sam Tyler, prisoner in another surreal landscape. Indeed, because theories raised on blogs gain wider currency than those in pubs and buses, the modern show probably achieved a greater weight of theorising than any previous fictional cliff-hanger.

As it turned out, the solution to
Life on Mars was a variation--through some narrative footwork which ignored the laws of both physics and theology--on the joke-ending to The Prisoner: the whole series had been a kind of dream, with Tyler waking from a coma and then choosing, supernaturally, to resume it.

But the sheer level of conjecture, on- and off-line, about how the scriptwriters would finally explain why a modern cop had ended up in the 70s--combined with the anticipation of how the American series
The Sopranos will conclude its current, final season--are a reminder of the significance of endings and the special problems they raise in television.

Many publishers and bookshop browsers work on the basis of reading the first few pages before deciding whether to proceed, and there is some sense in this because a reader needs to feel invited to the party. But, no matter how good the thrash, we’re unlikely to retain good memories if the host slams the door shut in our face at the end.
Lawson’s full commentary can be found here.

At least the conclusion of Life on Mars means that its writers and producers no longer need to worry that, in order to remain authentic to the series’ time period, 1970s England, they might also reinvigorate some of the racist language and gay-bashing behavior indicative of that era. As BBC News reported late last week:
TV shows such as BBC One’s Life on Mars risk sparking homophobic bullying, according to a teachers’ union.

In Tuesday’s final episode the character DCI Gene Hunt used a series of insults including “fairy boy”.

Chris Keates of the
NASUWT believes such language is “worrying” as children may not be taught that using this kind of abuse is wrong.

A BBC spokeswoman said the character is “extreme” and “tongue-in-cheek”.
Despite the foreclosure of Life on Mars, news reports are that the BBC has commissioned a sequel series, Ashes to Ashes, that will follow DCI Hunt as he relocates from Manchester to London in the 1980s. And The Guardian reported a year ago that writer and executive producer David E. Kelley (Ally McBeel, Boston Legal) is developing an American version of Life on Mars, to premiere at some time during the 2007-2008 television season. However, at last check the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) was reporting that production on a pilot for the show “has been put on hold.”

* * *

One other TV-related ending to report: English actor George Sewell, who played a variety of tough-guy roles and British cops over the years, though he might be most widely remembered for having portrayed Colonel Alec Freeman in the science-fiction series UFO, died earlier this month at age 82. As The Times recalls today:
George Sewell’s hardened, craggy features made him ideal casting for world-weary police inspectors or pugnacious criminals. For more than 40 years he was one of television’s most prolific and gifted actors, famous for such roles as Detective Inspector Brogan in Z Cars, Detective Chief Inspector Craven in Special Branch and Colonel Alec Freeman in the cult sci-fi series UFO.

He also had a successful film career, notably appearing as Con McCarty in Mike Hodges’ tough crime thriller Get Carter (1971) with Michael Caine, and he played gritty character roles in Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963) and Robbery (1967) with Stanley Baker. In 1975 he starred in Stanley Kubrick’s award-winning production of Barry Lyndon.
Sewell hadn’t planned to be a performer; he’d worked as a Cunard Line steward and a travel company courier before agreeing to a theater audition.
Spotted at Stratford East by TV producers, Sewell was soon appearing in numerous tough character roles in television in the 1960s, series such as Gideon’s Way, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), Z Cars, Softly Softly, The Power Game and Public Eye. He appeared in several BBC Wednesday Plays including Ken Loach’s original production of Nell Dunn’s acclaimed working-class drama Up the Junction as well as Peter Collinson’s 1968 film version.

He gained wider fame in the 1970s when he played Colonel Alec Freeman for three years in Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s
UFO, the popular sci-fi series in which a secret defence agency protects Earth from space invaders. Although the series was aimed at children, several episodes gained notoriety when they touched on subjects such as hallucination, drugs and sex. Subsequently the series was shown late at night and went on to gain a cult following among students.

Sewell’s most fondly remembered TV role was as the snappily dressed DCI Alan Craven in the ITV police drama
Special Branch (1969-74). The series featured investigations by an elite division of Scotland Yard into international crime and espionage and boasted the distinction of being the first British crime drama to show policemen wearing trendy clothing. More recently Sewell played Superintendent Frank Cotton in The Detectives (1993), a send-up of his character in Special Branch.
Additional tributes to Sewell’s career can be found here and here.

I enjoyed George Sewell in many of his roles, but especially as UFO’s Alec Freeman. He, Ed Bishop, and Michael Billington (the last two of whom already died, during the same week in June 2005) live on in my nostalgic mind as Earth’s chief defenders, protecting mankind from alien invasion back in the 1970s. Forget all that Roswell, New Mexico, nonsense--when the aliens attacked Earth, it was England they wanted, not some parched landscape in the American Southwest. If you don’t believe me, click here for the evidence.

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