Ashes To Ashes Tv Drama Essay

David Bowie performing live in 1978. A new box set collects all of Bowie's albums released between 1977 and 1982. Dagmar/Courtesy of Rhino Records hide caption

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Dagmar/Courtesy of Rhino Records

David Bowie performing live in 1978. A new box set collects all of Bowie's albums released between 1977 and 1982.

Dagmar/Courtesy of Rhino Records

In 1980, David Bowie was in the middle of a new kind of transformation. After launching himself to stardom in 1969 with his first hit single, "Space Oddity," he spent a decade morphing from Major Tom to Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane to Halloween Jack to The Thin White Duke — a series of characters that also emblemized radically different approaches to rock music, from sci-fi glam to stark experimentalism. By the end of the '70s, however, he dispensed with such alter egos. Instead, he absorbed them all into a single if mercurial persona, one known simply as David Bowie. And that persona hinged on "Ashes To Ashes."

His 1979 album, Lodger, wrapped up a groundbreaking, three-album collaboration with Brian Eno that had yielded his most acclaimed work to date, including the full-lengths Low and "Heroes." But the final installment of this Berlin Trilogy also exhausted Bowie and Eno's partnership. Lodger, as excellent as it was, felt anticlimactic. At the end of the year, he recorded a new version of "Space Oddity" for British television, and it was an eerie resurrection of the character that had put him on the map: Major Tom, the lost astronaut cast adrift in space, an existentialist casualty of humankind's quest to conquer the heavens. For the restlessly forward-looking Bowie, this reprise of "Space Oddity" seemed tainted with an odd nostalgia, and it felt like a loop being closed. On top of it all, Bowie separated from his wife of ten years, Angela, with their divorce set to be finalized in February of 1980.

He began the new decade with his blankest slate since his pre-fame days in the '60s. But after owning and defining the '70s, what was Bowie to do in the uncharted waters of a new decade, especially when it had become predictable for him to reinvent himself? Enlisting his longtime friend and producer Tony Visconti, he responded with Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). Recorded in New York and London throughout early 1980, the album took the sprawling innovation of The Berlin Trilogy and whittled it down into more digestible, if no less challenging, pop songs. "Ashes To Ashes" was the lead single. It also marked the return of Major Tom. The new song, released in August of 1980, was the sequel to "Space Oddity," something Bowie blatantly made clear in the opening verse: "Do you remember a guy that's been / In such an early song? / I've heard a rumor from Ground Control / Oh no, don't say it's true." Eleven years had passed since "Space Oddity." In that time, much had changed for Major Tom, as it had for Bowie. Left to decay in space, he'd grown paranoid and addicted to drugs: "Strung out in heaven's high / Hitting an all-time low."


For Bowie, "Ashes To Ashes" was anything but a low. It became his second number-one single in the U.K. His first had been, funnily enough, a reissue of "Space Oddity" in 1975. To capitalize on this, Bowie's label, RCA Records, released a promotional single in 1980 titled "The Continuing Story of Major Tom." On it, "Space Oddity" was mixed smoothly into "Ashes to Ashes," creating a nine-minute epic. The end of the first song meshed uncannily with the start of the second: The lonely beeping at the conclusion of "Space Oddity" bled into the high-pitched, pizzicato-like melody at the beginning of "Ashes to Ashes." It was as if that had been Bowie's intention all along.

At the same time, the mix dramatically demonstrated just how far he'd progressed in the '70s. His voice was now deeper and more profound. The music was jagged, jarring, and richly textured in a completely different way than "Space Oddity" had been. Rather than psychedelically spacious, it carried a sterile air of computers, androids and off-kilter motorization. Guitarist Chuck Hammer conveyed this feeling with layers of synthesized guitar. Flangers gave a grand piano an alien quality. Dennis Davis' drums were disorienting yet mathematical, a funk beat from another dimension.

In the booklet that accompanies the new Bowie box set A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982), Visconti calls the song's rhythm "a mind-bender. Your brain tells you this isn't supposed to work." In The Complete David Bowie by Nicholas Pegg, Bowie said that Davis "had in incredibly hard time with it, trying to play it and turn the beat backwards." No one, though, had a harder time in "Ashes To Ashes" than Major Tom. Voiced by Bowie, he runs through a litany of memories, regrets, and hallucinations, along with a desperate desire to get better: "I'm hoping to kick / But the planet is glowing." He wishes to free his caged psyche as well as his exiled body: "Want an axe to break the ice / Wanna come down right now."

Courtesy of Rhino Records

Most poignant of all is the song's indelible bridge, in which Bowie laments, "I never done good things / I never done bad things / I never did anything out of the blue." The spacesuit drops away, and Bowie himself stands there, naked and afraid. "Those three particular lines represent a continuing, returning feeling of inadequacy over what I've done," he said in Peter Doggett's book The Man Who Sold The World. "I have a lot of reservations about what I've done, inasmuch as I don't feel much of it has any import at all." It was a rare and mature show of vulnerability in someone who, for so long, had cloaked himself in concept and costume.

David Mallet, who had directed the video clip of Bowie's 1979 version of "Space Oddity," was asked to helm the video for "Ashes To Ashes." At the time it was the most expensive pop video ever, shot a year before MTV launched in 1981 and proving that music videos were viable promotional investments. It aided immensely in the song's popularity, despite being as edgy and jarring as the song itself. Mallet used the new computer graphics workstation Paintbox to radically alter the color palette of the short film, rendering the sky black and the ocean pink. Bowie alternates between portraying a clown, an astronaut, and the inmate of an insane asylum — paralleling the many roles he'd played in his career.

In his book David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones recounts an anecdote that sheds light on the artist's self-reflective frame of mind in 1980: "An old man searching for driftwood on the beach was asked to move away from the set. When Mallet pointed at Bowie and asked the old man if he knew who he was, the old man replied, 'Of course I do. It's some c*** in a clown suit.' Bowie later said, 'That was a huge moment for me. It put me back in my place and made me realize, "Yes, I'm just a c*** in a clown suit."'" Three years later, Bowie's next album, the crowd-pleasing Let's Dance, became the bestselling record he'd ever enjoy. And in his footsteps, hordes of successful new-wave artists, from The Human League to Duran Duran, followed.

But before he got there, the self-reflection in a handful of Bowie's late-1970s songs began to bleed over into self-reference. Singing in the first person, he imbued "DJ" — one of Lodger's best singles — with a hint that performing his hits over and over had dehumanized him. "I am a DJ / I am what I play." At the same time, the song could be read as both a tribute and taunt aimed at the radio industry who programmed so much of Bowie's fate. And on "Fashion," another single from Scary Monsters, Bowie mercilessly dissected a core component of his persona to an extent he hadn't done since 1975's "Fame." In both "DJ" and "Fashion," Bowie's turn toward contained, catchy experimentalism — rather than the sprawling avant-garde scope of Low and 'Heroes' — is both obvious and bracing. "Ashes to Ashes" was part of a continuum, a deliberate use of cutting-edge technology, studio techniques, harsh textures, and minimalism in the pursuit of elevating pop music while preserving Bowie's image as a sonic iconoclast.

"Ashes To Ashes" fades out on an unsettlingly note, with a nursery-rhyme chant of "My mama said, to get things done / You'd better not mess with Major Tom." In singing these lines, Bowie disobeyed them. He was messing with Major Tom after having resigned him to cosmic limbo over a decade earlier. "When I originally wrote about Major Tom, I was a very pragmatic and self-opinionated lad," he says in The Complete David Bowie. "Here we had the great blast of American technological know-how shoving this guy up into space, but once he gets there he's not quite sure why he's there. And that's where I left him. Now we've found out that he's under some kind of realization that the whole process that got him up there had decayed, was born out of decay; it has decayed him, and he's in the process of decaying." He also called the song "the end of something," adding, "I was wrapping up the '70s really for myself, and that seemed a good enough epitaph for it — that we've lost [Major Tom], he's out there somewhere, we'll leave him be."

Other artists did not leave Bowie's famous spaceman be, most famously the German synth-pop star Peter Schilling in his 1983 hit "Major Tom (Coming Home)," which basically amounted to fan fiction in song form. Bowie also broke his own rule. He unearthed Major Tom once more in his 1995 song "Hallo Spaceboy," co-written with Eno. In the lyrics, Bowie bids farewell to his doomed astronaut: "Spaceboy, you're sleepy now / Your silhouette is so stationary." And in "Blackstar," Bowie's final video before his death in 2016, the visor of a spacesuit is raised, revealing a bejeweled skull that may or may not have belonged to Major Tom. By building on the character throughout the decades, Bowie finally found a resting place for Major Tom: in the pantheon of pop mythology. But it was "Ashes To Ashes" that consummated Major Tom's role as a postmodern folk hero — and gave Bowie closure to his most momentous decade.

Ashes to Ashes is a British crime drama and police proceduraldramatelevision series, serving as the sequel to Life on Mars.[1]

The series began airing on BBC One in February 2008. A second series began broadcasting in April 2009. A third and final series was broadcast from 2 April to 21 May 2010 on BBC One and BBC HD.[2]


Throughout the first series, Ashes to Ashes was broadcast weekly on Thursdays on BBC One at 9:00 pm, with the episodes directed by Jonny Campbell, Bille Eltringham and Catherine Morshead. Filming for the second series began in 2008, and began airing on 20 April 2009 in the same timeslot. The second series takes place six months after the first, set in 1982 during the Falklands War.[3] They were shot on Super 16 film and mastered in 576p standard definition.[4]

A third and final series was commissioned, and filming of the final eight 60-minute episodes began in late 2009, premiering on 2 April 2010.[5][6] This final series was shot in Super 16 again but telecined and mastered for high definition.[7] In an interview with SFX, series co-creator and executive producer Matthew Graham stated that he was considering making a 3D episode.[8] Once again, the series moved on a year, this time to 1983.[9] Philip Glenister, speaking on the BBC One Breakfast TV programme on 8 June 2009, announced that the third series would be the last.[10] Producers revealed the climax of the show would reveal who the character of Gene Hunt really is.[11] The third series concluded on 21 May 2010.

Depiction of the early 1980s[edit]

As with the parent series, there are anachronisms. At least one is known to the cast and crew: the Audi Quattro was not available in right-hand drive in the United Kingdom in 1981, only in left-hand drive. The car shown in the TV series is the 1983 model, with slight changes to the headlights and other features.[12] Philip Glenister admitted that the production was aware of this and said, "But who cares? It's a cool car."[13] A number of songs used in the series were also out of time, such as Japan's "Ghosts" in series one, Duran Duran's "Is There Something I Should Know? in series two, and "Two Tribes" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and "Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina and the Waves in series three (although the latter was originally released in 1983, the version played was from 1985). Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl" was released in 1983, but it features prominently in episode 3.2, set four months before the release; similarly, Ray Carling says in episode 1.2 that Bobby Moore "was in that movie, Escape to Victory", which was not released until a fortnight after the episode was set. News events of the three depicted years are used as backdrops to the stories: the 29 July 1981 royal wedding, the 1981 start of the London Docklands Development Corporation's work and Lord Scarman's contemporaneous enquiry, the April 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands, the 9 June 1983 general election, the 21 November 1983 damage to the Blue Peter Garden, and (in flashback), the 2 June 1953 coronation of the Queen.


Main article: List of Ashes to Ashes characters


The series tells the story of Alex Drake (played by Keeley Hawes), a police officer in service with the London Metropolitan Police, who is shot in 2008 by a man called Arthur Layton and inexplicably regains consciousness in 1981.[14]

The first episode of the series reveals that, in the present day, Drake has been studying records of the events seen in the series Life on Mars through reports made by Sam Tyler (John Simm) after he regained consciousness in the present. Upon waking in the past she is surprised to meet the returning characters of Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) and Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster), all of whom she has learned about from her research, the trio having transferred from the Manchester setting of Life on Mars (Manchester and Salford Police) to London.

Tension between Drake and Hunt is built through the unsatisfactory explanation of Sam Tyler's absence and the perceived underhandedness and shoddy work of Hunt in contrast to the methodical, ethical and thoroughly modern Drake. Continuing the theme of Life on Mars, throughout the series, it is ambiguous to both Drake and the audience whether the character is dead or alive in the present day and to what extent her actions influence future events.


The final episode reveals that the Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes world is a form of limbo or Purgatory, for "restless dead" police officers. These restless dead include the main characters Gene, Ray, Chris, and Shaz (Montserrat Lombard), all of whom died in violent circumstances.

The revelation of their deaths comes as a surprise to all except Gene, who knew they were all dead but who had forgotten the circumstances of his own death, due to the passage of time. All except Hunt "move on" as he takes it upon himself to act as a psychopomp or "ferryman", to all of his officers, helping them on their way to The Railway Arms (their euphemism for Heaven).

Gene returns to his office, where a newly dead officer arrives, demanding his iPhone (implying that he is from the present) and asking where his office has gone, in a very similar manner to the arrival of Sam Tyler in the first episode of Life on Mars. In fact, Gene's last words — "A word in your shell-like, pal" — are the same as his first words to Sam Tyler in the first episode of Life on Mars.

International distribution[edit]

The programme premiered in America on 7 March 2009, available on both cable and satellite. The second series began broadcasting on BBC America on 11 May 2010 at 10:00 pm ET.[15]

In Australia, Series 1 of Ashes to Ashes commenced on 10 August 2009 on ABC1, with the second series shown directly after. The third series commenced on 13 January 2011 on ABC1.[16]

In Denmark, series one was shown for the first time on DR2 at 19.05 each weekday evening from 25 November 2011[17] under the title En hård nyser: Kommissær Hunt and is currently (May 2012) being repeated on the same channel.

In Portugal, the show is broadcast by Fox Life, while in Latin America, the series is shown on HBO Plus.

In Italy, Ashes to Ashes is broadcast by Rai 4.

In Europe, Ashes to Ashes is broadcast by BBC Entertainment.

Episode guide[edit]

Main article: List of Ashes to Ashes episodes

The first series, set in 1981, consists of eight episodes, written mainly by creators Ashley Pharoah (episodes 2 & 8) and Matthew Graham (episodes 1 & 7). Other writers for the series were Julie Rutterford (episode three) and Mark Greig (episodes 4 & 5), who worked on the parent series, Life on Mars. The remaining episode (6) was written by freelance writer Mick Ford. In this series Alex tries to figure out what happened to her parents, whose lives are connected to the political unrest of the time, especially Margaret Thatcher's campaign and Lord Scarman's attacks on the police. Alex is haunted by a mysterious figure who seems to be the Clown from the music video of David Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes", reminiscent of the Test-Card Girl who bedevilled Sam Tyler in Life on Mars. (The clown's identity is revealed in the last episode of the first series.)

The second series of eight episodes is set in 1982, against the political background of the Falklands War. The first episode, written by Ashley Pharoah, deals with the cover-up of the killing of a police officer in a nightclub. As the series progresses, Alex's comatose body is found in present-day 2008. Gene finds himself confronting a corrupted force and Alex begins receiving a string of phone calls from a man called Martin Summers, another patient at the hospital to which she has been moved, and a key figure in the web of corruption Hunt is trying to bring down. Summers proves to be a formidable adversary, whose actions eventually lead to a murder and an extremely tense confrontation between Alex and Gene. The series ends with Alex awakening in what seems to be the present, but she is horrified to find Gene's face on monitors, pleading for help.

In the third and final series, set yet another year forward in 1983, DCI Gene Hunt, DI Alex Drake and the rest of the team all return, joined by a new addition, DCI Jim Keats, a discipline and complaints officer.[18] Alex returns to the 1980s after being brought round by Gene, and she comes to believe the 2008 she woke up in was only a dream. Her connection to the present seems weaker than before, while Hunt is trying to stop his department crumbling from within due to Keats' presence. Although Jim is ostensibly friendly with Hunt's officers, he makes no effort to conceal his hatred of Gene when the two are alone, and attempts to turn Alex against him. Prompted by the haunting of a dead policeman and visions of stars, Alex becomes suspicious of the role Gene played in Sam Tyler's death following his return to the past, and, urged on by Jim, she eventually discovers the truth of Gene Hunt, her colleagues and the world she has been transported to.


The soundtrack features contemporary songs by British groups of the period such as punk period survivors The Clash and The Stranglers, New Romantics such as Duran Duran and Ultravox, synthpop such as Jon & Vangelis, OMD, later period Roxy Music and The Passions' sole hit single, "I'm in Love with a German Film Star", from 1981. A scene in the second episode, "The Happy Day", set at The Blitz features Steve Strange playing himself performing "Fade to Grey" by Visage. The last episode in Series 1 ends with "Take the Long Way Home" from Supertramp's Breakfast in America 1979 album. Episode 2 also contains the classic Madness song "The Prince". The final episode of Series 3 plays out to David Bowie's "Heroes". Philip Glenister said that one of the reasons the series moved on to 1982 was due to running out of good songs and feared that they'd end up having to use Bucks Fizz's "The Land of Make Believe" (a brief snippet of the song is indeed used in the second series, as well as the same group's "Making Your Mind Up" being used in series one).[19]

A CD soundtrack, Ashes to Ashes (Original Soundtrack), from the first series of the show was released on 17 March 2008.[20] A CD soundtrack, Ashes to Ashes – Series 2 (Original Soundtrack), from the second series of the show was released on 20 April 2009.[21] A CD soundtrack, Ashes to Ashes – Series 3 (Original Soundtrack), from the third series of the show was released on 12 April 2010.[22]

During the second and third series, 1980s background music (some of which had been used during the show) was available to UK digital TV viewers by using the red button immediately after the show. Clips from Top of the Pops, The Old Grey Whistle Test and other 1980s BBC TV music programmes, introduced by Philip Glenister in his guise as DCI Gene Hunt, were looped for the remainder of the evening of transmission.

Track listings[edit]


Based on overnight returns, The Guardian reported that audience figures for the 7 February 2008 broadcast of the first episode—in a 9 pm slot on the flagship channel, BBC One—were 7 million: about 29% of viewers. The figure was "in line with the final episode of Life on Mars in April last year, though well up on the earlier show's second series debut of 5.7 million two months earlier", but The Guardian noted "the heavy publicity blitz this week for Ashes to Ashes" as a factor in its success.[23]

Critical reception to the first episode of the series was mixed,[24] with positive reviews from The Daily Telegraph,[25]The Herald,[26]The Spectator,[27] and the New Statesman,[28] and negative reviews from The Times,[29]The Sunday Times,[30]Newsnight Review,[31]The Guardian,[32] and The Observer, which criticised the episode's direction, structure, and tone (although it did praise the costumes and art direction).[33] The national free sheet, Metro, gave the episode four stars as "a vote of faith" on what it described as "a dodgy start".[34]

The Guardian reported on 15 February 2008 that, with 6.1 million viewers and a 25% audience share, the ratings for the second episode, shown on 14 February, were down by almost one million on the first, comparing overnight returns. It still did well against the Lynda La Plantepolice proceduralTrial & Retribution, which fell to a series low on ITV.[35] The fifth episode, broadcast 6 March 2008, attracted 6.6 million viewers according to overnight returns.[36] With this episode, The Daily Telegraph stated that "Ashes to Ashes stepped out of the shadow of Life on Mars."

After the final episode of the first series, The Daily Mirror stated that although one or two episodes were lacking, in the end it was a satisfying finish to a series which had a lot to live up to, and deserved a second series.[citation needed] Addressing press complaints about the quality of Keeley Hawes' performance, Philip Glenister defended his co-star, stating, "It's a hellishly difficult thing to come into and I've seen how hard she works and how brilliant she is. To all those detractors, they're just plain wrong."[37]

Entertainment news website Digital Spy praised the show's return, with cult editor Ben Rawson-Jones describing the opening episode of the second series as "greatly promising".[38] It was watched by 7.01 million viewers.[39][40]

The second series was nominated for The TV Dagger at the 2009 Crime Thriller Awards. Keeley Hawes and Philip Glenister received nominations in the Best Actress and Best Actor categories respectively.[41]

The finale of Ashes To Ashes, which finished in 2010,[42] has been described by Dean Andrews as "genius". He explained on GMTV: "Everything is tied up. You get all of the answers from Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes."[43]

When interviewed by SFX Magazine in May 2010, Matthew Graham spoke of teasing the BBC with a third set of series called The Laughing Gnome (the title suggests a prequel set in the 1960s), and claimed that they made "the whole title page and copyrighted it and everything". He said the BBC responded well to the joke, replying "Yeah, it's commissioned!".[44]

The series three finale was watched by 6.45 million viewers.[45]

In 2012, Corgi (die-cast toys and collectable manufacturer) released a 1:43 scale model of the Audi quattro and a two piece set featuring the quattro that has been "shot-up" and Ford Granada police car which featured in a chase in one of the later episodes.

Cultural impact[edit]

In 2010, the Labour Party used an edited image of Gene Hunt on the Quattro with David Cameron's face as part of its general election campaign, with the words "Don't let him take Britain back to the 1980s".[46][47] The slogan links the Conservative leader with memories of social unrest and youth unemployment.

In response to this, the Conservatives posted a slightly modified version of the image with the words "Fire up the Quattro. It's time for Change. Vote for Change. Vote Conservative."[48] Subsequently, Kudos Productions—which owns the copyright to the Gene Hunt character—wrote to both parties requiring them to cease using the image.[49]

Philip Glenister was subsequently introduced to, the by this time Prime Minister, David Cameron when visiting Prime Ministers Question Time as a guest of 2 Conservative MP’s. He then appeared in the stage play This House playing Labour Chief Whip from the 1970’s the late Walter Harrison.

DVD releases[edit]

TitleRegion 2Region 4Episodes
Ashes to Ashes: The Complete Series One5 May 20081 October 20091–8
Ashes to Ashes: The Complete Series Two13 July 20095 January 20109–16
Ashes to Ashes: The Complete Series Three5 July 20106 October 201117–24


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