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It’s not a fair cop, guv

spiked-TV: How Life on Mars, the BBC’s send-up of Seventies cop-show The Sweeney, missed the mark.

Neil Davenport

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The BBC have provided us with an intriguing cop drama with Life On Mars. John Simm plays Sam Tyler, an injured twenty-first century British police officer lying in a coma. In his head, though, he is transported back to policing Manchester circa 1973. The conceptual conceit, of course, is favourably to contrast today’s ‘sensitive’ police methods with the rough and tumble of yesteryear. And no prizes for guessing which fictional Detective Inspectors Life On Mars has in its sights – that’s right, the chain-smoking, whisky-guzzling hard men of Scotland Yard depicted in The Sweeney. Judging by Life On Mars, though, Jack Regan and George Carter surely deserve a lot more respect, guv.

This week’s episode stretched the postmodern concept to bursting point. In the opening sequence, Sam learned that his life-support machine will be switched off at 2pm. That also happens to be the time a cranky gunman threatens to kill hostages at the offices of the Manchester Gazette. There was considerable time devoted to wrestling with the will they/won’t they switch off the life support, so much so that it threatened to overshadow the show’s dubious premise: to make Regan and Carter look like Neanderthal simpletons. The hostage scenario was clearly based on a similar episode in The Sweeney when Regan and his governor, Frank Haskins, are embroiled in heated arguments regarding which tactics could bring favourable results.

In Life On Mars, Sam goes head-to-head with the supposed Regan-a-like, Gene Hunt (surely a rhyming slang of a name?). Whereas Sam reels off New Labour psychobabble about acting as ‘facilitators to the hostage takers’ needs’, Gene prefers to go in all guns blazing. At every turn, Sam’s belief in ‘following tactical procedures in a hostage situation’ is seen as sophisticated and preferable to Hunt’s gung-ho machismo. It also invites us to view The Sweeney’s premise of tough cops doing a tough job with incredulity. But that’s only if you buy into the revisionist account of the most electrifying British TV drama series ever made.

For the past decade or so, The Sweeney has been recast as a ridiculously kitsch show – all kipper ties and flares, screeching tires and screeching expletives. Life On Mars is more informed by such smirking disdain than the actual original show. In this week’s episode, for instance, Gene Hunt pulls out of his suit pockets five whiskey flasks. When it comes to capturing the essence of The Sweeney, this shows all the observational insight of a French and Saunders sketch.

Then again, it would be impossible to recreate The Sweeney in its original incarnation anyway. Britain in the 1970s was a tense, edgy and often violent and volatile place. No other TV programme reverberated with this same crackling aggression (and, curiously for a cop show, class anger) as did The Sweeney. Thirty years on, watching The Sweeney is still the televisual equivalent of being punched very hard in the solar plexus. Nevertheless, the show’s unflinching violence was only effective because the script and the characters were so subtly and intelligently written.

Jack Regan and the villains he chased were far more complex human beings than Life On Mars’ send-up suggests. Whereas Gene Hunt is oafish and insensitive to his surroundings, Regan is tactically pin-sharp with an instinctual appreciation of human nature. Contrary to revisionist myth, this is why Regan didn’t have a hate-fuelled vendetta against the working class, ethnic minorities or gay men. Instead, his barking rage was often directed against public school bureaucrats ‘upstairs’ in the force, or coppers he felt weren’t up to the job. Regan’s integrity is rarely captured in the subsequent sniggering pisstakes.

Indeed, there is something infantile about the kitsch veneer applied retrospectively to The Sweeney. Like children who hide their nervousness by giggling, Regan and Carter’s robust adulthood and unswerving belief in what they thought was right must strike terror into some observers today. Indeed, while 1970s Britain looks a pretty shabby place to be, a clear sense of what that society stood for booms out of the programme. In one episode, Frank Haskins gives an eloquent explanation of what rights and freedoms mean and why they are the basis of any civilised society. In Life On Mars, everyone is just preoccupied with getting down the pub as early as possible.

Even on this score Life On Mars backfires. Regan didn’t make a song and dance about getting drunk all the time. But he was hostile to those who frowned upon that too. In the appropriately titled ‘Taste of Fear’ episode, Regan is suspicious of a new DI because he doesn’t smoke and doesn’t drink. Carter believes Regan is making a big issue over nothing, but Regan’s point was this: if someone is too nervous about the dangers of nicotine and alcohol, how on earth are they going to cope with a tooled-up villain? Sure enough, Regan was proved right. Too often such subtleties are lost on the makers of Life On Mars.

However, this week’s episode did have some acute moments. When 1970s police constable Annie Cartwright suggests entering the siege dressed as a nurse to provide medical assistance, Sam looks alarmed. ‘It’s too dangerous’, he says, capturing the safety-obsession of today’s coppers. Cartwright looks rather baffled. ‘I thought that’s part of our job…?’ Likewise, when Gene Hunt declares that good policing isn’t about appearing in the papers all the time, you only hope today’s police chiefs were taking note. And the gag about Sam not being invited to a leaving do because ‘he’d only ruin it’ was pretty good too. If there was more of this, then Life On Mars could be on to something. But framing The Sweeney as a collection of lumpen halfwits definitely isn’t a fair cop, guv.

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