Bad cop or good cop?

Watching Life on Mars we’re supposed to look down our noses at racist, sexist, Paddy-bashing Gene Hunt. But, hey, he gets the job done.

Patrick West

Patrick West

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The success of the BBC’s Life on Mars is a somewhat curious tale, but an understandable one. This is because some of the best programmes and films work on the principle of ambivalence, in that they say unconsciously contradictory things to different sets of audiences.

Consider the 1960s comedy Till Death Us Do Part, which the left found amusing because it lampooned the stupidity of the racist idiot Alf Garnett, a Jewish working-class bigot who refuses to admit that he is Jewish, because he is so racist himself. Till Death Us Do Part also allowed rich lefties to laugh at the British working classes with a clear conscience, something that has become all the more acceptable in today’s world of Big Brother-esque chav-baiting. Then, of course, there were many others who weren’t laughing at Alf Garnett, but laughing with him, because they shared his views.

Likewise, half of those who later enjoyed Father Ted did so because they appreciated its nuanced take on anti-clericalism in Ireland and the country’s embrace of secular modernity; the other half merely enjoyed watching thick Paddies making eejits of themselves. In Father Ted you had a simpleton Irishman (Father Dougal), a drunken Irishman (Father Jack) and a crooked Irishman (Father Crilly) – possibly three of the most enduring negative Irish stereotypes on the English stage and screen.

On cinema, examples include Easy Rider (1969), which ostensibly is a celebration of the counterculture of the 1960s, but simultaneously a warning about the dangers of drugs and a condemnation of the spirit of that decade. I remember my father telling me about talking to a backward, racist South African in 1969, who, to my dad’s surprise, raved about Easy Rider. ‘It’s a brilliant film’, said the South African. ‘In the end, the hippies get killed!’

We have been reminded of this ambivalence only in the last week, what with the death of John Inman, who most famously played Mr Humphries in the atrocious 1970s ‘comedy’ Are You Being Served? Again, one half of the audience was laughing at this loveable, childlike assistant, what with his double entendres and possibly the show’s subversive take on gay stereotypes. And then there were those who were merely laughing at the stupid, mincing poof.

Which brings me, in a circular fashion, back to the cop drama Life on Mars, which is currently in its second, and last, season. It, too, is founded on ambivalence. On the one hand we are meant to sympathise with the protagonist Sam Tyler (John Simm), a policeman who has been sent back to 1973 Manchester (or who may be having a coma-induced dream about the whole thing; we shall find out at the end of the series).

Tyler is every bit the twenty-first century rozzer, who talks in the therapeutic language of ‘caring’, ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’, ‘institutional racism’, ‘human rights’ etc, and constantly chastises his boss Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) for being a foul-mouthed sexist drunk who routinely fabricates evidence and beats up suspects in custody to get a confession. A recent episode had Hunt going round Manchester’s Irish pubs in 1973, assaulting ‘Paddies’, believing nearly all of them to be working for the IRA.

So it would seem that Tyler is the good guy, and Hunt a reprehensible anachronism. But Glenister’s Hunt is really the hero of the show, because at the end of the day he gets the job done. He may be a racist and a sexist who spends too much time down the boozer, but in Life on Mars, when he does bend the rules, he invariably gets the results. While on the one hand Life on Mars is an overt veneration of today’s therepeutic policing methods, it is in truth a lament for the days when coppers went round in Mark 3 Ford Cortinas, said ‘shut it’ a lot, and were, it seems, above the law themselves.

Then there is the ambivalent representation of Manchester in the programme. I spent some years in Manchester in the mid-1990s. Even then the city was beginning its process of regeneration and the city, after the merciful intervention of the IRA in 1996, is now held up as one of England’s urban success stories. So why the nostalgia for the Manchester of the 1970s, when it was one of the ugliest cities in the country? Perhaps, for all Manchester’s then-decrepit dreariness, there is a longing for a time when people didn’t hang out in Starbucks or were told about Manchester’s ‘challenging’ and ‘daring’ new architecture or its ‘regeneration’. Maybe people long for a simple time when they could go to Maine Road, watch Francis Lee cheating or trying to start a fight, and then go down the Ducie Arms for a pint of Double Diamond.

However, I do find Seventies nostalgia baffling. For all of those who miss that decade, here are some words: the appalling television comedies George & Mildred, Bless This House, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Man About The House, Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, Are You Being Served?, the insufferable Jimmy Hill presenting Match of The Day, Carry On films, airplane hijacking, the three-day week, inflation, Heath and Wilson, the National Front, the IRA, British Leyland, trade unions, white dog poo, prog-rock and having a Minister of Drought.

But soon the Australians came along, and in the shape of The Sullivans, Prisoner: Cell Block H and The Flying Doctors, they thankfully rescued us from all that hideousness.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV columnist.

Read more about television at: spiked issue TV

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