Philip Glenister and Keeley Hawes star in Ashes to Ashes.
BBC's Ashes to Ashes is the sequel to the critically acclaimed time-jumping cop show Life on Mars, which aired on BBC One 2006-'07 and was adapted by ABC in late '08, and it's traveling to the United States this spring.
Like the original series, Ashes to Ashes features a time-travel element, but in this case, the protagonist is a 21st-century woman cast back to 1981. Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) is a police psychologist who has been studying the case of Sam Tyler (John Simm) and his recollections of life as a detective in 1973 (he was actually in a coma). During a hostage situation, Drake is shot and suddenly finds herself transported to 1981, dealing with the same group of detectives about whom Tyler spoke in his recordings.
Series co-creator Ashley Pharoah and star Philip Glenister, who portrays the popular Gene Hunt, joined press via satellite from the show's U.K. set on Saturday to discuss the highly anticipated sequel series as part of the Television Critics Association's winter press tour in Universal City, Calif. Below is an edited version of the TCA panel discussion with Pharoah and Glenister. Ashes to Ashes debuts Saturday, March 7, on BBC America.
Ashley, what British and American cop shows influenced you where you're taking this show?
Pharoah: There was a famous [British] show, The Sweeney, back in the '70s. When we were growing up as teenagers, that was a huge influence. The whole journey started with me and Matthew [Graham] and Tony [Jordan] sitting in a hotel room thinking, "I wish we could write The Sweeney. No one would let us write it. It's too politically incorrect." And here we are, putting a modern copper back in the '70s. That was the genesis of the whole show.
[As far as] American cop shows, things like Hill Street Blues were hugely influential. I watched things like The Wire with my jaw on the floor. It's so brilliant.
Can you discuss the choice to put a woman at the center of the story and talk about the talents of Keeley Hawes?
Pharoah: The moment we decided to go on and make Ashes, I think our earliest decision was to change the male/male dynamic and get a female straight into the middle of the story. We wanted a more sort of Moonlighting feel. Brighter, in a sense. And we thought it would be really good fun to take Gene Hunt on a journey with a very strong woman, a feminist intellectual from our time.
I worked with Keeley Hawes before, and I was knocked out. I thought she was fantastic. Whenever I met with the producers and the writers and [went over] the short list of actresses, she was always on the top. It was a no-brainer, really. I think it's a wonderful performance she gives as Alex Drake.
Philip, what has this part done for your career?
Glenister: Actually, nothing. It destroyed it! [Laughs.] No, it changed my career completely. It's one of those moments that I may never have again, a role as fantastic as Gene Hunt. It's afforded me fantastic opportunities in terms of exposure, and it's all due to [Ashley] and Matthew, who created Mr. Gene Hunt. It's been an adventure and a great journey, and I'm hugely blessed that I've been given the honor to play him.
Have you seen the American version of Life on Mars?
Pharoah: Yes, I've seen up through episode eight. They invited me to the read-through in New York, and I was back there a month ago hanging out on the set. I'm a great fan of it. I hope it's doing well for ABC. I think it comes back in the new year.
Ashley, how do you compare Philip to Harvey Keitel, who plays Gene Hunt in the American show?
Pharoah: I was lucky enough to [watch] Harvey in the read-through. There aren't many actors that I'm nervous about meeting. The first thing he said to me was "How's Phil?" He thought it was an awesome performance, and he borrowed off [Glenister's performance].
Glenister: He did. I spoke to Harvey, and he was fantastic. He asked me—can you believe, Harvey Keitel—he asked [if I had] any notes about playing Gene Hunt. I said something very silly like, "Oh, just enjoy, Harvey. Just enjoy." And he promised that he would wear the white slip-on shoes as an homage to me. That was one of the greatest compliments I've ever been paid, quite frankly.
I'm looking forward to going to New York later in the year to meet Harvey and the team.
Do you think that Gene Hunt would be a hated character in these politically correct modern times?
Glenister: You know, it never occurred to me to begin with. I enjoyed the Life on Mars script so much when I first read it, I just laughed out loud, and I just loved the characters. So I was thinking from a very selfish point of view, determined that I was going to be the only actor that could play this part. The impact that this character would have on the public didn't occur to me until much later. There was only one way to play it. It was a completely instinctive approach.
Pharoah: None of us knew that Gene Hunt would become this sort of monster in some ways.
Is there a larger mythology at work that will explain what is happening in this world with the time travel and such?
Pharoah: Right from the start, we knew how we wanted to end it when finally the whole franchise comes to an end. We've got a terrific ending, I think. Very different from the American Life on Mars. We swapped endings drunk in a Manhattan bar, so I know theirs, and they know mine.
Could there be another sequel series?
Pharoah: Never say never, but I really would be amazed. [Season two of Ashes] is about to go out in March, and if that does well enough to give us a next [season], two Life on Mars and three Ashes would be a five-year journey. It's been a wonderful journey, [but] I think we would probably say thank you very much and bow out.