As a huge fan of Life on Mars, the Last Train, Eastenders and Doctor Who, Matthew Graham was always on my must have lists for Scrolls 9.
Following a chase round the internet for an email, in the immediate aftermath of Fear Her I sent off my hopeful request and was immediately knocked back on the grounds that ‘Matthew doesn’t want to talk about Who or Mars at present’, but to try later. Fair enough. Fast forward 6 months, a boozy session by accident with the brilliant Marshall Lancaster in the Tavern of the Stars ™ reminded me of Matthew, and this time was to prove more fruitfull.
Listening back to the tapes, Matthew would be a brilliant boss to work for. He’s just so enthusiastic about what he does, and unlike many professional writers has never lost the sense of fun and excitement that working in television can be. He also thinks A LOT about his work, which made the interview one of the most rewarding I ever did.
We join the interview on the subject of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes‘ Gene Hunt, and the differences and similarities between his two DIs, Sam Tyler (John Simm) and Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes)…
I’ve always thought that one of the dramatic centres of both series was that you have now visited the child-parent relationship twice with Alex and Sam and the disappointments and that you can’t change history.
The other things that’s there a lot is the class tension and the blue collar physical approach to problems, mistrusting, education and learning. Are those conflicts that you always see built in, bearing in mind that Sam came from a poor background made good; that these are internalised struggles?
The point I think between Alex and Sam, is that Alex has a psychological understanding which Gene doesn’t have. And she can apply that directly, whether it’s talking to ethnic minorities, talking to people from impoverished backgrounds, talking to criminals, so she has a way that he doesn’t have. Sam’s way was always on policing and following the rule book and actually Alex is more maverick than Sam.
I don’t think Sam would have got on very well with Alex because I think he would have found her too maverick. We didn’t want to play the same card of Alex just saying ‘where’s the evidence’ and Gene just saying ‘we don’t need evidence, I’ve got my instinct’. We just wanted Alex being a bit more dogged really, a bit more lazy. But she still knows how to have fun in the world and how to exploit it for her own end whereas Sam never got the hang of that; he never lightened up!
The main difference between the characters I suppose, is that Alex knows exactly where she is, or she thinks she does. With the brilliant pre-credit scene, how difficult is that? Alex says ‘I’ve been shot, I’m in a coma, I’m not sure where I am but I’m trying to get home’ – is it a more difficult sell, in a way?
It is. But the risk we were taking was that Series One was all about Alex. Let’s put somebody into Life on Mars and think they know how it all works, then let’s pull the rug out from under them. So Series One was kind of about sticking her in that place and Series Two is about changing all the rules again for her, so that she is becoming more disconcerted about her predicament. The clown was always her Dad and so that part of the story is definitely done now.
Any return for Zippy on the cards?
Zippy! Oh, you never know!
Have you ever been tempted to drop any Doctor Who in there? To have Daleks talking to her or anything like that or is it just too expensive?!
We thought about it with Life on Mars. But Doctor Who is so big. If it hadn’t been on T.V again, I’m sure we would have done but I’ve just remembered in Series Four, Ashley and Sarah did have the Daleks on T.V talking to Sam, with her mother’s voice as a Dalek! Which was great and really worked well. I think that when Doctor Who became really big again, while we were making Life on Mars, that it felt a bit like T.V eating itself , it just felt too incestuous really.
Were you ever involved in some of the earlier discussions to bring back Doctor Who, Matthew?
Yeah, I was! I initiated one of the earlier discussions. I obviously didn’t have as much clout as Russell but I went in and said to the BBC that I would love to do Doctor Who. But at the time, the writers were owned by Spielberg I think and were already tied up. But that lapsed and the rights came back to the BBC around the time that Russell was interested in it.
But a love of Doctor Who and growing up in that fan environment, has been responsible for some serious TV careers for writers, directors, producers. It seems to be a common rite of passage now, that it was a love of Doctor Who and books and reading that has launched quite a few careers.
I think for any child who had the imagination, Doctor Who was thieving it. It was the only thing, that as a child, fed your imagination in that way. There were a lot of children’s programmes, but with Doctor Who, it was something that felt as if it wasn’t for children, it was for anybody.
So, moving forward. There’s a U.S Series in the pipeline and intrigingly a Spanish Life on Mars in the pipeline?
Are we going to see Franco-ists?
I reckon it could be some Franco-ists, that would be fantastic! But what I was very keen to see, was whether the Germans were going to make one, where a burly copper wakes back up behind the wall! But the show didn’t go down very well in Germany, so it’s a real shame. The U.S one is under construction as we speak.
Do you think the American audiences will be ready for something “clever”, after Lost?
I totally think they are ready for it, I think they were into that kind of stuff before us really, it’s just they lost several months before Life on Mars. So it’s just a case of getting it right. They made a pilot already, which didn’t work out as well as they’d hoped so I think they scrapped it and they are re-doing it now in New York. And we are talking to the writers of it next week, as they start filming it very soon. I can’t tell you who yet but they are trying to cast an amazing Hollywood actor for Gene, which would be really amazing if they get him (GK – recently revealed as Harvey Keitel).
With thanks to Matthew Graham for being so accommodating with his time and Elena Kemp of Premier PR for all her help.
Read the full interview (conducted in summer 2008) in which Matthew discusses Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes at length as well as a bit of Bonekickers. (Note the interview is in PDF format complete with the planned layout.)