Ashes to Ashes (2008)

A comprehensive interview-based feature on the 1980s-based follow-up to time-hopping, is-he-dead-or-isn’t-he?m genre-crossing Life on Mars. As you’ll see here, once upon a time I used to get to go to press previews, fancy London parties and interview the stars. Now I write about goblins for a living. You can read my verdict on Ashes to Ashes series one right here. Eventually, I’ll get round to putting my review of the whole thing online. But I did like it. From Death Ray 11.

Ashes to Ashes

Sam Tyler is dead, long live Alex Drake! Though problematically she might be dead already. Guy Haley talks to the cast and crew of the Life on Mars follow-up about the head-spaces of time addled cops, and just why they are so darned popular.

A shudder of palpable glee ripples through the room as a bright red Audi Quattro comes roaring round a corner in London’s derelict docklands and slides to a halt in a spray of gravel.

Out step Gene Hunt, Chris Skelton and Ray Carling, guns waving, swagger intact despite a move down south. When Hunt utters the word “bastards”, actor Philip Glenister’s London vowels squashed northern flat, you can feel the air shift in the screening room as 150 grins simultaneously take shape.

It’s the premiere of the first episode of Life on Mars follow-up, Ashes to Ashes, the very first time some of the cast have seen it, and they’re just as dazzled as we are. Garish make-up fills the screen, electropop tickles the ears. Welcome back to 1981.

When John Simm, who played misplaced in time (or was he?) cop Sam Tyler, announced he was to leave Life on Mars, it threw the Beeb into a bit of a spin. Despite its risky cross-genre format, Life on Mars garnered viewing figures just shy of 7 million per episode, a massive hit in these days of multiple channels. Its regrettable end wasn’t a surprise, Simm had made no secret of his desire to do just two runs, and the series came to a satisfyingly inconclusive conclusion, as only befitted such a deliciously ambiguous drama, last year.

“From a writer’s point of view it felt like unfinished business,” explains Ashley Pharaoh, one of the show’s two main writers. “I really didn’t want to say good-bye to those characters and say, sorry, I don’t have any more stories to tell, so I was really delighted I got the chance to explore them more. I didn’t think it was going to happen, but it did.”

Apparently, it wasn’t a struggle coming up with the concept. “This one shouted at us right from the start,” says Pharoah. And unlike Life on Mars, which was rejected twice over six years and heavily rewritten before finally being commissioned, Ashes to Ashes was picked up sharpish.

It’s the after-screen party at the Soho Curzon in London, and the bar is awash with excited – and relieved– babble. It looks like Ashes has gone down well. Like its predecessor, the show takes risks. Although the architecture of the concept remains similar – a cop is catapulted back into a bygone age of policing – everything else bar Sam Tyler’s three cop buddies has changed. The show’s set in London (where Life on Mars was originally intended take place, before BBC policy sent it to Manchester by way of Leeds), it’s the 1980s, and the new lost-in-time cop is the female DI Alex Drake, with new baggage, new problems, and a new puzzle to solve.

It’s the time period that brings the biggest difference. Pharaoh calls 1981 a “hinge year” in British culture, and he’s right. The country was finally beginning to recover from the Second World War, not just economically, but emotionally. The Empire was properly ended, the pain of losing our last great colonies was beginning to diminish, and the upheaval of the financially troublesome 1970s began to give way to a more prosperous time, a prosperity based not on heavy manufacturing, but financial services. This shift at the heart of what had defined the country for 150 years was but one of many that affected different areas of British life. There was a fin de siecle atmosphere to the time, as old Britain died and a new one began to take shape, a time of excess fuelled by the threat of nuclear doom.

“I think that’s true,” says Pharaoh, “I was 21 then, and I was very conscious that there was a definite sense that things were ending. The whole Punk thing was fading out, Thatcherism was coming in. But when I was researching it I was also really struck about how optimistic people were. That’s why the colours are so bright.  The people were naive, even. The whole Royal Wedding thing, which we touch on, all the street parties, it was seen as a very happy day. But we know, as Alex knows, how sad the ending of that princess story was.”

And how bizarre it all looks now, more so even than the relatively distant year of 1973.

“It does in a way,” agrees Pharoah, “the clothes were weirder, the hair was weirder, it’s been odd revisiting it, it was a really important year of my life.”

“I think everybody thinks of it as very recent,” says producer Beth Willis. “They recognise the music and the clothes, but watching Ashes to Ashes they’ll realise, as we all did working on it, actually, it’s not the same, there’s just one computer on a desk – Gene’s, and it only has pong. Think how far we’ve come since then, it’s huge.”

There were other good reasons to pick the capital in 1981, that were far more serious than some funky tunes and big shoulderpads…

“The Brixton Riots and the Scarman report are what overshadowed that whole year, really,” says Willis, referring to the in-depth investigation, headed by ex-judge Lord Scarman. During the disturbances, a mob of 5000 burned 30 buildings, damaged a hundred more, and nearly 400 people were injured. The blame for all this was squarely apportioned to unsympathetic policing of the mainly black community of Brixton, and the changes the report set off went deep. “It was a completely different time for the police,” continues Willis. “The general attitude of the public changed. In Life on Mars, if Gene Hunt knocked on somebody’s door, they’d invite him in for a cup of tea and a garibaldi and they had a certain amount of trust, whereas in Ashes to Ashes they’ll spit on the police and call them ‘pig’.”

“It’s a very important year in policing, the coppers know the Scarman Report is coming,” says Pharoah, “and they know that it is going to be bad news. That gives us a certain layer of tension, even melancholy. And this is just before the police force were politicised through the miners strike too, it’s all changing” adds Pharaoh, “Gene Hunt, I think, would hate the police to be used as a political army.”

To use an Ashes to Ashes trick, let’s turn back time a week. Philip Glenister and Keeley Hawes are discussing their characters on a day when unseasonably high temperatures, pouring rain, grey skies and a sea of umbrellas make London look like a Bladerunner‘s LA. The glitz of 1981 seems a long time ago.

“Thatcher was about to take the unions out, the miners strike was coming up, the Falklands was a year away, you had the worst riots in the 20th century in Brixton,” says Glenister. He takes this stuff seriously. His earlier rapid-fire banter with Hawes has tailed off. “The police, in terms of their reputation, were probably at an all time low, they couldn’t get any lower, and unlike now,” he says, slapping the back of his hand into palm of the other for emphasis, “where you’ve got the back up of the PR machines, they didn’t have that then, so it was pretty rough. It was imperative for me that with Gene’s journey we witness a man who’s losing his grip on his style of policing and recognising that, and I thought it would be quite interesting to see him trying to conform, trying to do the right thing, trying to go with the flow, because he’s come from being the big fish in the small pond – Manchester – to being the small fish in a big pond – the Met. There’s a great moment actually where the roles are reversed. They’re trying to secure a conviction, and Alex is the one who says that I think we can do this by cutting a few corners, and I turn round and say, ‘I never though I’d hear myself say this, but what we need is evidence!'”

It’s this awareness on Hunt’s part of the turning of an age that creates a large chunk of the drama in Ashes to Ashes. But it also provides a bridge between he and Alex. Unlike in Life on Mars, both main characters are fish out of water.

“I think that they are a crutch to each other, actually,” says Beth Willis, (we’re a week later again, keep up). “They are both drawn to each other in a way that neither quite understand. They both fear that the end may be nigh, and that is probably what they unwittingly both share.”

“In a sense that’s my favourite aspect of Ashes to Ashes,” says Pharaoh. “Gene is a gunslinger who knows the Wild West is almost over, and that makes it quite poignant, and he’s never going to go down without a fight. A lot of the energy comes from that predicament. He feels a very different character from life on mars, he was the sheriff of Manchester, he’s still the Manc Lion, but he’s not the sheriff of London.”

All the cast and crew, in fact, are quite keen to emphasise that this is not the same show as Life on Mars.

“It’s got a very different feel to it,” insists Glenister. “The basic elements are there from Life on Mars, but it’s got it’s own identity, I’m not going to call it a spin-off any more because it’s not, it’s its own thing.”

“It’s a very different texture, and a different palette, and a different energy. That’s partly the context, and partly the structure of how the story is,” says Pharaoh, “but it feels like a new show. I’ve been saying that in interviews, and not quite believing it, but having seen it finished for the first time I can say that it is.”

Willis echoses this. “I think the continuity we’ve had with Ashes to Ashes with the writers and the executive producers is brilliant, but there are quite a lot of new members of the team, including Alex Drake, clearly, which has given it a freshness that it really needed.”

Alex is a police psychologist who’s shot in the head and catapulted back in time, she thinks she has all the answers. Not only to police work, like Sam, but also to her own predicament.

“She does think she has a handle on what is happening,” says Keeley Hawes, who portrays Alex “she is aware, she believes that she is in her own head. So she thinks that she understands how she is going to get back, whereas with Sam, anything could have been the trigger. But it’s difficult for her, actually, the line between it being lots of fun and forgetting about what’s actually driving her, which is getting home to her daughter. That’s the great thing about the series’ writing, one minute you’ll be reading the script and laughing out loud, and the next scene you’ll be filling up thinking ‘Oh my God.’ It does both extremes of things so well, and so completely that you’re kept on your toes. But it is more fun than Life on Mars, isn’t it?” she says to Glenister. “It is a different animal in that way…”

“Yeah,” says Glenister, “but it’s dark in places.”

He’s not wrong – sinister clowns dog Alex Drake, the writers even, the swines, managed to put a sinister edge on George and Zippy from Rainbow. Hanging over it all are several hints (like, the title for one, eh?) that, unlike comatose Sam, Alex may actually already be dead.

This puzzle again fills the core of the show. But in these various interviews we hear a lot of “Gene, Gene, Gene”. It’s obvious the popularity – crucially with the writers as well as the audience – of Gene Hunt and his one-liners that is one of the major factors in ensuring Ashes to Ashes was made. Of course, even Life on Mars was about the really about the past, and the cops of yesteryear, and not Sam, but it looks like, this time round, the focus has shifted and they’re not making excuses for their roughty-toughty heroes.

“We have a lot of affection for those characters. You can see the humour on screen, it really comes through, I think,” says Pharaoh.

“I’ve never laughed so much in script meetings as I did with Matt and Ashley,” adds Willis.

Frankly speaking, this dwelling on the laughs may be an unwise move on the part of the team, though having only seen the first episode it’s difficult to tell [note from 2013: it proved to be less pronounced than it at first appeared, and the show was very good] but the comedy is certainly amped up. But still, you can’t dampen the happy feeling of seeing Gene Hunt on screen again.

“Do you know what?” says Glenister (his accent is sort of poshed-up London.We here in the northern-centric Death Ray office were very upset to discover this. We may have to take our poster down). “I think people like him because there’s a great lack of self-awareness about Gene. And I think in such an image conscious age as we are now… Let me put it like this. I was watching this Rick Stein programme, admittedly I’d had a few,” he smiles, “and I had this insight. Rick Stein went to this carrot farm in Lincolnshire, and he pulled up this really ugly looking carrot, this really mishapen thing. And he went ‘Look at that,’ he says, ‘it may look ridiculous,’ and he bit into it and said ‘but by God that’s how carrots should taste.’ You go into supermarkets now, and you see these carrots in packaging… it’s image, carrots have a fucking image! So I think the fact that this guy comes along and doesn’t have any of that, just says it like it is, I think that people find it refreshing.”

There’s a pause.

“So he’s a knobbly carrot.”

This honest to goodness, no frills, root vegetableness has also meant that Gene has become something of a sex symbol…

“Why do you sound so surprised when you say that?” says Glenister, puffing out his chest.  “Well, I keep quoting Helen Mirren when she won her Golden Globe – ‘I don’t think it’s me you’ve fallen in love with, I think it’s her Maj’. And I think it’s the same with Gene Hunt, it’s nothing to do with me. They haven’t exactly been throwing themselves down Sheen High Street. I’m still waiting to be mobbed in Waitrose!”

Someone asks, “Keeley, why do you think people love Gene hunt so much? As someone who doesn’t play him.”

“Good luck. Go on Keeley, tell it how it is,” laughs Glenister. This is the two as they were for much of the time we spoke to them, playful and giggly.

“Well, er, he…” she says, looking sidelong at her co-star.

“She doesn’t, she just thinks he’s a bastard,” he says.

“No, she doesn’t think that! You can’t help but like him, and the boys actually, they’ve got more to do, in this. I just think the three of them they’re funny and sexy, there’s not a model amongst them…”

“I think you’ll find the word is we’re real men.”

“And actually I think they are, they are real men…”

“Not an ounce of Botox. But wait till series two,” he pulls the wind-shocked face of the Botoxee, “they’ll all look like that. You’ll find Gene’s had a tummy tuck as well.”

“They are all very sexy,” says Hawes reassuringly.

“They’re three sort of cheap musketeers, the Bermondsey musketeers!”

There’s an obvious chemistry between the two leads. On screen, things are a little more edgy, a little more sexual, but don’t be expecting any full on nookie. Though the series puts them in numerous cheek-to-cheek situations – episode two has them stripping off a few layers together to avoid baking when they’re locked into an unventilated nuclear fall-out shelter, Alex Drake revealing a saucy red basque from Agent Provocateur – they’ve been wise enough not to pull a Moonlighting. There’s lots of sexual tension, but no sex.

“Of course there are elements of attraction there but if you go too far down that road of ‘will they, won’t they?’ you don’t have a series,” says Glenister.

“I think the writers were really clever because it’s never really about Gene having a go with Alex, it’s more her trying it on with him… There’s lots of scenes where she goes, well, you know, after a couple of bevvies, come on then,” says Hawes.

“Yeah, when she is pissed out of her head.”

“I am trying to be complimentary!”

“It’s the only way she can find me attractive, after sixteen bottles of lager. No, there are moments where you think oh, something could happen here,” he says slapping his hands, “and then of course Gene comes out with one of his corkers like,  I dunno ‘Are you a C cup or a D cup?’ and blows it basically.”

So expect something between Alex and Gene like the relationship between Gene and Sam, only more tempestuous. They shout in each others’ faces, Alex openly calls the coppers “constructs”, there’s even a moment where she punches Gene full in the face (Sam did this too, but Alex is a woman, so it’s a shock to Gene). “The cameras weren’t even rolling,” jokes Glenister. But Hunt does not treat Drake badly. Despite his gloriously unreconstructed banter, Gene Hunt is not a misogynist.

“I don’t think he ever patronises her, she’s too smart for that, and she recognises that he thinks that. I had it with Life on Mars, with Lizzie’s character where I referred to her as ‘Mrs Woman’. Had it just been ‘listen, woman’, then that would really have been quite derogatory. And the same with Alex, there’s a great line where he refers to her as ‘DI Lady’, if it was just the ‘lady’ there then that would have been really patronising, but the fact that he refers to her as her rank… ‘DI Lady’, it’s affectionate, there’s a sort of equality to it.”

Like in Life on Mars, this argumentative relationship provides a powerhouse to the investigative team as they take down various villains through the series, each story, as Pharaoh tells us, is a police procedural, with elements of the time travel question wrapped round it. How this is resolved, and what kind of ending we can expect for a the first season of a series that is expected to go to three years, they’re not saying.

“You’ll have to watch it to see. I think a lot of things resolved,” says Willis, before adding enigmatically, “and a lot of things that are not resolved. There’s definitely a puzzle to be solved in this series. Possibly more of a puzzle than Life on Mars I think. You should watch the first ten minutes of the first episode very carefully, because it is all very, very important.”

Interestingly, there’s some dissent  on the creative team as to what Ashes to Ashes/ Life on Mars is  all about. Pharaoh sees it as being all in the mind.

“The great thing about  Life on Mars  and Ashes to Ashes,” he says “is that you can spin different theories off it, it’s a subjective drama, which is quite unusual. But no, I’m pretty sure he’s not back in time.”

Willis has it different. “As a genuine fan of Life on Mars,  when I started work on Ashes to Ashes I said many, many times to Matt and Ashley, as far as I was concerned, he did go back in time and the world’s real. And that’s very important to me as a viewer.”

“A lot of our fans want to believe he was back in time. If they want to believe that then he was, it’s not a science,” says Pharaoh.

Could even be that he was both! Who knows, eh?

“Yeah,” says Pharaoh with a shrug. When we ask them if there’ll ever be a definitive answer, they are non-committal, and refuse to be drawn, but other things we put to them, like, could there ever be a Ashes to Ashes equivalent of Quantum Leap’s “Evil Leaper” raises the reply “anything’s possible”. [I was right about that, go me].

There is of course, plenty of grist to the Life on Mars theory mill in episode one of Ashes to Ashes. Like; why do the team take Alex’s claim that she is from the future in their stride? Why does Alex behave, when told that Sam Tyler lived for seven further years in the ‘reality’ of Gene Hunt, like it is a given truth and not a part of her projection? And Sam, what happened to him? We learn he died, tellingly, because he didn’t follow Gene’s advice, but is body was never found, or so at least Pharoah tells us. And in case Alex ever does make it back to the present, surely she’d leave some sort of time capsule somewhere, and at the very least check out whether or not there ever was a Gene Hunt, Ray Carling and Chris Skelton. I would, wouldn’t you?

Perhaps it is unimportant how, just that it gives us a way to examine our own pasts with fresh eyes. It’s certainly captured imaginations worldwide – The concept has been picked up in the US, and there are rumoured spin-offs in Germany (cop wakes up behind the Berlin Wall), South Africa (liberal white cop goes back to apartheid times).

In the end, our bet is we’ll never know, but one thing’s for sure, it will certainly keep us talking. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the true beauty of the show.

Shazza 4 Chris

Marshall Lancaster and Montserrat Lombard play Chris Skelton, returning from Life on Mars, and new character Shaz. It is they, not Gene and Alex, who have a real romantic attachment. They spoke to Death Ray about 1981, innocent love and Nookie. The bear, not the act.

Death Ray: It seems your character’s a little more grown up now.

Marshall Lancaster: Yeah well, I wanted him to be more grown up, I mean, it’s been 8 years since 1973. He’s always a bit of a div, always one behind everybody else, but he’ll have arrested a few armed blaggers by now. You’ll see he’s grown up with his gun spinning trick in episode one. He would have dropped it in ’73.

DR: Do you think he’s grown the balls to stand up to Gene Hunt?

ML: Well, I’ve got them tight white jeans on, judge for yourself!

DR: Has Shaz taken the place of the naive member of the team?

Montserrat Lombard: She seems naive at the beginning of the series, but she’s not as quiet as you think she is, and that’s what’s so great about Shaz. She really develops and is full of surprises.

DR: Was it daunting for you joining the crew?

MSL: I thought it might be, but Keeley’s new, and the boys are really nice, so we all bonded really quickly. I’m a bit of a tomboy, so I like being with lots of boys. And Keeley’s very similar, isn’t she?

ML: We were all playing darts in Gene’s office. It didn’t take long before we all bonded, then we were swearing at each other because we were beating each other at darts.

DR: What is it like to be the series lovebirds?

MSL: It’s a nightmare!

ML: It’s alright. We’ve not had to do anything too drastic, you just play that innocent love thing; I didn’t think I’d be playing it at 33, but there you go. It’s good, because it mirrors Alex and Gene’s, but theirs is a real sexual tension thing. But they haven’t got it on, whereas we have. But it’s holding hands, nudging each other under the table, writing “Chris and Shazza” on the desk.

DR: How long do we have to wait for a full on snog between you?

ML: It was written in, wasn’t it?

MSL: But we complained!

ML: I must be an idiot, but I was thinking it’s good that you don’t always see.

MSL: It was more romantic not doing it, wasn’t it?

DR: Your character picked up on Sam Tyler’s modern policing. Do we get to see any of that coming through in the way that Chris approaches police work in 1981?

ML: Not as much as I would have liked. There was a lot of stuff in the ’70s, like the tape recorder thing that Sam started to teach him for interview techniques. He’s into his technical stuff, as you see a bit in the first episode, but I don’t think he comes up with the goods as much this time. I think Shaz takes over that really.

MSL: What? Learning about technical stuff?

ML: Er, no, she doesn’t does she?

MSL: Were you in this show?

DR: Does Shaz see Alex as a mentor the same way that Chris saw Sam as a mentor?

MSL: Not in the beginning. She’s a bit wary about the fact there’s a woman coming in to that position, and she knows how the boys feel about it. But slowly she begins to see what a woman can be, and not just in work, in all areas of life.

ML: Shaz is Alex’s creation, not Sam’s. So it gets interesting.

DR: So are you in the “it’s all in the mind camp”?

ML: Yeah, to be honest with you, but it’s still pretty vague whether it’s this, that, or the other. I’m sure everyone’s got their own theories, but mine is that it’s all in the mind, not that I am saying it is that. I’ll have to get shot and find out!

DR: Shaz fulfils the Daphne from Scooby doo role in episode one, getting kidnapped. Is she like that right the way through?

MSL: She’s very annoyed that she becomes the damsel in distress, she likes to be a bit tough, so I think you see that come through as the series goes on.

DR: There’s rumours that you wear a bit of eyeliner in an upcoming episode.

ML: Oh, I ‘m glad you said in an upcoming episode! Shaz takes Chris to the Blitz club, and you had obviously to do the full shebang. We were all inthe finest New Romantic attire, you had Steve Strange there, singing “Fade to Grey”. Ashley Pharaoh used to go to the Blitz Club when he was younger, he was getting a bit emotional when he recreated it.

DR: Nookie the bear in is an episode. Apparently you got quite excited about meeting him.

ML: Yeah, we all had a go on Nookie bear. That was a defining moment, when they passed the Nookie bear over from Roger De Courcey, and stuck me hand straight up his bum, made him go crossed-eyed. But it’s not the original, he’s had about seven of them.

DR: If we were to move the period to another time, what period would you like the writers to choose next?

ML: I’d like medieval. I’d like to see Gene Hunt with a big broadsword chopping somebody’s head off.

DR: Like the Spanish Inquisition.

ML: That’s his interview technique.

DR: And why would you like the 90s?

MSL: I think early 90s. It would be really fun to see Gene Hunt trying to cope with the ’90s. There’s the whole Manchester scene. Can you see this lot doing that? In the warehouses at raves, that’d be good. Seeing Ray…

ML: What, with a paisley top on and flares, at the Hacienda? It could still go there. The ’80s, I thought it’s a bit too close, but as soon as you look at it you think wow, it was ages ago.

DR: Did you do any research for the show?

MSL: I got sent loads of music from YouTube. It took me a while, but now I really like it.

ML: The whole thing looks ’80s. At times you think it looks a bit off, but that’s just because its the ’80s. The difference in colours compared to that 1973 look is… something just happened, and it all changed, and I think they’ve really captured that. They’ve got lots of props. Like that the poster in the kitchen of that tennis player lifting up her skirt, things that people just recognise.

DR: Having been back to the 1980s, would you like to go and live there?

MSL: Nooo!

ML: I’m with you on that one. I think what’s done is done. Let’s not do it again.

It was a very fine year…

A lot happened in 1981. Sure, a lot happens every year, but 1981 was actually quite special.

What’s remarkable about this year is just how much promise some of these events had, and how poorly they turned out. The pomp and circumstance of the Royal Wedding, of  kind we are unlikely we will see  again (or at least we won’t until Britain is once more a full-on monarchy), held not a hint of the disaster the marriage held. Diana Spencer, an unhappy bulimic from a minor noble house, really did not fare well alongside Charles, a serious, driven and prickly man. That the whole thing was effectively an arranged marriage of the old and regal sort was in no way at the front of the public mind. It was all love, love, love on that weird day of 29 July, where the nation was united in adulation of the monarchy. A fairy-tale romance, it seemed, all those street parties and whatnot. As a kid it frankly baffled me – I remember seeing it on the telly and being very bored – but it made a lot of dewy-eyed old ladies, and 750 million other people worldwide who tuned in, very happy. What a mess, a loveless sham riven with adultery as two people were slowly crushed by their civic duty. Poor old Charles, for all his faults, got a rough ride of it, and what was all that stuff about the Queen of Hearts? Nice lady, but a saint? This remains a peculiar country.

Another story with a tragic end started that year. The space shuttle (or Space Transport System, to give it its very dull full name) Columbia, with story was even more tragic. Columbia, with the astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen aboard, made its first trip into orbit, circling the Earth 36 times before coming in to land. What looked like the dawn of a new era of spaceflight heralded instead a 30-year break in extensive space exploration as humans became tethered to low Earth orbit. Though there have been many truly astounding robotic missions to other worlds in the Solar System, nothing beats the thought of a man on another world, and that has not happened for 36 years. The idea of a partly reusable spaceship might have looked futuristic, but it was not. Instead the shuttle was born of a desire on the part of the Nixon administration to scale back space exploration costs and the needs of the US military to launch massive spy satellites more cheaply. This saddled NASA with a massively expensive, faulty and down right dangerous space system that has seen two out of the five spaceworthy orbiters (a sixth, Enterprise, was built only as a test model) destroyed, and 14 astronauts dead. Seeing as the shuttle will only ever fly less than 150 missions, that is an appalling safety record.

Politically, it was a pivotal in history. Margaret Thatcher had been in power in the UK for just over a year. Her programme of monetary reform was underway, and she was squaring up to the unions. But what is notable about 1981 is that this year saw Arthur Scargill elected as chairman of National Union of Mineworkers. His battle with Thatcher would culminate in the miner’s strike of 1984-1985, and that saw the end of large-scale mining, and the unions, the culmination of the politicisation of the police, and the end for havy industry as a major part of the UK economy.

Another battle Thatcher took on, a far larger one with potentially devastating consequences, was that with the Soviet Union. No one could have predicted that an ex-chemist and the star of 1951 chimp-flick Bedtime for Bonzo would have brought the Russian Bear down and ended the cold war, but that’s what happened, a process began by the inauguration of the aforementioned film star as US president (no, not the chimp! Ronald Reagan!) on 20 January, 1981.

The alliance and friendship between Thatcher and Reagan, two peas in the pod, right wing monetarists, led to the installation on British soil of medium range nuclear missiles, a provocation that the Russians could not ignore, but their bluff was called, and the Red Empire collapsed. Not to underplay the contribution made to this event by the likes of the Solidarity movement in Poland (which was in full swing in 1981), or other socio-economic factors, like, um, the inherent corruption and general unworkability of the Soviet System, but love them or loathe them, Bonzo’s mate and the girl from Grantham quite possibly saved us all from nuclear apocalypse.

The Culture Club

Now we’ve had a light skate over some hard-core political history, let’s take a look at popular culture to keep nostalgia buffs happy.

At the flicks: Raiders of The Lost Ark, Superman II, Stir Crazy, Any Which Way You Can, and For Your Eyes Only were some of the top grossing films of the year, with the first outing for the serial-inspired archeologist coming in at number one. Time Bandits, American Werewolf in London, The Howling, Mad Max II, The Great Muppet Caper, Clash of the Titans, Escape from New York, and Dragonslayer being among other films under Death Ray’s purview out that year.

In music it was an interesting time, with several genres and their attendant subcultures vying for the attention of the day’s youth. New Romantics, nascent rockers, ska-influenced chaps in zoot suits, the dying fire of the hippies and the last punks among them. Depeche Mode, Metallica, Motley Crue, Pantera, Slayer and Sonic Youth are formed, setting the scene for the clash between rock and pop in the latter half of the decade. The Buzzcocks and Ian Dury’s band disband. “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes tops the charts for year’s best-selling single, “Tainted Love” (Soft Cell), “In the Air Tonight” (Phil Collins), “Woman” (John Lennon), and “Stars on 45” (What?) by Stars on 45 (Who?) make up the rest.

In games, classic board game Axis & Allies is released, and Call of Cthulhu and presents HP Lovecraft’s horrors in an RPG. Video games Frogger, Donkey Kong and Galaga hit the arcades.

New on TV: The Hitchhiker’s Guide the The Galaxy, Postman Pat, Smurfs, Triangle, The Fall Guy, Dynasty, and, who could forget, Game for a Laugh.

Technology sees the BBC Micro, Commodore Vic 20, and ZX81 computers released. The first ill-fated, though beautiful, Delorean rolls off the production line.

And in sport, Nelson Piquet is Formula One champion, Bernard Hinault wins the Tour De France, ice-skaters Torvill and Dean shoot to fame, Tottenham wins the FA cup, Tom Watson the US Masters, the South African Springbok’s visit to New Zealand causes anti-apartheid rioting, John McEnroe wins Wimbledon, the first World Games (ie, Olympic rejects) are held and poor, doomed Shergar wins the Epsom Derby!


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