by Kathleen Costa
BritBox has a wide variety of shows and movies available for members at a reasonable fee (monthly $6.99; annual special $69.99). There is always something to watch for any level of Anglophile from iconic comedies, dramas, and mysteries to new, fresh out of Covid restrictions series, movies, and documentaries. It’s always exciting when current favorites, like Shakespeare & Hathaway, make it back with the cast intact, but I’m ready to “crow” when I find a gem that offers intrigue and a surprising twist, like Life on Mars and its sequel Ashes to Ashes.
Shakespeare & Hathaway is back for season four…Yeah! The cast returns with ten entertaining cases for the trio: Mark Benton as Frank Hathaway, Jo Joyner as his PI partner Luella “Lu” Shakespeare, and Patrick Walshe McBride as their best undercover receptionist Sebastian Brudenell. Despite the occasional snarky quip between friends, there’s always coffee and donuts as they meld their personal talents to ease their clients”s concerns: corporate espionage, threats at a ballroom dance class, a drowned beauty pageant contestant, search for a famous car, a slimming club poaching clients, a missing manuscript, a Shakespeare-clad employee’s death, trainspotting cold case, a challenge to solve a crime before it happens, and pranks threatening a local festival. When the cases end up with a dead body or two, the team runs afoul of the disagreeable DS Joe Keeler (Tomas Eames) who, despite Shakespeare and Hathaway being key to arresting the “right” guy or gal, never gives them a break, including relishing over arresting Frank for murder. PC Viola Deacon (Yasmin Kaur Barn) provides a helpful eye roll and valuable access and inside information.
A favorite cozy! Shakespeare & Hathaway continues to bring delightful mysteries for the team to solve which includes witty banter among the friends, creative teamwork, and a few humorous, if not perilous, predicaments. The cases for which they are hired to investigate are always the main focus, and I am very entertained. Sadly, however, insights into their personal lives always takes a backseat. Little is known about Frank’s life as a detective, although the issue behind his retirement from the force was answered a couple of seasons ago, and his personal life is a mystery although in one episode he does show his awkward attempt to be romantically charming. Lu’s sister does make an appearance as the sisters are finalizing their mother’s memorial which showcases sibling miscommunications, but romance is yet elusive for her, too. It’s fun to see Sebastian getting his own moment venturing into the lead role as a detective; he has a nice friendship with the PC, but his background is also not a focus. The final episode is filled with misunderstandings putting the team’s friendship in question, but a happy ending is always in store. I would like the team’s past to be relevant to the present, but it didn’t effect my enjoyment…still a big hit for me!
I wish to wholeheartedly herald these two series Life on Mars (2006-2007) and the sequel Ashes to Ashes (2008-2010) set respectively during two different eras with which I have experience, the 70s and 80s. It was an entertaining walk down memory lane with the fashions and music, and despite cringing over the behaviors women fought hard to change with protests, laws, and #Me too awareness, I was totally engaged. The cast in each series was the same, brilliant at their roles, and evolving painfully due to the appearance of the two “strangers in a strange land.” The cases are traditional police procedurals with organized crime, robberies, and murders common to the time, but it’s the questions who, where, and why woven throughout that makes these two series outstanding gems!
Life on Mars is a traditional police drama with a fascinating twist. It’s 2006, and we are introduced to Sam Tyler (John Simm), a Detective Chief Inspector for the Greater Manchester police force. He discovers his girlfriend has been kidnapped by a serial killer. He’s upset and preoccupied, of course, and nearly crashes into another car. He pulls over, steps outside, and attempts to gain control of his emotions. Then—Crash! He’s hit by a car. In, out, in, and out of consciousness, he soon awakes finding himself in 1973, but he’s only a Detective Inspector, transferred to this station, and DCI Gene Hunt (Phillip Glenister) is in charge. Leather jackets, wide ties, and polyester slacks are the fashion, 70’s hits fill the pubs, parties, and radios, social mores about dating, smoking, and the role of women are pre-enlightenment, and what was considered acceptable police procedures is all old school, so how will a good cop survive when his methods are by the book with warrants, rights read, and interrogation techniques that do not cause bloody noses?
Sam is bewildered, but he knows who he is, his real rank, and the fact he was in an accident. He alone hears voices of friends and family along with the beeping of a heart monitor and sees images, including a young girl with a stuffed clown, causing him to suspect his injures have put him in a coma. He just wants to go home, and figures if he completes some task in the past, now his present, he’ll get home. But, what task is the question. Is he suppose to stop criminals before he knows they become killers? Is he suppose to help his young mother (Joanne Froggatt; Downton Abbey) by saving his father (Lee Ingleby; George Gently)? Is he suppose to help his fellow officers see the errors of their corrupt ways? Not all cases and interests are successful, but respect is developing between Tyler and his colleagues DS Carling (Dean Andrews) and DS Skelton (Marshall Lancaster), a romantic interest is evolving with PC Annie Cartwright (Liz White), and Tyler finds himself questioning whether he really wants to return to his time.
Life on Mars has become a surprising favorite, but sadly, it only had two seasons (16 episodes), leaving some specific answers to the question whether Sam Tyler was dead, comatose, or having time travelled unanswered. Despite the real and shocking answers found in the sequel Ashes to Ashes, Tyler does make choices for himself that left me satisfied and in tears! The main thrust of each episode is the efforts to bring law and order to the greater Manchester area, however unethical some behaviors may be, but it is Tyler’s twenty-first century mindset, close scrutiny, and diligence that effect many positive changes in the team’s policing. Interesting conversations with the pub owner, an undercover operation to expose the DCI Hunt’s corruption, and Tyler’s growing affection for these 70’s friends make for an engaging show I highly recommend.
An American version of Life on Mars aired in 2008-2009 with Jason O’Mara as Sam Tyler, Harvey Keitel as Gene Hunt, Michael Imperioli as Ray Carling, Jonathan Murphy as Chris Skelton, and Gretchen Mol as Annie Norris. I haven’t seen it to compare to the original British version, but it seems the era is still the 70s, New York is the setting, and the storylines, conflicts, and conundrums are similar. However, according to Wikipedia’s synopsis this series offers totally different, intriguing answers to the questions who are we? where are we? and why? I seek to find these episodes.
Ashes to Ashes is an absolute must see sequel to Life on Mars! Its three seasons provided the shocking answers I desperately wish I could reveal here! It’s so clever! Here, it’s 2008, London, and DI Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) is a police officer, trained psychologist, and hostage negotiator with the Met Police. She’s brought to a hostage situation to negotiate with the armed man, however, he escapes. When she catches up with him, he knows her and mentions her parent’s death, then…he pulls the trigger. When she wakes, she finds herself in very revealing clothes in the middle of a police raid. Confused, she discovers it’s 1981 with Lycra and big hair, music, and mores and attitudes I thought I’d never see again. It’s also the year Lady Di married Prince Charles, and the year Alex’s parents were killed in an explosion.
Seriously baffled, Alex joins the team as a police psychologist, a skill no one seems to put much stock in, but she attempts to school them by showing her low-key methods and profiling skill can be more successful than threats and head butts. The team is the same, but with many behaviors having reverted to those before Sam Tyler entered the picture. DCI Gene Hunt (Phillip Glenister) is still demonstrably in charge, but a serious personal closeness evolves between he and Alex. DS Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) and DS Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster) are joined by PC Shaz Granger (Montserrat Lombard) who uses Alex as a role model to better stand up for herself. Alex’s past raises a serious dilemma that even Tyler wrestled with: can or should one change the past? Along with images of her daughter, voices, and noises, she runs into her mother (Amelia Bullmore), and in the process, she learns some devastating family secrets. She does, however, make comments, suggestions, and criticisms that provide her with some inner peace. But, the same issue plagues Alex, as it did Sam, what does she have to do to get home? Until she figures it out, she’s taking her job seriously.
Ashes to Ashes was a brilliant answer to the questions first raised in Life on Mars: where are we? why are we here? Additionally, where is Sam Tyler? Alex is pushed to explore that question, the team itself, and Gene Hunt’s role by the creepy, overzealous DCI Jim Keats (Daniel Mays) sent by Discipline and Complaints department. He turns out to be a key figure that ultimately leads to the shocking answers about all of them. It left me blubbering uncontrollably at the end. The team may have had experience adjusting to a “fish out of…,” colleague, so they should be able to handle Alex Drake, but can she them? The crude references, sexism, drinking to excess, pranks, and often dismissal of her abilities, as well as PC Granger, seem insurmountable, but she can give as good as she gets and when it comes down to it, true friendship overrides all. They will walk through those pub doors together…this makes sense at the very end.
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