Monday, 31 March 2008


Ashes to Ashes and its equally remarkable sibling Life on Mars are most remarkable for the divergent political readings they provoke. There are two main readings that will be considered here; the media studies reading and the conservative nostalgia reading.
The media studies reading of both series is rather straight forward. Sam Tyler & Alex Drake are the synecdoche of us and of our struggle to overcome the bigotry and discrimination that used to be such a powerful part of our society. Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars share a hopeful (perhaps too hopeful) view on the state of present day Britain and on the direction that British society seems to be taking. The discourse of both shows is that even though the things of the past have some good points today is a better world to be in if you are a member of a non-hegemonic group (not white, not male, not straight etc).
This tension is rather neatly displayed by the appearance of Lord Scarman as a character in the last episode of the first series of Ashes to Ashes. The camaraderie of Gene's team in the face of the 'threat' posed by Lord Scarman is a positive thing but Alex, and we, know that Scarman's way is the only way for British society to take. That the police had to stop being an instrument of racial, homophobic, and state terror in order for British society to function at all. Lord Scarman was charged with the official investigation into the Brixton riots of 1981 (or see here) and many of his conclusions regarding the role of policing in the initiation of those riots were eventually incorporated into the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 and into the practices of the Metropolitan Police. Lord Scarman and his report were a good thing and Gene's failure to recognise this is a key part of his backwards facing understanding of the world.
The conservative nostalgia reading of the two series is rather more complicated. It begins with a reading of Gene Hunt as a tonic to the so called political correctness of our age. In this reading Gene is the key figure and not Sam or Alex and his 'unreconstructed' views and behaviours are read as an affirmation of the bigotry and discrimination of the past. As though Gene were the heroic leader of a movement to 'call a spade a spade' and gloss over the ethnic slur this phrase came to contain. In this reading the BBC have either been conned into broadcasting this heroic illiberalism or have finally started to see sense (neither of these seem all that likely to me).
The next phase of this reading is a form of golden-ageism (i.e. looking back to a time that was better than today) because by some quirk both Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes are set at moments of Conservative Party government in Britain. Life on Mars is set during the fag-end of the Heath government and Ashes to Ashes near the beginning of the Thatcher years. In each case viewers with Conservative political inclinations are provided the opportunity to escape to a time when the horrid Labour lot who currently form the government were safely out of office. 1973 is not as effective a setting as 1981 for this golden-age version of the conservative nostalgia reading because Heath never possessed the same cult of personality or the same degree of fanatical devotion that Thatcher did and because Heath was not involved in the transformation of British society during the 1980s that tends to fly under the eponym of Thatcherism regardless of whether it had anything to do with Thatcher and her government's policies or not.
Both parts of this reading can be seen in Matthew d'Ancona's review of Ashes to Ashes in The Spectator; he is politically Conservative and The Spectator has long played a central role in right wing politics in Britain as the house magazine of the Conservative Party (three of its editors in the 20th century went on to become Conservative cabinet ministers).


abi said...

hey wes, is this for da'kids? what a brilliant idea - maybe ashes to ashes isn't as bad as i thought!
i'm not sufficiently web 2.0, as j keeps telling me!, to run a blog at the moment but will definitely get onto this when back in the classroom!
still think it's a fairly pointless program tho ;-)
abi x

Wesley said...

Hi Abi,
I think they are a good teaching aid and pushing "da' kidz" towards the 'blogosphere' help to meet ICT learning needs too.
Hope all is cool.


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