Does Life on Mars authentically recreate the 1970s?
The 2006-2007 TV show Life on Mars was well received by critics, gathered a healthy number of views and a small cult following. It aimed to provide, as the show’s designer Brian Sykes puts it, “an impression of the 1970s”. As with many period dramas or shows, the setting and history is secondary to the narrative and character development. That said, the show does a great deal to conjure a well-fleshed image of the 1970s. The authenticity of the show does need qualifying. In many ways, particularly historically it was authentic. Whilst police consultants did work closely with the writing team, a former Manchester police officer believed that the police work of the series shared no resemblance with his own experiences with the force in 1973. Perhaps not to the finest of details, but at large the show accomplishes a lot in recreating the tone of the period. Manchester’s industrialism and northern working-class worked to provide the show with a suitably pre-Thatcher setting, and their attention to creating a casually misogynistic and bigoted environment did a great deal to familiarise and authenticate the show’s portrayal of the 1970s. This article will consider the extent to which Life on Mars provides an authentic image of life in the 1970s. Whether there is an authentic way to consider the 1970s will also be considered; in the decades since a disjuncture between an imagined and rhetorically stoked view of the 1970s and a more authentic 1970s has emerged. It is worth examining whether Life on Mars plays more to popular memory of the 1970s or an authentic realisation of the period. Indeed, as Gary Edgerton argues, historical television works to instil itself as a collective memory of the period it covers, regardless of its historical accuracy.
Style and production choices
The show’s creators also made a real effort to capture the feel of the period. The director of photography and directing team pushed for a very specific look: “It’s a very brown show; the colours I remember from my youth, brown, burnt umber, maroon…” Brian Sykes, the show’s designer, argues that this was necessary because “colours just weren’t as vibrant then; cars weren’t as bright, everything was more muted”. The attention to detail to making the show believably 1970s runs beyond capturing the tone of the time. The producers took care in pursuing realism over a more recognisable, hindsight-shaped view of the 1970s; costumes and decorations were not classically 1970s, but rather they were older than that – characters would not have been able to afford the luxuries of new cars, furniture or general décor. As with any period, there is a lag with fashions and trends, particularly for those less affluent and in the context of sluggish economy growth in the early 1970s. Beyond trying to capture the tone of life back then the production team also tried to implement similar stylistic and cinematographic characteristics of shows produced in the period. As Bharat Nalluri, an early director of the show, notes: “We also experimented with lens flares […] which is a real no-no these days, but a very seventies thing to do. You go back to films like The French Connection and they’re full of that – people don’t consciously recognise it but subliminally it feels real and of its time.”
References and themes:
The show itself makes a concerted effort to build up a wealth of nostalgic references. It often does so playfully – the audience is invited with the protagonist Sam to indulge in childhood memories. For example the show included a stop-frame animation scene in which Gene and Sam are both characters in the style of the animated children’s show Camberwick Green of the late 60s. Other playful references include Sam’s warning to the late Marc Bolan – ‘Be careful when you’re driving, especially minis’. But the show works hard to break through these references to show a more meaningful representation of the 1970s. As Bharat Nalluri, the director for the first two episodes explains:
“I didn’t want it to be this nice, nostalgic trip to 1973 full of glam rock and backlit in this hazy sunshine that everyone seems to remember. […] The seventies I remember in Newcastle were hard and difficult. Fun, because I was a kid, but a really hard time nonetheless – the coal strike, the power disputes, it was pretty nasty, and I didn’t want people to get into it and just reminisce.”
Nowhere is this grittiness of the 1970s better displayed than in the factory mill episode; there the industrial unrest that has come to characterise popular memory of the 1970s is placed centrefold. Notions of worker solidarity, industrial decline and the community aspect to manufacturing work is made clear by Brian, the chief suspect of the episode: “Mill’s dying. We could all be out at any time. But at least we’re sticking together.”
The same episode highlights the unwelcome influx of immigrants in the period, this perhaps being one of the more unfavourable tokens from the period that the show makes reference to. The audience is given the palatable lens of Sam’s perspective with which to view the racial intolerance demonstrated throughout the series. He is a staunchly twenty-first-century, liberal, forward thinking man of the law. His disgust in the intolerance and discrimination of the period enables the viewer to distance themselves from it and in doing so more readily engage in the show and its portrayal of the 1970s without guilt. The viewer’s identification with Sam brings with it relief for the viewer – they also then stand opposed to the period’s backwardness and bigotry. Because of this relief, viewers are both reassured about current societal tensions and more significantly they are able to engage with the material of the show without feeling reservations over moral issues. There is less urgency for the viewer to critically assess the moral choices of the characters of the period as Sam does this for them, giving them space to engage with the content of the show with fewer moral anxieties.
Writer and co-creator Ashley Pharao notes: “Sam is truly sick of the way women are treated in 1973”. An excerpt from Estella Tincknell’s article can expand more thoroughly:
“The programme therefore lightly foregrounds period in a way that signals the knowledge of hindsight, while also invoking nostalgia for a lost world of white working-class male solidarity, even while the oppression of sexism and racism is acknowledged. Each episode is constructed around these tensions, in which Sam’s contemporary values are set against those of ‘1973’, and between Tyler’s quotidian experience of the past and the paradoxical consequences of Britain’s transformation into an essentially post-industrial society.”
Frustrations over immigration were commonplace in the period; the success of Enoch Powell’s river of blood speech and subsequent successful, solo political career is testament to just that. The difficulties which the Ugandan immigrants faced in episode 2.06 reflects these tensions well. It is made clear that the immigrant communities suffer both in terms of finding reliable work and in terms of integrating into society. The antipathy that society felt towards immigration is also made clear. An exchange between a young National Front skinhead and Sam reveals the more extreme, abusive side to the racial tensions. The young man is confused over Sam’s hostility and disapproval towards him: “What are you doing mate? You’re one of us”. The show works to establish that these prejudices were not extremes existing only on the fringe – DS Ray Carling’s affirmation of discriminatory norms works to cement them as commonplace for the period. Steven Cimmins, a police consultant for the show notes that “Gene and Ray are fairly representative, […] the hard core of people would have been like Ray, usually they were extremely influential.” Whilst Ray is not drawn as a likable character, perhaps again to help give the audience distance from uncomfortable prejudices and outdated practices of the period, he is intended to be representative – a standard bearer for the views of the time.
Minorities are generally treated pretty poorly throughout both series. Whether it’s Gene’s mocking of Leonard, a deaf bin-man, or virtually the entire male cast’s misogyny, Life on Mars paints a picture of a deeply prejudiced society in which the status quo is not fought against. Even Annie Cartwright, perhaps the most moral character Sam encounters, often chooses to accept the conventions of misogyny in the workplace and her downtrodden role as a woman. In pragmatic terms it is easier for Annie to accept the misogyny than to fight it. Liz White, who plays Annie, explains how “You forget, because we’ve got it comparatively easy these days, but living through that… those remarks. […] You get told off for answering back too much and you soon learn that it’s easier to stay quiet”. This trade off between idealism and pragmatism is even sharper in the case of the young black detective Glen Fletcher; whilst he faces an onslaught of casual and almost welcoming, well-intentioned and friendly racism, he chooses to indulge and encourage the racist attitudes of his colleagues rather than work to reform them. He is even rewarded for doing so – superintendent Woolf remarks after Glen makes a few self-effacing, racist jokes of how he is ‘a nice lad’. Sam, perhaps mirroring the elicited response from the audience, is disappointed and left uncomfortable by Glen’s pragmatic reluctance to improve his situation; but as Glen rightly counters: “I didn’t sign up to be a bloody standard-bearer. I mean, why should I have to fight all the battles?” Glen does not resemble other black characters of 1970s dramas, nor does he resemble a “wishful revisionist look at a black character in the 1970s”. The bartender Nelson also reflects this uncomfortable pragmatism over the status quo, all the more worrying considering his role in the show as Sam’s wise counsellor. He asks Sam to keep his actual local accent a secret, saying that Nelson’s customers prefer him playing up his Jamaican roots. Here Life on Mars stumbles onto a more nuanced interpretation of the period and of how its community dealt with its social tensions.
Authenticity vs. popular and collective memories
There is a difficulty for historians that study the 1970s: British collective memory of the period has been reshaped by the decades following. Be it Blaire’s or Thatcher’s warnings that we do not want to return to the 1970s, or the series of media and economic crises of the period, Britons do not remember the 1970s fondly. Brian Sykes is right in his statements: “It’s not a period that’s really been used before. It’s also a lot subtler than people imagine”.
Sykes fails to stay up-to-date with the current revisions in the historiography in his assessment of how bleak the period was. “We looked at news reports, we looked at Britain, the three-day week; what sort of money they had and all of a sudden it started to click – that was what it was like.” It is true that the decade was troubled, with industrial unrest, an oil crisis, persistent stagflation (stagnant growth and inflation) and ongoing political crises, but whether this means that life on-the-ground was defined by hardship is unclear. Long run growth through the period was not unfavourable, and political crises often do not trickle down into public turmoil. The show may not have aimed to portray the 1970s in a way that ran counter to the popular memory of the period, even if it were more accurate.
Despite perhaps missing the larger brief, Life on Mars put societal issues centrefold and worked to portray these authentically, even where it presents issues for a modern audience. As Heather Marcovitch elaborates, “it would be virtually impossible for either version of Life on Mars to avoid these topics [of misogyny and racism] because they focalise the vexed relationship between historical authenticity and media presentism that always underlies historical television.” Whilst this question over historical accuracy versus popular memory runs beyond the scope of the show, it is important in understanding how the 1970s is and should be remembered. Period dramas and historical media are often seen by audiences as educational – they work to shape collective memory of the past regardless of their historical accuracy.
Given this, it is worth considering whether Life on Mars informs its audience of an accurate view of the 1970s, or propagates a misguided popular perspective on how life was. Marcovitch again explains how this applies to the show: “viewers tend to look to their historical television for not only popular or materialist history but also for traditional academic history. When the British Life on Mars airs an episode about racial tensions between the white British population in Manchester and several Ugandan immigrants representing the influx into the U.K. in the early 1970s, there is an expectation of accuracy even with the fictional conventions.” As Gary Edgerton reminds us, however, audiences and perhaps even show creators themselves are not looking for the show to demonstrate historical accuracy at the expense of chiming with popular, collective memory; “we may look to television for accuracy, but we are more interested in whether or not this accuracy coincides with the collective memory – either first – or second-hand – rather than with a sense of academic historical accuracy”. Life on Mars then sits between these two ambitions – preserving a more accurate perspective on the period and bolstering an inauthentic, yet popular collective memory of the 1970s.
Life on Mars’ ambition to both present itself as historically authentic and nostalgic is for the most part successful. It is both a show that reflects Britons collective memory of the 1970s well whilst also providing a platform to nostalgically revisit media and personal memories from the period – be that recordings of Jim’ll Fix It (with hindsight poorly chosen perhaps) to late night maths programmes from Open Universities. The show’s directors made clear that whilst historical authenticity and detail in providing a well-thought out presentation of the period was important, it was secondary to the directive of the show. The show was instead driven more by character developments, relationships and Sam’s personal identity crises. There is also an unaddressed tension between the popular, collective memory of the 1970s and the real experience of it. For the show this disjuncture matters little, but to historians it is the backbone to a large amount of revisionist literature on the topic. The revisions on the topic view the 1970s as less of a crisis than they have been built to be since.
Written by Will Lloyd-Regan
Adams, Guy and Lee Thompson, Life on Mars: The Official Companion: Volume One, London: Pocket Books, 2006.
Adams, Guy and Lee Thompson, Life on Mars: The Official Companion: Volume Two London: Pocket Books, 2007
Edgerton, Gary “Introduction,” in Television Histories: Shaping Collective Memory in the Media Age, ed. Gary R. Edgerton and Peter C. Rollins, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001 pp 1-16
Graham, Matthew, Bharat Nalluri, and Claire Parker, DVD Commentary, Season One, Episode One,” Life on Mars London: Acorn Media, 2009
Marcovitch, Heather “Memories of Mars: Life on Mars and the Discursive Practices of Memory”, in American Remakes of British Television: Transformations and Mistranslations, edited by Carlen Lavigne and Heather Marcovitch, Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2011 pp 173-193
Tincknell, Estella, A Sunken Dream : Music And The Gendering Of Nostalgia In Life On Mars, in Popular Music on British Television, ed Ian Inglis, London: Ashgate, 2010 pp. 161-175
“Life on Mars” Kudos Film and Television, BBC 1, January 9th 2006 – April 10th 2007.