Saturday, 19 June 2010

'Oh, Your Job Didn't End in the Correct Way': Additional Challenges of Claiming Benefit

As regular readers might have noticed I am again unemployed.  Unlike last year when made redundant, this time it seemed to be that I could claim Jobseeker's Allowance, i.e. unemployment benefit without much trouble.  I am keen to find a job and I had a full set of National Insurance contributions.  Having paid such contributions is one way of being entitled to receive Jobseeker's Allowance when unemployed, the other is having too little money and being assessed on a means-tested, i.e. needs basis.  You have to prove you are actively seeking work which means not implying too narrow parameters in terms of the distance you will travel for work, the hours you will work or the type of work you will do.  You have to do at least 3 activities per week, e.g. look on websites, look in newspapers, ring an employer, etc. and apply for 2 jobs per week.  Bascially I know in my job that I have to move for work and though I said I am seeking it in a 130 Km radius of my house, I actually applied for jobs 255 Km from home so far.  I have also applied for all kinds of things in business and the civil service.  In two weeks I have applied for seven jobs so am in with the quota.  I attend my signing on time twenty minutes early and do everything that you are supposed to do in order to claim benefit.

In contrast to last year when the Department for Work and Pensions seemed to have a problem with me sharing a house with a woman who ran her own business, this year things went smoothly.  Rather than having to wait 2½ months to receive my first payment, this time it took just 2 weeks.  I was told that the benefit will continue for six months and then I can be reassessed on means-tested basis.  That is not brilliant news but it is better than nothing.  That was until today when I received a letter saying, that despite them already paying me benefit they had questions over how my last job ended and so might not only cut off my benefit but want what they have paid (£65 per week for two weeks) repaid.

Now, I have written before how unpleasant my last employers were.  See my posting:  My line manager actively sought out any minor thing to attack me with and when this seemed insufficient this manager began making up things.  By the end my line manager was claiming tens of colleagues had complained about me, but when I asked them they had no idea what my line manager was talking about.  My line manager made discriminatory comments about me which later unsurprisingly could not recollect.  Then this manager went on to fabricate stories to the personnel staff and was bent on pushing me out.  The union representative was incredulous at what he felt was a playground style behaviour and by the end even the personnel manager did not involve my manager in talks.  As it was my department was going to be merged with another meaning that there was going two people doing my job, me and another, in the new merged department.  So, personnel offered me a deal, voluntary redundancy if I did not make a victimisation claim against my line manager.  I got a far better payment than when made redundant from my last company which I had worked for, for over four years.  As it has turned out this month I probably would have faced compulsory redundancy anyway.

Now, however, I fear my line manager has not been satisfied with the arrangement and is out to cause me trouble as I sign on.  This manager made clear the opinion that I was unsuitable for the post right from the start and kept trying to get me into lower grade posts.  I believe the manager had some condition, possibly Asperger's because the manager printed out every email received and underlined individual words.  Me getting a settlement is probably galling to my former manager and I fear this is leading to trouble.  I suspect a letter has been sent, 'informant letters' as they are termed in the civil service, saying falsely that I was sacked.  I hold tight to the letter which outlines the details of the agreement.  The trouble is, the decisions are taken far distant from my local job centre and I fear that my benefit will be cut off without me ever getting the chance to counter the vindictiveness of my former manager.  In theory if you resign or are sacked from a job you cannot claim benefit for six months.  In this case, even when you have made a deal it seems that people can twist it around to rule you out of getting benefit.  I both loathe and fear how much power one bitter individual who was prejudiced against me from the first occasion we met and made that very clear, can wield over me even after I am far away from that job.  I suppose I should not be surprised that in the neo-Thatcherite era we are living in, as an ordinary person you are going to get hammered by the privilege and they will continue hammering you even when you are far from their site because they loathe anyone who challenges what they seem to believe is the sanctified right to behave how they choose and discriminate just as they feel.

I have long written that I anticipate losing my house to repossession and this certainly seems another step in that direction.  I suppose under a regime in which there have been proposals to cut free school meals for the poorest 15% of children in order to pay for the 'free' schools scheme, in fact the freedom for parents to set up schools wherever they choose and only let in the people they like, we should not be surprised that at all levels of society the privileged are stamping down on us in every way they can.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Annual Utility Bills: No Incentive to Be Economical

It has been a while since I have moaned about UK utility companies, but then I received my water bill.  In the old days, i.e. before the 1990s, you paid a flat rate for water consumption based on the size of the house.  This meant that large families packed into small houses benefited and single old people tended to lose out.  Then with the privatisation of water companies in 1989 many of the numerous water companies began to compel tenants and new owners of houses to have water meters fitted.  They generally set the tariffs far too high and in the early 1990s there was a rocketing in the number of people having their water cut off, mainly these families who had benefited under the flat rate system, many had to wash at relatives' houses and there was a disproportionate impact on the hygeine of children.  The regulator set up in 1989, OFWAT, the coloquial name for what since 2006 has been Water Services Regulation Authority, reined in these extremes, and to a great extent most of us have become used to water metering. In many areas, like where I currently live, rather than water supply and sewage being handled by the same body they are now covered by two different companies.  Where I used to live there was one company for both and the sewage charge was 10% of the water charge.  Where I am now the sewage charge was initially set at 108% of the water charge and now that I have been here more than a year it has fallen to 95% of the water charge.  Basically I am paying for all water I use, twice, even if I tip the water on to the grass or down someone else's drain.

The difference between water meters and gas and electricity meters is that as a consumer you cannot read a water meter yourself.  Recently combined the charge for my gas and electricity was raised by £25 per month, and I received a statement that my consumption of both had risen.  I accepted, given the snowy winter that consumption of gas had gone up but given that we had switched off one of the two refrigerators we had in the house, I found it difficult to accept that we had been using more electricity.  I contacted the supplier and sent in my own readings.  The revised bill showed a fall of £25 per month over what I had been paying for both fuels combined last year, so about £50 less per month than I would have been charged if I had not challenged the bill, so saving up to £600 per year.  It turned out that because we had moved from a set pattern of heating during the winter and only switched it on and off when we felt cold, our consumption of gas had actually fallen, despite the snow, and our electricity consumption was down by about 20%.

We are very frugal in our house and do not flush the toilet until it smells unpleasant, two people usually use the same bath water and most of the time we shower.  We now wear our clothing for many days or even weeks to reduce the amount of clothes washing we do.  We no longer grow vegetables so do not water the garden any longer.  We probably do not smell as nice as we once did, but it keeps water consumption down.  You can imagine my surprise when I found my water bill was more than trebling from £3 per month in 2009/10 to £10 per month in 2010/11.  There is no way that we are using three times as much water as last year.  However, unlike with the gas and electricity I cannot see the water meter (it is buried under the concrete at the front of the house) and am reliant on whatever figures the water company sends.

A major part of the problem is that you are not actually charged on the amount of water, gas or electricity you have used, you get charge for an estimate of what you will use in the year coming. If you do not stay in a property then you gain no benefit from being economical with any of your utilities as they will not see your lower consumption of the resource until after you have left, so you might as well be profligate with your water, gas and electricity because no matter what you do you are going to get charged for it.  This greedy approach from utility companies works against any 'green' steps we might take to reduce our carbon dioxide 'footprint' or use less water.  They give no incentive for you to be frugal, in fact the complete opposite.  As frugal consumers, we lose out.

As you can see from the examples above, the charges the utility companies demand often seem to be conjured out of the air rather than based on real consumption levels.  A few years back I rented a five bedroomed-house with a woman and her infant son.  Previously seven adults had lived in the house.  When we received the water bill, the company felt it necessary to tell us that our consumption was 'excessive' and that we should use less water.  We asked how as three people, one only a child, we were using more than seven adults had done.  I accept those seven adults may have been smelly but as I have shown, we are very economical in our consumption.  It seems this time the figure has been conjured out of the air.  I could accept a small increase due to investment or repair costs, but a 230% increase seems mad.  Naturally I have challenged the water company, but not having my own figures I am unable to base my challenge on measurable figures.

Generally at the end of the year we find we are in credit to all the utility companies, including the telephone companies.  Until we move out of the house we do not receive this money back and usually it is rolled on into the next year.  All the time the company is holding our money not for anything we have actually bought for them, simply on the basis of what they say we will use in the future.  It gains interest (however small at the moment) while it sits in their accounts and we are deprived of that money ourselves.  I certainly advise everyone to challenge their utility supplier.  Privatisation was supposed to create a competitive market in utilities but in fact has simply created a cartelised one in which the deal for the average consumer is very poor.  For now, however, the companies do seem to yield if you challenge them, and like me, by simply emailing them you could save yourself £600 or maybe more, per year.  What needs to happen though, and is very unlikely to do so given the new government, is utility companies be compelled to have charging systems that in fact encourage frugal consumption, rather than as at present have systems that encourage not to give any thought to how much you use because you know you are stuck paying the same rate whatever you do.

Monday, 7 June 2010

The Movie 'Homicide' (1991)

This is one of these odd ponderings about a movie, which has been lurking in my mind for many years.  To start with I am referring to the 1991 movie, 'Homicide' rather than 'Homicide: The Movie' (2000).  It was written and directed by David Mamet who had previously produced screenplays for 'The Untouchables' (1987) and 'House of Games' (1987) and later for 'Glengarry Glen Ross' (1992), 'American Buffalo' (1996), 'Wag the Dog' (1997), 'Ronin' (1998) and 'Hannibal' (2001), amongst many others.  He also directed 12 movies 1987-2008.

At the start, 'Homicide' seems to be a straight forward police procedural movie starring Joe Mategna (born 1947) who has been in scores of television series and movies including 'The Godfather - Part III'.  He has also been a producer and once a director (of the 2000 movie 'Lakeboat' based on Mamet's 1970/81 play).  He plays a police detective with a Jewish background,  Bobby Gold, known as 'The Orator' because of his skills in negotiating with criminals to have a peaceful resolution.  He is set to investigating the murder of an old Jewish female shopkeeper in a predominantly African-American district.  It turns out the woman used to be a Zionist terrorist back in the late 1940s when Jews were fighting for the establishment of Israel in Palestine which at the time was run by the British as a mandate, effectively a colonial territory until Israel was created in 1948.  Other circumstantial evidence such as the word 'Grofaz' (an acronym attributed to a title held by Adolf Hitler) found on the roof of a neighbouring building it seems that the murder was driven by anti-Semitic feelings.  Jews that Gold interviews are very harsh on him portraying him that he has turned his back on his culture because he cannot read Hebrew and that working for the police is in fact to some extent in league with Satan (because the police wear a five pointed 'pentagram' star rather than the six-pointed Star of David).  Exploiting Gold's increasing feeling of guilt a Zionist terrorist group manipulate him into carrying out a bombing for them, so utterly compromising his integrity as a police officer and leaving him utterly in his power.  Gold's descent into this position is underlined when it turns out that 'Grofaz' came from a chemical to control pigeons and the old Jewish woman was killed when trying to stop some black youths who thought she had lots of cash on her premises.

Some reviewers see this movie as Mamet's best movie or certainly rating alongside 'House of Games' and it is noted as being very thought provoking.  I can only agree with that because I am still thinking about it 12-15 years after I first saw it.  Mamet is often interested in how our perceptions are altered and both 'House of Games' and 'The Spanish Prisoner' (1997) [fascinating role in this for Steve Martin, far removed from his usual goofy performances] feature confidence tricksters. To some extent the Zionist terrorists are confidence tricksters by effectively distorting Gold's perception of what is right and wrong.  However, unlike the other confidence tricksters Mamet portrays these are far more bullying and rely a lot on making Gold feel that he should feel guilty and then playing on that guilt, very unpleasant.

Other reviewers have noted how devastating the end of this movie is, the hero who throughout is seen as a good and honourable man, loses out utterly.  There is so much going on in this movie and I am surprised it did not attract more controversy, especially from the American Jewish community.  To some degree it is critical of people who are so deep in a particular heritage that they cannot but perceive occurrences in that light.  Of course, the killing of a shopkeeper for her takings is incredibly common in the USA and yet with the sight of the people Gold meets it has to be a racially motivated attack.  Mamet is certainly not arguing racial attacks should not be taken seriously, but seems also to be saying that we need to take account of our modern society and its behaviour first before getting lost in more esoteric explanations.  Gold is a Jew who functions successfully in US society and in fact has now shed his Jewish identity yet works in the society in which he lives, which seems to be far too much of a compromise to the zealots.  In some ways Mamet is suggesting that orthodox Jews ghettoise themselves.  In the 2000s Mamet has returned to these themes.  He has written commentary on the Torah but has also written 'The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-hatred, and the Jews' (2006).

To some degree I see 'Homicide' a little as a critique of the state of Israel. While much of the world was sympathetic to the Jews after the Second World War in receiving a homeland and could even understand them fighting against their Arab neighbours to maintain their state, by oppressing Palestinians and invading neighbouring states, notably Lebanon in the 1980s and beyond, there is a sense that Israeli paranoia has turned the state into being as aggressive or more aggressive than anyone who might want to attack the state these days.  In ways I see parallels with China which despite behaving as a neo-colonial power in Asia, Africa and South America still complains that it was a victim of colonialism in the past and so somehow thinks that excuses its neo-colonial behaviour now or thinks it exempts it from being charged on that basis.  The USA seeking exemption for its troops from any war crimes charges is another example.  Gold recognises the severity of the consequences of his actions, he cannot avoid facing up to them, even if at the time he believed his motives were pure.  So, to an extent, this could be seen as a plea from Mamet for Israel to try to step beyond its now hackneyed claims for waivers from the judgements that would be levelled against other countries and to be more critical of its own actions at the point of deciding to carry them out.

Some reviewers have noted that in contrast to the character of Robert Scott in 'Spartan' (2004 which Mamet directed) who is hampered by loyalty to his superiors and Mike Terry in 'Redbelt' who is similarly constrained by a military code these men buck against these restrictions more successfully. Gold is in an 'eel trap' in this movie and he is not far behind us in realising he has got into a situation he cannot back out of, especially when he is shown photographs taken by the Zionist terrorists of him planting the bomb.  They still do not feel they trust him sufficiently so they rely on blackmail.  However far Gold goes in trying to 'prove' his Jewishness it will always be insufficient for the zealots, in that way he has 'lost' before he has started, he will never achieve the acceptance he has come to yearn and knowing that the Zionists exploit him and he becomes their tool. 

One would expect outrage to have dogged this movie.  However, I guess that Mamet's role in exploring Jewishness gave him some leeway.  In addition, whilst I do not know US Jewish culture at all well, I have to only guess that many American Jews would distance themselves from the kind of zealots portrayed in the movies anyway.  To some extent that may be why they remain in the USA rather than live in Israel.  'Homicide' can be seen a little as a counter-balance to 'A Stranger Among Us' (1993) which features Melane Griffith as a detective working undercover in the Hasidic Jewish community of San Francisco and 'Witness' (1985) with Harrison Ford as a Baltimore police captain who moves into an Amish community to protect a child witness to a murder committed by a police officer.  In both these movies the outsider comes at least to understand and appreciate something of the culture.  In 'Homicide' we have an effective member of the broad community portrayed as an outsider by particular types of individual within the community and ultimately he comes to see the zealots' approach as invidious and undermining all the values he once had rather than refreshing positive aspects of his character from spending time amongst them.

'Homicide' niggles in my mind, I think primarily because I see it as being so unjust to the hero, very well played by Mategna.  I always hate circumstances in which the protagonist loses control over his life and in which it is 'later than you think' in that when the character realises things are going wrong they are already further advanced than s/he knows.  Mamet's movies are often low key, to the extent sometimes of being drab, but that reflects reality and it allows him to explore the ideas without the distraction of eye-catching settings.  You could argue Mamet has a cynical view of the world, but I would argue it is realistic.  Having come through a situation at work in which I had no control over what was being done to me, and every lie by others was taken as truth, alterations to history were accepted without question and everything I said dismissed as irrelevant, I probably can feel more affinity with Gold in this movie than at any time previously.  I will not recommend anyone watch this movie as it could damage your sense of wellbeing.  It is too good at showing how vulnerable we are to being twisted around by those with a very narrowly focused view of the world that means they feel that any actions they carry out are 'right' or 'just' because they are doing them, no matter what harm they do to others.  For being able to capture that Mamet is deservedly lauded, but 'Homicide' is certainly not a movie to watch for entertainment.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

The Movie 'Sherlock Holmes' (2009)

Back in January, having heard the criticisms against 'Sherlock Holmes' (2009) I produced a posting arguing that a lot of people's expectations of what the Holmes stories are about are based on misunderstandings of these stories and often on the misapprehensions or choices of directors and actors who have portrayed the character throughout the 20th century.  This posting can be found at:  It was really not until the 1970s that the recognition that Holmes was a drug addict was even allowed to be hinted at; 'The Seven Percent Solution' (1976) movie is a turning point in this respect.  The key error people make is how old Holmes is. Partly I think they are misled by the Sidney Paget illustrations that appeared when the Holmes stories featured in 'The Strand' periodical.  Holmes is tall (this is one element in which Downey Jr. falls down) and lean and naturally wearing clothes that by the 20th century look old fashioned.  He is a drug addict and lives an unhealthy life, but he does not really appear to be a man in his fifties, which is right as he does not reach 50 until 1904.  As I noted in January at the time of the events shown in of 'A Scandal in Bohemia', the first short story, set in 1888, Holmes is only 34; by 1891 when the current movie is set he is supposedly 37.  It has been argued that Robert Downey Jr. was too young to play Holmes, but at 44 in fact he is a touch old.  Some commentators, notably Laurie R. King, argue that Holmes was born sometime 1863-8 which would make him even younger, between 23-28 in 1891.  However, the standard assumption that he was born 6th January 1854, seems to work.

Anyway, I finally got around to watching 'Sherlock Holmes' (2009) and enjoyed it so much that I viewed it twice within 24 hours.  Yes, there is action in it.  Again, though, this is something you would expect from a movie honouring the original stories.  Holmes often carries and uses a revolver but is also noted to be skilled in singlestick, fencing, bare-knuckle boxing, and bartitsu combat.  He is often shown haring around London or rural England in pursuit of the criminal.  Possibly the most famous story, 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' (1901/2) which is set before 1891, shows Holmes living rough and charging around Dartmoor suggesting real vigour.  So, as in the Conan Doyle stories, this latest movie shows Holmes both as deductive and a man of action, and using the technique from the 'CSI' television series, shows him combining these two traits and constructing events in his mind and then following them through, notably during a bare-knuckle boxing match he is fighting in.  This CSI slow motion approach is also used in the way it is in those series, to show how Holmes reconstructs what went on previously using the evidence left behind.

I have likened this movie's relationship to Conan Doyle's stories as being like that between the James Bond movies and the Ian Fleming novels.  As the Bond movies do, occurrence from across the canon are referenced.  Many incidents from the Holmes stories appear for fans to spot in this movie, such as the scratches around the key hole on the pocket watch, seeking to control flies using notes plucked on his violin and Holmes shooting the initials V.R. (for Victoria Regina) into the wall of his room.  Despite being a little short, Downey Jr. seems to combine the switch between Holmes when he is at his sharpest and when he is a wreck very well.

Jude Law who plays Dr. Watson could easily have made an excellent Holmes in this movie.  Eddie Marsan, who has long portrayed Londoners on the borderline of legality is now just right to portray Inspector Lestrade.  Alongside numerous British actors (notably James Fox and Geraldine James as a rather tall Mrs. Hudson) the viewer is aware of elements that have been included to woo an American audience.  Notably the USA is portrayed as being under threat from Lord Blackmoor (played wonderfully by Mark Strong) planning to reclaim the lost British colonies.  This leads to one element in the movie which I felt jarred which is his claim that the USA is weak in 1891 from the civil war, despite the fact that the war had ended 26 years earlier.  The American ambassador is murdered and the chief female protagonist is Irene Adler (described as 'the woman' by Watson), who appears in 'A Scandal in Bohemia' and is an American (born in New Jersey) as shown in the movie.  She is supposedly born in 1858 making her 33 by 1891 (Rachel McAdams who plays her in the movie is 32), but, for example in the 1984 ITV dramatisation of the story she is played by Gayle Hunnicutt who was 41 at the time, though seemed older.  Hunnicutt is actually an American but you could not have told it from her portrayal of Irene Adler.  These are ways of drawing the American audience into something that might look parochially British, but, in general, they are not too out of step with Holmes stories.  Conan Doyle seems to have viewed the USA with suspicion and often in his stories sinister criminals originate from there as in 'A Study in Scarlet' (1887), 'The Adventure of the Dancing Men' (1905) and 'The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone' (1927).

Lord Blackwood is a new invention for Holmes stories.  However, I am not one of these people who never wants a story that does not adhere strictly to the original author's stories.  In the case of Sherlock Holmes numerous authors including Michael Dibdin, Nicholas Meyer, Bert Coles, Mitch Cullin and June Thompson among others, have produced pastiches of Holmes stories some of which have been filmed or made into radio dramas.  In the latest movie, a new story is fixed firmly in a very Conan Doyle setting.  Professor Moriarty does appear (in shadow as do all the best villains) and it is likely we will see more of him in the sequel that is apparently underway.

Right, so those are three elements that I enjoyed about the movie: the references to the original canon, the portrayal of Holmes's deductions and the action.  I also like that Guy Ritchie is the director.  His movie work is erratic (though occasionally, as here, shines) but one thing he truly loves is London, making him ideal for this movie.  Of course, much of London portrayed in the movie is computer generated, but the quality of the technology is such that now your mind barely registers that it is not real.  It is put to the full with Holmes and Watson charging through a range of locations from the headquarters of a Freemason-like organisation in the West End to a shipyard and a butchery warehouse along the Thames in East London; there is even a visit to a wonderfully gothic High Victorian cemetery.  The climax of the movie runs from the Palace of Westminster to the incomplete Tower Bridge (which was built between 1884-94, so was probably at the close to completion stage on the outer structure, as shown in this movie set in 1891).

The other thing I like about the movie is that it touches on themes that fascinated the Victorians themselves, the gothic and rational scientific thought.  Though gothic writing had come to the fore in the early 19th century (Jane Austen satirised it in 'Northanger Abbey' (1817, though written originally 1797-8)), it was still a staple of popular fiction in the 1890s.  Holmes is often shown as counteracting rather hysterical theories that seem informed by gothic writing notably in 'The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire' (1927), 'The Adventure of the Devil's Foot' (1917) and in 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'.  This seems a little ironic given Conan Doyle's later firm beliefs in spiritualism.  In the 2009 movie Lord Blackwood makes it appear that he has supernatural powers with the intention of whipping up support for his coup d'etat.  His father, the Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas Rotheram, is part of a secret society which believes in the efficacy of black magic.  Blackwood's abilities are in fact enabled through bribery and sophisticated technology, notably poisons and a nerve-gas releasing machine activated by electro-magnetic pulses.  Holmes's appreciation of the scientific developments enables him to disprove Blackwood's claims to mystical powers.  Holmes is often shown experimenting in his room with chemicals.  Thus, in this movie we see two sides of Victorian culture: the gothic horror imaginings and the rational scientific/engineering advances.

This may not be the greatest movie ever, but as a piece of entertainment I found it thoroughly enjoyable, with a wide range of interesting characters and a story which combined both action and mystery.  The sign of a good murder mystery is that you want to go back and see it again knowing the outcome.  Blackwood appears to be killed in this movie, which countered my expectations that he would escape, so to a good degree my expectations were confounded, which is always refreshing especially from a Hollywood movie.  I know I have given away a load about this movie, but I do recommend going out and renting it.  I look forward with anticipation to the sequel.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

'Life on Mars'/'Ashes to Ashes'

The week before last, the third and final series of 'Ashes to Ashes' came to an end.  This series had run since 2008.  The finale provided answers to some of the questions left at the end of the previous series 'Life on Mars' which ran 2007-8.  Both of these series featured UK police detectives.  In 'Life on Mars' it was Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler (played by John Simm) and in 'Ashes to Ashes' Detective Inspector Alex(andra) Drake (played by Keeley Hawes).  At the start of the two series these characters are injured in the line of duty: Tyler was hit by a car and Drake was shot. They find themselves, as a result, sent back in time.  Tyler turns up in 1973 Manchester and Drake in 1981 London.

In both cases the police team that they are assigned to, as detective inspectors, is headed by Detective Chief Inspector (Eu)Gene Hunt (played by Philip Glenister), assisted by Detective Sergeant/Inspector Ray Carling and Detective Constable Chris Skelton.  In 'Life on Mars' there is also Woman Police Constable (later Detective Constable) Annie Cartwright and in 'Ashes to Ashes' Woman Police Constable (later, very briefly, Detective Constable) Sharon 'Shaz' Granger.  In this second story Hunt's team have been relocated from Manchester to East London.  A US version of 'Life on Mars', starring Harvey Keitel has been produced but I have never seen it; in contrast I have seen every episode of the UK 'Life on Mars' and 'Ashes to Ashes'.

Basically the stories combine standard police procedural crime solving with a more mystical element.  Both Tyler and Drake receive communications from the time they left behind through ghosts or images and sounds on televisions, radios and other sources.  There is also interest in how different 2000s policing is compared to that of the early 1970s and early 1980s not only in terms of technology but also in terms of procedure.  The time-travelling characters also know a lot of what is going to happen which sometimes enables them to solve the crimes they face and reassure or bewilder the people around them about the future.  Both Tyler and Drake encounter their parents and see themselves as children.  Tyler also encounters the mother of his girlfriend back in 2006. In a couple of stories, especially in 'Life on Mars' it is implied that different actions there change the future; though later we realise it is all happening in a bubble universe based upon but only tendentially connected with our own.

Given the 'hauntings' by people and occurrences from the 2000s, both Tyler and especially Drake who worked as a police psychologist, question whether what they are in, in the past is 'real'.  Tyler ultimately leaves 1974 and returns to 2006, but finding it far duller commits suicide taking him back into the 1974 he has been living in.  At the end of 'Ashes to Ashes' it turns out that both Tyler and Drake were right when they first arrived, to see the setting as being a figment of the imagination.  The fact that they both came to feel it was 'real' is what allowed them to 'pass over' into the afterlife, in these series represented by 'The Railway Arms' pub run by a black Rastafarian Mancunian called Nelson.  (The pub name may refer to the fact that the final action we see Tyler involved with is an armed robbery on a train). However, it turns out not to be the figment of their own damaged minds but that of Gene Hunt, who it is revealed was a police constable shot dead in 1953.  In fact all of the police officers seen are dead and we seen the deaths of Carling, Skelton and Granger in different eras. 

There are obvious parallels to movies such as 'The Sixth Sense' (1999) and the UK television series, 'afterlife' [sic] starring Lesley Sharp and Andrew Lincoln which ran 2005-6 and featured a ghostly nurse doing much the same role as Hunt does.  There are lots of questions over whether Tyler ever comes back from his coma or is just seeing a false version of 2006.  At the end of the second series of 'Ashes to Ashes' Drake is accidentally shot by Hunt and ends up in a coma in 1982 which makes her think she is back in 2008 and it seemed she might be trapped in a false 2008 within the 1982, with messages from Hunt and others haunting her through televisions, etc.  She is able to get back to at least the 1982 and ultimately finish off her 'passing over'.  This conclusion for the dead police seems to be through them satisfactorily solving a variety of crimes, though if Carling and Skelton's time with Hunt is anything to go by (at least ten years) then for some it takes longer than others.  Similarly we find out that Tyler has only passed over in 1980, seven years after first arriving in Hunt's world. 

In the final series of 'Ashes to Ashes' we find that Hunt is not alone in trying to see dead police officers into the next world.  A very nasty character, Detective Chief Inspector Jim Keats (played incredibly annoyingly by Daniel Mays, his baby-faced appearance made him resemble appalling comic Joe Pasquale) who seems to be the Devil, trying to tempt the police spirits to some other realm.  He seeks to enlist Drake and others in his campaign to have Hunt dismissed.  Finding this out leads us to reflect on similar offers to go against Hunt, on grounds of corruption and inappropriate approaches to policing, that were made to Tyler as part of the M.A.R.S. initiative in 'Life on Mars'.

Given the focus on death, there is a bitter element to both stories. Tyler has left behind his girlfriend, Maya, who had just been abducted by a serial killer when he suffered his accident and, whereas, we initally think he had changed the future by his actions in 1973, we know now he was simply in a bubble, so presumably Maya has indeed been murdered by the killer.  Drake has left her young daughter behind in 2008 too and presumably she has to grow up without a mother given that Drake never recovers from being shot.  Drake also finds out that her father committed suicide in 1981 using a bomb, murdering her mother at the same time.

Both series have been incredibly successful and it is not surprising that a US television company wanted to make a version.  To a great extent a lot of this has to do with nostalgia.  Great efforts have been made to reproduce Manchester of the early 1970s and London of the early 1980s, with all the clothes, vehicles and even shop items and posters and occasional portrayals of real life people like Marc Bolan, appropriate to the era.   The musical soundtrack, featuring numerous hits from the specific year, is an integral part of the stories.  The importance of the music is noted on the wikipedia entries and of cours, both of the stories are named after David Bowie tracks released in the particular year.  [Back in the mid-2000s I acquired a weird phobia that if I was driving and an old Bowie track came on I was convinced I would have a car accident and would wake up in the past!  I do not what you would call that, Lifeonmarsphobia!]

Many of the episodes tap into current issues of the time such as racism, the appearance of football violence, and Irish-based terrorism in the 1970s to the development of Docklands, yuppie crime and the anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s.  There are the occasional slip-ups, notably Sam Tyler's watch having a digital display, but there is also attention to detail such as the white dog faeces on streets in the 1970s and pink wafer biscuits.  This allows people who lived through the eras to be reminded of them and for others to effectively see a time travel story with elements somewhat reminiscent of 'Back to the Future' (1985) combining personal and broader history.  The police stories in themselves are interesting and as well written as a lot of police drama on television at the moment, typically with an effort to have an unexpected outcome.  Sometimes Hunt is right, sometimes Tyler/Drake are.

The character of Gene Hunt has particularly appealed to viewers and he is another reason for the series success.  Given that 'The Sweeney' (ran for 53 episodes in 4 series 1975-8; 2 movies 1977 & 1978; 9 novels in 1977), seen as the archetype, almost the stereotype of 1970s police shows in the UK is still aired regularly on UK television channels, it is not surprising that a hard drinking, hard smoking, misogynistic police officer who shouts a lot, of the kind shown in 'The Sweeney', is a portrayal that many viewers have affection for.  There were intentional visual references to 'The Sweeney' especially in the opening credits. Hunt is antidote to the more politically correct police officers we have seen portrayed in UK police series, especially in 'The Bill' (1984-2010).  Hunt himself draws on Western legends seeing himself as the sheriff cleaning up the town, often referencing, in particular, Gary Cooper's character in 'High Noon' (1952), which Hunt presumably would have seen shortly before he was killed. 

Though the world we see is in Hunt's mind it is clear he picks up contemporary references to periods after his death, but the occasional irregularities in these can be explained by the fact that this is not the 'real' world.  Notable in this respect is that the police get to tote guns far more regularly and with minimal control compared to what was in fact the procedure in the 1970s and 1980s.  Hunt himself uses a magnum revolver which certainly would not be permitted as a police firearm in the UK.   In addition, the world being created by Hunt's imagination, and presumably how he likes to see things, explains why when Drake first appears in 1981 she is dressed as a high-class prostitute rather than more conventionally as a police officer.

Hunt often beats up suspects, which seems to have been pretty common through the 1970s and 1980s for real, but is clearly at odds with official procedure in the 2000s.  In this way Hunt is like the Jack Regan character in 'The Sweeney' who uses violence but a blind eye is usually turned to it because he catches criminals.  Given current popularity, especially among the white English population of the UK for the less politically correct period of the 1970s and 1980s when violent white men were dominant in much of British society it is unsurprising that Hunt like Regan is popular.  However, this is to miss much of what Glenister brings to the character.  He is vane, loving his fast cars and his snakeskin boots as status symbols.  He is very loyal to his staff and often has a softer side that allows him to engage with people at risk and reassure them; in such circumstances the more procedural approach of the 2000s police officers is shown as getting in the way of a human connection with people the police are trying to protect.  In contrast, Hunt's prejudices especially about women, ethnic minorities and former criminals are often seen as getting in the way of an effective investigation.

Thus, it is unsurprising that a movie which pushes so many dramatic 'buttons' and encompasses ghost stories, time travel, police procedural and even, to a little extent, Westerns, and is embedded in nostalgia, should be so widely appealing.  It certainly bares re-watching especially when you have seen the end, well, each end, because stopping at the end of any of the 5 series in the set will give you a different impression of what has been going on.  I am glad that the BBC had these series produced and sustained them to the end.  I hope that we will see such engaging and also challenging dramas in the future, but I worry not.  Go out and buy the DVDs, they are well worth the investment, especially if anyone in your family has been connected with the police.