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Return of the boys from Mars
Ian Wylie

A scene from Life on Mars
A scene from Life on Mars
THE bottles of Hai Karate and Old Spice are still in Gene's office and a jar of pickled eggs sits behind the bar of The Railway Arms.

Manchester, August, 2006 and I'm on set with Life On Mars, the award-winning BBC1 drama about to return for a second series.

Philip Glenister and John Simm are filming a scene as DCI Gene Hunt, the self-styled Sheriff of Manchester, and DI Sam Tyler, the modern day detective who woke up in 1973.
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Aside from location filming in and around the city, Lancashire-raised actor John will spend the best part of six months inside this Oxford Road studio, producing a TV classic destined to be remembered for decades to come.

But the new series, which begins a fortnight today, will be the last, when Sam finally discovers the answer to his question: "Am I mad, in a coma or back in time?"

The opening episode is certain to thrill millions of fans. It includes a tantalising, and disturbing, glimpse of the present day as Sam and Gene clean up Manchester, with a nod to another famous double act - Morecambe and Wise. Some may also be surprised at the pace of revelations about the reason why Sam, now with longer sideburns, may be in 1973.

Is the key to the puzzle in the lyrics to the David Bowie song which gives the drama its title? And what's the significance of the phone number Hyde 2612? The clues are on screen for those who want to find them.

"The bus destination in episode one is not there by chance," reveals producer Cameron Roach.

"Everything is thought about, even the advertising hoardings on the back of shots. We are aware that we have a very excitable web fan base. Series two has a very satisfying conclusion for the avid fan."

Phil has become a cult hero via his portrayal of the the politically incorrect Gene `Genie', who might have stepped straight out of The Sweeney. "I've already resigned myself to the fact that the chances of finding a part as good as this again must be zero," he grins.

By the time I meet co-star John again, in London just before Christmas, the last scene has been filmed and he's just watched the final episode, a `heart-stopping climax'.

"It's fantastic," says John. "As far as I'm concerned, it could have finished four minutes earlier. You'll know what I mean when you see it."


Most fans agree that 16 episodes is about right for the natural life of the story. "It's more than enough," insists John. "We didn't want it to be the situation where people could say, `Do you remember Life On Mars when it was really good?' I think it's a really cool thing that a massive hit show can stop after two series.

"Sam is in every scene. That's why I really can't do any more. To play the same guy in such intense circumstances, the workload was unbelievable.

"I love Manchester, but my family live in London now. When I filmed the final scene, it was a relief. I was thinking, `I'm going to see my son again'. He was three when I started this and now he's five. It's like two whole summers where he's off school and I missed it. You never get that back.

"I would never say that acting is a difficult profession, because it just is not. But this really was tough for me. And 16 hours of my face is more than enough."

The project took several years to bring to the screen. Previous incarnations were to be set in Brighton, Bristol or London before the TV team finally settled on Manchester. "It is the perfect city. It's like the other character in the series. It couldn't have been anywhere else."

Sam and Gene have been turned into puppets by Altrincham's HOT Animation for a surreal Camberwick Green sequence in episode five, as well as TV trailers, and action figures are on the way.

"For me, the reason why Life On Mars is a success is because it's fun to watch. It reminds me of The Six Million Dollar Man, or something like that. Sheer entertainment," explains John.

"It's got something for everybody. The dads that were around in the seventies love it because that's being revisited and you can be a bit naughty again and get away with it in these PC times. Also it's a clash of cultures, which is really interesting. It actually is a different planet. And that's the point of the whole thing."

The seventies music, cars and nostalgia - from Curly Wurlies to Party Sevens - are all part of the appeal. But at the heart of the story is Sam's struggle to get back home and that clash between Tyler and Hunt.

"There's a massive conflict but we wanted them to be a partnership. It does grow into a really lovely relationship. We lived next door to each other in Manchester - we were married for two years - and Phil came round to watch a rough cut of episode two. There's a bit at the end, and we stood up and hugged each other. It was really sweet."

Now former The Lakes, Clocking Off and State of Play star John has left both Sam and the seventies behind for good. "Done. That's it. Never again," he says.

Interview over, I walk out into the street reflecting on how best to sum up an actor who made us believe in Life On Mars. Very spookily, blasting out from a shop just a few doors down is another Bowie hit which does it in one word - Starman.


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