Gene Hunt: the antidote to our banal times and middle life crisis
For me Life on Mars was always a reaction to forensic TV crime dramas like Silent Witness and Waking the Dead, where the world of contemporary police work is strictly cerebral and scientific. Elsewhere, these days, police car chases are confined to reality TV shows, where well-trained officers pursue joyriders at responsible speeds and always paying due care and attention to the safety of pedestrians and other road users. The only people the police beat up seem to be anti-war protestors and anti-capitalist demonstrators. And if the cops shoot anybody, it’s likely that they’ll turn out to be further collateral damage in the ‘war against terror’. None of this is terribly inspiring if you want to produce a thrilling, contemporary cop show. So what do you do? Well, you make a drama out of a modern day copper who gets seriously injured in the line of duty and wakes up in the 1970s, an era when TV cop shows could boast police hard men like Jack Regan and George Carter, who drank, fought and shouted their heads off throughout The Sweeney.
Sam Tyler was the officer struck by a car who found himself in 70s and couldn’t decide whether he was in a coma or had actually travelled through time, but the real star of the show, and its sequel, Ashes to Ashes, was Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt, the essence of unreconstructed, politically incorrect, masculinity. Hunt was the sort of peeler who had no qualms about beating a confession out of a suspect, his thuggish behaviour an absolute affront to the modern, liberal policing methods espoused by Sam Tyler making their’s an unlikely pairing in real life but exactly what you want from a crime fighting double act.
It’s easy to conclude that the cult status achieved by Gene Hunt over the series had something to do with the popular perception that crime is out of control; political correctness has gone mad, and wouldn’t the world be a better place if it were policed by the old fashioned coppers like Regan, Carter and Hunt, instead of smart-arsed, middle class college graduates like Sam Ryan (who isn’t even a copper in any case). But there is more to Hunt than that. Or at least I hope so otherwise I don’t quite know how to account for the fact that I loved him.
As a fully paid up member of the looney-left I should find Hunt abhorrent but I don’t. His challenge to the prevailing liberal sensibilities of our time came almost as a relief. This is a personal response that I need to think about more , but it might have something to do with my own growing disaffection with multiculturalism and a particular version of feminism that seems to equate women’s liberation with purchasing power (see Sex and the City for an example).
On the other hand, I’m more than open to the suggestion that Hunt is nothing more that a middle aged mentor to that demographic of once young men who were served by Loaded magazine and Oasis in the early 90s, and are now confronted with their own encroaching male menopause. I hope not though, for on anther level Hunt represents for me a wonderful affront to the audit culture and bureaucratization that has crippled areas of the public sector beyond policing. I’m sure that it’s not only police officers but teachers, nurses and others in public service who admire Gene Hunt’s style. No carefully compiled reports, records and meticulous paperwork in his filing cabinet, just a bottle of good scotch whiskey.
Gene Hunt seemed to answer to no-one until his nemesis, DCI Jim Keating turned up in 1983. Keating, from the Discipline and Complaints Department, made clear his intentions to bring the ‘Manc Lion’ down and steal away his team of stalwarts, Chris, Ray and Shaz. To do this he enlisted Alex Drake, who like Sam Tyler before her, was injured in the line of duty and came round in the early eighties. Drake was repelled and attracted to Hunt in equal measures. (Well, actually, probably more attracted than anything else) but she could have been convinced that Hunt’s unconventional methods, by modern day standards, may have put him sufficiently on the wrong side of the law to merit giving him up to Keating.
In the end Drake chose Hunt when she realised that she was in fact dead and had been resident in some sort of police purgatory where troubled coppers go to work through the woes. In this they were assisted by Hunt, their guardian angel, whose job was to keep them from the clutches of the evil Keats and see them all safely to The Railway Arms, where all good coppers go when the job is done.*
There is an obvious nostalgia about Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, which is simultaneously a critique of the present. So when at the end of the second series Sam Tyler decided to nose-dive off a high building, it seemed a perfectly rational thing to do given that the choice was between returning to Gene Hunt and the fictional world of the 70s or staying in our own oppressively banal times.
* There is a much more eloquent account of the final season of Ashes to Ashes here, written by the Wartime Housewife.
And here’s an interesting aside. This is Labour demonstrating that they just don’t get the Gene Hunt-thing with this poster from the 2010 election campaign…
…and the Tories – returning the serve.
Though, let’s be frank. David Cameron will never fill those snake-skin boots…