Life on Mars, the BBC TV sci-fi police show, takes place in 1973. But it’s a 1973 of the mind, and this is a matter of plot, not just artistic license. The show’s protagonist, a police detective, suffers a serious car accident in the year 2006 and wakes up in the early 70s. He’s either in a coma, mad, or has traveled back in time, and you spend the whole series trying to figure that out. Despite the backdrop of swinging 1973 Manchester, the whole narrative and its staging have a strangely Russian quality. Or Czech. Even in English terms 1973 can be taken loosely. For example the show’s brown Ford Cortina, almost a central character, is a mode from 1975, and chief detectives weren’t called “guv” in Manchester in 1973. Sometimes the anachronisms are an accident, sometimes also deliberate, since 1973 is a fiction within a fiction. It’s a reinterpretation, like any retro decor.
I think I actually remember this box of Kleenex. And not because it appeared in at least 3 episodes of Life on Mars.
More on the 1970s in Life on Mars:
“During an interview John Stalker, Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester in the early 1980s and himself a Detective Inspector in 1973, has stated that the depiction of the police “has got nothing to do with real policing in the 1970s. It could not be more inaccurate in terms of procedure, the way they talk or the way they dress. In all the time I was in the CID in the 1970s I never saw a copper in a leather bomber jacket and I never heard an officer call anyone ‘guv’. … Actually, there were a few police officers in London who started to behave like Regan and Carter in The Sweeney, but that was a case of life following art, not the other way round.” The journalist who interviewed Stalker, Ray King, remarks that the depiction of the police can be defended if we assume that Sam is indeed in a coma and that we are seeing his imaginary idea of 1973, filtered through 1970s cop shows.
Upon Sam Tyler awaking in 1973, he finds himself on a building site, beneath a large advertising board, proclaiming the construction of a new motorway, the Mancunian Way. In reality, construction of Mancunian Way was completed in 1967. According to Matthew Graham, writing in the Radio Times, the error was deliberate. “We knew that this road was built in the 1960s, but we took a bit of artistic licence.” Minor historical anachronisms such as this are present throughout Life on Mars. Some, as above, were made out of artistic licence whilst others were deliberately inserted to confuse the issue of whether Sam Tyler was in a coma, mad or really back in time. Many inaccuracies were visible such as modern street furniture, cable television cabinets, satellite television dishes, CCTV cameras, LCDdigital watches and double-glazed uPVC window frames which were all unintentional. During DVD commentaries for the series, the programme makers acknowledge these as errors but also point out they are in fact perfectly feasible, given Sam’s situation. As the popularity of the series grew, the hunting of such anachronisms became a favourite pastime among Life on Mars fans.”