As Life On Mars settles into its second and final series, it's apparently being marketed to the same viewers who lap up Top Gear and its ilk, as wish fulfilment for overgrown schoolboys who feel emasculated by the 21st century. Interview chores this time round have been taken on not by John Simm, who plays nominal hero Sam Tyler; but by Philip Glenister, whose DCI Gene Hunt would take 'unreconstructed' as a compliment, after he'd chinned you for being a university-educated ponce. Glenister's certainly on-message if he wants to appeal to the Clarkson fans out there: "I talk to a lot of people and here's a funny thing," he told the Telegraph. "I haven't yet met one who has said to me: 'This political correctness business - isn't it great that we've got it?'"
It might appear that Life On Mars has fallen victim to the same fate as Johnny Speight's Till Death Us Do Part, which set out to satirise racism, then saw its villain become a hero. Tyler hates being stuck in this backwater of bigotry, confronting, whereas the viewers see it as a rather refreshing diversion. But is the tale of the stranded copper really as dangerous as it thinks? Sure, the pre-PC PCs smoke and drink and pinch birds' bums, and Hunt is a marvellously judged tribute to the mighty Jack Regan. But, for the most part, we laugh at them, not with them, and sigh along with the more enlightened Tyler. For example, one recent episode sees a black detective seconded to the squad. Ray Carling, the most Neanderthal member of the team, gets his jabs in, but the worst he can come up with is an anaodyne gag about "spadework". Is that really the nastiest abuse a non-white policeman could expect in the canteen culture of the 1970s? If frustrated blokes think they're getting a vicarious dose of the years when racism and sexism didn't need to come with quotation marks, they're deluding themselves.
Maybe this is the problem with retrospective pastiche: in attempting to achieve a perspective on the past, we lose the essence. But did TV ever really express the racism and sexism of the era? I recently watched the first episode of the 1969 sitcom Curry and Chips, also created by Speight, about a Pakistani starting work in a factory. Clips occasionally show up on cheerful compilations about 'TV Hell', or earnest documentaries about the representation of ethnic minorities in less enlightened times, but otherwise the show might as well be an urban myth.
First off, despite the presence of Eric Sykes and Spike Milligan, it's not very good. The jokes are heavy-handed, the pacing is non-existent, actors (especially Milligan) are visibly corpsing, and the jackal-like studio audience is profoundly annoying. But is it racist? Well, characters use words like 'wog' and 'Paki' a lot, which is disturbing to modern sensibilities. But it's made quite clear that the worst offender, the Powellite Norm, is a moron (as was the case with the similarly taboo Love Thy Neighbour). Sykes, as the manager, is a decent bloke who tries to help the new recruit to feel at home. Not that the moral battle lines are so cut and dried; you could almost call the whole thing nuanced. A black character, played by Kenny Lynch, joins in the abuse of the newcomer, arguing "At least I was born here". A landlady expresses reservations about taking him in, but relents after she decides that he's quite good looking. Could this have been the inspiration for last year's Oscar surprise, the bit-crap-and-muddled-but-its-heart's-in-the-right-place Crash?
Probably the aspect of the show that's hardest to stomach is the presence of Milligan, browned-up to play Kevin O'Grady (his mother was Irish, so the story goes), with an excruciating Gunga Din accent. White actors in minstrel mode make us very uneasy, but Milligan's performance is so stilted and unnatural, that the racial provenance soon becomes irrelevant. The whole point is that he's an outsider and a catalyst, and might have come from anywhere in space (like Mork from Ork) or time (like Sam Tyler). After all, it's hardly a documentary.
Perhaps that's the thing to remember, when pondering what Life On Mars tells us about the frustrations of contemporary masculinity. The past that viewers see, playing out to a glam-rock soundtrack, is a scrubbed-up version of the reality of those years. And the much-maligned 'political correctness' (if that includes the unspoken assumption that racism is a bad thing) was alive and well on TV even then.