Friday, 7 March 2008

ASHES TO ASHES 1.5 – "The Smoking Gun"

Friday, 7 March 2008
Writer: Mark Greig
Director: Bille Eltringham

Cast: Philip Glenister (DCI Gene Hunt), Keeley Hawes (DI Alex Drake), Dean Andrews (DS Ray Carling), Marshall Lancaster (DC Chris Skelton), Montserrat Lombard (WPC Sharon "Shaz" Granger), Amelia Bullmore (Caroline Price), Russell Tovey (Marcus Johnstone), Jay Simpson (Reeks), Joseph Long (Luigi), Geff Francis (Viv James), Andrew Clover (The Clown), Grace Vance (Molly Drake), Dan Fredenburgh (Simon Neary), Pamela Merrick (Marcus' Mum) & Stephen Campbell Moore (Evan White)

Gene and Alex are on the trail of Simon Neary, a criminal making a move into gun-running. Alex believes that stopping Neary could prevent her being shot in 2008, but she needs the help of Neary's boyfriend...

It's hard to believe we're into the last half of this 8-episode season already, but while Ashes To Ashes has certainly settled into itself, I still say the "time-travel" element is deeply flawed and the drama fairly tedious. That said, The Smoking Gun wisely kept emphasis on the investigation and, ignoring too many easy-target jokes and a limp ending, it passed the hour well enough...

This week, Gene (Philip Glenister) is on the trail of Simon Neary (Dan Fredenburgh), a pimp and drug trafficker who's been a thorn in his side for many years. Alex (Keeley Hawes) and Gene mastermind an elaborate operation in a hotel to catch Neary red-handed, but instead only find his boyfriend Marcus (Russell Tovey).

Gene and the rest of CID are stunned to find hardened criminal Neary is gay, with Alex's enlightened attitude once again caught in the middle of snide comments and prejudiced jokes. Although, amusingly, her outburst of the word "cock" causes greater offence in the workplace than any amount of "shit-stubber" jibes.

In a later surveillance, Gene and Alex realize Neary's progressing from drugs onto guns, after spying on him from a building rooftop as he checks a sample weapon from a supplier called Saris. Alex takes this development to heart, seeing an opportunity to help stop the escalation of gun crime across London – and perhaps prevent herself being shot in 2008 as a consequence.

Are the writers as confused by Ashes To Ashes time-travel/hallucination concept as the viewers are? So, this episode has Alex thinking she can change history in '81 to save herself from a gunshot in '08 – despite the fact she knows she hasn't travelled back in time? I wish this show would make its mind up!

Anyway, it soon becomes clear that CID needs someone to snitch on Neary, and Alex hopes to persuade his boyfriend Marcus. The trouble is, blinkered Marcus doesn't even believe his lover is a violent criminal, so Alex has to prove it to him. After pretending to be an old friend of Marcus' in front of Neary one afternoon, Alex invites herself along to a club called Nirvana...

Ray (Dean Andrews), Chris (Marshall Lancaster) and Gene tag along with Alex (who once again decides to dress as a prostitute!), unaware Nirvana is a gay club until it's too late. Alex manages to persuade Ray to chat-up Neary (in full view of Marcus), to prove to Marcus he's disloyal and untrustworthy. Her plan works, although the unexpectedly mature Ray turns violent when Neary whispers sweet-nothings in his ear...

Marcus agrees to help stitch-up his boyfriend, after being shown the dead body of Reeks (Jay Simpson) -- a police informant Neary had killed and thrown onto a barbed-wire fence. Wouldn't it have been easier to show him the dead body before all that Nirvana club nonsense?

CID equip Marcus with a "wire" (oversized 80s technology, love it), give him the codeword "angel" to say if he needs assistance, and send him to the location of Neary's exchange with gunrunner Saris. Alex and Gene listen into Marcus and Neary's conversation from a safe distance, hearing Neary confess to his crimes, before Marcus gives the codeword, and they come running...

At the scene, Alex and Gene find Neary on the floor – shot, but not killed, by distraught lover Marcus. The episode ends with Alex providing moral support for Marcus to reveal his sexuality to his middle-class parents, before she notices a small rash on the back of his neck, and advises him to see a doctor...

The Smoking Gun wasn’t bad, but Mark Greig's script didn't make Neary and his gun-running ambitions very compelling – opting instead to focus on the comedy of Gene, Chris and Ray's interaction with gay culture. Such scenes were amusing at times (if a little overcooked), but they slowly drained drama from the more serious weapons aspect. In fact, the episode's shift onto gay culture even meant Alex's belief she could save herself in '08 by stopping Neary was forgotten about entirely.

Where the episode really worked was in the small character moments and detailing: Gene got some of his tough-guy status back by keying Neary's posh car, Alex allowed nervous Chris to give a presentation to CID (empowering staff '08-style, instead of belittling them the '81 way), Gene took pity on a down-at-heel informant and gave him a designer suit to wear at a court appearance (off-screen), and seeing Ray effectively ask Chris to come out to play football, as "mum" Alex declines, made me laugh.

Russell Tovey gave a good performance as Marcus, even if he basically fell back on his amiable-and-twitchy nice-guy routine – but the tiny subplot with him summoning the courage to tell his parents about his sexuality felt superfluous. Dan Fredenburgh was very good at making Neary a believable jealous boyfriend type, but was never believable as the calibre of criminal Gene would obsess over capturing.

Of the regulars, I'm still in a quandary over Keeley Hawes – who veers between spirited, charismatic and bonkers... to whiny, irritating and right-on. Philip Glenister still spits dialogue and sneers to entertaining effect, but he's less interesting working alongside Hawes than he was John Simm. And whenever the show tries to develop the (supposed) sexual chemistry between Alex and Gene, the ensuing scenes remind me of a lecherous uncle chatting up a toff with concussion.

As side-remarks: why is Shaz (Montserrat Lombard) so utterly underused on the show? This episode alludes to the fact she might be bisexual, but other than that Lombard just spends every episode grinning. And is it written into Keeley Hawes' contract that she can't go more than 3 episodes without dressing like a prostitute or a kitten? Not that I'm complaining!

Overall, I was glad this episode kept the Clown hallucinations to a minimum, but did we really need another appearance by Alex's lawyer mum Caroline Price (Amelia Bullmore)? The sooner that annoying woman dies in a car-bomb, the better. After a generally entertaining first half, The Smoking Gun sadly rushed to a very inadequate end, but Greig's skill at writing comedy and strong characterisations kept things bubbling along.

6 March 2008
BBC1, 9.00 pm