What happened to Lazarus? Life on Mars creator spills beans on cancelled show

SHOWBIZ Life On Mars
John Simm and Philip Glenister in Life On Mars, which aired from 2006 to 2007 and inspired a sequel Ashes to Ashes, and the creators have revealed to Yahoo their plans for a final part: Lazarus. (BBC)

Cast your mind to the night of 21 May 2010, to the final episode of BBC One’s Ashes to Ashes.

Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), a character we’ve come to know and begrudgingly love over two series of Life on Mars and three of Ashes to Ashes, has been revealed as a form of guardian angel to dead coppers, a tobacco-stained spirit guiding them to inner peace. It looked like the final full stop on a story that had begun four and a half years earlier when DCI Sam Tyler (John Simm) found himself flung back in time, to 1973, to a police force very different to the one he’d known in 2006 Manchester.

The ‘Gene-iverse’, it seemed, was as dead as Gene Hunt himself. But then, in April 2020, came a cryptic tweet from the show’s co-creator (along with Ashley Pharoah), Matthew Graham. “We would never make another Mars unless we really had something to say and could push the envelope all over again,” he teased. “Finally, we have something.”

Lazarus (Watford and Essex)
Show co-creator Matthew Graham first revealed they had an idea for a final chapter in 2020, named Lazarus after David Bowie's song. (Watford and Essex)

That ‘something’, it turned out, was Lazarus, a mooted ‘trilogy closer’ on the story of Gene Hunt and Sam Tyler. Simm and Glenister were, we were assured, on side, and scripts were being worked on. The only question was where would we see it? The BBC? Netflix? Prime Video? The answer, sadly, was none of them, as in June ‘23, Graham announced the project was officially dead. “After many months of planning,” the statement read, “we will now not be making Lazarus. I can't go into details but the hurdles were financial, not creative.”

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“I’ve got to admit, there was a little bit of relief, as the whole thing had been so stressful,” Graham tells Yahoo about the realisation that Lazarus was no more. “I was constantly texting with John who’d be asking, ‘Is it really gonna happen? What’s going on?’ And I’d be like, ‘Bear with me, we’re really trying.’ So to be able to know it was done and dusted, that it wasn't going to happen, was to some degree a relief.”

So let’s go back in time, to 2010, and what appeared to be Gene Hunt’s last hurrah. Did Graham and Pharoah have any thoughts then of a third act for ‘the Guv’nor’?

Life on Mars (BBC)
Lazarus is described as a ‘trilogy closer’ on the story of Gene Hunt and Sam Tyler, with Philip Glenister and John Simm planning to return. (BBC)

“Post-Ashes, we really felt we’ve done it, we’ve gone out and most people felt we hadn’t fucked up the ending,” Graham laughs. “And so it was, okay, move on.” There was, he does reveal, tentative talk of a movie and even a West End musical, but admits that “it just felt like we were doing it because some people were asking us to.”

So he and Pharoah agreed that, until one of them came up with ‘a really cool take’ for a third series, they were going to leave the Gene Hunt universe alone, with Graham going on to develop The Spanish Princess for Starz, and Pharaoh writing the supernatural drama The Living and the Dead for BBC One.

Then, in lockdown, Graham and Pharaoh found themselves involved in a run of Life on Mars tweetathons. The response, he says, was incredible, even from kids barely born when the series was originally transmitted. Around the same time, there was an avalanche of news stories about the police which painted them as institutionally racist, while individual officers were being locked up for a variety of crimes. Those headlines, it seems, set both writers’ minds racing.

“We thought, where do the Gene Hunts fit into all of this? Is there some kind of retribution that needs to be dealt with? That's where it started.”

Lazarus (Watford and Essex)
Lazarus opens in a post-Covid 2022, with Sam Tyler working for Greater Manchester Police’s Internal Affairs division, where he meets Gene Hunt at a care home. (Watford and Essex)

Together, they made up a pitch doc, and a pilot script, which opens in a post-Covid 2022, with Sam Tyler working for Greater Manchester Police’s Internal Affairs division. Then, after the murder of a corrupt police officer, the trail leads him to an old people’s home, where he comes into contact with a chain-smoking, curry-noshing, irascible 80-year-old by the name of… Gene Hunt.

Except there’s no recognition between Sam and Gene (“What’s this...? – ‘He/Him’”? Hunt says as Sam shows him his ID. “My pronouns,” says Tyler. “You’re handing me a card that tells me you’re a bloke?!” he exclaims). Despite their differences, and despite Gene having been pensioned off years before, both team up to investigate the murder, only for a car to mow them both down, after which they both wake up in… 1977.

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But is this 1977 Sam and Gene’s reality, or is it the dream of 2022 that Sam has just woken from? And why is Sam’s wife, former WPC Annie Cartwright, seeing visions of our present day on her TV set? That first episode sets up a more puzzling premise than either Life on Mars or Ashes to Ashes, suggesting a series that would have gone down an even more fantastical route than its predecessors.

Life On Mars Actor John Simm (left), with writer Matthew Graham and Philip Glenister (right) at the special screening of the final episode of 'Life On Mars' at BAFTA in Piccadilly, west London.   (Photo by Joel Ryan - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
Life On Mars Actor John Simm (left), with writer Matthew Graham and Philip Glenister (right) pictured in 2006. The actors were said to be keen to return to their roles for Lazarus. (Getty Images)

Despite John Simm having bailed on Life on Mars early, forcing Graham and Pharaoh to wrap the series up after two seasons as opposed to the planned three, he was, to the writers’ delight, eager to revisit the character of Sam Tyler.

“I think he had a little bit of seller's remorse about leaving the show,” suggests Graham. “So he was really keen. Phil was more uncertain, I think partly because he was worried that he was getting on a bit and couldn’t fling himself across car bonnets anymore.”

Over a boozy lunch in London, Simm and Glenister agreed to come onboard. Many of the two shows’ supporting actors, from Dean Andrews (Ray Carling) to Marshall Lancaster (Chris Skelton) to Montserrat Lombard (Shaz Granger) to Daniel Mays (Jim Keats) all said yes to returning.

A notable absence, however, would have been Keeley Hawes, who let it be known early on that she wasn’t keen on revisiting the role of Alex Drake, from Ashes to Ashes. “Keeley was always aware that this was considered John and Phil’s show,” says Graham, “and I suspect she thought she didn’t want to play second fiddle to the boys.”

Though Graham and Pharoah remain proud of Ashes, it’s Life on Mars that Lazarus (named after a song on David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar) harks to most, taking place just four years after the original series. That is, for its first season anyway, with the show catapulting its characters into 1997 for its second and final series.

“We hadn't initially planned to have the 90s as part of it,” says Graham, “but then it became apparent that seeing 90s policing through television was too irresistible. If 70s policing was all about The Sweeney and the 80s was all about The Professionals and police running around with submachine guns, the 90s was the time of the gentleman detective, doing crosswords and knowing Latin.”

It was said that Keeley Hawes did not plan to return as Alex Drake, from Ashes to Ashes (pictured) because she 'was always aware that this was considered John and Phil’s show'. (BBC)

With a first episode and a two-season story arc in place, Graham and Pharaoh began hawking the series around. The BBC’s Piers Wenger told them he loved it, but didn’t want to “revisit past glories”. Instead, they took the idea to BritBox who at that time were just beginning to commission their own original drama. And crucially, they had all 40 episodes of the ‘Gene-iverse’ on their streaming service.

“Once we started talking to them,” Graham says, “we all got excited cos it was like, you could really re-release the whole thing as a massive Lord of the Rings-like boxset!”

Though there were worries from BritBox about the series relying too much on the previous shows’ mythology (“I disagreed with them on that, because it’s in the culture all the time,” says Matthew), in the end it was the budget – estimated to be between £2.5m and £3m an episode – that proved too prohibitive for the streamer.

“Time was ticking on,” Graham reflects, “and John and Phil started to think, ‘Is it ever going to happen, and are we getting too old?’ People start to lose their mojo with it, and so it kind of fell by the wayside.”

(L-R) Dean Andrews (DC Ray Carling) Marshall Lancaster (DC Chris Skelton) Liz White (WPC Annie Cartwright) Philip Glenister (DCI Gene Hunt) & John Simm (DC Sam Tyler) at the Booth Street Film Depot in Stockport.
Lazarus was pitched to BritBox, but ultimately because of the cost of making each episode the show was unable to get off the ground, and Matthew Graham said the project was dropped by June 2023. (BBC)

That pilot script did, however, finally get an airing in November ‘23, with a live reading on stage at the British Film Institute (“they got in a great bunch of actors for that,” beams Matthew). As for the future of Lazarus, though television appears to be ruled out, Graham is open to the idea of fashioning it into a comic book, or maybe as a series of audio plays. "It's just a question of whether or not you could get the actors to come back and do it, and whether they'd actually want to,” he says. “I suspect they probably feel like they've moved on."

Seven months on from the news that Lazarus was officially dead, Graham remains sanguine about his experience attempting to revive the world of Life on Mars and his and Ashley Pharoah’s most iconic creation – DCI Gene Hunt.

"We just had to let it go,” he shrugs. “It wasn't for want of trying on most people’s parts. But in the end, it was just one of those things…"