Nicking villains, sinking pints and pulling birds; with some time travel thrown in for good measure. Life on Mars was a glimpse into a past when men were men and anyone else was derided for not being so. Here, STU HORSFELD looks at one episode that revolved around the scourge of the 70s - football hooliganism.
Since it was first aired in 2006, it has become a cult classic, containing one of the great law enforcement television characters of all time, DI Gene Hunt. Life on Mars pitches a modern-day Detective Chief Inspector, Sam Tyler – played by award winning actor John Simm – who, while investigating a case in 2006, is involved in a road traffic accident. David Bowie’s titular iconic song Life on Mars is playing in his car at the time of the accident. When Tyler comes round, he has left 2006 and woken up in 1973.
Our time-travelling/comatosed/dead protagonist is taken to the Manchester and Salford Police station, the former name of the Greater Manchester police (GMP) where Tyler was stationed in 2006. On arrival, he becomes aware that he is now ‘Inspector’ Tyler and is introduced to his new ‘Guv’ – Chief Inspector Gene Hunt, played to misogynistic perfection by Philip Glennister. So, the premise is set for a modern police officer trying to come to terms with, and alter, the chauvinistic, racist, sexist attitudes inherent within the police department of the early 70s whilst trying to understand what has happened to him and how he can get back to 2006.
Series 1, episode 5 is titled: ‘The Footie’, the episode opens with Hunt and Tyler involved in a car chase. Eventually, the suspect drives into a park where there is a football match being played. He comes to grief in the goal net and is apprehended. The moment Hunt steps out of the car the generational abuse of the referee is evidenced “Oi referee, has anyone ever told you, you need glasses, you dozy git. Next time I’ll run you over.”
The opening scene also contains two prominent support characters, DS Ray Carling who looks up to DCI Hunt and tries to act like him when on duty. The other character is DC Chris Skelton who is young and impressionable, but looks up to Tyler and wants to embrace the modern way of thinking Tyler is trying to integrate at the station. As the thief is arrested Skelton gets caught up in the net prompting Hunt to comment “Leave him, weakest kid always stays in goal”.
So, the scene is set for an episode which affords the viewer a retrospective glance into the world of English football in the 1970s, and in particular its rising problems with hooliganism and the police’s aggressive attitude towards all football fans, an attitude which was based on the assumption that any fan of football was a hooligan. Life on Mars is not a ‘period piece’ aired in the 1970s. It is a contemporary view of life in the 1970s in the north of England, where perceptions and attitudes are potentially exaggerated for the screen, but gives an uncomfortable appreciation of the male dominated world which still permeated most aspects of life in Britain no less than 45 years ago.
Episode 5 Series 1 centres on a Manchester United fan (Colin Clay) who is found murdered after drinking at the Trafford Park pub, a United stronghold. Cause of death is a small stab wound to the base of the neck. As the victim is found with a Manchester United scarf on, Hunt immediately interprets the murder as football hooliganism related. Early on it is made clear that Hunt is a Manchester City fan while Tyler is a United fan. A further reason, if any more were needed, as to their distinctive differences.
Back at the station the police attitude to football fans, (hooligans) is evident as Hunt addresses the investigation room; “It doesn’t take much working out even for you lot. Let’s bring in all known football hooligans and find out where they were last night”. Tyler disagrees that it is football related in terms of fan rivalry noting the lack evidence that he took “a good kicking”. Hunt, unrepentant and sure of ‘his gut instinct’ boasts “I’ll bang up a hooligan by lunch” and with it the tone is set and the diametrically opposed officers have their contrasting theories.
A sub-plot within the episode highlights the intimate relationships that were formed between fathers and sons over football. The victim’s son (Ryan) is seen with a United scarf on and a football in his hands in most of his scenes. “Dad promised to take me to the match on Saturday” he confides to Tyler, which just happens to be the Manchester derby. Despite Tyler’s best efforts the boy refuses to contemplate going to football again without his dad. Certainly the 1960s and 70s saw the zenith of paternal bonding and ritual that took place on the terraces every other Saturday between a father and son. Tyler himself is forced to recall his own memories of going to football with his dad. “It was the only time of the week I ever got him all to myself.”
With the physical questioning of ‘known hooligans’ not generating any leads, Tyler suggests going undercover as stand-in landlords of the Trafford Park pub and see if the regulars can shed any light on the victim and his last movements. Tyler has a suspicion that it could be ‘United on United attack.’ Hunt as blunt as ever retorts, “As I am risking my personal safety in a pub full of United scum I want a back up plan worked out.”
The majority of the rest of the episode is played out in the pub where every ‘ism’ is acted out or commented upon. Social thought and paradigm is displayed inside the four walls of the Trafford Park. “Get us a plonk with nice t*ts every boozer needs a barmaid” - “There will never be a woman Prime Minister as long as I’ve got a hole in my a*se” – “I can drink all these toe-rags under the table. How do you think I became a DCI?” The United fans have been looking for an excuse to give the City fans a good kicking.” In the entire scene, the only female on screen is WPC Annie Cartwright – the plonk that has been drafted in with ‘the nice t*ts.’
The crowd in the pub gets increasingly rowdier and despite Tyler’s best efforts at covert questioning Hunt decides to integrate himself with a group of ‘hardcore’ United fans and one fan in particular who seems to be the leader, Malcolm Cox (Coxy). Coxy is determined to deliver retribution for the death of ‘a Red.’ Another Trafford Park regular, Pete Bond is a quieter, more considered type of fan and gives Tyler the background on Coxy.
During the 1970s the public house became the territorial operational nerve centre for gangs of hooligans or ‘firms’ as they became known. The pub would also be the ultimate ‘flag steal’ if an opposing firm could take over their rivals’ pub then a major victory would have been scored and a firm’s reputation would be enhanced.
Having failed to make an arrest, Tyler goes to see the victim’s son, who once again is sat with a United scarf and football. Conversation turns to the scarf which it turns out is the victim. The scarf found with the body had been planted to make it look like a City attack. Tyler and Hunt arrest chief suspect Coxy, but after the threat of violence (police brutality) and arrest for murder, Coxy confesses it was actually Pete Bond who planned the attack and stabbed the victim with a key, using it as a knuckle duster as per on the terraces or in a ‘ruck’ with rival supporters.
Football hooligans grew evermore creative with their weapons of choice on match days or when they went into battle. Double bladed Stanley knives would create a slashing effect, which could not be stitched due to the width of the cut. Pool balls inside socks, knuckle-dusters and the aforementioned protruding keys placed between the knuckles all cheap investments, designed to inflict maximum damage.
By now it is the day of the Manchester derby and there is violence and retribution in the air. Hunt who in turn addresses the response team “Both sets of fans are meeting behind the old textile factory”; “Get tooled up and lets go”. Tyler has concerns that the police are going into a situation with no shields, visors or stab vests. “Don’t worry they have got helmets”, is the response. The police enter the factory and wade in to the already ensuing violence with an array of weapons to hand, including cricket bats and truncheons; a nod to the tactics that would be adopted by police when dealing with football fans for the next 25 years.
Eventually, Tyler catches the perpetrator and admonishes Bond, claiming that football was once a unifier of communities and now football hooligans have wrecked football and the match day experience. Bond tries to defend his actions and attitude, claiming: “A good punch up is all part of the game. It’s about pride, pride in your team.” Bond is used to typify the belief system, which football hooligans in the 1970s tried to uphold, claiming they were fighting for a cause or for local pride. That is was their duty to defend their team. It was a belief which would set British football back decades and generate a reputation for football violence worldwide; it was a reputation that football hooligans were proud of.
Tyler launches into a monologue, which a contemporary programme has the prerogative to do:
“This is how it starts, then it escalates. It gets on the telly and in the press. Then other fans from other clubs try to outdo each other. Then it becomes about hate. It has nothing to do with football. It is about gangs roaming the country seeing who can cause the most trouble. Then we over-react and have to put up perimeter fences and we treat the fans like animals. 40-50,000 people herded into pens. Then how long is it before something happens, something terrible happens and we are dragging bodies out?”
In this case Life on Mars highlights the futility of what was about to happen to British football. How the police, under instruction from the Government, would police football through control and containment. How eventually it would take the deaths of 96 football fans before society and football changed its attitudes to fans.
It highlights the transitional point when football went from being a social construct where communities and families would spend time together, meeting the same people and casually nodding to the same acquaintances, to a battleground that would drive young children and families away from the terraces. For a time, football became the preserve of the hooligan ruled by generals and maintained by the foot soldiers of the firms.
The programme’s final scene sees Tyler hand over a ticket to the victim’s son so he can go to the game. As he walks away, Sam Tyler walks past and catches a glimpse of his younger-self going to the game holding his dad’s hand.
‘The Footie’ is football as it used to be…
FOLLOW STU ON TWITTER @loxleymisty44