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BBC Life On Mars Manchester location guide and critique

In the award-winning police drama Life on Mars, DI Sam Tyler returns to Manchester in 1973. We are never sure if he is in a coma, insane or if he really has gone back. That leaves a certain amount of artistic licence in the portrayal of 1970s Manchester. In this article I identify some of the locations in Series 2, episodes 1, and cast my critical eye over the standard and accuracy of the recreation.

The first episode of Series 2 begins in Sam's dingy gaffe, where he is brusquely woken up by the ever abrasive DCI Hunt, who has just bashed the door down

Swiftly we pass into the opening credits, with views of the building that's the police headquarters in the series. In reality, this is Stopford House, one of a number of architectural creations using pre-cast concrete slabs to appear in Stockport in the 60s and 70s.

It was built to house the offices of the Borough of Stockport and still serves in that role. See Multimap. It's located behind the magnificent town hall of 1908. Co-incidentally, the real Stockport police station is just five minutes from here, on Lee St.

Soon they are at the scene of a crime, immediately recognisable - at least to me - as Batty Street of Smedley Rd, Collyhurst, about 1 and a half miles north of Manchester city centre. See Multimap

This location is right next to the River Irk, and overlooked by the disused railway viaduct leading from the Manchester to Bury line, now used by Metrolink trams. Two streets of terraced houses stand next to the viaduct, behind which is some waste ground, where some of the action takes place. The scene begins with the celebrated Ford Cortina Mk III heading down the sloping cul-de-sac and turning right onto Batty Street. Parked on the street is a bus in the orange and white colours of Selnec. Selnec (South East Lancashire North East Cheshire) forerunner of Greater Manchester Transport.

All would appear to be fine with this location, but except for one glaring error which for me shatters the illusion completely. That error is the inclusion of Manchester City Council's recently installed fluorescent street lamps, which are clearly visible in most of the shots. These lamps scream out 2006 in the loudest possible way. Not even the Morecambe and Wise Keep Britain Tidy poster can overcome this intrusion.

These lamps have been put up all over Manchester in streets new and old, mostly replacing perfectly viable and far more attractive lamps from the 50s, and some from the 20s. Effectively, the insertion of these lamps means that most of the City of Manchester can no longer be used as a backdrop for historical dramas, except, as is done in Life On Mars, by using off-street , derelict locations.

Putting a modern lamp in a Victorian or 1930s street is like putting an IKEA table lamp in a Victorian drawing room. To find attractive older-style lamps in harmony with the streetscape, you have to go to Liverpool or Dublin.

Then it's back to police headquarters and some interior scenes shot in the fanciful and smoke-filled offices that DI Tyler shares with his colleagues.

Soon after there is a visit to the fictitious Wild Card Club. The external shots were done off Dale Street, Manchester city centre, next the attractive warehouses which, with their metal fire escapes, closely echo Greenwich Village and SoHo in New York.

Incidentally the entrance to the Wild Card Club is just a few doors down from what was once one of Manchester's most famous cabaret venues: Foo Foo's Palace, the basement club of Foo Foo Lamarr the celebrated transvestite performer who died in November 2003. The Ranch, Manchester's first punk venue, was in a corner of Foo Foo's Palace.

The Wild Card Club scenes were shot in the Press Club, off Deansgate, Manchester city centre. Very little retro-fitting would be required, as the Press Club retains a wonderful look of 1970s Mancunian kitsch.

The outdoor scene later in the episode where the club owner is arrested was filmed around Pollard Street East in the Ancoats district. Upper Cyrus Street sign is visible in the shot. This part of Manchester still has a wonderfully run down and grimy character, but it could be that in a few years it will have been sanitised, modernised, and very possibly more of the old mills will have been destroyed. Many that could easily have been retained have already disappeared.

Soon it may be impossible to make a show like Life On Mars. I hope it isn't and that Manchester keeps as much as possible of its true original grimy industrial character.

The makers of Life on Mars have - notwithstanding the street lamps problem - done a good job of recreating an environment with elements of Manchester in the 1970s. To make it truly convincing you would need to see some famous city centre locations, but that would be virtually impossible now without the use of large scale Hollywood-style CGI, as Manchester has changed so much in the last three decades.

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2007-07-22

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