More than 7 million viewers tuned in each week to see Sam Tyler attempt to adjust to his new surroundings in the corrupt and highly prejudiced '70s police force, all the time trying to figure out what had happened to him.
DS speaks to the man behind DCI Sam Tyler, John Simm, to find out what is in store as the show prepares to return for its final series.
How did your character develop this series overall?
"Firstly, it's about three or four weeks after we left him, it's not very long. It's kind of more of the same, he puts behind him the thing that happened with his dad - it's gone now. I don't think he's dwelling on it, he's just getting on with what he does, and waiting for the next thing to get him back - he's absolutely convinced that something else will happen. Obviously that wasn't it, so we'll see what happens next. That's where we find him."
Is he less angst ridden or is he still driving himself mad?
"The first episode is such a big bang in, the thing that happens in the first episode is such a shocker when you first meet him that you haven't got time to see what he was like before that happened. The night before he went to sleep - you meet him in the morning - he was fine, sorting cases, and then something happens, so yeah, he's pretty angst ridden. Of course he is, he's got to be!"
He seems more accepting at the end of series one...
"What you can take for granted is that he's got on with it - he gets up the next day and gets on with it. He still doesn't think this is something real, he thinks that any second he's going to wake up and get out of it somehow."
It sounds like there's a lot of humour in it. This time round he goes to a swinger's club, I believe!
"Yeah, in one of the episodes they go undercover to a swinger's party in suburbia. Very strange episode, that."
Has the series started with a bang?
"Yeah. You never get back that shock from the first episode, it's fabulous, just that he got knocked over and woke up and that's the surprise factor you get with that. So obviously you can't have that again, but it's a good first episode. Bit of a shock, really."
Do you feel any pressure this year after the first series?
"No, that pressure was on the writers, really, we just read what's put in front of us. But we're all in together, and we're absolutely determined not to let it get at all... just do another one. It's on a par with the first one, hopefully."
This is going to be the final series. Are you happy with the way it's ended?
"Yeah, absolutely. I think it's a good ending."
Didn't you film a couple of alternative endings?
"Yeah, there's a few ideas."
Is that to stop it leaking out or is that cos they're not sure which one they're going to use?
"I don't know."
Do we get a definite answer to explain all his experiences?
"Yeah, yeah. Yes. It's a good ending."
Were you surprised by the ending?
"No, because I knew all along what was going to happen. I was never going to hang around forever, and it had to end, so it does. That's all I can say, really."
Are you glad they didn't try and string it out for another two series?
Was filming intense?
"It was, it was even harder this time around. The schedule was even more punishing, if that was humanly possible, they made it. Six months away from home, really tough, really tough schedule. It's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life and I don't think I'll do anything like that again, never as long. It was a real punishing schedule."
You get on well with the rest of the cast, which must have helped.
"Yeah, they're fantastic. I mean, I've been married to Phil Glenister for two years now! (laughter) We lived next door to each other while we were filming this one, not that it made any difference. It was really intense, especially for me and him. He did have time off sometimes...there was one episode that they did try to give me, flashback-y scenes that I'm not in - give me an hour off. It was really full on. I would never moan about acting, but I couldn't work like I usually work, because it was impossible to learn all those lines all day, nonstop. With the smoke on set, the intensity of the part, it's not as if I was stood in the background of the set all day, I had to be on it all the time. I was on a different planet again for six months."
There's a Life On Mars spinoff. Are you involved?
"Nothing to do with me, mate. You'll have to ask somebody else about that. Nothing to do with me."
And Life On Mars is going over to the US. How do you think they'll take it?
"I think they like it, it's been on BBC America."
They're going to make their own version, though. What about the cultural references - there was the TV testcard girl, for example...
"They didn't know about that. When we went over there with them, they showed it and they were like - we had to explain what that was. It's such a British thing, we had to explain loads of things. It's a British show, it's really British."
I suppose it's a Starsky and Hutch equivalent.
"Yeah, but they've already done Starsky and Hutch, they did Back To The Future. What are you going to do, you've already done it! It's up to them, whatever, I probably won't even watch it. I just don't want to see it, whatever, it's a bit weird for me. They can do what they want with it."
It's like somebody playing you. And it's Brad Pitt!
"Maybe I will watch it! It's just weird, it's weird, and I don't know how to explain, it's just weird. They could have offered me a part in it! The office boy, not that I would have done it. But it's weird, it's really really odd."
Did the success of Life On Mars surprise you?
"I was in such a vacuum for six months on set, in both series, that I had no idea. I knew I'd given everything I could give to it, and usually things have been alright. But it's not down to me, I just give everything I could give and then sit on my hands. They can do whatever they want with it. So I was interested to see how it turned out. I trusted Kudos because they've got such a great track record, and I'd never done something that was populist before, I've never done that mainstream, BBC1 thing, which is why I wanted to do it really, try it. Never again, but I wanted to try it. I trusted Kudos because they're fantastic, they sprinkle their thing on it when you leave it and they do Spooks and they do Hustle and they just make it look amazing. I totally trusted them to do that and they did. Between the cast and them, they were a fantastic company to work for - they're brilliant. All power to them. It's down to them, they did a great job with it."
Will we see more fights between your character and Gene?
"More fights. You know what, me and Phil wanted to keep away from that. There were a few written and a few ideas knocking around - but we thought it almost worked against us, because we were trying to become a team, and I don't think they would after a while. There were plenty of verbal fights, the whole way through - Christ, they didn't stop - there are probably a few fist fights. I dunno, I can't remember. I'm sure he gets me up against a wall a few times - I've got marks here just from memory. I'm sure there are, he just gets me so easily, Phil, it's ridiculous, we've become the same person, he's so easy to work with. "
Did many actors volunteer to guest star in it this series?
"I don't know, really, because it's got nothing to do with me. My really good friend Marc Warren was in the first one, which is fantastic. I've worked with him loads of times and he's just a really good mate of mine. It's funny, cos he went to the costume fitting and he rang me from the costume van when I was in London, before we'd even started, and he went 'I'm looking at the jacket, I'm looking at the jacket, man, I can see the jacket in front of me' and then he walked into CID and he was like 'oh my god', cos he was just a big fan of the show. Watching him do it, I thought 'wow, I can't believe he's being like that' and he went 'mate, I love it so much, it's weird for me being on set', but he soon got used to it, cos he's so brilliant. That was funny, he was brilliant to work with again. And Kelly McNally, he's in the second one, he's brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Wonderful actor, he was just a joy to work with. There's loads of guest stars in there."
How do you feel about having Phil in the show? He's become such a strong character it's almost like you're carrying the show between the two of you.
"Yeah, it was the same as the first one. There's no difference, really. As far as I'm concerned, I was on set every day, and only the camera was on set more than me. That's all I concentrate on. When Phil was there, which was a lot of the time, it was fantastic, I just got on with it - there were people coming in left, right and centre, new people coming in.. Me and the camera, me and the camera, a constant. It was great Phil being there."
It sounds like the plots are a bit more edgy this time - they tackle racism and the IRA?
"Yeah, there's stuff that had to be tackled. Obviously, racism was a massive part of the '70s, and if we'd ignored that it would have been ridiculous. That's Episode 2, I think, I think it's my favourite so far, brilliant episode. They're all great, I've only seen a few rough cuts, but from what I remember, they're really good, and it's tackled and it's shocking as well. The unreconstructed character really is Ray, because Gene is a good cop and he's a good man at heart, but Ray is the '70s, the bare, horrible face of the '70s. It's shocking - some of the things he says. It's really normal for them, it's shocking, it's shocking for us because I'm the audience, and I'm the social conscience, so as long as I roll my eyes, we can show it. It's not a sugarcoated vision of the '70s, Life On Mars, that's why I did it, it's the grimness, it's dark and so that's in there, yeah. Terrorism, IRA, immigration, wifeswapping, all sorts of stuff."
When the cameras stop rolling, you're probably still a little bit in character - did you try and keep that vibe going?
"What, be racist and sexist, you mean? No. No. Not at all, no, you've gotta leave it at the door. I'm so quiet I get away with it. Not at all. To be honest, by the end of every day, we were on our own, basically, so we could do it to ourselves in the mirror if we wanted. We got home 8pm every night, all I could do was learn the lines for the next day and go to bed."
Are there any lines that stick in your head?
"There were some fantastic quotes, and there were loads of them, some I can't repeat, some that came from the first episode that never left us - they had to do with Marc Warren, that we just repeated the whole way through, to keep ourselves sane, give ourselves a laugh. There were triggers that made me and Phil laugh, mainly that he has, cos he has all the funny lines. He's going to get the Bafta! Some of his lines are really funny, so outrageous that they're funny, not racist or sexist or anything like that, just funny lines. We just shout them in the middle of the set to make each other laugh."
Do we see any development in the relationship with Ellie at all?
"Yeah, you see his relationship develop with everybody, cos you've got 8 more hours of it. Course, course, but always bear in mind that he thinks of it as not real. So you can scrap the questions about 'why didn't he get a better flat' or 'why doesn't he bet on things'? Because, he doesn't think he's going to stay there, that's why he doesn't invest money, wake up in an IKEA flat at the end of Episode 2. And also we tried to keep away from the stock - 'do you remember' thing, because it's really obvious, there's not a lot of that. We keep away from that and try not to be really obvious about it. Also, he's kind of getting used to it a bit, and so it seeps into him a little bit. Especially in Episode 1, in one of the episodes he has to fit somebody up, and Gene's like 'what, after all you said to me', and he's like 'I know, but in this time you can't always be like Sam Tyler, you have to be a bit flexible, go a bit Gene'. We work off each other a lot of the time."
I suppose conversely Gene becomes a bit more like Sam.
"A bit, but not too much! He still calls him 'gay boy' and is just horrible to him. Some of the stuff he calls him... but he's used to it now, it's like water off a duck's back. He doesn't get such shock. Also, I was really aware in this one that because I made him quite an unlikeable character - if he was in a normal cop show of 2006, he'd be a bit of an arsehole. He's got OCD, he's putting stuff out, he's pedantic and a bit by the book and humourless. If he was in a cop show now, I don't think the audience would be on his side. It's only because he's been transported to this unbelievably racist, sexist, bigot world that you think 'I'm sticking with him, cos he's the one from Pret A Manger and they're like boil-in-the-bag Vesta curries', so you've got to stick with him. I was aware that he had to lighten up a little bit, because it's going to be really difficult for me being on screen all the time keeping the audience with me, because eventually they're going to go 'do you know what? He's a dick', and I was really aware of that. So, you've got to have a bit of humour and he's got to lighten up a little bit, so he does a little bit. He does find some of the jokes funny, he can't always be like 'that's not funny', cos he'd just be a horrible character. So, he does. Hopefully, hopefully."
You talked a little bit about Ray, how he's '70s. The arguments you have - you get the harshest lines against him and he gets the harshest lines against you. Is there a continuation of that?
"He's like a brick wall. I got to beat him up, that was good. We're like that still. He's gotta be like that, there's gotta be someone like that. He's fantastic, we have a great rapport, we do. There are moments of acknowledgement, because at the end of the day we're both cops and we're working on the same team. In that capacity we look out for each other, we're professional. The same relationships with everybody. It just goes further."
Do we see any more of Sam's family?
"No, that's done. Oh - not his mum and dad - well, yeah, I can't remember. I dunno. His dad's gone, I know that. There's elements of it."
Does it bring any of the modern world back in this time, or does he back off from that a little bit?
"Episode 1, there's something quite funny that they keep calling it the wrong name - it's quite funny, but I can't tell you what it is. He does, yeah, there's things...someone will call him a proper Einstein and say 'why don't you invent it?' and he'll say 'I just did'. There are bits, but he tries not to be too clever clever. He's aware of his surroundings now, he's settled down a little bit, and he doesn't want to come across as super-weirdo, like he did in the first one. Even though he is and he does. I'd say [it's] an influence on him that he can't help, so in this one there's a few trippy things going on in this one. There are some really weird episodes, really out there ones. Which is great, because he had to break from the norm, it's not formulaic the whole way through."
Did you dress more '70s in your own personal life?
"No! I didn't have a personal life! I wore these clothes ALL the time. We came back on the train, we travelled back on the train, and that was our personal life. I don't remember dressing in '70s clothes on my day off."
Thanks for chatting, John!
Life On Mars returns to BBC One on Tuesday, February 13 at 9pm