who’s that girl?: Life on Mars and the Test Card Girl

The cast of Life on Mars (UK) (image courtesy of trumanmonitor.wordpress)

**(finally another title reference to The Eurythmics)**

A while back I finished the last disc of Life on Mars – a show that ran for 2 series (seasons) from 2006 to 2007 on BBC One. The show follows Sam Tyler (John Simm), an officer with the Greater Manchester Police, who is hit by a car and wakes up in 1973 (33 years in the past). He ends up working for the Manchester and Salford Police under the command of Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). You’re not really sure if Tyler is in a coma (back in 2006), insane, or has actually traveled back in time. As a result the series is part science fiction and part police procedural, while simultaneously serving as a critique of politics in the UK. Over the course of solving a crime each episode Life on Mars highlights cultural clashes between Tyler as a modern-day detective and the antiquated procedures and prejudices of the 1970s British police. To give you a brief sense of the look and feel of the show, here’s the opening theme:

Some of you may remember that ABC remade the show in 2008 for US audiences, relocating the setting to New York City, and starring Jason O’Mara as Tyler and Harvey Keitel as Hunt. The remake sparked a debate as to why studio executives and US audiences prefer to remake British television shows rather than watch the original programs (further down the post I have a link to a great article from Flow about this very issue). The US remake started off okay (I only saw the pilot episode and wasn’t blown away) and then viewership declined to the point that ABC did not renew it for a second season. Though I wasn’t impressed with the remake I decided to check out the original on Netflix and fell in love, proving again that sometimes the original is the best bet (Seth Stevenson from Slate agrees with me.

The cast of Life on Mars (US) (image courtesy of scifipulse)

As much as I enjoy watching Keitel in The Piano or Mean Streets, he cannot compare to Glenister’s performance as Hunt. Also I love the original for having Annie Cartwright (Liz White), a Woman Police Constable on the 1973 force, be a brunette with curves. Unfortunately, the US remake cast (a thin) Gretchen Mol as Annie and changed the character to a blonde (hmmm). If we wanted to discuss why the remake failed I would argue that it was more than just a problem with casting – there is also the issue of cultural differences that couldn’t translate from the UK to US. The original Life on Mars referenced specific markers and moments of British culture that wouldn’t make much sense if incorporated into the US version. In the article “Life on Mars as Seen From the United States: The Cultural Politics of Imports and Adaptations,” Serra Tinic notes that the show’s “rootedness in a particular space and time(s) made it unimaginable [to UK fans] for Tyler to be merely transplanted into an American context.” In this respect Tinic argues that the original UK version not only references “the nation’s television history as an intertextual reference to 1970s crime dramas” but also produces a “nostalgic portrait of the styles and music of the decade.” One example of nostalgia from Life on Mars (but with a twist!) would be the Test Card Girl, a minor character in the show.

To understand how this character operates within the show it’s important to understand the cultural context and history of the test card. The BBC created various Test Cards (sort of like the US’ emergency broadcast image) that were shown on television when programs weren’t being broadcast – often late at night into the early morning. Test Card F was one of the more popular test cards and featured eight-year-old Carole Hersee playing noughts and crosses (or tic tac toe) with her stuffed clown Bubbles. This test card was first broadcast in 1967 and was regularly featured during downtime on BBC1 until the channel went to 24 hours in 1997. Test Card F eventually became an iconic image in British culture and is parodied in everything from merchandise, video games, as well as on shows like Life on Mars.

The original Test Card F with Carole Hersee and Bubbles the Clown (image courtesy of barney-wol.net)

In Life on Mars the seemingly sweet and innocent image of the Test Card F appears as a menacing and tormenting figure to Sam Tyler. In the midnight hours, when Tyler is alone, the Test Card Girl comes to life in eerie visions and speaks to Sam, often referencing moments related to his current life (such as his girlfriend back in 2006 and his family). When watching the show you can always tell when the Test Card Girl is going to appear because Sam will nonchalantly glance at the television set during the network’s downtime, and her image is absent from the screen. I’m not sure what it is about blond white children that can be absolutely terrifying, but every time the test card image was blank I would cover my ears and hold my breath because I knew that creepy little girl with her creepy oversized clown was about to pop out of nowhere and loom over the screen, sorta like the image below:

Creeping me out: the Test Card Girl from Life on Mars (image courtesy of mcnblogs)

Over the course of Life on Mars two child actors played the Test Card Girl. In series one Rafaella Hutchinson played the part and then was replaced by Harriet Rogers in series two. Matthew Graham, a television writer and the co-creator of Life on Mars, has discussed the significance of the Test Card Girl, noting that she “represents the devil in Sam Tyler, teasing and torturing him. But there is another factor to consider. In 1973, when television transmission had ceased for the night, when the story is done and the characters have vanished into nothing, the BBC would switch to the Test Card girl. So she, if you want to be melodramatic, represents the apocalypse, the end.” Overall, the test card girl is a fascinating character and she occupied my thoughts even more once I watched the series finale (no spoilers here I think, I only plan to talk about the final scene with the Test Card Girl). Though she only appears in a handful of episodes she has the last scene in the entire series, in which she is seen outside on the street playing with a group of kids. With her Bubbles clown doll in hand she approaches the camera (and by extension the viewer’s screen) and turns off the show – invoking the very “apocalypse, the end” Graham mentions. And with that I leave you with this brief clip that demonstrates the Test Card Girl’s frightening presence:

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~ by actyourage09 on February 4, 2010.

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