Essays: The Chinese connection |
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The Chinese connection

As Gore Vidal pointed out while bestowing a long and civilised interview on Melvyn Bragg during the leisurely course of The South Bank Show (LWT), ‘Write about what you know’ is the advice we give to people who shouldn’t be writing at all.

What he meant was that writers without the capacity to imagine won’t be very interesting even when reporting their direct experience, no matter how bizarre. He was deeply correct about this, but unfortunately television couldn’t survive for a month if it had to depend on imaginative writers. You can’t have many series like Bread or Blood (BBC2) because there aren’t many writers who share Peter Ransley’s capacity to take a book like W. H. Hudson’s ‘A Shepherd’s Life’ and bring the past out of it. If your average hack were to adapt such a book he would, after completing prodigies of on-the-spot research, not only fail to bring the past out of if, he would put the present into it, so that you would hear the starving shepherds saying ‘No way.’ They would say it in a flawless regional accent while wearing impeccably rural dung-cake make-up but the anachronism would be only the more glaring.

Nevertheless it is a good rule for a writer to acquaint himself with the local colour of any area he proposes to use as a setting. One of the things that made ‘Law and Order’ so convincing was the authenticity of the speech patterns. You assumed they were authentic because they didn’t sound like writing. Somebody had used his ears. He had also, alas, set a fashion, which after long travel through rusty pipes and around S-bends finally emerges in the form of The Chinese Detective (BBC1). The grainy look and the barely comprehensible East End argot are all there, except that they have somehow got mixed up with an old Charlie Chan movie.

Played inscrutably by David Yip, Ho is a cockney cop of Chinese extraction, presumably emanating from within audible radius of Bow Bells, although there is a possibility that he was born and raised somewhere around Rupert Street, and is therefore a Soho Ho. But whether a Soho Ho or a Bow Ho, Ho is a bozo with only a so-so capacity for delivering the tart witticisms foisted on him by the scriptwriter. Indeed Ho is a bit of a no-no: not, I hasten to add, through any particular fault of the actor, who does what he can with the immobilising problem of being expressive and impassive at the same time, thereby reducing his face to the status of a yo-yo that won’t go.

A so-so no-go yo-yo from Bow or Soho, Ho is out to avenge his father, who was sent to jail for ten years after being framed on a drugs charge by a bent copper. But Ho has a hard row to hoe. His superiors regard him as a troublemaker, although it is hard to tell how they figured this out, since his face betrays nothing except a faintly yellow glow of woe at the latest low blow from the foe. The series might catch on, but for those of us approaching ninety years of age it can do nothing except induce an overwhelming nostalgia for Charlie Chan and his Number One Son. At one stage Charlie’s Number One Son was played by Yul Brynner plus hair, but later Yul scalped himself and went on to greater things, most of which are already forgotten.

There were more detectives in Man Alive (BBC2), whose latest subject was shoplifting, billed as ‘The Biggest Theft of All.’ Michael Dean and the assembled experts strove dutifully to get excited about the depredations of the shoplifters, who in the big stores are apparently stripping the sales counters almost as fast as they can be filled from the vans. It rapidly became clear — indeed it instantly became clear — that there are three main types of shoplifter: crooked, sick and not guilty. The detectives seem to be catching about the same number of each kind.

Shoplifting, it is claimed, goes on at the rate of a Great Train Robbery every 36 hours. Meanwhile the glorification of Ronald Biggs continued on all media outlets. Nobody ever tried to arouse interest in the Great Train Robbery by saying it was the equivalent of 36 hours of shoplifting. Biggs’s crime has always been assumed to have been innately glamorous. Precision of a military operation, etc. But if it was a military operation it was a pretty thoroughly bungled one, quite apart from the fact that a civilian got hit on the head and died of it. They love Biggs in Brazil and want to make him a television star. So that was what it was all for.

Gradually the television picture of Ireland is being filled in. The two big recent series on the subject helped a lot. To be informed on such a subject is an absolute good, even if you are still left relatively helpless: at least you know why you are helpless. The Crime of Captain Colthurst (BBC2) was an awkward mixture of dramatisation and studio interviewing but it cast a bit more light on what now seems in retrospect to be the period when England made its most catastrophic blunders.

In 1916, one is forced to assume, all the intelligent officers were away at the war, leaving Ireland to be garrisoned by idiots and bigots. Into which of these last two categories Captain Colthurst fell remains a moot point. Anyway, he shot the non-violent Irish journalist Francis Sheehy Skeffington for no reason at all, whereafter the Army covered the whole thing up in a manner seemingly calculated to generate the maximum amount of bad blood.

Philip Bowen played Colthurst with a suitable air of virulent dementia: very bonkers, very low blink-rate. The question of why such a crazy bastard was ever allowed to walk around in uniform was partly answered by demonstrating that his brother officers were nincompoops almost without exception. One of the exceptions was Sir Francis Vane, who did his best to see justice done and came out of the business with honour, although not even he struck you as being exactly an intellectual dynamo.

Taxidermy was the subject of Lion (BBC2). It was, if you’ll forgive me, great stuff. Two British Museum taxidermists looking like Mark Twain and Toulouse-Lautrec set about the task of turning a lion skin back into a lion. There’s much more to it than you’d think. First you have to take a roughly lion-shaped armature of chipboard and bodge a lot of long nails through it in order to provide support for the plaster, which you go on applying until you’ve got a starved-looking small grey lion or else a large greyhound. This you wrap in wood-shavings, while taking frequent looks at a picture of a lion in an Observer colour magazine so as to ensure against inadvertently constructing an aardvark.

The head is entirely done with plaster in order to look as much like a lion as possible. Then you stretch the skin over the completed fuselage, which like a balsa aeroplane looks considerably more interesting uncovered. In go the glass eyes and Bob’s your uncle, or rather Leo’s your lion. The completed product looked unassuageably sad, no doubt because bored in advance by all the half-witted conversations it was fated to inspire. Hockney at Work (BBC2) was marvellous.

The Observer, 3rd May 1981
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]