Television drama: In the end, Peggy Su gets married

Jasper Rees can tell that this Liverpool-based tale wasn't written by a native Scouser
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Peggy Su!

BBC2

August is the cruellest month for television drama. The industry's assumption, perhaps derived from its own annual removal to the Edinburgh Television Festival, is that no one else is watching either. A mid-August premiere for a feature-length drama thus comes with a critical pre-judgement slung round its neck. "This one's a goner," it reads: "didn't quite have the legs for the autumn schedule". , a romantic comedy set among the Chinese community in pre-Beatles Liverpool, was heavily trailed, and made with the aid of lottery funding, but the date of transmission warned you to lower expectations, and oddly that helped you to savour its rather messy charms.

The plot chronicled a Chinese immigrant teenager's quest to choose her own husband rather than accept the hand of Gilbert, the predictably hapless alternative her father brings over from Hong Kong. The script was itself a kind of arranged marriage between ancient and modern, an experiment in dramatic miscegenation in which a portrait of Chinese nuptial mores was spliced to a gaudy snapshot of a British city on the cusp of global notoriety.

There wasn't much room for doubt about which party had been forced into it. Liverpool is a good place for any drama to pitch camp, bringing with it a fingerprint you recognise a mile off. On the banks of the Mersey, the wellspring of the unlucky Jordaches and the turbulent Grants, of jobless Yosser Hughes, Jimmy McGovern's Hillsborough mourners and Willy Russell's self-improving housewives, the dialogue is scabrous, the moral landscape complex, the social realism stark and the drama never less than involving. But you had to look pretty hard to find any of the above in

Kevin Wong, whose first script for television this was, is not a born and bred Scouser, and may as well have set it in Ullapool, or Hartlepool, or plain Poole. His ear was much less attuned to Liverpudlian speech rhythms than to homespun oriental philosophy, which he had fun sending up. "They say first love never dies," said Peggy's aunt. "Why?" asked Peggy. "They just do."

There could also have been a bit more on how the Chinese characters bedded down in their adoptive home. There was a nice scene in which Peggy's date upbraids her for being too Chinese when she insists on settling a restaurant bill, and a running joke about Peggy's aunt's taste for bowling and English puddings, but it didn't run much deeper than that. Weightlessness is a key ingredient of romantic comedy, but not the sort that blithely lifts the characters out of their surroundings.

Peggy's brother Jack was married to an Englishwoman, and it seemed odd in a drama about a Chinese father's patriarchal stance on arranged marriage that his son's troubled marriage was presented as the perfectly normal union of a workaholic male and a sexually frustrated female. The role of Rita, Peggy's beehived sister-in-law and amatory cheerleader, was to show that matrimony isn't all it's cracked up to be. Jack, who ran a laundry, spent his free time with his nose in Boiler magazine, prompting his wife to chase after an old flame the script half-heartedly flung at her. Peggy's father, meanwhile, brought a sullen strumpet over from Hong Kong as his young bride, and while he knew what to do with her, Wong wasn't quite so sure.

The moral of the piece was that whatever hemisphere you live in, you have to make your own mistakes in love. Peggy duly spurned her father's choice of husband for a restaurateur so scrupulously bland that he just had to be the wrong 'un. And so he turned out to be. Eventually she got married to Gilbert after all, who had magically mutated from nerd to ballroom stud without much help from the script. If he'd done it a bit sooner we'd all have been in bed half an hour earlier.

Even if not much of it was local, there was still a lot of colour. Director Frances-Anne Solomon gave the film a day-glo kitschiness, pleasantly mirrored in the writing and performances. In the end, delivered the sensation you get from a Chinese menu for two: loads of side dishes, more sweet than sour, that leave your appetite whetted but not quite satisfied. Plus there was the old cutlery problem, wittily alluded to when Peggy asked a waiter to exchange her knife and fork for chopsticks: plenty of meat, but you couldn't quite pick it up.

Comments