Television: How to make Shanghai really sing
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Sunday 07 March 1999
Shanghai Vice should not, of course, be reviewed lightly. It represents a monumental and heroic achievement by director-producer-cameraman Phil Agland, who somehow blagged his way into some of the city's least welcoming institutions, a maximum security jail for starters. The result is a compellingly candid study of Shanghai, a city crippled by the heroin trade, although the series is at its most enlightening when it turns away from vice and focuses on ordinary folk going about their everyday lives.
After all, we already know from seven out of 10 dramas, and eight out of 10 documentaries, what a police surveillance operation looks like. Familiarity has diminished the excitement of seeing people caught on camera with packages of white powder hidden in their suitcases or their cisterns, and what matter whether they are ensnared in Shanghai or Shepherd's Bush? So the most memorable, most affecting image of all in Shanghai Vice was not the weeping young peasant woman sentenced to death for heroin-trafficking, but the bourgeois chap in his sixties, sitting in the Green Dragon restaurant, crooning "Mona Lisa" in a passable imitation of Nat King Cole.
During the Cultural Revolution in China, singing was banned. But this man couldn't bear to forget the words of Western songs, which I suppose he had learnt phonetically, so he used to sing quietly on his bike, simultaneously ringing the bell so nobody could hear. Hence his joy, even now, at being able to let rip in the Green Dragon. It was one of those rare moments which makes you grateful to have a telly, and to have made the right choice with the zapper.
It also showed that while China is still a Communist regime, times have changed. Russia, on the other hand, is no longer a Communist regime, yet there are bread queues again in Moscow. And if you think I'm a political philosopher, you should have heard Jonathan Newhouse, chairman of Conde Nast International, in Trouble at the Top (BBC2). Russia must not only confront the battle between Communism and capitalism, between totalitariansm and freedom, but also between ugliness and beauty, he said. Moreover, "man does not live by bread alone".
This, as it turned out, was an unfortunate phrase to explain the company's decision to launch a Russian edition of Vogue. Days later the rouble was devalued, bread shortages followed, and the Vogue launch party was cancelled on the basis that it would have been an insensitive display of conspicuous consumption. The party, due to take place in Red Square, had been organised by a young woman called Clarissa. She probably got the job because she knew that Red Square is not located somewhere between Hanover Square and Sloane Square. I can think of one or two Conde Nast employees who are not quite as worldly as that. At any rate, the cancellation was a disaster, not least because it wrecked the beguiling prospect of Boris Yeltsin partying with Boy George.
Predictably, but amusingly all the same, Trouble at the Top kept cutting from skinny models who looked like Kate Moss - one of them may even have been Kate Moss - to hefty babushkas who looked like Les Dawson. The message was that Russia is not quite ready for Vogue, even though Vogue, as Jonathan Newhouse continues to insist, increasingly lamely, is ready for Russia.
Teething troubles can make great television. Certainly, Ramsay's Boiling Point (Channel 4), the story of chef Gordon Ramsay's tribulations in setting up his new London restaurant - which he has self-effacingly called Gordon Ramsay - is a hoot. For Ramsay has edged out Marco Pierre White as the John McEnroe of the hot-plate, a wondrously-gifted, savagely-tempered, foul-mouthed egomaniac.
Enjoyably, the series seems determined to let Ramsay fry in his own juices. He vehemently claims not to be a celebrity chef, yet poses in his lovely home for OK! magazine. He says he treats restaurant critics like any other customer, but famously ejected AA Gill of the Sunday Times, while practically sewing sequins onto the duck ordered by the Guardian's Matthew Fort. He agonises about a documentary in which he has been secretly filmed bullying his staff, while breaking off to bully his staff. If what went on his plates was as inconsistent as what comes out of his mouth, Gordon Ramsay, the restaurant, would be worth avoiding. As it is, I can't wait to go - but perhaps under a pseudonym.
Food, incidentally, is a missing ingredient in Arena 100, a 25-part series on the satellite channel UK Arena, which presumes to have selected "the 100 most important and interesting" British works of art this century. It was Marco Pierre White who presented his dishes as canvases by dating them - as in roast saddle of rabbit with langoustines (1993), or in the case of my repertoire, salad cream sandwich with white bread (1981) - and I do think that the Arena list should have included a great work of culinary art.
Anyway, I mention the series because people still sneer at cable and satellite telly, but this is a good example of a worthy and indeed highbrow enterprise, far removed from the buxom Norwegian weather girls of L!ve TV. The list offers great scope for cultural debate. It includes Concorde, the red telephone box, paintings by Francis Bacon and David Hockney, the miniskirt, a Gerald Scarfe cartoon, and, curiously, Arnos Grove tube station.
If a list were compiled of the century's 100 most important and interesting items of clothing, room would have to be made, somewhere between Neil Armstrong's helmet and Mao Tse-Tung''s jacket, for Monica Lewinsky's dress. However, in Monica - The Interview, for which Channel 4 paid pounds 400,000, she played down the significance of the dress, unlike the stain removal people Vanish, who had the wit to buy advertising time during the broadcast.
Like Louise Woodward before her, Lewinsky has been demonised by sections of the media, but as with Woodward's encounter with Martin Bashir, a one- to-one TV interview served Lewinsky well, for she gave every impression of being a bright, articulate young woman, more sinned against than sinning. Her interviewer Jon Snow did well too, considering his twin burden of having to elicit pounds 400,000 worth of answers, and being British.
Of the two, being British weighed more heavily, for Snow was slightly too polite to ask blunt questions about sex. Could he deal with an aspect of the case dwelt on in the Starr Report, he said, "and that is the, the, the, the, the revealing of your underwear." Five "the's", bless him, but I'd like to add one of my own, for the executive producer of Monica - The Interview was called George Carey, and I think we should know whether it was the George Carey. I hope so. I like the idea of the Archbishop of Canterbury overseeing a discussion about the presidential semen.
Actually, Lewinsky dished most dirt not on Bill Clinton but on her confidante Linda Tripp. "She gutted me, she violated me, she knifed me," she said. In Shanghai Vice, the Wang gang felt the same way about Ding. But never mind Ding, I'd like to end on a bong. For on Friday night News at Ten disappeared from our screens after 32 years. Bong! Television will never be quite the same again.
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