Last Night's TV: Storyville: Law of the Dragon/BBC4<br />Grand Designs/Channel 4

 

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The Independent Culture

I like the sound of this. Apparently, Article 21.3 of the Chinese legal code formally recognises the duty of children to look after their elderly parents. It also notes that "parents have the right to demand an allowance from their children", which means that you can take the ungrateful little sods to court, if that's what they should ultimately turn out to be. Of course, these matters are never simple. Watching the first five minutes of Storyville: Law of the Dragon, Lawrence Elman's quietly wonderful series about a rural Chinese court, you assumed you were dealing with a straightforward case of filial delinquency. Mother Tu looked as if bean curd wouldn't melt in her mouth as she mournfully explained what had driven her to litigation. "My son won't let me in the house," she explained plaintively. And then she showed us her shack, tilting at a rakish angle and, she said, under threat of demolition by her son, who wanted to put a tobacco barn in its place.

Judge Chen, the youthful Mao Tse-tung lookalike around whom these programmes revolve, appears to be a dutiful son himself. We saw him visiting his aged mother and handing over a wad of the folding stuff, as if to establish his Confucian credentials, though it has to be said that his mother appeared to be living in a shack as well and didn't crack a smile once during her son's visit. And then, because he tries to sort as many cases as he can by pre-trial mediation, Judge Chen hopped into a mini-bus and headed out into the mountains. He found the defendant in an unrepentant mood: "My mother is crazy," he said. "My first wife stayed with her for one night and then she left me." He is now on wife number three.

The neighbours weighed in on his behalf as well. Mother Tu was a very difficult woman, they said. There were allegations that she'd diverted money intended for her grandson's care, and the grandson himself didn't exactly rush to his nan's defence. It began to dawn on you that Mother Tu was an absolutely frightful old shrew, a suspicion compounded when it finally dawned on her that the case wasn't going her way and she staged a dramatic collapse, wailing and beating her head against the walls.

The real fascination of Law of the Dragon, though, lies not in such moments of drama but in the peripheral glimpses you get of rural China, a strange hybrid of medieval and modern life. Mother Tu's third daughter-in-law, who appeared determined to stay the course, matter of factly described how her own five-year-old son had been murdered in a dispute with a relative over a water hole. Fortunately, this case ended less bloodily, with an update over the final credits explaining that Mother Tu is now suing her son for a lump-sum settlement.

If Kevin McCloud had been called in to cover the makeover of Mother Tu's shack he would have slapped one of its crazily tilting beams and said something like, "You know I sense that this building doesn't want to be upright. And I worry that if they're not careful with the build they could lose the very thing that makes it lovable." You get a lot of the pathetic fallacy in Grand Designs, and all of it with an architectural twist. The building at the heart of last night's episode – a redundant life-boat station in Tenby – was described both as "cantankerous" and "difficult", and Kevin fretted and fussed as its new owners set about "taming" it – or, as ordinary people tend to call it, making it bearable to live in.

This time, though, the boilerplate voiceover stuff about biting off more than you can chew and the magnitude of the challenge seemed reasonable, given that the building itself was suspended on steel stilts above a stretch of the Bristol Channel. Fortunately, the new owner, an Irishman called Tim, had a sanguine approach to life. Asked how much his fantasy seaside cottage was going to cost him, he said: "Somewhere between a fair lot of money and awful lot of money." He also turned out to be determined. It had taken him seven years simply to get planning permission, so a few local problems with incoming tides and sinking equipment wasn't likely to put him off.

I don't think I'm imagining that McCloud has been a lot harder to please in this series, much less likely to quell his aesthetic doubts when the final reveal comes. But the end result here left him with nothing to quibble about: "Their refusal to compromise has produced something of exquisite beauty," he said. I think he felt the building was happy.

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