John Walsh On Monday: Has Fu Manchu got it in for Hull City?
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Monday 23 August 1999
Did it not amaze you to think that, thousands of miles from Des Lynam's studio and the chatty pubs around Highbury, the fate of a Wimbledon v Arsenal match is currently being decided by a consortium of Triad bosses, sitting round a boardroom table in Shanghai or Kuala Lumpur, wearing sunglasses and discussing the current form of Michael Owen? Who, as Butch Cassidy once inquired of the Sundance Kid, who are these guys?
The answer is, we don't know. All the talk of "syndicates" is pure Fourth Estate sensationalism. It could be the Yakuza, the Triads, an Indonesian business consortium, the Hong Kong police or just a gang of disaffected lighting-rig experts located in a walk-up flatlet between two air-dried pork emporia in London's Chinatown. The men responsible for bribing the dim-witted security guard at Charlton Athletic FC to let them come in and monkey with the floodlights were from Malaysia, where the footballing scene is legendarily corrupt and the players routinely take a dive for money. But a third saboteur, Wai Yuen Lui, was from Hong Kong, and all we know about him is that he's "a convicted fraudster" with, you guessed it, "links to the fearsome Triad underworld ...".
I suspect that, if you listened for long enough to the police officers involved in Operation Oceanlake (the ones who nailed the sabotage attempt) talking about it in the Rat and Ferret, the name of Dr Fu Manchu would eventually surface. Sax Rohmer's master criminal, with his droopy moustache and long fingernails, dates back to 1911, and established the idea of the Yellow Peril in the British mind.
In the 1920s and again in the 1960s, there were a dozen movies to fix the image of Mandarin venality in the rogues' gallery of British fantasy. (Round the Horne, the vintage 1960s radio comedy, even supplied a Jewish- Chinese variant in the shadowy Chou-En Ginsberg).
However sophisticated we become, we're all still susceptible to panic about the Threat from the east. When it comes to believing that anything is possible with the slit-eyed devils, we're all potential Dukes of Edinburgh.
Somehow I just know that the nation's pubs will soon be filled with speculation about the Triad influence on the fortunes of the football league. Do the names of Ri Enn Gix and Aln Shi Rha suggest some infiltration of the top rank of strikers? Does the fact that Tranmere Rovers have yet to have a game mysteriously plunged into darkness mean that the fearsome game- fixers of Shanghai and Hong Kong had some trouble pronouncing the club's name?
WHICH BRINGS us to the wiliest oriental of them all, Bruce Lee, the newly resurrected martial arts maestro who started life as Lee Yenn Kam (brother of the less famous Worcester sauce mogul, Lee Yenn Perrins); because his name meant "Little Dragon", his films were saddled thereafter with draconian titles.
I sat glued to Channel 4's weekend tribute to the fistic ballerina, gawping once more at his bizarrely staccato technique - the elbow-in-a-villain's- ribs routine followed, after a moment's thought, by the priapic fist-in- someone-else's-face stratagem. I revelled in the soundtrack noises, which suggested that every blow he struck, even when thumping someone on the shoulder, produced a report like a plank striking a concrete pillar. I marvelled at the poultry sounds he made while fighting - high seagull cries interspersed with a broody, Buff Orpington burble.
I remembered the guilty pleasure of going to see Enter The Dragon in a break from university exams, and noting the evidence of Lee's famous on-set rows with the screenwriter, who sought revenge on the star by filling Bruce's English dialogue with lines awkwardly full of R-sounds: "More Earl Grey, Mr Braithwaite?" is the one audiences remember best: it came out as "Mawa-gaaaii, Missah Bayway?"; but it wasn't really essential to the plot.
All that was essential was Bruce. Standing there, four-square in attitude, 5ft 7in in height and six-packed in the abdominal region, taking on divisions of idiot soldiery, who, surprisingly, queued up like sheep to have a crack at the whirling chopstick, and, equally surprisingly, never seemed to think of the simple option of shooting the little bastard in the head.
The cheesiness of Bruce's early movies outdid even the contemporaneous late-1960s blaxploitation epics, in their Dalek dialogue, plotting-by- numbers and atrocious acting. The Way of the Dragon (which I watched on Saturday night - how sad is that?) featured Lee as New Territories hayseed, just arrived in Rome to save his Uncle Wang's Chinese restaurant from being wokked by local villains, led by a hairy Italian bank manager and his creepy Chinese sidekick, a gurning faggot in a pink tie. The level of stereotyping was positively Fu-Manchunian, but you could see that they'd already spotted Bruce's star potential in the way the camera zoomed lovingly in on his face's left profile, alert as a gundog that's just spotted a woodcock.
Some revivals are too tiresome to bother with (like the vogue for 1950s rock'n'roll that seems to have taken over West End musicals). Some are more welcome and deserved (like the revival of interest in Blondie, Beckett and Hitchcock). Bruce Lee is a problematic choice somewhere in between. No hip 1990s cultural smart-alec wants to be heard debating the superiority of The Big Boss to the later Fists of Fury.
But conclusive proof of Bruce Lee's hold on the modern zeitgeist is at hand in a new collection of stories by the brilliant Patrick McCabe, whose novel The Butcher Boy was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and filmed by Neil Jordan. Mondo Desperado, out next week from Picador, has a story called "My Friend Bruce Lee" about a small-town Irish dreamer who is convinced that he once had dinner with the Kung Fu dynamo and not, as all the evidence suggests, with a waiter from the local Red Lotus Temple takeaway restaurant.
It's a study of focused and galloping fandom, and it reveals a subterranean level of knowledge and learning about Lee's career that does Mr McCabe credit. The fact that the story is deeply ironic, and the hero an inadequate pillock, is irrelevant. The point about Bruce Lee, for chaps of a certain age, is that he briefly flushed out the inadequate pillock in all of us.
NEXT WEEK at the Edinburgh Festival, a committee of TV executives, including the controllers of BBC1 and BBC2, will announce their choices of the "greatest moments" in television history. A shortlist of 30 programmes - 10 each for drama, comedy and, er, real-life stuff - has been offered, and a pretty peculiar list it is too.
Under "drama" we're asked to believe that bits of prime stock from Dallas, Coronation Street, Brookside and EastEnders are the "classic" dramatic moments on the box since the 1950s. In the "factual" section, we get the Moon landings, the fall of Nixon, the 1966 World Cup and Nelson Mandela being let out of jail - namely, the filming of big historical moments. There's no suggestion that what is being celebrated is the medium being used in any groundbreaking way, beyond pointing a camera lens at an event. In the "comedy" slot, well, you just shut your eyes and reel them off, don't you? And yes, everyone has voted for the Parrot Sketch, Hancock's armful of blood and Basil Fawlty's Hitler impersonation.
Oh please. I hate to disagree with television controllers about anything, but they've all got the wrong end of the stick about this. What television drama does best (real drama, that is) is crime and its finest hour was the climax of the third Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren. What factual television does best is push the documentary form to its limits, and no finer documentary moment exists than when David Attenborough was discovered sitting on a grassy knoll in Uganda whispering sweet nothings to a troop of mountain gorillas, who sat quietly around him, stern-faced and deeply earnest like a simian Jedi Council.
And what intelligent television comedy does best is make you laugh like a fool, which is why my own nomination for classic status is the scene from Sergeant Bilko when Doberman discovers he actually has an angelic, world-class singing voice.
That's class for you. That's television history. That's more worthy of celebration than re-running Emu's attack on Michael Parkinson's barnet as if it were scripted by Noel Coward.
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