Report: The Talons of Weng Chiang BFI London Southbank Special Event Saturday 14th March 2020

Doctor Who The Collection – Season 14 of classic Who is released on Blu-ray on Monday 4th May and to celebrate the BFI (British Film Institute) on the London Southbank ran a special event showing the Talons of Weng Chiang which is one of the best-regarded serials from season 14. In retrospective, we were very lucky that the event went ahead as what a difference a few days makes.

The BFI, following the government’s updated advice of the 16th March, regarding the crisis of coronavirus COVID-19 closed the Southbank with immediate effect. There were guests which the BFI had kept as a surprise for this screening who were unable to attend.

Usually, these events are fully booked and well attended but there were some empty spaces for this event and it felt slightly subdued. Expected guests unable to attend were Christopher Benjamin who played Henry Jago and producer Philip Hinchcliffe but they sent their very best wishes. Justin Johnson (Lead Programmer for BFI) was able to read out a note from Philip Hinchcliffe before the first episode of Talons of Weng Chiang aired.

…above all I would like fans to consider the screening as a tribute to Bob Holmes without whose imagination, hard work and genius none of our collaborations would have had a lasting appeal. For me, Talons showcases all his talent, clever storytelling, sardonic humour, memorable characters, dark fantasy seamlessly woven into rich haunting entertainment – Philip Hinchcliffe, Producer

Extract of the note from Philip Hinchcliffe Producer of Doctor Who 1974-1976

As part of these BFI screenings, the audience is treated to extracts from the bonus features for these new releases. There was an intriguing interview snippet as Matthew Sweet chatted to producer Philip Hinchcliffe. In the short clip, Hinchcliffe described feeling fortunate and ambitious. He saw himself as “an outlaw from ITV” coming with the perceived “brashness “of commercial television to be able to express what he wanted to do.

Intro sequence - Tom Baker
Intro sequence – Tom Baker
Intro sequence - The TARDIS
Intro sequence – The TARDIS
Intro sequence - Story title
Intro sequence – Story title
Intro sequence - Part One - Here we go!
Intro sequence – Part One – Here we go!

Other bonus clips came from “Behind the Sofa” with Doctor Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, Philip Hinchcliffe, plus companions Sophie Aldred and Peter Purves. There was a lovely montage of quotes from a feature-length documentary tribute for Elisabeth Sladen Tribute called Our Sarah Jane which looks as if it will be as much a tear-jerker in the way of the recent JNT documentary.

Neil Bushville Interview

Interviewed by Justin Johnson Neil Bushville was responsible for the CGI updated effects for the boxset. Neil talked about how he approached deciding which effects he wanted for the Talons of Weng Chiang. He logged all the shots onto what he described as a “boring” spreadsheet (I love a big old Excel spreadsheet myself) and then set about deciding on those which would fit into the existing scene and not be jarring. His favourites were the subtler ones and he covered a couple of them.

There is a lovely shot of the Doctor on a boat going across the Thames and Neil repositioned the skyline so you can clearly see St Paul’s Cathedral in the distance. There were also other subtle CGI effects such as changing the hypnosis eye effect that Li H’sen Chiang used which was done by removing the original effect, tracking the eyes and adding a new effect and matching up the sound.

Louise Jameson Interview

Louse Jameson who played Leela was in attendance which was greeted by warm enthusiastic clapping from the audience. In a solo interview with Justin Johnson, she managed to enchant the audience as she discussed her career just before Doctor Who as a graduate from the RADA acting academy to the present and thoughts about her autobiography which we won’t see soon because she doesn’t want to embarrass her children!

How she got the role: Louise had created a strong career in theatre but her agent felt she needed to be put forward for a tv series. She was unlucky missing out on two or three tv roles, including the BBC series Angels and getting down to the last ten for the role of Purdey in the New Avengers. In one of the tv series Survivors, she had been interviewed by Pennant Roberts who liked her and called her back for Leela. Part of the reason Louise revealed she got the role was when Pennant read in on her audition she was told by him that she made him work to react to her responses.

Louise Jameson actress and Interviewer Justin Johnson (Lead Programmer for BFI)
Louise Jameson actress and Interviewer Justin Johnson (Lead Programmer for BFI)

Recognition: Louise revealed the Evening Standard newspaper got hold of the story that she was the new companion very quickly. She recalled that she had already started filming and had a very busy day to get into makeup, then have a photocall, followed by recording in the studio and then had to do another photocall which lasted until 10.30pm at night.

Playing Leela: Louise highlighted how much she enjoyed playing Leela (except for the costume!) and how she envied Leela’s ability to be able to just say things without any self-filter. Most people are quite self-conscious but Leela isn’t and her character doesn’t understand sarcasm or subtlety. Leela reacts instinctively and Louise considered that a gift for the character.

The new series and what happened to Leela’s knife:  Louise seemed very amused and excited that Leela might be a Cyberman now and said: “Bring it on”. She also revealed that her knife had made £1000 in a charity auction and the proceeds went to Romanian orphans.

Reviewing the Talons of Weng Chiang and the racism row

This event had invited a guest panel to discuss the issues this story raises regarding racism hosted by writer Matthew Sweet, who has written Doctor Who Jago and Litefoot audio dramas, Samira Ahmed, writer and broadcaster, Kevin Fong, doctor and broadcaster and Emma Ko, a member of the British East Asians Theatre and screen organisation. Understandably the guests were worried to attend with the coronavirus attention, more for their relatives than themselves and so the panel didn’t go ahead. However, BFI hosts Dick Fiddy (BFI Archive Television Programmer) and Justin Johnson still wanted to review the issues it raises, prior to the first episode being shown, using comments given to BFI from the panel who had watched the serial.

There were various issues raised by the panel, one being some of the language used in the script. English characters in the story do talk about the Chinese in a derogatory way. Litefoot uses the term ‘Chinks’, and the Doctor doesn’t rebut him but himself uses ‘little men’ which Matthew Sweet “attributes to his “aloof nature and selfish desire to get on with the adventure”. There is some merit to that view given that some forty years later the 12th Doctor would punch Sutcliffe for racism in “Thin Ice” suggesting it is the particular nature of the 4th Doctor being rather dispassionate about social niceties. I think Talons can be defended in that it does probably reflect some of the attitudes and sensibilities of Victorian English of the 1870s.

I was rather intrigued by the idea raised about whether the serial and other “problematic” broadcast material, should be buried away and not shown? Dick Fiddy discussed how the role of the BFI wasn’t to be apologists for the past but to give context to that past. As someone who was a child when this story first came out and was probably more concerned by seeing a giant rat, I think it is far more truthful to show the episodes as they were made whilst understanding the context of the late 1970s for a modern audience. Louise Jameson noted in her interview that there wasn’t any discussion regarding racism during the production of the serial and they wouldn’t have deliberately created a racist programme.

Emma Ko commented she felt the storyline is of its time but was still “dehumanising as the criminal gang’s motivation hangs only on being Chinese. It avoids exploring the narrative of fully realised characters and generalising a culture tends to keep it at a distance” There is justification for Emma Ko’s point but as Dick Fiddy pointed out that the story does call to another tradition of what are known as penny dreadful “blood and thunder “Fu Manchu novels by Sax Rohmer.

It is historically accurate that there was a Chinese community in Limehouse and Sax Rohmer used ethnic identities to add an exotic mysteriousness to his characters which Robert Holmes would have been aware of. In my opinion, the Chinese gang characters aren’t dehumanised as such but, as in much of classic and new Doctor Who, the recognisable plot uses to push the story on.

Actor John Bennett
Actor John Bennett
As Li H'sen Chang
As Li H’sen Chang

It is a complex subject as there is a central Chinese character Li H’sen Chang but as Emma Ko further commented she found it problematic and hard to watch as John Bennett is “a white man-made up with make-up, to look a yellow face” Chinese. Li H’sen Chang has an exaggerated forehead, eyelids”. There has been a history of yellow facing in theatre with make-up and costume which has been seen as a caricatured representation of Asian dress.

To be fair, regardless of the makeup as an actor John Bennett puts in an absolutely mesmerising performance as Li H’sen Chang. He’s a fully rounded man at times fascinating as the theatre performer, terrifying when hypnotising people or abducting girls, but also charming and sympathetic at times. BFI hosts Dick Fiddy noted in trying to explain the historical context that this was a time where white men were cast in non-white roles, prevalent due to a lack of ethnic actors but where dissenting voices were few and far between.

I do remember growing up in the 1970s watching a then-popular BBC light entertainment show called The Good Old Days which recreated the authentic atmosphere of a Victorian theatre and it’s something that seems so very “British” so there is no surprise that I love the Talons of Weng Chiang despite the issues it raises. There is a familiarity with the use of the Victorian setting something the BBC do very well (as experts in costume drama). Robert Holmes delivers a wonderfully atmospheric, dark and witty script. His script draws on the seedier sides of Victorian life with allusions to Jack the Ripper, prostitution and takes the music hall theatre traditional setting and weaves an interesting story around it.

Robert Holmes also pulls in other elements of literature such as Sherlock Holmes (the Doctor’s costume) and Pygmalion as Leela is dressed in fine clothes as befits a lady but has no pretensions to be different to who she is. Both actors are on top form as Tom Baker’s Doctor broods and growl his way and Louise carves out her savage as brave and instinctive.

Special Postcard

To end the event there was a signing with Louise Jameson. As with previous recent releases, there was a special postcard produced by the BFI for the event showing the amazing cover for the Season 14 Blu-ray.

The Season 14 Postcard created by the BFI & BBC Studios plus the event information sheet
The Season 14 Postcard created by the BFI & BBC Studios plus the event information sheet

It didn’t matter that due to the concerns of COVID-19 we had to queue to see Louise Jameson observing social distancing and were told selfies weren’t allowed. We felt blessed that the event went ahead. Thank-you BFI and we look forward to coming back soon.

Doctor Who The Collection – Season 14 is released on 4th May 2020


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