Magazine article The Spectator

Awkward Questions

Magazine article The Spectator

Awkward Questions

Article excerpt

I doubt Sir William Macpherson would approve but when I think of China I tend to think of evil yellow hordes swarming across the Yalu River, the Cultural Revolution, the tiger penis trade, Tiananmen Square and laogai camps. What I don't think is: warm, cuddly, enlightened people, strong on individualism and human rights, just like us really.

And it's this, I'm sure, which partly explains why Phil Agland's Beyond The Clouds was such a huge hit with British audiences. Like Jung Chang's Wild Swans, it revealed the vulnerability and humanity within a nation that we more usually associate with oppression, threat, xenophobia, inscrutability and ant-like subservience to a succession of vile regimes. Agland enabled us to identify just as readily with the hopes, fears and dreams of the people in that remote, rural Chinese village as we could have done if he'd made his documentary in Birmingham or the Scottish Highlands. Beyond The Clouds remains one of the most moving, enthralling series I've ever seen on television.

Now that he's turned his attentions to Shanghai, though, I'm not quite so enraptured. One reason, no doubt, is that Shanghai Vice (Channel 4), his second underthe-skin view of the Chinese, can never recapture the novelty value of his first. Another is that the bustling, sleazy, modern port rather lacks the charms of the picturesque idyll he visited last time. But the main reason, I think, is that, thanks to the recent glut of docu-soaps, it's no longer possible to take the genre at face value.

Instead of going `Wow! So this is what the Chinese are really like!', I now found myself asking awkward questions like: how representative are the people he has chosen; how many of their encounters were staged; and how much dialogue was reenacted? And what compromises did he have to make, both with the Chinese authorities and his commissioning editors, in order to get the programme made?

It may be that Agland is innocent on all counts but I did rather smell a rat when the first two programmes devoted so much space to Shanghai's heroin problem. Perhaps heroin addiction really is the city's defining characteristic. But I sensed the dead hands here of the Chinese government (itching to show the world how much they're doing to combat the Evil Drug Menace) and of Channel 4 (terrified that viewers wouldn't be much interested in a programme about funny foreigners unless it resembled one of those undercover police documentaries which appear on every channel every night). …

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