Tag Archives: unflattering cultural stereotypes

Into the Labyrinth 2.3 – Alamo / 2.4 – Cave of Diamonds

Well, that was utterly bugnuts. And here I was all set to grumble about them casting very British character actors like Cyril Shaps to play Indian mystics, but then Ron Moody gets to battle various demons and magical beasts that jump out of paintings. It is one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen in a while. The episode ends with a brief, climactic struggle over a pit engulfing sulfuric smoke. I think everybody inhaled too much of it this week, because “Cave of Diamonds” is just crazy. The kid had a blast with it, even applauding some of the heroes’ wins. And he really liked Rothgo turning his enemies into statues of monkeys and pigs.

Episode three wasn’t quite as successful for him, and it was awfully painful for the grownups. It’s not just that “Alamo,” written by John Lucarotti, finds a place for every possible word of teevee cowboy slang – vittles, chow, yonder – in some of the most tortuous dialogue ever written, but Ron Moody gets to play a “Red Indian” in redface and we get all the hows and heap bigs and the like that I seem to remember dying out in our own entertainment by 1981. Jack Watson’s in this one as Davy Crockett, and he’s not bad. There’s even an actual scorpion and a couple of real snakes in these two episodes, instead of putting a rubber party favor on the screen like they did with that bat last time.

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The Champions 1.22 – Get Me Out of Here!

A couple of months ago, I wrote about how I’d taped fourteen episodes of The Champions off-air from a UHF station in Atlanta. “Get Me Out of Here!” was the only one of the fourteen I didn’t like. I didn’t like it then and I still don’t like it.

It could have been a good adventure. It guest stars Frances Cuka as a scientist who’s not been allowed to leave after a mission of mercy to her home country, a Nosuchlandia in the Caribbean which is a bit like Cuba. But the unflattering cultural stereotyping is rampant, and Philip Madoc, who I normally like so much, is unrecognizable in his brownface, his eye for the ladies and his Speedy Gonzales voice. And for a story with the main guest role given to a woman, it’s unforgivable that both she and Sharron are completely sidelined, reaching its nadir in the final fight scene. I think we were meant to see it as Sharron getting the professor to safety, but it’s really staged like she’s running away from the fight now that Richard and Craig have arrived and they can throw all the punches. The kid liked it, but I sure didn’t.

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The Champions 1.16 – Shadow of the Panther

I can’t swear that there’s any real evidence that adventure shows from the period did voodoo episodes with any regularity, but I guess there’s enough of a cultural memory, forged by Live and Let Die and by Marvel Comics, that it’s not at all surprising that there’s a Champions episode set in Haiti dealing with voodoo. There was also an episode of The Saint called “Sibao” made a few years earlier. So the plot this time is about voodoo being used as a cover for hypnotizing the rich and powerful and turning them into secret assassins via subliminals and ultrasonics.

Donald Sutherland fails to fool anybody as an innocent journalist this week. Of course he’s the master villain. There are actually two things about Tony Williamson’s story that annoyed me. First is the stereotyping and second is the way the script is built around making the audience worry that some nefarious voodoo plot has ensnared Sutherland, when the character had absolutely no reason to even get close to Sharron in the first place, let alone give her the big clue that something is wrong by abruptly acting hypnotized and giving her something to investigate.

On the other hand, this is an awesome Sharron episode. She was only in the previous story for one scene, but she leads this investigation, and while the focus pulls to Craig and Richard for a while, the only real question is whether the show’s going to stay true to its promise to treat all three superhumans as equals or if it’s going to act like a dumb sixties show in the end and make the woman helpless. It picks the right answer.

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Adam Adamant Lives! 1.5 – Allah is Not Always With You

In the previous installment, I talked about effective makeup jobs. There’s an effective one in this afternoon’s episode of Adam Adamant Lives! as well, kind of. You watch British television from the sixties, you figure you’re occasionally going to run into a few cases where they smeared some shoe polish on the white skin of the actors so they can pass as “foreign.” That’s just the unfortunate way of old television. I wish I could show you the sheikh from this episode, though. It’s that fine actor John Woodnutt, but even the man’s own mother wouldn’t have recognized him with the giant fake nose they stuck on him.

After seeing Woodnutt’s name in the credits, I zipped back for a second look. Our son described the imitation hooter as “wet plastic,” so that led into a discussion of using things like “big noses” and “squinty eyes” as racial identifiers. I feel it’s important to point these out as we go. They’re good tools for learning.

As for the rest of the episode, the only other point to cause any eye-rolling was the recurring use of the flashback to Adam getting suckered by Louise and The Face in the first installment whenever our hero gets thumped on the head. Our son is pretty sick of the flashback and got up to sit behind the sofa with an exasperated sigh when it happened again here. Otherwise, it’s an entertaining hour about criminals trying to get their hooks into the son of the ruler of NosuchArablandia. Dad’s in London for surgery and Junior’s got some gambling debts. John Hollis plays one of the criminals, and I thought that George Pastell was in it, but I was mistaken.

Speaking of recurring themes, this is the second episode in a row where Miss Jones embarrasses Adam by donning a racy costume for her undercover work and enjoys the experience of making him uncomfortable. I figure it’s a fine little comeuppance for him assuming she was a prostitute in the first episode, but the joke’s got about one more airing before it gets tired. Let’s see whether they put it to bed or run it into the ground.

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 4 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

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Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (parts one and two)

We’ve come to the completely amazing “Talons of Weng-Chiang,” and it’s not going to be one of our son’s favorite Who stories. We took a short break between episodes to explain the cultural background to the adventure and noticed he was really, really tired. He spent the night with a buddy last night and got maybe six hours of sleep and played hard most of the day. He and I may have to watch these two parts again tomorrow afternoon, and I wouldn’t object if we do.

“Talons” is the farewell outing for director David Maloney, who had helmed many adventures in the seventies and was moving on to other jobs, and for producer Philip Hinchcliffe, who was being moved to other jobs. A teevee watchdog group had been giving the BBC headaches about the violence of the last season or two, hitting new heights of grievance this year, so Hinchcliffe was told that he’d be producing a new cop show called Target after this story, while the fellow who devised and developed Target, Graham Williams, would get Hinchcliffe’s job.

And so they go out with a bang, overspending massively and visibly on one of Robert Holmes’ very best scripts. “Talons” is a love letter to Victorian fiction and lore. As we explained to our son, this is not quite the real world, it’s the world of Sax Rohmer novels and Arthur Conan Doyle stories, where Jack the Ripper is on everyone’s mind, and that Giant Rat of Sumatra that Dr. Watson never could bring himself to write about is crawling around the London sewers. The Doctor dresses as Holmes and Leela is playing Eliza Doolittle.

We also explained the elephant in the room that troubles everybody who writes about “Talons” in this time: in 1977, there were enough people at the BBC to decide it would be okay for a white actor to get his eyes pulled back and made up to play Li H’Sen Chang. I don’t object to the depiction of all the Chinese characters as just part of a criminal gang; this is a story about archetypes from the idealized world of tawdry literature. Many people may love Doyle, Collins, Reginald Barrett, and all those Rivals that Hugh Greene anthologized, and many others may venerate them, but it’s tawdry literature all the same, and not the real world.

I wish that they had not cast John Bennett as Chang, just as I wish they had not cast Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu in those movies he made. But they did, and the world at the time found it acceptable, and I’m not going to condemn them for it from a position of We Know Better These Days. We told our son that We Do, in fact, Know Better These Days, as we often do, and he gets that this is old TV and that a program made today would find a Chinese actor for a role like this.

Other than this disagreeable casting, the production is excellent. Leela has a lot to do and she’s incredibly amusing dropped into polite Victorian society. Christopher Benjamin is all kinds of fun as the theater owner, Henry Gordon Jago, and there’s a living ventriloquist doll who stalks around the foggy streets of London with a knife. There’s just so much to love in this story.

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The Avengers 4.16 – Small Game for Big Hunters

I’ve been a little concerned about this episode. Once upon a time, it had a reputation as one of the most clever and imaginative installments. I think it was in those American Files Magazines of the ’80s where the author singled it out as one of his ten favorite Avengers episodes, asking how anyone could resist the charms of a story doing “the natives are restless” in Darkest Hartfordshire.

Thirty more years on, and it’s actually quite easy to resist any story that does “the natives are restless.” It is an old and very dated trope.

It’s also one that our son has absolutely no experience with. I figure by the time I was eight, I’d seen dozens of Tarzan movies and the like on afternoon TV, plus all those mid-period Godzilla movies set on Pacific islands, and knew all about “ooga-booga” natives. The only ones he’s seen, however, are the ones we’ve showed him in old movies like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He had a lot of trouble following this episode; he missed many of the socio-cultural clues that older audiences might know, things like the skull in the tree, the war drums, the “darkest Africa 23 miles from London” marker, and told me that he didn’t like it.

In point of fact, and this is a horrible thing to admit, but I remember when I was a child being surprised to learn that people from “Africa” didn’t all dress like movie witch doctors. “Africa,” then, was a place that stretched from the end of the desert all the way down and then across Asia. That’s where the nation of Kalaya is in this story. It might be on the African continent, and it might be in the south Pacific. About the only thing this episode gets right is having the discretion to not specifically nail it down.

And it’s because of film and television like “Small Game for Big Hunters” that I got that stereotype. There are actors of color in this story. All but one of them play immigrants from the nation of Kalaya who live in a mock “jungle” in Bill Fraser’s character’s gigantic greenhouse. In other hands, Fraser might have been an interesting Avengers eccentric; he’s another ex-colonial officer holding on to old glories, oblivious that he’s been used by the real villain, played by James Villiers, to engineer a lethal strain of tsetse fly in tropical conditions.

The one actor of color who isn’t an ooga-booga native in war paint sleeping on the ground is a Kalayan secret agent played by Paul Danquah. And he’s undercover as… an ooga-booga native in war paint sleeping on the ground.

This could have been avoided. There’s a scene where Steed visits a clothier to get information on the jungle outfit one nearly-dead man was wearing. It would have been so much better if they instead cast an actor of color to play the Kalayan ambassador who is phoned by Mrs. Peel and gave him a scene. Take off the war paint from the extras and you’d have an hour that isn’t nearly so tone-deaf. But then again, cultural norms and outrages are always evolving. Who’s to say what people thirty years from now will find insensitive and unflattering?

In point of fact, there’s something incredibly insensitive about Brian Clemens’ view of The Avengers as an escapist fantasy. It’s kind of the elephant in the room:

“No woman should be killed, no extras should populate the streets. We admitted to only one class and that was the upper. As a fantasy, we would not show a uniformed policeman or a coloured man. And you would not see anything as common as blood in The Avengers.” (This quote appears without citation in several places; I’m unsure of the original quote, but Clemens made similar expressions in many, many interviews.)

On the one hand, I get it: British television drama in the mid-sixties was often addressing social realism, and The Avengers is set in a world that is defiantly unrealistic. I can get behind that much.

But saying that a world that doesn’t show actors of color is a fantasy leads you to question exactly whose fantasy this is, or why anybody would fantasize about something so wretched.

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Doctor Who: The Green Death (part one)

So it’s time for the end of another season of Doctor Who, and another big season finale written by Robert Sloman and Barry Letts. “The Green Death” was directed by Michael E. Briant and I think it’s thunderously entertaining. I really like this story a lot.

Watching the first part in isolation is a really fun experience. This is clearly a case – and a very rare case in the original run of Doctor Who – of a story built entirely around a companion’s departure. Jo Grant lets the Doctor know in the first episode that she does not want to gallivant off into space to have fun anymore when there’s a planet of her own to save. He knows, then, that their traveling days are over, but he thinks that she’ll still be with UNIT and they’ll work together when he comes back to Earth. And as befits a story built around the companion leaving, Katy Manning dominates this story. It’s all about her character and Katy is fantastic. It’s almost a shame that the very next Doctor Who companion would be so many people’s pick for the all-time best, because she overshadows Jo so much; at this point in the series, Jo is actually tied with Barbara as my favorite companion.

Anyway, this story is set in Llanfairfach, a town in south Wales that is suffering from the closure of its coal mine, and where an outfit called Global Chemicals has set up. Global’s director is a fellow named Stevens, played by the awesome Jerome Willis. He’d later play the disagreeably cautious Peele in The Sandbaggers. And it really, seriously looks like Stevens is under the control of the Cybermen. Honestly, this story looks and feels like a sequel to 1968’s “The Invasion.” It isn’t, but watch the scene where Stevens’ mind starts to wander and he loses track of what he was saying. It’s not quite as obvious an “I’m being controlled” performance as, say, Michael Sheard in part one of “Remembrance of the Daleks,” but something’s up. And then he puts on this futuristic-looking headphone set…!

But as much as I enjoy this story, it does have a couple of problems. One of these, which I may return to, is that the story’s heart is definitely in the right place, but its “pollution BAD alternative energy GOOD” tone is incredibly shrill and would be far less dated if it were a little less right-on. Another is a structural problem that leads me to employ the “unflattering cultural stereotypes” tag on this episode.

Since I’m almost totally unfamiliar with Welsh culture, I didn’t see anything as outlandish as, say, all the Scottish stereotyping in the Avengers episode “Castle De’ath,” but it isn’t really a case of employing cliche, it’s setting a story in Wales but telling a story about Englishmen. Tat Wood penned an essay in About Time entitled “Why Didn’t Plaid Cymru Lynch Barry Letts?,” and I don’t know that I would have noticed the problem until I read that. See, the Welsh characters in this story, even though they’re played by Welsh actors like Talfyrn Thomas, are not in control of their destiny. People from London are. Global Chemicals has moved to Llanfairfach to take advantage of the closed mine, and the hippie commune that opposes Global – about which more next time – is similarly made up of people who’ve dropped out and moved to the area because they share the young Professor Jones’s ideals and dreams.

Between these forces, the Welsh people here have no agency. They’re all unemployed, apart from the milkman and a few part-timers who inspect the mine for safety and, as we’ll see, green slime. And this story isn’t about them, even though they’re the ones who feel the immediate impact of what’s going on, as people start coming out of the mine bright green and dead. It’s about Jo first, and about Global Chemicals versus the Wholeweal Community second. That, along with the script making sure that the milkman says “boyo,” is what makes this a little unflattering.

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Wombling Free (1977)

In my favorite part of Neil Jordan’s 2005 film Breakfast on Pluto, the character played by Cillian Murphy gets a job at a family fun park based on the BBC’s Wombles. It’s set in the mid-seventies, when the Wombles were pop culture juggernauts. The park seems to be an invention of the movie and not a real place, but you could imagine it happening. To put their dominance into perspective, in 1974, the Wombles, with their kid-friendly songs by Mike Batt, managed more weeks on the UK Singles chart than any other pop music act.

So, in that grand tradition of striking while the iron is hot, it took three more years for a Wombles feature film to be released. It is ninety minutes long, and it feels like nine hundred and ninety.

The film stars David Tomlinson and Frances de la Tour as the parents of a young teenager played by Bonnie Langford whose lives become intertwined with the rubbish-collecting residents of Wimbledon Common. The charming stop-motion puppetry and hilarious narration by Bernard Cribbins that made the TV show so engaging and cute were discarded in favor of full-size mascot costumes and voices by David Jason and Jon Pertwee. That’s kind of all you need to know about why this film isn’t going to appeal to anybody over the age of eight, and that’s pushing it. You watch the five-minute Wombles TV episodes for the delightful puppetry and silliness from Cribbins. You watch the ninety-minute Wombles movie because you have watched everything else that’s ever been made already.

I believe that this was Langford’s film debut, and it was made between the two series of Just William, where, as the spoiled rotten Violet Elizabeth Bott, she became one of the television characters that people hated above all others. Since she was unknown to American audiences, I was baffled by the hatred that Doctor Who fans expressed when she joined the show in 1986. I didn’t like her character, Mel, when I was a teenager, but I was wrong. She’s also probably the best thing about this movie, somehow. Tomlinson and de la Tour just phoned in their performances and are completely unbelievable as actual human beings in every last scene, while their young co-star is actually making the effort.

For the under-eights, this might – might – work. I won’t pretend that our experience would be repeated in your own home, but our son, six, did enjoy the musical numbers a lot, and surprised the heck out of me with a huge and happy hug when David Tomlinson finally sees and acknowledges the Wombles. Up to then, he’d been passing by them without a second glance. In the next scene, Tomlinson is doing a choreographed dance routine with the Wombles set to the tune of their popular song “Exercise Is Good For You (Laziness Is Not),” which is not something I ever expected to see.

Chris Spedding played guitar on that song. Imagine that.

I grouse, but this can actually be looked at from another angle, and that’s how downright weird the script is. What might have been major plot points in another movie are introduced and then completely abandoned. Early on, it looks like the movie’s going to be about the Wombles getting the human family to notice them so they can stop a freeway construction across their home of Wimbledon Common. Not ten minutes later, John Junkin calls off the excavators; they intended to build at Wandsworth Common. Then there’s some business with a miracle plant formula called Womgrow. If it mixes with polluted air, it could wreak havoc, and Bungo Womble is taking it to the humans, uncapped, as a gift. Disaster looms, right? But the Womgrow doesn’t even make it to the humans and is forgotten. It’s so odd!

But while the script is built to baffle, where it’s certain to offend is with the “Japanese” neighbors. Holy anna. I thought that I was used to watching dated stereotypes in films and TV from the sixties and seventies, but this surprised even me. Bernard Spear plays “the Jap chap,” and Yasuko Nagazumi is his wife, who does not speak English and dresses in full geisha costume and makeup for a dinner party. Spear can’t pronounce his Ls, talks about kamikazes, and freaking Pink Lady and Jeff was more culturally sensitive.

In short, this is certainly one of the lousiest films we’ve watched for this blog. Fugitive Alien might have been a little worse. But you know what? I kind of liked that big hug I got when Tomlinson goes to shake Great Uncle Bulgaria’s paw. I could suffer through ninety minutes for a hug that nice from a kid so happy.

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