Tag Archives: unflattering cultural stereotypes

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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The Avengers 4.5 – Castle De’ath

I think that one theme that we’ll come back to in watching The Avengers is one I’ll go into in more detail later on, that the fantasy of the series isn’t merely the fantasy that comes from telling stories with robots and invisible men and a couple of monsters, it’s the fantasy of its setting. The Avengers is deliberately set in what Brian Clemens called a fantasyland, a tourist Britain that’s utterly removed from the real thing. So here we are in Scotland, ye ken, where we have bagpipes and phantoms and lairds and tartans and Robbie Burns and Bonnie Prince Charlie and castles and moats and villainous ancestors called “Black” and fishing in the loch. And popular Scottish actors like Gordon Jackson and Robert Urquhart as the feuding cousins of the De’ath clan.

And we don’t have anything in Scotland other than these things.

In fact, of the two things my son enjoyed most about this story, one was the knee-high argyle socks that the men wear with their traditional formal Highland garb. “Those are some big socks!” he exclaimed. The other, happily, was the rather magnificent sword fight that Patrick Macnee and Urquhart have on the big table in the dining hall, so he’s not just watching old TV to chuckle at the silly clothes people used to wear, like a “comedian” on one of those awful Things Sure Were Different Back Then! nostalgia programs.

I don’t think it’s right to completely dismiss dramatic choices like this as merely lazy cultural stereotyping. It isn’t lazy; it’s carefully crafted in the same way that the director, James Hill, opened the story with a series of long, hand-held tracking shots through the elaborate castle set. The Avengers slowly reveals its unreality as the show progresses through the sixties, which is sometimes jarring because television viewers tend to watch every program as though it is set in “our world,” and The Avengers quite firmly isn’t. That’s not to say that it’s always a good or an admirable choice – some elements of this fantasyland Britain are crafted with the walls of exclusion – but the use of stereotype here isn’t halfhearted. In Avengerland, England can have some variety of people, places, and things, but all of Scotland is exactly like this.

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20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

We sat down to watch Disney’s fabulous 1954 adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea this morning and I enjoyed it like I always have. It’s a real classic. In the last sixty years, there have been a whole lot of adventure movies that follow in this one’s footsteps. It was directed by Richard Fleischer, who later helmed a couple of other movies I may show my son one day.

In some of the other stories about Disney films at this blog, I’ve praised the studio’s excellent casting. Man alive, did they ever nail it here. James Mason is the iconic Captain Nemo, and Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre, and Kirk Douglas play his guests – slash – prisoners, and you couldn’t cast better than those four in 1954. Mason’s just perfect. In these more sensitive times, there’s a backlash to casting an actor of European ancestry in the role of Nemo, but Mason’s performance is so defining that it may be a very, very long time indeed before audiences will even understand an Indian actor (like Naseeruddin Shah, who played Nemo in the ridiculous League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) in the part.

It’s not flawless. While it’s mostly undated, the ooga-booga cannibals of a south Pacific island are very cringeworthy, and I really had to question whomever gave the order to start firing when the landing parties start coming over the ridge at Volcania. You’d kind of think that whatever military or privateer force that was would want some answers before they started trying to murder everybody in that lagoon, you know?

Other than these issues, it’s a massively entertaining movie. The themes are a bit over our son’s head, and we did have to pause to explain that in the 1860s, submarines on the scale of the Nautilus simply didn’t exist, and that Verne’s novel was a work of science fiction speculating about technology that was impossible in its day. He was okay. He’s done better with movies, but he’s also had a lot on his mind lately, getting used to our new home and getting ready to begin a new school, so he’s not been on his very best behavior.

While the climax of the film is the incident at Volcania, the real centerpiece is the battle with the giant squid. Holy anna, it’s amazing. Of course, any remake could certainly do as good a job today with computer effects, but you won’t convince me anybody will ever actually surpass it. And of course, it scared the pants off Daniel. He didn’t flee like he had done from some of the threats and villains we’ve seen in earlier shows, but he was crawled into his mommy’s lap, babbling to himself to keep himself brave.

Captain Nemo is killed and goes down with his boat in this movie, but this is certainly not the last time that we’ll meet the character as we watch classic adventures together in this blog. I am, however, reasonably confident that none of the actors who followed Mason in the role ever got to deliver a line like “Mr. Baxter, if you think you’re seeing mermaids and sea monsters, you’ve been submerged too long!” We’ll find out for sure before too long.

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One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)

We had a little trouble watching One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, a badly, badly dated 1975 Disney film. It does not seem to have ever been issued on Region 1 DVD, so I picked up a used Region 2 copy which turned out to be very badly damaged. I guess I should have checked it when it arrived a couple of months ago, huh? After a few minutes fighting with it, I rented it from Amazon and it’s not quite fair to say that all was well.

Now, if you’ve never seen this silly film, all the ingredients are there for what should have been a fun and splendid little show. Helen Hayes and Peter Ustinov headlined a remarkably impressive cast of British comedy actors, at least a dozen of whom I recognized when I read the cast list. It’s a film I’ve always been aware of because, since I was a little kid in the 1970s obsessed with dinosaurs, I even had the View-Master reels for it, even though the dinosaur in question is just a long-dead skeleton. Plus it has the iconic, very odd imagery of a dinosaur skeleton being driven through peasoup-foggy London.

So here’s how the plot goes: Derek Nimmo plays Lord Southmere, and he flees from China in the 1920s with a microfilm containing the top-secret “Lotus X.” With Chinese agents in hot pursuit as he arrives in London, he rushes into the Natural History Museum to escape, hides the film on a skeleton, and, chancing upon his old nanny, Hettie, while semi-conscious, he tells her how vital it is, before the Chinese villain, posing as a doctor, takes him away.

Hayes, Joan Sims, and Natasha Pyne play the principal nannies, and Ustinov, Clive Revill, and Bernard Bresslaw play the main Chinese characters, and so it’s gangs of nannies and Chinamen in a romp through the fog-bound streets of London, and, the following morning, into a cute little village, with a stolen dinosaur on the back of a coal-powered haulage lorry.

However, the film never gels and elements of it are quite awful. Of lesser concern: the fantastic cast is badly misused, just cameos, really. How anybody can, in all good conscience, assemble a group that includes Jon Pertwee, Roy Kinnear, Joan Hickson, Angus Lennie, Max Wall, Hugh Burden, and Joss Ackland and give none of them anything of substance to do (Pertwee would, later in life, call these sorts of glorified cameos “spit and cough parts”) is beyond me. Bresslaw, a great comic talent, is totally wasted, cast here only because the man was a giant and towered over everybody else.

But the main problem is the yellowface acting from Ustinov, Revill, and Bresslaw, and it’s a big, big problem. Even accepting that it was the seventies and quite a lot of this sort of thing happened in movies and TV then, mostly with Peter Sellers, it’s a lot easier to take this kind of material when it’s not played for laughs. Doctor Who fans have, over the last few years, been drawing a polite veil of discretion across the casting of John Bennett as a Chinese villain in the very popular 1977 serial “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” but I feel this is, while problematic, less of an issue when the role is played straight. It may have been insensitive to cast an actor of a different ethnicity, but it’s much more so when they’re cast to wear funny mustaches and say “Ah, so!” a lot.

The film has a few good moments, among them just about anything that Hayes and Sims do together – although they really could have looked a little harder for Sims’ stunt driver – and a lovely little scene during the climax where Ustinov and Nimmo sit and discuss Revill’s terrible first day in his new job. There are a pair of quite amusing plot twists, but the action is, overall, far too brief, leaving Daniel more thoroughly bored than by any film that we’ve ever shown him. He giggled a couple of times, but I don’t blame him for being restless. This simply isn’t a good movie, and while it probably never would have been a classic, there’s not nearly enough slapstick to engage children, and far too much of it for anybody old enough to try and follow the plot and the humor for older audiences.

Most of the cast’s best and biggest work was behind them at this point, although I suppose you might argue that Ustinov’s greatest success, as Hercule Poirot, was to come. But the biggest star-in-the-making was the dinosaur. Dumped in a prop warehouse at Pinewood Studios after this, it was retrieved by the Star Wars team and taken to Tunisia, where far, far more people saw it as a dead carcass on the planet Tattooine than ever saw it in this movie.

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The Secret Service 1.8 – Errand of Mercy

And so, very early in the show’s run, we get the obligatory “it was all a dream” episode. Tony Barwick wrote an awful lot of these for Gerry Anderson. This one started out quite whimsical, with Father Unwin’s car, Gabriel, flying to Africa to deliver medical supplies, but then they land in darkest Africa and everything goes to pieces. Yes, the natives are restless, they wear colorful masks and they have shields and spears.

It’s not just the unhappy and unfortunate old stereotype of the tribe that’s awful. When you’re watching something from this era, you grudgingly have to bite your lip because it’s old and insensitive. But this actually compounds it: Unwin’s able to communicate with the tribesmen by way of his Unwinese gobbledygook language.

The story goes that one of the reasons Lew Grade canceled the production of The Secret Service is that the potential American audience wouldn’t understand Unwinese. The counter-argument is that nobody’s supposed to understand his fast-talking palare; that’s the point. But the real problem with the way that Unwinese is presented in the show is this: it takes half the scene to realize he’s talking his gafflebam. It just sounds like mumbling, which is amplified by the other character saying “I’m sorry? I don’t understand…” If it was a little more clear, then everybody watching wouldn’t just be in on the joke, they’d realize that a joke was being told.

But having the ooga-booga natives being so primitive that the only English that they can understand is that fractured balderdash… that’s pretty offensive. I’m certainly going to have a talk with Daniel about these outdated depictions.

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 2 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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The Secret Service 1.5 – Last Train to Bufflers Halt

How interesting! This is the only episode of The Secret Service that I had seen prior to obtaining this set, and I completely misremembered the character of the old man who maintains the closed railway station. I recalled him as being a wildly caricatured comedy yokel like Jeremiah from the Thunderbirds episode “The Imposters,” but he’s much more down to earth than that. He has a very broad “old rural man” voice (“Mummerset,” possibly?), and somehow knows how to start and accelerate a train but not how to slow it down, but he’s not ridiculous.

The story by Tony Barwick is so light that it borders on inconsequential. There’s no sense of urgency in the attempted hijacking of a million pounds. The criminals don’t even call for their getaway truck until after they’ve successfully diverted the stolen train to the disused platform. Daniel really enjoyed it, but this is a pretty slight story.

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 2 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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