Sunday, August 8, 2010

National Day Special: Opposition Parties

A Very Dangerous Game – Series 3/Episode 2 of Danger Man (1965)

(Singapore circa 1965... or is it?)

Patrick McGoohan in Singapore? Sadly, not this time; the exotic Orient encountered by super-spy John Drake in this 1965 episode of Danger Man (AKA Secret Agent in the US) is a stereotypical colonial fantasy conjured up on a soundstage in Shepperton studios with sundry pieces of ‘stock’ footage. No one involved left London. This was the typical strategy for constructing a fictional ‘Singapore’ in the pre-War era. Hollywood had done it many times before, including John Brahm’s Far East noir-adventure, Singapore in 1947. But from the start of the 60s, lighter cameras and cheaper air tickets popularised location shooting, even for b-movies, and by ‘65 there’d been several Sandokan films (based on Emilio Salgari’s Italian tales of heroic Malay piracy) and a few ‘Eurospy’ flicks making limited use of real Singapore and Malaysian locations. This episode of Danger Man, however, was for the telly, and then, as now, budgets and schedules were tight, and why hop on a plane for fifteen hours when you can make any locale in the world down in Studio B?

(McGoohan: Calculating coldness with an undertow of bizarre eccentricity)

Danger Man began in 1960 as a vehicle for the peculiar charisma of McGoohan, an American raised in Ireland and England, groomed for TV stardom by media mogul Lew Grade. The original series pre-dated the first James Bond film; and in retrospect we can see that the weekly hijinks of super-agent John Drake anticipate the entire Eurospy genre, and as the series got more, shall we say, baroque, it paved the way for the stylised antics of The Avengers (and dozens of imitators) as well as McGoohan’s pet project, The Prisoner. By 1965, Bond was big and McGoohan (who had an unusually authorial influence on his own series, even then) was supposedly intent on making John Drake a more downbeat, realistic counterpart to Ian Fleming’s creation. That’s not born out by this episode, which is lightly comic, and, in terms of plot, completely ludicrous; but it’s not without interest in depicting Singapore in the year of independence.

The set-up introduces Simpson, an embittered toff essayed by the wonderfully seedy Anthony Dawson, ranting to a blonde companion about “going out to Singapore to lecture for the British Cultural Mission…can’t get a decent job here in England”. There are many connections between James Bond and Danger Man, but casting Dawson is the most self-conscious—he’d had a part in Dr No and then became the body-double for 007’s pussy-stroking nemesis Blofeld in two sequels. Back in Danger Man, Simpson needs to prove he’s not just any old foreign talent, “You know I’ve got a very big job waiting for me in Singapore,” he assures us, repeating for good measure, “A very big job.” This sounds ominous! Pretty soon, Simpson is in the hands of the authorities, and in an inventive touch the Danger Man titles (with the great demented harpsichord theme tune) play over a silent sequence of John Drake chain-smoking his way through the interrogation (torture?) of Simpson. Ending in a crash-zoom on Anthony Dawson’s beleaguered face. The episode’s directed by Don Chaffey, a reliable pair of hands (who went on to direct Jason and the Argonauts), but aside from this flourish, his work here’s strictly pedestrian.

Anyway, the game’s afoot, Drake will fly to Singapore pretending to be Simpson to infiltrate “the opposition”, a phrase used many times as a euphemism for Communist spies (I don’t think the word Communist is ever used), the writer of this, David Stone, who’d written dialogue for Polanski’s Repulsion, could never have known the special resonance of the term “opposition” in Singapore then (or now), but he should’ve been aware that this was five years after the supposed defeat of Communist guerrilla warriors in the Malayan ‘Emergency’. Reds in the tropics of Southeast Asia were no joke—although as we shall see, this episode is determined to treat them like one.

Before his trip to Singapore, Drake gets a forged visa from Charles Carson, who’d played a spy in Hitchcock’s Secret Agent thirty years earlier, and warns Drake that the Chinese have been playing the “dangerous game” of spying for “three thousand years”. Then he gets gadgets from young Christopher Sandford, better known today as the biographer of Jagger, Cobain and Polanski. The casting in these shows is fascinating!

(Not the Raffles Hotel? Could be in London with a couple of rickshaws)

Stock footage time! A jet plane with the BOAC logo gives way to an impressive overhead cityscape of Singapore—complete with location title. Except it isn’t Singapore, it’s Hong Kong island. Then a glimpse of the Raffles Hotel exterior which I don't think really is Raffles Hotel, Drake refers to it as ‘Hotel Imperial’. In his very sparse un-Raffles-like hotel room, Drake meets the buttoned-up “Director of the British Cultural Mission in Malaysia”—the British Council by any other name. It’s the first of two references to Singapore as being part of Malaysia, which shows that the episode was written before 9 August 1965 (it was broadcast in October that year) or that they didn’t really care too much about the political situation on the ground.

McGoohan has immense fun in this and many other scenes playing Drake/Simpson as an boorish drunk, prone to aggressive body-language and improvised Irish drinking songs – the actor was a notorious boozer in real-life. He insists the cultural director has a glass with him to quicken their friendship, and on being rejected, drops a knowing pun – “No Bond!” Simpson is due to lecture the locals on “the British way of life”, ironic, given that the region has already had far too much of this during many decades of colonial rule.

(The Franco-Chinese-Russian 'Linda Lee' played by Yvonne Furneaux)

One of the more bizarre tropes of foreign films shot in Asia in this period (60s through to late 70s) is the image of the Caucasian woman in a cheongsam (form-fitting Chinese style dress). Whereas white male heroes stubbornly flounder round the tropics in suits and ties, women are more inclined to ‘go native’. Obviously, it’s meant to be sexy and exotic without breaking the ‘taboo’ of inter-racial attraction. Here we have a particularly strange creation, ‘Linda Lee’ played by French starlet Yvonne Furneaux (who’d already acted for Fellini, Polanski and Antonioni) speaking with a bad Russian accent. She says she’s a journalist for the fictional ‘Singapore Evening News’, and she’s got one thing right: “Singapore is such a provincial town in so many ways”. Actually, she’s an “opposition” spy, who calls everyone Comrade and detests the bourgeois way of life. She drags Drake off blindfolded to see her master.

(I want to believe this is City Hall)

More stock footage! A clip of what looks like the road near City Hall, and this is possibly the only actual footage of Singapore in the whole episode, but I'm not entirely sure. There's some neon signs that look like they're from Hong Kong. But as the episode continues, they eventually give up trying and we’ll see some rickshaw drivers zipping through a Shepperton car-park.

('Those rickshaws are very useful)

A more straightforwardly racist trope of the Eurospy genre is the Caucasian male actor made-up to look like a sinister Chinese (Dr No is the most famous, although they’re all descendants of Fu Manchu), and here we have Peter Arne as Chi Ling, with truly horrible ‘slitty’ eye make-up and prone to a patronising bow and hand-clasp gesture (incidentally Arne was tragically murdered in 1983). Chi Ling’s meant to be a paranoid buffoon, who has glass furniture as “a security precaution, nothing can be hidden from me.” He trusts no-one. It’s all meant to be jolly hilarious.

(Peter Arne in Chinese drag)

Chi Ling intends to use Drake/Simpson to entrap the secret head of the British spy network in Malaysia (the second reference to the larger country, which is a big clue as to who the head actually is). Drake is driven off again, and then has to figure out that Chi Ling’s hide-out is actually the Singapore New Press building (see the banner at the top of this blog)! So the “opposition” have taken over the print media! Sadly, this is where the lovely Linda Lee will be shot dead by a Chinese heavy, for no good reason.

(SIngapore: Den of vice and sex)

Still acting sozzled, Drake pitches up at a Singapore bar-cum-brothel, modelled on the one from The World of Suzie Wong, mockingly spurns the advances of a English-accented bar girl, “out of my way you wanton lotus blossom!” and discovers that the British secret services run an ‘Operations Room’ behind a prostitute’s boudoir, staffed by the obligatory Burt Kwouk and Mike Pratt (Randall, from Randall and Hopkirk, Deceased). Here we discover that there’s an even more senior “opposition” leader who secretly broadcasts very declamatory Mandarin (quite a contrast to the barked Cantonese of Chi Ling’s heavies). Drake sets in motion a cunning plan, but not before he gives a talk on English madrigals, in homage to Holly Martin’s lecture in The Third Man, complete with obnoxious questioner at the end (can madrigals can be compared to The Beatles? An unconscious nod to Singapore’s struggle with rock and roll?).

In a double-twist, Drake uncovers that the “Director of the British Cultural Mission in Malaysia” (Geoffrey Bayldon, who’d return to ‘Singapore’ the following year in King Rat) is not only the chief British spy, but also the head of the “opposition”. When this is revealed, Drake darkly mutters “Not the first”, which feels like the one truly authentic espionage moment in the whole episode—this was only two years after Kim Philby and friends had been exposed as high-level Soviet moles in British intelligence. Drake’s plan, to trick Chi Ling into shooting his boss, succeeds, and the punchline calls back the “three thousand years” bit, with McGoohan imitating the Chi Ling’s bow and speech with the odious line, “as humble beginner… would be grateful for enlightenment”. A suitably smug end to Danger Man’s first and last excursion to Singapore.

Cue the demented harpsichord and long live the opposition!