Sunday 1 August 2010

Sherlock and wily orientals: Blind Banker, Episode 2 review


Having missed the curtain-raiser of the Sherlock series last week, boo-hooing over the rave reviews, and tonight's show — The Blind Banker — promising to be more Second Coming than second episode, Loved One and I settled in to watch, even forsaking our TV pals over at Channel 4 in the Big Brother house just as Josie's nemesis Sam Pepper enters the fray.

Episode Two began intriguingly enough. The robotic woman from the Bing ad emoted in similar fashion as she mysteriously and inscrutably demonstrated the tea ceremony. I did wonder why a modern young Chinese Miss would be wearing a chipao frock in present-day London, but Loved One sniffed that she needed it for her job entrancing the tourists and demanded to know why didn't I do tranquility and ancient wisdom like writer Stephen Thompson's creation? After yelling that I am frikkin' peaceful when not being wound up, I admiringly noted her noble struggle with the accent, as actress Gemma Chan evidently speaks Chinese as orfentically as I speak it — that is: not at all. But I put this down to the obvious imminent revelation that she was really a Terminator-style android sent by Moriarty to wreak devastation on our imploding civilisation and the accent therefore was deliberately gauged to be unlike any known human language. A sort of error of the tongues.

Ah, so sinisterly clever.

In this reboot of the Sherlock Holmes franchise for BBC1, Arthur Conan Doyle's characters stay in the same Baker Street location but move forward in time to the present. Thus Martin Freeman's John Watson, like the original, is a former military doctor, wounded in Afghanistan. Ooh, topical as well as clever. And Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a snotty skint smart-arse, verging on Withnail (only sober), perpetually dragging his friend into mischief. (Spot the borrow: Sherlock and Watson as Withnail & I — did Cumberbatch lose out on the Dr Who auditions and this is his consolation prize? — Blade Runner origami, Hammer Horror Fu Manchu, A Beautiful Mind graphics ...)

Suddenly, my heart sinks and I realise it's all Black Lotus, Tongs (you should see my Terror of the Curling Tongs), drugs and torture. For are we not a cruel race, as the clever programme-makers have noticed? A series of killings and a trail of yellow-themed clues lead our intrepid heroes into the dangers of Soho Chinatown where even the shop assistants are ... sinister. Very clever creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, and their resident Sax Rohmer Stephen Thompson, plus assorted producers, editors, BBC bods and friends, uncleverly fail to pull the mindset out of the 19th century along with the update and sadly jam their heads up their collective fundament.

"With a brow like Shakespeare and eyes like Satan", lordy, here's a heart-of-darkness Chinese circus with their uncanny abilities and deathly tricks. Sherlock morphs into Nayland Smith (hero of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu books) and has to fight assorted Yellow Peril villainy that is so dastardly evil and fiendish that a brother can kill his own sister (she wasn't a Terminator-bot after all) without breaking into a sweat.

Gillian Facebooks me that she's looking forward to them doing one of those pentatonic scale thingies, such are our expectations by now. They don't do that but they do kill off the Chinese female lead character as they must according to the rules of Anna May Wong Must Die!: she's sexotic so she has to go. And life in these heah parts is cheap.

I too am rapidly losing the will to live. Still, I am at least relieved that Sherlock is not as frenetic and hysterical as its Joss Whedon-wannabe stablemates Dr Who and Torchwood. Eventually, clever Sherlock identifies the McGuffin as being a jade hairpin worth nine million dollars or pounds or yen (I was having trouble concentrating at this point as I had to go feed my vampire bats and torture someone) and defeats the cruel circus-mistress by doing something-or-other that's very clever.

For much of the programme I was hoping clever Mark Gatiss et al would do something remarkable and witty with the wily oriental clichés that would leave me gasping with delight and applauding their clever audacity. This is, after all, the 21st Century and we all do irony now. Evidently this was beyond their capabilities. Unaccountably, they omitted the obligatory Limehouse opium den scene. WHY?

The idea of updating Sherlock Holmes is a spiffing wheeze. Nevertheless, there are some Victorian values which should be locked in a hansom cab back with the swirling pea-soup fogs.

Sherlock: The Blind Banker. Episode 2.
BBC1 9pm, Sunday 1st August 2010

Have you seen the script for The Blind Banker? Soo Lin Yao "a fragile little doll".

Here's my poetic answer to the lazy prejudice of these stereotypes in a poem I wrote a while back: Anna May Wong Must Die!. It's at the end of this set I performed at the Farrago Summer Poetry Slam the other day.

More orientalism on BBC: Fu Manchu in Edinburgh

View from America — Mark Watches

Monique blog

Sherlock BBC

Lyndsay Faye at

Jonathan McCalmont on Sinomania in



Unknown said...

I was totaly left flat and v disappointed given ( as you mentioned) the talent behind this production.

Tim F said...

I suspect the true heritage of the episode was not Fu Manchu per se, but the Dr Who story The Talons of Weng Chiang (1977), which drew on equal parts Doyle and Rohmer. It had all the inevitable ah-so indicators, right down to a villain played by a yellowed-up Caucasian and – YES! – the opium den. Must admit I bloody loved it at the time, but I was about nine years old.

Lady Emily Waitrose-Selfridge said...

Spot on. Im a bit dissapointed with the series, it doesnt seem to want to recreate any of ACD's excellent original story lines. Which is a shame, because I really admire Mark Gatiss.

"the chinese girl" as people will probably refer to her, seemed so passive, and had to be ordered to saftey by Watson, which struck me as odd-what with her being a drug smuggler, you think she'd be able to take care of herself. She was just so weak and feeble and such a complete sterotype of the kind of character from 60's cinema.

The other "girl" watson's love interest, getting tied up all seemed a bit cringeworthy and a bit of a regression. Overall, im not impressed with any of the female characters-even the drug lord lady is pretty much the same character as seen in "around the world in 80 days"

Madam Miaow said...

Yup, the orientalist puppets in Thunderbirds/Fireball XL5 had a better crack at their parts than these poor actors.

We seem to be going backwards. Is this how a culture implodes? I wonder if it was the same for the ancient Romans.

VenerableSage said...

Sign up NOW for Madam Miaow's Fu Fighters!

Ken said...

As I was watching this I suddenly found myself thinking, 'I wonder what Madame Miaow will make of this!'

It's a shame, because the concept of the show and a lot of the execution is very good indeed.

Anonymous said...

I was really disappointed by this episode; not only was the stereotyping offensive but it also blew the believability out of the water for me.

Madam Miaow said...

Hope I didn't disappoint, Ken.

There seems to be quite an unexpected and widely-felt negative response to the stereotyping in Sherlock that I find heartening in that not everyone swallows what they're fed uncritically. Unlike the Guardian review and online thread that was unbelievably blinded to what was being served up on Sunday. Coat my eyes with butter, fill my ears with silver and tell me lies about an entire race of people, as Adrian Mitchell might have said.

Natasha said...

I half agree with your review- the concept of this episode was a bit mad and unbelievable, but nevertheless I do love the series!
I was disappointed when I found out that there would only be 3 episodes. :(
If they made it into a regular series, the plots would be more believable and there would be more dramatic cliff-hangers. Also, Benedict Cumberbach is a great Holmes- I was apprehensive because Robert Downey Jr. was so good in Guy Ritchie's movie, but Cumberbach's Holmes is a dead ringer for the 'real Sherlock Holmes', the character from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's books, because if you read the books, Holmes is very much an arrogant, highly intelligent man with crazy fighting skills!
All in all, I hope that they make it into a proper series!

heroin_e said...

ah, yes. thank YOU. this articulates very nicely all my problems with the episode, despite the fact that i am a massive fan of cumberbatch as sherlock/The Sherlock Show. so much unnecessary exotification. seriously? chinatown full of black-clad, sunglasses-totin' sinister looking gangsters? even the waitress wore black. though that was probably just a coincidence.

and oddly enough, one of the most irritating parts was Gemma Chan's mispronounciation of Spider, which was the biggest giveaway that she doesn't actually speak Chinese. grrrr. up till that point i thought she might have been Malaysian/Singaporean -Chineseat least a smidgen of authenticity amidst the stereotyping, why not?!!? *tears hair out* i hope they don't put this Stephen writer on any more episodes. ugh. the blog, by the way. tried hunting for your bbc radio shows but i can't listen to any online ;_;

Simon said...

I'm afraid I have to be a dissenting voice on this. I've watch the episode through twice keeping an eye out for this apparently appalling dose of racism but I'm not seeing it.

The story is about a drug cartel/crime syndicate which happens to be chinese (frankly, a change from the traditional colombian/ambiguously latino villains and true to the Victorian roots).

Yes, most of the characters (excluding the lead duo) are very cliché, mostly in the sense of being cliché over the top villains, although also occaisonally invoking some Chinese stereotypes (which I suspect may have been thrown for the cheesey absurdity more than anything).

In short I really think you've been blowing this out of all proportion.

Madam Miaow said...

Try Edward Said's Orientalism.

Denis said...

It's a matter where we stand and what each of us is seeing. If you are seeing a mature audience that understands the cliches and see through to the "cheesy absurdity", then fine. Many of us who have grown up in Britain subject to stereotyping and name-calling don't see it this way. Madam Miao speaks for us in a way that is entirely in proportion to the problems that portrayals like this cause.

Dzhimbo said...

While I've really enjoyed the new Sherlock Holmes, I found ep.2 the weakest of the series, mainly for the use of the stereotypical sinister Chinese villainess. Is there a possible defence for this in the wider context of what the writer/producers have done with the Holmes mythology? There is a strain of postmodernist game-playing in the constant and often obscure references to Doyle's origninal stories, and it may be that it was intended to stand as a mocking reference to the racist elements in the original Holmes tales. There is indeed a Limehouse opium den in The Man With the Twisted Lip, and there are negative images of Indians as well as Chinese in other stories. The problem with this use of irony, if that's what was intended, is that it can of course backfire - the Alf Garnett Syndrome, we might call it. It's interesting that there are numerous jokes insisting on the non-homoerotic nature of the relationship between Holmes & Watson. Is this playing with the Queer Theory reading of H&W homophobic? Since Mark Gatiss is gay, presumably it wasn't intended to be, but it could be seen to be. Perhaps a similarly misfired irony was behind the sinister assassin. I hope so, anyway.

Madam Miaow said...

Thanks Dzhimbo. Sadly, things seem to be getting worse at the BBC. Yesterday one of their producers came up with the lamest defence for their recent Yellow Perilfest,:
Fu Manchu In Edinburgh

I can't see any attempt at irony in either of these BBC programmes. Irony is a device where a deliberate contrast marks what is literally being said and what is meant. It is present in neither Sherlock nor Fu Manchu.

Arun said...

"The robotic woman from the Bing ad emoted in similar fashion as she mysteriously and inscrutably demonstrated the tea ceremony." - Excellent!

Happy to know that there are people out there, who are immune to BBC Sherlock's seemingly irresistible charms :)