Eighties TV Season: The Chinese Detective: Secret State

Continuing a series of posts on 1980s TV shows which haven't appeared here before.

I have very mixed feelings indeed about The Chinese Detective and I'm aware that quite a lot of what I want to say about it isn't about the show at all.

To get the essential bit out of the way, The Chinese Detective was a BBC detective show broadcast from 1981 for two series, about British-Chinese Detective Sergeant John Ho (played by David Yip), who tends to be rather unconventional and have ongoing confrontations as a result with his superiors. It is also about the reaction he gets from being British-Chinese and is set in London, heavily focusing on the east end or dockland, as far as I can tell. If you haven't seen it the closest I can think of is that it's similar to The Sweeney without the violence and has the confrontation with authority with added racism from everyone else.

My mixed feelings begin with the reason you may not have heard of it and this is for what I would call purely economic reasons. The whole series was released on DVD in 2007 and then hasn't been re-released again. Currently the cheapest copy for sale in the UK I can find is £79.99. THere are no pirated episodes online. Basically, if you want to make sure nobody sees a TV show, this is the way to go about it. Nonetheless as far as I can tell, it's a well-remembered show and I have never seen a negative write up.

There's also the problem of it being about a 'Chinese' detective (i.e. by making the key identifier of the detective his race in a way you wouldn't with, say, the gay detective, the RC detective, the disabled detective). The problem to my mind is that the race question may intrude too much on the detection (in fact this is my main criticism of this show). It's a difficult and complex subject to integrate with a programme nominally about detection and I think this one muddies the waters too much.

I had to pick this episode because it features an elderly lady (gloriously played by Anna Wing) who has a long history of stealing, but only nicks from pet shops and only nicks budgerigars. There was no way this show wasn't going to appear here when I heard that line. She witnesses a murder from her flat and calls the police, but the body vanishes. Obviously there is a slight problem that the old lady won't be a convincing witness because as well as being a thief her birds tell her the colour of the getaway car. Ho really has to stick his head up above the parapet about this, and an apparently unsolvable murder becomes eminently confused because suddenly all sorts of interests are involved in this. The solution is not what you would expect at all. Honestly, I don't want to give the impression that I don't like this show, because I do actually think it's a cracker. And one of the best things about it is the way the number of personalities come across loud and clear - this is some quality writing right here, by Ian Kennedy Martin who, of course, also wrote The Sweeney.

Looking at the show's Wikipedia page the guest cast are an absolute cavalcade of big names, and if you like celeb guest stars and complex stories, you will love this show...if you can lay your hands on it.

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