Following the end of The Sweeney, celebrated scriptwriter Ian Kennedy Martin moved to the BBC and created two further - but totally different - police drama series; Juliet Bravo (1980-1985) and The Chinese Detective (1981-1982)
The show ran for two series and made a star of Liverpudlian Chinese actor David Yip who took the central role of the quirky yet sensitive maverick DS John Ho of Limehouse nick. A very atmospheric series, the show now has great nostalgic value in seeing a London that no longer exists as much of the series was shot in and around the derelict docklands before the developers took hold and gentrified these surroundings.
Kennedy Martin cites his intention for the programme as primarily to offer something more than the police procedural at that time.This approach I think can be seen in both his BBC crime dramas following The Sweeney; Juliet Bravo centred on a female inspector at a time when the force was predominantly male and certainly so in the higher ranks, whilst this drama focuses on the ethnic minorities both within the force and in the diverse London community which featured regularly and allowed actors of Chinese, Asian, African, West Indian, Polish and Jewish origins a chance to shine. Sadly, though it's thirty-three years since the credits rolled for the last time on The Chinese Detective, I don't think television has actually capitalised on its cultural diversity offering as it does scant opportunity for ethnic minorities to lead dramas or even feature in them in supporting roles all that much. As a result, The Chinese Detective still feels fresh and important - the racism Ho feels from his superior DCI Berwick (played brilliantly by Derek Martin, pictured below with Yip) may be less in your face these days, but the lack of inclusion is sadly still all too real.
Kennedy Martin claims his inspiration for the series was two real life incidents; the first being the one and only Chinese detective within London's Met at that time who was mainly used as an interpreter and translator rather than an actual investigating officer, and the other was the story of a Chinese girl whose father owned a restaurant which was beginning to struggle. He was expected to pay protection money to the local police each week and, when this became impossible because of the businesses dwindling income, the officers raided his home and planted drugs. Upon 'finding' them, they arrested the girl's father as a dealer and he subsequently served a prison term. It is this that forms the backbone and backstory of the first series of The Chinese Detective as we learn that Ho joined the Met to investigate a crooked cop, now retired, who purposefully got his father sent to gaol for possession of drugs which he planted on the old man. In the final episode, when Ho confronts his nemesis, David Yip is crying real tears as he explains his families plight, because he knew it was a true story for some poor family out there.
The character of Johnny Ho is an intriguing one; an eternal loner, too clever for his own good, not in the least bit physical (no impressive and cliched kung fu heroics here!) he does not exist or think in the straight lines his fellow officers do. This gets him results, but it does not get him respect. If anything it gets him more aggravation. He's also rather adrift from his own community as, despite his Hamlet like guilt, his father isn't pleased he joined the force to exact revenge and overall, the Chinese community view him as a traitor as they do not traditionally believe in the police. Ho also refers to himself as a Londoner or British rather than Chinese as everyone around him - specifically the white people - does, which is interesting as neither the white community accept him nor the Chinese (though distractingly Yip's natural Scouse sometimes shines through in his accent) There's also the occasional and very subtle suggestion that the sensitive and sympathetic Ho may be bisexual; he develops a close relationship with a Chinese doctor in series 2 and has a rather homoerotic poster of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima on his wall. No two ways about it, Ho is a unique character for a police drama.
The theme was provided by the great Harry South (The Sweeney, Fox, Big Deal etc) and is a wonderfully evocative tune. The opening credits arrangement shared below is a great one for telling you what lies in store; from its haunting melody at the start as the camera pans across the dawn or dusk lit docklands to its sudden jazzier kickstart...
I also really love the arrangement for the closing credits; slower more reflective (as South had previously done with The Sweeney) and with opening bars that put me in mind of a John Barry-esque James Bond theme and its mournful saxophone...
YouTube also chucks up this version, which is a further different arrangement. It commences in a manner like the opening theme, but is longer in some places and is played by different instruments - more synth.
Speaking of synth; Intriguingly it seems Vince Clarke of Yazoo (and latterly of Depeche Mode and Erasure) was a fan of the show and produced an instrumental, 'remake'/homage/alternative of the theme tune, although I believe it was never officially released or recorded, and simply played during Yazoo's Guided Tour in '82.
I've been working my way through the boxset of The Chinese Detective this past month having never really seen it before and I must say I enjoyed it. I believe it was my late nanna's favourite show back in the 80s - she had good taste, my nan! The show only lasted two seasons which I think is a shame specifically because as I say it offered actors of different ethnicities a chance to appear on mainstream prime time TV each week which is still a rarity today. Kennedy Martin believes the reason for its axeing was twofold; because it was put up against ITV's Shine On Harvey Moon on Sunday nights, 9pm and because the powers that be did not like the low class multi racial cast. Yip went on to star in both Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the James Bond film A View to a Kill whilst Derek Martin returned to play cops for Ian Kennedy Martin in a similar short lived opposites attract serial for ITV, King and Castle alongside Nigel Planer.
Here's Yip discussing The Chinese Detective at the Thinking Chinese Conference this year at the UCL - very interesting listen.