In 2018 I was contacted by an agent in Beijing who was casting actors for a large scale TV play about the vagaries of foreign diplomacy in the period between the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the recognition of the new China following the visit of Nixon in 1972. There was a list of 86 roles to be cast, including major political figures from Pakistan, Russia, America, England, France, India, Indonesia, Cambodia, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Ghana, Guinea, Somalia, Tanzania, Zambia, Japan and probably some other countries also. In 25 years of business, this was the largest cast of foreigners he had ever had to assemble.
I translated the list into English and found photographs of all the foreigners and put notices on casting websites in England, America and Ireland (and China, of course). Applications started rolling in.
I myself, after a lot of indecision on the part of the Chinese and some indecision on my own part, went over in August and filmed the role of John Leighton Stuart, who was the last US ambassador to China before the declaration of the PRC.
The series has been widely broadcast on satellite channels and internet channels in China and seems to have been well received. So far I have only been able to watch a bit myself.
The Cairo Declaration was a film made in 2015 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Sino-Japanese war. I was in Ireland at the time but I was invited to come and play the part of the British ambassador Sir Archibald Clark-Kerr, who was stationed in Chongqing at that time. I only had one scene but it was the opener for the film so it was fairly crucial. Watching it now I wish I had made my delivery more dramatic, but at the time I didn’t realise I was going to be intercut with bombs and fighter planes.
This film had an unfortunate history itself which you can read about here. Because the advertisers put out a poster featuring Mao Ze Dong (who was in Yan’An at the time and never went anywhere near Cairo), the public concluded that the film would be a complete distortion of the history. Actually the film was quite accurate and gave a very sympathetic portrayal of the activities of Chiang kai-Shek and Song Meiling and their part in the negotiations.
This clip is a bit strange, it loses the sound in one or two places. Also the editors did something strange and had me speaking before I opened my mouth. No doubt they reasoned that being English I was quite capable of speaking out of my posterior when required.
Update – the Yuanmingyuan documentary has now been released in an English language version on Youtube. Please note, the documentary covers the whole history of Yuanmingyuan and not just the destruction of it as stated in the title of the post.
I’ve updated my essay about the making of the film and some of the questions surrounding the second Opium War here – in particular I’ve included references to some of the currently available historical materials that can be found on the internet. It might be of improved interest now to anyone interested in that period of history.
In 2009 I was asked to play John Foster Dulles in a play called “Dongfang” (东方) about Asian history (dongfang just means the east). It was one of those plays where they don’t record the sound, they just record a rough guide track so that all the dialogue can be dubbed in afterwards. The guy playing General MacArthur is actually Russian.
We filmed this scene in an outdoor military museum in Qingdao. Qingdao was for many years a German concession with the result that they now brew some of the best beer in China.
Although I didn’t dub my own dialogue for this play, strangely enough I did get called in to dub the dialogue for some of the other foreign actors. They gave me the script and told me to listen to the guide track adjust the lines to what the actors were actually saying. It was a bit of an eye-opener for me, because mostly what the actors said bore hardly any resemblance to what was in the script. I bodged, creatively, and somehow managed to make my contribution sync what was on the screen. But there was just one exception, which was a foreigner playing an interpreter speaking absolutely perfect Mandarin, character for character exactly as it was in the script. I expressed my admiration and they told me that he was actually brought up in China. Chinese was his mother tongue. I asked them why, in that case, did they want his beautiful perfect tones to be over-recorded with my horrible western accent. They said because he was supposed to be a foreigner and so he had to sound like one.
Liu Bocheng was a marshal of the People’s Liberation Army, a close friend of Deng Xiaoping. During his youth he was shot through the right eye. His eye was operated on by a German surgeon about whom I cannot discover much information but it seems that his name was Walker. Legend has it that Liu refused an anesthetic and after the operation he told the surgeon he had made 72 cuts. The surgeon was very impressed with Liu’s stoicism and gave him the nickname “Chinese Mars” (军神).
This scene was filmed in an old complex of buildings based around a church on a mountaintop near Chongqing, probably quite close to where the event actually happened. The frightful looking wound is made of honey and red food colouring.
Zheng He (郑和) was a Ming Dynasty mariner who led trading missions all over Asia, some people think he even made it as far as America. His fleet was very advanced and had features like watertight compartments to make the ships unsinkable, and magnetic compasses.
In this drama I played a Persian government official who has dealings with Zheng He’s fleet when they come looking for trade. A lot of this play was filmed in Hengdian but the bits using the boat were filmed on the semi-tropical island of Hainan.
The scene with the four Arab looking gentlemen was filmed in Hengdian. I learned my lines in Chinese and was determined to give them in Chinese, but as the whole play was being recorded without sound and dubbed in post-production the assistant director was very relaxed about it and told the Arab looking gentlemen they could speak their own language. The first guy had to say something like “I will give you four cows”. So the camera rolled and he said “Ho hum ho hum something like that diddley pop ho hum rhubarb bread and butter …” or some very similar stuff that was pure nonsense. I said to the assistant director, “Look, isn’t that going to be a bit too long? He’s only supposed to say I will give you four cows.” The assistant director looked at me as though I was a complete and utter idiot. “He is speaking his mother tongue!” he patiently explained.
Matteo Ricci was an Italian missionary, very important in Chinese history, all my Chinese friends had heard of him. He brought important discoveries in maths and cartography to China.
I played Ricci in a documentary about the history of Beijing. The director had seen “Yuanmingyuan” and called me up out of the blue. It was a very enjoyable project, most of my footage was shot in the huge film city in Hengdian where they have (amongst a lot of other things) a water village and an almost full sized replica of the Forbidden City.
When he first arrived in China, Ricci masqueraded as a Buddhist monk for a time, which required me to have a shaved head. The film company were a bit worried and thought they would make me some kind of artificial bald pate. I told them just to shave my head, it wasn’t the first time. A lot of Chinese actors (the male ones!) regularly shave their heads because the period dramas require them to wear false queues. Shaving my head also made it a lot easier to wear the complicated wigs that were needed for Ricci in his later years.
I had two sets of wigs and whiskers. A black set for when he was younger, and a white set for when he was very old. If he was younger but not too young they glued on the black set and touched them up with a silver pen, if he was older but not too old they glued on the white set and touched them up with a black pen. Then they had to be cleaned with alcohol, so it was a bit fussy. They would glue on the black whiskers and wig and then suddenly discover that it wasn’t the scene they though it was and the whole lot had to come off and be switched. That happened a few times.
I never managed to get my hands on the boxed set of this documentary, a long 12 episode version was shown on Hong Kong TV and I believe a shorter version was shown in Poland. This clip is from a rough cut that the director gave me.
I got to play John Leighton Stuart in 2008 in a play called “Beijing in Flames”. Later I watched the whole thing, it was one of the best TV plays I have ever seen, with some wonderful actors and some moments of unforgettable intensity. The leading man is Liu Peiqi – one of the best of the Chinese actors. He plays a rickshaw puller and the whole plot of the drama revolves around a group of rickshaw pullers in Beiping during the civil war period who are pig in the middle beween the KMT, Communists and Japanese, and who are just trying to keep their heads down and have a quiet life. Centering the drama around a bunch of fools like this feels very Shakespearian to me.
Although I didn’t have many scenes, the lines were very hard to learn. I had a long soliloquy in Chinese, but also there was quite a lengthy speech that was marked to be delivered in Japanese. I don’t speak a word of Japanese, so I found a Japanese girl who wanted to practice her English and we met for coffee and translated this speech into Japanese and she recorded it on my cellphone. I worked and worked at memorising it, every day I would do at least an hour on it, until I had it down pat and could reel it off with confidence.
The day came when I got the notice to go and film the scene. I decided to meet the Japanese girl again and polish up my lines. We met in the same coffee bar. The moment we sat down I blithely reeled off the speech which, as I thought, I had learned from the recording. She looked blank. “What language are you speaking?”. “Japanese”, I said. “That’s not Japanese”, she said.
This was a problem, what could I do? I had only two days to get the speech right and this girl obviously didn’t want to help me. Then inspiration struck. True, I didn’t know Japanese, but the director probably didn’t know Japanese either.
So I stuck to my guns and delivered the speech. It was far too long and my delivery was far too wooden. But the director seemed happy.
This is the Chinese soliloquy, which went a little better I think.
The Shaolin Temple (少林寺) is famous throughout the world as the origin of Chinese Kung Fu. It was also the first temple in Asia where the style of Buddhism now known as “Zen Buddhism” was practiced.
Representations of the Shaolin Temple and Shaolin Monks run through Chinese culture like Blackpool runs through Blackpool rock. The first TV play I ever watched when I arrived in China was a play about a renegade Shaolin monk called Fang Shi Yu (方世玉).
This picture is from the TV series. These are not real Shaolin monks!
In the winter of 2001 – 2002 I visited the Shaolin Temple and stayed for two months. I have never been so cold in my life, but it was a great experience nevertheless.
An account of my experience in the Shaolin Temple can be found here (warning: rather long)
General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell was a four star American general who was appointed as Chief of Staff to Chiang Kai-shek, Stilwell became more and more disenchanted with Chiang, whom he referred to as “the peanut”.
I played Stilwell a couple of times, this clip is from a TV play called “Zhou Enlai in Chongqing” (周恩来在重庆). This play falls under the category of “propaganda”, but it was very well made propaganda. My neighbours told me it won a prize, though I’m not sure what prize it was exactly. It covered all kinds of things that films don’t usually cover, such as how political committees work and what people do if their newspapers are closed down by the government, etc. The play was filmed by the August First Army Film Studio. I worked for them several times. It’s quite strange working with a company where half the assistant directors are wearing army uniform, but they are an excellent company and universally acknowledged as expert film makes throughout the film industry in China. I often used to meet their personnel on hire to civilian film companies.
In this clip I am playing Stilwell in a dialogue with Chiang Kai-shek, Song Meiling is present and interpreting for Chiang. We filmed this scene in Chongqing actually in Song Meiling’s house where she lived with Chiang Kai-shek. The house is now a museum.
Talk to people about the Chinese revolution and they immediately think of Mao, but Sun Yatsen was a more important figure, he did the spadework for modern China and worked at great risk to himself for the overthrow of the Qing.
Sun was a true internationalist, he lived in Japan and England and Hong Kong and had contact with intellectuals and revolutionaries all over the world. A couple of years ago I attended a lecture given by his great grandson in Beijing. He produced a book that Sun had written outlining plans for the development of modern China, including where the main rail lines should be, the most useful areas of the coast for building industrial ports and many other details. He told us that Deng Xiaoping’s ideas were closely based on the outlines that Sun had laid down. Sun was a lot more than a rabble-rouser.
I got interested in Sun when I was making a TV play about Chinese boys working in tin mines in Malaysia (下南洋). We were staying in Cui Heng, the place of Sun’s birth, and my hotel was right across the road from the Sun Yatsen museum. It rained a lot, and every day when I had no scenes I went over the road and browsed the museum. It was there, in the photographs lining the walls, that I first discovered Song Qingling (宋庆龄).
In 2011 I took a small part in a TV play commemorating the original 2011 Xinhai Revolution. I played James Cantlie, a medic and teacher who had been one of Sun’s first teachers when he was studying medicine in Hong Kong. Later when Sun was in England working in the British Museum he was kidnapped by the Qing and imprisoned in the Chinese embassy in London. Cantlie waged a press campaign and obtained Sun’s release. If he had been sent back to China the Qing would have tortured him to death.
Yuanmingyuan (圆明园), otherwise known as the Old Summer Palace, was a magnificent park and set of palaces built by the Qing emperors on the outskirts of Beijing. The court spent most of the year there, only coming to the Forbidden City when protocol demanded that the Emperor gave audience.
In 1860 this magnificent garden was invaded by the Anglo-French forces who burned the palaces to the ground and took many priceless artifacts as booty.
In 2005 CCTV10, which is the educational channel of China Central Television, made a documentary about Yuanmingyuan. In order to give the viewer an impression of what the gardens were like in their heyday, significant use was made of expensive CGI technology, which was a first for a Chinese documentary. I played Lord Elgin, the leader of the expedition and the man who ordered the burning of the gardens.
More information about Yuanmingyuan and Elgin’s role can be found here
The film had a grand premier at the Great Hall of the People, which I attended with some of the other foreign actors.
In 2010 I worked on 16 projects. I think they were all TV shows. One of the most interesting historically was a play about the outbreak of bubonic plague in Harbin in 1911. A Chinese Malaysian called Wu Lian De (伍连德) was appointed by the court to deal with this plague. He discovered that unlike the Black Death the plague in Harbin was transmitted via people’s airways and not via rats.
The play adds a lot of fancy details about Japanese and Russian conspiracies which reflects the territorial tensions that were working themselves out in that part of China at the time. Harbin has always had a strong Russian presence, even now there are lots of Russian souvenir shops and good vodka is easy to find.
It was a pretty stressful shoot because a lot of it was shot in Harbin and some of it even further north, almost as far as the Russian border in Mudanjiang.
I play an imaginary character, the father of a Russian doctor. In this clip my daughter (the doctor) has discovered she has caught the plague and has voluntarily entered the isolation zone.
Sir Robert Hart was a Belfast man who went to China at the age of 19 and stayed all his life. He was appointed as head of the customs service in the late Qing Dynasty. It might seem strange that a foreigner should have that job, but at that time the Qing were under various treaty obligations to pay punitive damages to the western powers and Hart collected some of this money through the customs.
Hart was a brilliant man and quite a character, he played violin every morning for at least an hour, spoke Chinese and was passionately pro-Chinese. He often interceded in negotiations between China and foreign governments. I played him twice, once when I was just starting out I played him in a TV play about the first governor of Taiwan.
Then in 2011 I played him in a series called “Jiu He Ru Hai” (九河入海). For the former play I shaved my head to look just like him. In the latter play I offered to shave my head but they didn’t bother. It was only one scene. But I am pleased with it because it was the first time I had ever worn the silk official robes that Hart probably would have worn in his day.
Curzon was Viceroy of India. I played him in a two-part television film about an invasion of Tibet by the British in 1903. The invasion was initiated by Curzon. The film was made by a youth film project connected with the film university, but they had a bit of a budget and the actors got paid. My few scenes were filmed in Beijing. They had an impressive looking building on which they had hung a brass sign saying “GOVERNMENT HOURSE”. I told the AD it could either be a horse or a house but not both. They hastily found a large pot plant to hide the offending “R”.
Everyone else in the film went to Tibet, but I was left behind. I am still waiting for a chance to film in Tibet!