I have great admiration for the Chinese. And for the Indians – those from the sub-continent, that is. And not on account of their ominously vibrant economies which are clearly set to overtake ours in the near future and consign us the dustbin of economic history. (That’s maybe overstating it. But we’ve had our moment in the sun, haven’t we?). No, I admire them particularly for an unspoken philosophy of theirs which states – if you can state anything that’s ‘unspoken’ – that if anything needs to be done, it can be. So let’s do it. Period. I’ve seen it at work on their home ground in both India and China (Hong Kong actually). And you can see it at work any day of the week, here in the UK.
If you spend a large part of your life driving around this country – as I used to on the lookout for locations for films or for TV commecials – you very soon learn that at whatever one-horse town you fetch up at whatever season in whatever weather and at – almost – whatever time of night, there will be somewhere, in the main street or lurking down some narrow side street, a lit neon sign hanging out over the pavement saying ‘Taj Mahal’ or ‘Golden Dragon’.
Who are these people, I used to think, who up sticks from their home and kinspeople so many thousands of miles away, some from remote rural areas, and come all the way to this severed off-shoot of Europe in order to introduce the natives to their Eastern food? What drives them? Many of them settle here with their families in what is really a quite alien culture – (spend a few weeks travelling around rural India and you will see what I mean) – whose language, conventions and customs are so different from their own. I can’t see it happening the other way around. Or am I wrong, and is there somewhere in some lost corner of China or the Indian subcontinent, an entrepreneurial couple from Watford or Blackburn, along with their family, running a restaurant called ‘Roast Beef to Go’? Lovely thought – but I doubt.
The Chinese were good to work for. I used to work for them in Hong Kong. A film production company there on Hong Kong Island used to call me out two or three times a year to direct commercials for them – particularly their Carlsberg Lager commercials. This was before Hong Kong developed its own breed of talented directors. Thereafter there was no need for them to call on outsiders, but in those days there was quite a phalanx of ex-patriot Brits working in their film industry.
The now-overused phrase ‘No problem’ meant literally that to them. I went out there once to direct a couple of Carlsberg Lager commercials, one of which involved a Western stage-coach pulled by four horses being attacked by half a dozen Indians (American native type) on horseback shooting arrows at it! That gave their production department a problem – there was no such thing as a stage-coach in Hong Kong. Nor any plan of what one should look like or how to put one together.
I flew out there, taking with me a clipping of an old Sean Connery film, a Western called ‘Shalako’. This had in it a long tracking shot of a stage-coach – in profile – being pulled by horses on level ground. It gave a very clear view of what the traditional Western stage coach looked like, and the guys in the production department in Hong Kong were confident they could work out from that how to build one.
I didn’t share their confidence. It seemed to me they were taking on a very complex project with very little time to work it out and get right. I talked over with them what I wanted to see – i.e. the sort of shots I anticipated doing and how much of the stage coach would actually be visible. The side of the vehicle which would be away from camera for instance – that could be just plain hardboard or whatever material they thought suitable. And indeed, I said, I will not need to have the stage-coach practical – in other words I would never be seeing a long shot of the whole stage coach as it travels across the desert. In the first place, there is no desert in Hong Kong, so we were going to have to use the floor of a quarry and mainly because of that I would have to to restrict my shots to medium close shots of the coach and of the horses. Any clear view of the background would have given the game away. But with a bit judicious filmic jiggery-pokery which one often employed purely as a matter of course, the viewer would be appropriately taken in.
So, I said, you don’t have to put on it wheels which can take the considerable weight and strains of a laden stage coach being pulled at speed across rough ground. As long as the wheels look authentic and are able to turn, that will be sufficient. When we film we’ll mount the coach on a low-loader pulled by a motor vehicle and we’ll have a guy at each corner, low down out of camera view, spinning each wheel by hand.There was a lot of sagacious nodding and chattering in Cantonese – none of which I understood – at the end of which, the foreman simply grinned at me and said, ‘No problem.’
They’d said they’d need four days to build it. I found that hard to believe. For two days as I went about casting extras and doing all the usual pre-production, I bit my fingernails on their account. On the morning of the third day I rang the foreman to ask how they were progressing. ‘Finished!’ he said. ‘Are you serious?’ I replied.
I went along to their workshops in some trepidation. A full-size stage coach, painted in full colour is no small order. They could use no standard unit – everything would have to be custom-designed and custom-made. If there were to be any substantial re-working or re-building we could be in serious trouble. The shooting dates were almost upon us and they could not be changed. The main artiste was, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, a great pop celebrity and he was booked up to kingdom come thereafter.
What greeted me when I entered the workshop bowled me over. There, with those who had worked on it ranged around it, was the stage coach straight out of ‘Shalako’, faithful in every detail of wood and paintwork – and on both sides so it could be shot from either side. And it was standing on the floor of the workshop on its own four wheels. The foreman was delighted with himself. ‘We work all night,’ told me, with a look of triumph on his face. And just in case, he added, that you decide at the last minute that you’d like the stage coach to be pulled on its own by the horses just like real, we’ve made the wheels all completely practical – i.e. all four had been constructed to work exactly as they would on the real thing. In fact – this was the real thing. Or a replica of it. I shook all their hands and told them that I was astounded and delighted. I took away with me the realization that some fundamental aspect of our world was on the change.
I well remember returning to the UK after my very first trip to Hong Kong sometime in the mid-eighties. The place had knocked me sideways. I made my opinion known to a variety of people that six-thousand miles away there was a powerhouse developing by comparison with which we would, in the long term, stand little economic chance. Not everybody wanted to hear that, but I think I was not far from the truth. China and India – Brazil and others too – are new and fresh in the industrialization game. They’re excited by it and are raring to go. We’re not. We started it. We’re ageing now and tiring of it. We really should recognize that and step gracefully back. We are due for a new place in the world. There is little sign yet of that being recognized or acknowledged. But all things are cyclical and if we will not, of our own volition, bow before those things which are greater than ourselves then the initiative will pass from us and we will simply be overtaken by events. And that way will be a lot less comfortable.