Time to get into the Wayback Machine for a trip to 1982, for Patrick Malahide’s guest-starring role as Colin Bennett, one of a gang of crims in an episode of the BBC’s “The Chinese Detective” titled “Secret State” (S02E08). I had never heard of this series before, but it seems to have been remarkable for its time for featuring a Chinese protagonist in a leading role. The titular detective, D.S. John Ho (David Yip), has to contend with a lot of prejudice and conflict in his job, both from his superiors as well the criminals he’s trying to apprehend. In the process, we get a lot of the “You’re on thin ice! Get ready to turn in your badge!” dialogue that’s so common it’s now a cliché in today’s police dramas, although it was relatively new then. But how does Ho meet up with Bennett, who reminds me an awful lot of a young Jack Turner who’s left the docks, but hasn’t built his criminal empire yet?
Starting Off with a Murder
After a rather McCloud/Columbo-like opening, we get right down to things with a murder. Three men in a red Mercedes are watching a fourth in a grey anorak. The youngest of the four, Liam Doyle (Oengus MacNamara, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Neil Hope from Canada’s “Degrassi High” series), hails the target with a familiar “Charlie!” while the others look on pensively. Bennett is dressed inconspicuously for the occasion in a bright red tie and red and blue striped shirt which can surely be seen from blocks away, even in the dark. Actually, my eyes were so riveted by the tie that I didn’t notice at first that it was Mr. Malahide wearing it! The hit doesn’t go quite as planned, so there’s a short chase before
Wheels Liam shoots Charlie Miller (Peter Spraggon) in the back. Unbeknownst to him, the entire thing has been witnessed by a batty, budgerigar-loving old lady, Alice Walden (Anna Wing), who calls the police.
D.S. Ho is On the Case
D.S. Ho shows up to investigate and, after persuading Miss Walden that it might be safer to wait in her flat, calls the station to report a dead body. Unfortunately, he’s not parked anywhere near the corpse and can’t keep an eye on it while on the radio, so Bennett, Doyle, and Pollitt (Tony Caunter) have a chance to sneak back and steal it away. The rest of the police arrive and, finding no victim nor even a bloodstain, give Ho some static. Perhaps the corpse was only wounded a little bit, then got better and walked away? (I’m resisting the urge to quote Monty Python here.) Luckily for Ho (if it’s “lucky” to be backed up by a known crazy lady), Alice and her budgies saw the whole thing, saying the body was picked up by three men in a red Mercedes (the budgies are particularly helpful when it comes to car colour). However, the rest of the cops aren’t inclined to place much credence in either Alice’s or Ho’s testimony without some evidence.
The next day, as Ho’s jumping through various hoops for his superior officers (one gathers there’s been ongoing friction between him and his boss, C.I. Berwick, so Ho gets to meet with HR), Charlie’s dead body turns up on the riverbank, disposed of Jack Turner-style. Two mysterious grey-suited, vaguely authoritative-looking men check over the corpse and comment ominously that Ho’s “going to have to be stopped” before he gets any further. It seems he might have stumbled into a conspiracy!
Getting Rid of a Grass
Meanwhile, Colin meets another gang associate, Jack Loughlin (Maurice O’Connell), in the dockside offices of Loughlin’s freight business. They obviously have something of a working relationship; Colin’s succinct first words are: “Doyle did it. Shot Charlie. Bunged the remains in the river”, which catches up Loughlin nicely. The dockside environment instantly made me think of Jack Turner, with the resemblance enhanced by Colin’s Cockney accent and – I’m sorry, but I do have to mention it – striking sartorial style. Colin is attired in a three-piece grey-striped suit, powder blue pinstriped shirt with white collar, and a tie so blindingly white it could be seen from outer space. The red tie was impressive, but this one blew it out of the water. Just the sort of thing a peacocking young crim would wear. Oh, and Colin tops all of that with a reddish-brown suede overcoat which would be completely impractical for rain or anything else potentially staining. Okay, I’m done now, I swear. 😉
Back to the matter at hand. Unlike his taste in clothes, Colin’s view of Charlie’s murder is completely pragmatic. He describes Charlie as a “right bastard” who was “well overdue” for what he got, while Loughlin is somewhat more reticent. We do get a sense that larger forces might be at work when Colin asks if the murder will satisfy “the Belfast mob”, but Loughlin has bad news: apparently there are “two traitors in [their] lot”. “Christ! Terrific! Now what’re we gonna do?” demands Colin, to which Loughlin replies, “The only thing we can do. Give them another dead man.” One suspects D.S. Ho might soon have even more explaining to do.
Ho Goes Maverick
While this is going on, Ho (who’s the sort of nice guy who’d carry a baby in its stroller down a long flight of stairs for a busy mother) manages to trace Charlie’s residence to another building in Miss Walden’s complex. He searches the flat and comes away with A Clue™ in the form of a distinctively blue-labelled ale bottle – the only clue he bothers to collect. Hmmm… blue… Nah, probably just a coincidence. He’s then peremptorily summoned back to the nick to be hauled on the carpet by C.I. Berwick (Derek Martin) and one of those mysterious grey-suited gentlemen we saw earlier. Berwick, who has clearly received orders from Higher Up, tells Ho that his investigation is complicating another, much more important one being conducted by “another agency” and that he’d better “drop it like a hot brick” if he knows what’s good for him. Ho reluctantly agrees, but it’s plain that he intends to go maverick and keep investigating anyway. Otherwise, what’s the point of the show?
Colin Assists the Old Bill with Their Inquiries
Knowing it might cost him his job, Ho traces the bottle to Colin’s pub, the Kings Arms, which just happens to be the only place where this particular brand of blue-labelled ale is sold (it’s also a much nicer pub than either Dave Ryder’s or the Winchester). Colin can’t very well deny selling the ale when there’s a shelf of the same product behind his shoulder, but he does his best to give annoyingly vague answers to Ho’s questions. He claims he doesn’t remember selling a six-pack to a man in a grey anorak, but he helpfully offers to ask “the girl” when she comes in later. Colin’s remarkably subdued and astonishingly bad at lying for a villain; he’s very soft-spoken, almost shy, and transparently unconvincing. You’d think he’d have a lot more experience dealing with the police. Put Jack Turner in the same situation and he’d be laughing jovially and offering to buy the Plod a drink, all while cheerfully planning the officer’s later, extremely painful demise and quick disposal if he proves to be a problem. But Jack’s had a few years to develop his technique. I did find it extremely interesting to hear someone sounding so much like Chisholm on the wrong side of the law; it was a nice turnabout for some of Mr. Malahide’s later roles. It was slightly unsettling to hear Colin refer to the “Old Bill” and “the Plod” without meaning himself and say, “Local nick?” (when asking where he could find Ho) in Chisholm’s tones, but with a completely different personality behind the words.
Another Secret Agenda at Work
Once Ho leaves, Colin sets Pollitt to trail him while taking off for a mysterious meeting of his own with the Grey-Suited Man (John Rolfe). Colin’s evidently pursuing his own agenda with Special Branch and doesn’t appreciate the Old Bill’s extra scrutiny. He’s infuriated that Ho tracked Charlie as far as his pub and angrily demands that Ho be taken off his back: “Bloody lunatic Chinese! Now, you lock him up or I’ll shoot him!” However, the Grey-Suited Man doesn’t seem cowed by Colin’s temper, saying that he and Loughlin knew the situation could get “risky”, to which Colin replies, “There’s a difference between risk and bloody suicide!” The Grey-Suited Man notes that Doyle “knocked off Charlie Miller”, and adds an expectant “…now?” Whoever he may be, he obviously requires yet another murder. Surprisingly enough, Colin appears to have some principles buried in his soul somewhere; he calls the Grey-Suited Man an “ice-cold bastard” for his demand, but Grey-Suit tells him he needs to learn to be the same. Grey-Suit says he’ll get Ho off of Colin’s back, but Colin doesn’t look reassured.
Very quickly thereafter, Ho’s called into Berwick’s office yet again for showing up at Colin’s pub, a coincidence which should lead him to deduce just how the Higher Ups know what he’s doing. However, he’s still determined to keep investigating. As he tells his father and best friend, anything that goes on in the country should be publicly accountable. No one should be able to “turn a blind eye” to murder or live in a “secret state”. Even though he’s taking an involuntary vacation as a disciplinary measure and might jeopardize his career, he’s going to continue.
A Second Grass
Meanwhile, the gang of crims gather at the Kings Arms to plan their next move. Sergeant Ho is even conveniently in the area, peering into garages in search of the red Mercedes. Loughlin convinces the others that Charlie was grassing all along; he needed to be bumped off in order to persuade the Belfast gang that they could still do business together, with a big pay-off as the reward. He then names a second grass, Eddie Cronin, who has also allegedly been uncovered by the Belfast mob. After some initial reluctance, all four of them impulsively set out for Cronin’s betting parlour (he’s a bookie) to track him down and exact revenge. It’s not clear why they feel they need to do this right away and it feels a bit rushed. Well, it’s the last ten minutes of the show, so perhaps they needed to hurry, but surely they could’ve put a bit more planning into it! At least they waited until dark and tried to be sneaky when they killed Charlie.
The Least Well-Planned Kidnap Attempt Ever
The gang then carries out the most clumsy, slapdash kidnapping ever. It’s kind of surprising that it succeeds at all. Colin thoughtfully locks up his pub first, then they pack into the Volvo and head for the betting parlour, followed by Ho. A terrified worker says Cronin’s at the bank, so they all set off down the street; at least Loughlin remembers to put Doyle’s “shooter” in his pocket for appearances’ sake. However, aside from a little “shooter” brandishing, they’re remarkably non-violent. Colin even betrays the fact that perhaps his heart isn’t quite in it by ushering innocent bystanders out of the way while Loughlin grabs Cronin. Nothing sneaky about this job! Still followed by Ho (who’s reported the whole thing as a bank robbery), the gang heads back to the Kings Arms to… well, it’s not really clear what they plan to do. They could just kill Cronin, but since they openly kidnapped him in broad daylight, it’s going to be extremely easy to identify them. Bad planning!
An Ignominious End
Not that it really matters anyway, because as soon as they arrive, Ho hops out of his car to arrest them all single handedly – although he does have back-up on the way, because he’s SMRT like that. Suddenly, a regular donnybrook breaks out, with Doyle and Pollitt ganging up on Ho and Cronin fighting Colin. Cronin attempts to get away, but Colin flying tackles him (onto pavement, ouch!) into some garbage cans. Unfortunately for Colin, Cronin uses the weapons at hand, unceremoniously leveling him with a trash can lid to the face, punctuated by a rather nasty, ignominious *Bong!* sound. 🙁 We’ll just hope that was all due to the Foley artists and that Mr. Malahide’s nose wasn’t actually involved. At any rate, Colin spends the rest of the fight rolling around on the ground in agony.
The gang is arrested and hauled away, and Ho is vindicated about Charlie’s murder. But he still has to face the music back at the nick, where Grey-Suit (we never do find out his name) angrily informs him that he’s disrupted a very high-level operation. Loughlin and Colin were real crims all along (we knew it!) employed by Special Branch to form their own gang and infiltrate a group of Irish terrorists selling drugs to finance arms deals. The Irish somehow realized there were two grasses in Loughlin and Colin’s gang but didn’t know who they were, so Charlie was killed to give them a scapegoat. Presumably Cronin would’ve been as well. But now the operation’s a shambles and Grey-Suit tells Ho that there’s no way of knowing how much damage he’s caused, ominously adding, “Your name is noted!” Definitely a Career-Limiting Move. But on the bright side, Berwick’s respect for Ho increases after seeing Ho standing up for his principles (and I suspect, because all the bad consequences land on Ho rather than Berwick), so the series ends on a somewhat positive note.
“The Chinese Detective” as a Police Drama
This was an interesting episode, if somewhat quaint by today’s standards. That is, quaint in terms of the “maverick police officer” trope, which has since been done a bazillion times. But the story itself has more depth than one might expect, incorporating the terrorist/Secret Branch angle with the latter willing to resort to employing gangsters and condoning murder (a disturbing factor which isn’t really addressed, except by Ho’s “secret state” comments) to get things done. The continual emphasis on Ho’s being Chinese was somewhat jarring at times – of course it’s spelled out in the title and even Ho’s doctor friend calls him a “contentious Chinese” – but I suppose the writers were trying to make a point about racism and prejudice at the time. Despite all the obstacles in his way, Ho proves himself to be an effective police officer.
Mr. Malahide’s Portrait of the Villain as a Young Man
What I was mostly interested in seeing was Mr. Malahide as a young villain, and he did it very well. Admin and I have speculated that Jack Turner might have bought a pub of his own while he was an up-and-coming gangster, perhaps giving it to Dave Ryder when he moved on to bigger things. But Colin wasn’t nearly as aggressive or ruthless as Turner had learned to be. I liked how Mr. Malahide gave him a tiny hint of conscience that I’m sure Jack lacked, as well as a surprising shyness and discomfort with being questioned by the police. But the two characters also have a few things in common: Cockney accents (still unsettling to hear Chisholm-like dialogue out of Colin), a peacock wardrobe, and ambitions for better things. Not that the two performances are carbon copies of each other, because they certainly aren’t! I have my doubts that Colin would ever become Turner; I could see Colin eventually going straight where Jack never would.