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2013-01-27 23:01:19 (UTC)


In the last 35 years, since TV came back into my life after a hiatus of more than two decades, several who-dun-it series have given my brain a rest and a chance to sit with my wife and share some time together. Back in the late 1950s, after my mother sold our TV, I used to watch detective stories on TVs at my friends’ homes: 77 Sunset Strip (USA, 1958-1964), Dragnet (USA, 1951-1959), and Manhunt (USA, 1959-1961) are the only ones I can remember in those distant epochs of my childhood and adolescence. And I have to thank that largest encyclopaedia in the world, Wikipedia, for its unbelievably long list of “police television dramas” for reminding me of their names back in those tenuous and misty shades of my then young life.

Since 1977 when I was the secretary of the Baha’i community of Ballarat and a lecturer at what became the University of Ballarat, I’ve seen more who-dun-its than I could count. It would take me some time just to list their names: Minder, 4 different series of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Trial By Jury, Special Victims Unit, et al., Inspector Morse, Inspector Wexford, and on and on goes the litany, the list. I’m glad I got those several 100 hours of who-dun-its under my belt or through my visual field in those 3 decades from 1977 to 2011 because, in 2012, I went on a medication package for my bipolar disorder that sees me in bed by 8 p.m. All the detective series I’ve watched were 8:30 p.m. and after.

I think what I enjoyed most with all these series, and several others to boot, was the sense of repetition, of pattern, of familiarity, solving the world’s problems vicariously, helping the viewer feel that, by way of these deservedly popular vigilantes, good triumphs over evil in the end.

Back in the real world, though, the rapist is let off with a £2,000 fine because the girl brought it on herself by hitch-hiking after dark. The news that you can rape a hitch-hiker for only two grand will no doubt soon spread. A victim would be very foolish to co-operate with the police if she had nothing in prospect except to compound her agony and watch her tormentor get a small endorsement on his credit card. She would be better off ringing the SVU or Minder, or one of those inspectors: Morse or Wexford. They don’t exist, but at least they don’t disappoint you. They always come through with the goods, even if the goods are only dreams.

One of the most satisfying daydreams is to imagine yourself apparently defenceless in the presence of powerfully armed foes. They laugh at you. They mock and deride you. But you have taken a vow not to use your super strength. The only trouble is, if you never use your super strength nobody will ever know you’ve got it. Then they dare to interfere with your girl. At this point your code of silence allows a certain discreet demonstration of martial arts. The heavies don’t know what hit them. They go backwards through windows. They hang upside down from trees. And if you enjoy the detective-opera, the play violence, it’s all good fun.

An archetypal fantasy which males start having at about the age of six and are in many cases still having on their deathbeds, this daydream provides the plot outline for at least half the American and British vigilante series made for export. In Kung Fu (BBC1), which was repeated in the ‘80s and 90s, enchanted reverie can be examined in its pure form. Kwai Chang Caine, played by David Carradine, is an oriental monk with martial arts training, a shaved head and an infinite capacity to remain immobile when taunted, mocked or derided. It was a good thing that Carradine got his reverie and enchantment in when he did because was found dead in 2009 in the closet of a Bangkok hotel room with a cord wrapped around his neck and genitals leading Thai police to suspect his death was not a suicide but an accident resulting from dangerous sex practices

But before those sexploits, Carradine roamed the Wild West of America in perpetual search of a group of heavies who will not taunt, mock and deride him. They all do, however, and he must suffer in silence until they make the mistake of taunting, mocking and deriding someone else. Then he erupts into a series of flying kicks which keep all the stuntmen in Hollywood busy falling into horse-troughs, going backwards through windows, and hanging upside down from trees.

During the long wait before he unleashes his secret knowledge, Kwai Chang is chiefly occupied with looking thoughtful, in a multitude of reaction shots which are probably all secured in one long take, cut up into short lengths and spliced in throughout the programme. Sometimes the pensive look dissolves into a flashback. Suddenly we are in the temple where he received his training. ‘Ah … I am not worthy.,’ goes the script. Ancient monks transmit nameless secrets to young adepts such as: the secret of how to shave your skull without nicking it and having to staunch the flow of blood with styptic pencil or small pieces of toilet paper.

One episode of the many that enchanted me during those two decades consisted of one long flashback. It gave you a good idea of the layout. Disciples are trained in the use of every conceivable weapon, but only on the understanding that to Take Human Life is the ultimate sin. They are also trained in the ancient art of speaking their dialogue as if each sentence had a full stop every few words. ‘I have seen. Something. I cannot. Hold back.’ The occasional rush of eloquence is allowed, but it must sound like a poem. ‘The one at the gate you call a man. He is more than a man and less than a man.’ ‘If it is written, then it will be so.’ Keep it simple silly, KISS, is the rule as it was when I was teaching Using Plain English at technical and further education colleges.

The man at the gate is possessed by evil. He has come to Take Human Life. Disciple Wu gets the job of fighting him. ‘Disciple Wu is beyond any in the use of the lance.’ As Wu and the hairy challenger join battle, Kwai Chang strides off in the company of a beautiful princess to find the castle in which evil has set up headquarters. ‘You will. Think me. Foolish.’ The evil spirit calls itself the Force, but doesn’t say whether or not this is by arrangement with Star Wars. ‘I am the Force. Know too that I will be the destruction of your temple. You think I could not destroy you where you stand? You are an ant that crosses my path.’

Using contemplative techniques, Kwai Chang totals the Force, whereupon the man at the gate recovers his sanity and apologizes for having attempted to Take Human Life. ‘Forgive me, master, for bringing violence to so holy a place.’ ‘It is over,’ says the old man. ‘Master,’ says Kwai Chang, ‘I do not. Understand. All that has. Happened.’ ‘Nobody understands all.’

I thank Clive James and his 17 January 1982 column found at his website