Through Expat Eyes: Filming Beijing Television In 1983
Before discos, clubs and video rentals arrived in China, which they inevitably did, there was very little in the way of entertainment, and it was especially sparse for foreign residents.
As in most homes across the world, television was the most popular medium and as such was used, in the 1980s at least, as a means of conveying the ‘Party Line’. Programmes, with the exception of an occasional documentary about another region of China, were full of Communist ideals and not-so-subtle propaganda. When we, back home, would have been watching ‘Soaps’ here we had ‘Electricity Part 13: electromagnetic force’ followed by ‘Radio for Amateurs: simple measuring of transistors’. Prime time slots were occupied by documentaries extolling the virtues of great military leaders or great Party members, or films about love of family and country conquering all. The news featured a great number of reports of wonderful increases of food production by ‘model’ communes. Sometimes a criminal trial would be reported on, the accused, head shaved and in manacles being roughly forced by two policemen to bow to the Court. Further footage showed a police van driving out into the country to the execution site. There was little light relief in the adverts either, which mostly featured tractors and heavy machinery.
Over the years a news bulletin in English appeared, along with more drama (although always moralistic), but the finer points of presenting were still missing: just as the final programme of the day was ending, a disembodied voice would say an abrupt “goodnight” and transmission would end – no music, no “thank you for watching”, just an instant blank screen. This would often be as early as 10.30 p.m., as everyone went to bed and arose much earlier than we were used to.
As more and more popular entertainment appeared on television, one Spring Festival the Chinese Television Company decided to put on the largest extravaganza ever staged, hosted by the famed Zhang Kun (the Terry Wogan of Beijing). Two foreign children were invited to take part (my daughter Anna and a French boy) in a sketch about a child’s birthday party and a money box. Despite the many comic lines, the basic moral of saving money (preferably with the sponsoring bank!) came across loud and clear.
Filming was to take place at an hotel near the Ming Tombs, and we arrived with Anna and her 2 brothers at the appointed time of 10.30am to be shown in to a comfortable lounge and served soft drinks. Anna was needed ‘on set’ at 11.30 and we were invited to make ourselves at home and “rest awhile”. The hour came and went, only punctuated every ten minutes or so by someone putting his head around the door and encouraging us to “rest awhile”.
By 12.30 we felt we had rested quite enough – we had no books, drawing paper, games for the children and we were all feeling very bored. At last we were summoned, but not to start filming but to have lunch; a very tasty meal shared with a girl who juggled with her feet and a comedian. Assuring our hosts that we had indeed eaten well and sufficiently, we hoped to get on with the show as it were but our expectations were dashed when we were ushered in to a guest room of the hotel where there were two beds, a television and a bathroom, and where we might better “rest awhile”. It was ‘siesta’ time for the Chinese, so no hope of anything moving for a couple of hours, so when in Rome…
The afternoon drifted by, but at least we had television and we went for a walk around the small grounds of the hotel to relieve the boredom, until at last we were collected. A quick run-through of Anna’s lines, a brush of her hair and off we went – to the restaurant for dinner! By that time we were having serious doubts that we had maybe gone on the wrong day, especially as yet another “rest” was to be had after we’d eaten, but at last, at 10 o’clock in the evening we were summoned (perhaps we’d muddled am with pm). For the first time we met the other children taking part – not at their best either and the French boy kept falling asleep. They were taken off for a quick rehearsal and makeup, while Anna’s younger brother Tom kept the rest of us amused by throwing up all over the floor, which fortunately wasn’t carpeted.
Finally ready to go, except Zhang Kun wasn’t, so we all moved to another room bedecked in lights, backdrops and plastic grape vines to watch him complete the filming of a 5 minute comedy sketch, whereupon it was back to the ballroom we’d first seen those many hours before. Whilst the audience were rearranged so that the best dressed and most attractive were at the front, a team of electricians dismantled all the lights, but fortunately not the plastic grapes, from the other room and rewired them ready for use. I never did discover why they didn’t just use one room for all the filming.
The sponsoring bank’s large logo was ceremoniously hoisted into a prominent position mid camera shot, the actors assembled and the lights switched on. One final run-through was called for by the producer, which seemed to go smoothly enough until the cameraman complained that the gold logo reflected the bright lights so much that all the camera could pick up was a white glare. Yet another delay while from somewhere were found a stepladder, a pot of matte varnish, a paintbrush and a man to use all three to tone down the glossy gold. To our amazement, when filming finally started at 11.45pm, it only took two takes: no one forgot their words and the children somehow managed to look fresh and awake.
By one in the morning they had each been given a commemorative coin from the bank and a rather expensive toy and had devoured most of the large creamy birthday cake ‘prop’ from their sketch – a messy affair as the kitchen was closed for the night and hands had to take the place of plates.
Sometimes boring, very tiring, but mostly a fascinating experience with fascinating people – a most entertaining way to spend 15 hours.
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