In defence of John Bennet and ‘The Talons of Weng Chiang’

Last year, around the anniversary, I read an article in which someone on the net ranked every single Doctor Who story ever televised. I don’t remember that much other than it was very Nu-Who centric (8 of the top 10 I think) and, more shockingly to this ‘old school fan’, MY all time favourite story was ranked a lowly SIXTY-SECOND. That would be The Talons of Weng Chiang.

The two criticisms of the story that I remember were, firstly that the main villain didn’t do much until part five. To me that was an odd criticism, odd that it WAS a criticism. Did they hate the original Star Wars trilogy because they had to wait until Return of the Jedi to see the Emperor? Secondly that the story was racist, principally because of the way it portrayed Chinese people and that they had a British actor playing Li Sen Chang.

Ok, yes I am going to dive in here. It may not be wise, but I am going to have a crack at defending these issues, because for me Talons is the epitome of a brilliant Doctor Who story. It’s wonderful on so many counts, and I will not be changing my opinion of this story any time soon.

Firstly, it’s an historical piece. We see the attitude towards Chinese people in London in the Victorian era. It would be inaccurate to portray English and Chinese as best buddies at the time. It just wasn’t so. Is there an issue then that the Chinese characters in the story – Chang and his henchmen, are the antagonists? In the context of one story, certainly not. If it was a trend throughout the history of Doctor Who, then certainly. In fact the real criticism should lie in the fact that throughout the first 26 years of the show, it was very European-centric. It certainly was.

John Bennet as Li Sen Chang
John Bennet as Li Sen Chang

The issue then with the casting of John Bennet as Chang.

David Maloney had to find someone capable of taking on the part, and it was undoubtedly the most important casting decision for the serial. Perhaps people on the other side of the Atlanic image that each part was cast after a director saw dozens of people, but the truth is that BBC television in the 1970s was produced with a very fast turnaround. A lot of lead roles in the shows were cast by the director calling on someone he had worked with before and knew could do the role, as was the case here.

Take a look at Philip Martin’s ‘Gangsters’ television series from around the same era, and you will see that there were only a small number of Asian actors doing the rounds in Britain at the time, and many struggled to give convincing performances in English. The talent simply was not there, and if it was, the actors were not ‘known’.

Think of it another way. Look at The Enemy of the World, Episode One. Three Australian characters hunting Salamandar with the most appalling Australian accents imaginable. It’s not considered racist, but bad acting. Same can be said in The Gunfighters, and don’t start with American attempts at being British or Australian!

To be a character actor means to stretch your limits, and play parts that are not like you at all. People play Russian, Mexican, and so on. But when a race which looks slightly different to the actor playing it is concerned, THEN it’s a racist move in casting. I’m sure the actor didn’t see it that way. Bennet was stretching his talents to play what was a very difficult role. He had to master the showmanship of the character too don’t forget.

Imagine if a Japanese person was cast in that role. Is it suddenly more acceptable? Possibly it is, the guy playing Sulu in the latest Star Trek franchise is from Korea. Yet, to be fair I am still living in Japan and a lot of Japanese, Chinese and Korean people don’t get along. There’s a history revolving around war, mistreatment and many other things. People who have been living here for over 300 years, whose forefathers came from Korea or China, still have that stamped as their ethnicity on their birth certificates. I can imagine that to some, it would have been MORE offensive to cast a Japanese actor in the role, if one capable had been found.

Rick James as Donald Cotton from the Mutants
Rick James as Donald Cotton from the Mutants

And if they had gone out on a limb (and at the BBC in the 1970s it really would have been) and cast a Chinese actor to play Chang, and he hadn’t delivered a convincing performance, fans would criticise the casting and the actor FOREVER. Don’t forget the casting of Rick James as Cotton in The Mutants. Poor guy earned the tag as ‘the WORST actor’ in the show’s history. Personally I never thought he was bad until I heard it mentioned on the DVD.

Kevin Stoney as Mavic Chen
Kevin Stoney as Mavic Chen

In the Hartnell era, there are far worse examples of casting white people in other roles. Mavic Chen is one that people often remember. I had no idea he was supposed to be Chinese to be honest, I figured he possibly wasn’t human with the prosthetics and long fingernails.

But then there’s ‘The Crusade’, featuring a number of classically trained and extremely competent actors playing Arab roles. You know, I don’t have an issue with the casting, only with the ‘blacking up’. I don’t think it was necessary. For Chang, it was, and to be honest as a kid I had no idea the actor wasn’t Asian.

I think John Bennet gives a wonderful performance. An actor should be tested, pushed, and extended to her or his limits, and he was. Today, you surely could find a Chinese actor in Great Britain capable of taking on the role. You would have the chance to cast the net widely to find the best person for the job. It was not the situation back in the 70s.

For me, The Talons of Weng Chiang is the perfect blend of all things that make good Doctor Who. The Doctor-Leela relationship is explored best in this story, it mixes science fiction with history, the sets and location shooting are glorious, it blends comedy with horror, the costumes are brilliant and it includes the best double act in the shows’ history with Jago and Litefoot. And the casting is perfect. Deep Roy, Christopher Benjamin, Trevor Baxter and especially John Bennett.

Holmes. Hinchcliffe and Maloney have told a story about a man who is Chinese. At no point do they say he does what he does, acts the way he does (or his minions either) because they are Chinese. No sweeping generalisations are made about Chinese people.

All that happens is we get an absolutely wonderful story.

What do you think? Am I out of line here? and if so, why? Please comment!

This is an opinion piece from Andrew Boland and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of troughtonismydoctor.com

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2 thoughts on “In defence of John Bennet and ‘The Talons of Weng Chiang’”

  1. My only complaint with Talons is its influence on the new series; which seems to adore the Victorian setting, to a point where it gets a bit boring. (along with the very generic sci-fi sets)

    The classic series has a lower budget, but a bigger imagination; you remember the Urbankan ship in Four to Doomsday, the circus of Greatest Show in the Galaxy, the Arabic city of Snakedance and so on

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