Sherlock: The Blind Banker review

Yellow Peril and Chinese Diaspora

Sherlock: The Blind Banker

Cultural criticism: review of Episode 2 of the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes series (2010)

Sherlock, Episode 2 – The Blind Banker, BBC1: Wily orientals and China dolls

TV review by Anna Chen, 1 August 2010

Sherlock Blind Banker BBC1 TV review by Anna Chen
Sherlock: The Blind Banker BBC – the return of Yellow Peril tropes

Spoiler alert

Having missed the curtain-raiser of the Sherlock series last week, boo-hooing over the rave reviews, and tonight’s show — The Blind Banker — promising to be more Second Coming than second episode, Loved One and I settled in to watch, even forsaking our TV pals over at Channel 4 in the Big Brother house just as Josie’s nemesis Sam Pepper enters the fray.

Episode Two began intriguingly enough. The robotic woman from the Bing ad emoted in similar fashion as she mysteriously and inscrutably demonstrated the tea ceremony. I did wonder why a modern young Chinese Miss would be wearing a chipao frock in present-day London, but Loved One sniffed that she needed it for her job entrancing the tourists and demanded to know why didn’t I do tranquility and ancient wisdom like writer Stephen Thompson’s creation?

After yelling that I am frikkin’ peaceful when not being wound up, I admiringly noted her noble struggle with the accent, as actress Gemma Chan evidently speaks Chinese as orfentically as I speak it — that is: not at all. But I put this down to the obvious imminent revelation that she was really a Terminator-style android sent by Moriarty to wreak devastation on our imploding civilisation and the accent therefore was deliberately gauged to be unlike any known human language. A sort of error of the tongues.

Ah, so sinisterly clever. 

In this reboot of the Sherlock Holmes franchise for BBC1, Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters stay in the same Baker Street location but move forward in time to the present. Thus Martin Freeman’s John Watson, like the original, is a former military doctor, wounded in Afghanistan. Ooh, topical as well as clever. And Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a snotty skint smart-arse, verging on Withnail (only sober), perpetually dragging his friend into mischief. (Spot the borrow: Sherlock and Watson as Withnail & I. Did Cumberbatch lose out on the Dr Who auditions and this is his consolation prize? — Blade Runner origami, Hammer Horror Fu ManchuA Beautiful Mind graphics …) 

Suddenly, my heart sinks and I realise it’s all Black Lotus, Tongs (you should see my Terror of the Curling Tongs), drugs and torture. For are we not a cruel race, as the clever programme-makers have noticed? A series of killings and a trail of yellow-themed clues lead our intrepid heroes into the dangers of Soho Chinatown where even the shop assistants are … sinister.

Very clever creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, and their resident Sax Rohmer Stephen Thompson, plus assorted producers, editors, BBC bods and friends, uncleverly fail to pull the mindset out of the 19th century along with the update and sadly jam their heads up their collective fundament.

“With a brow like Shakespeare and eyes like Satan”, lordy, here’s a heart-of-darkness Chinese circus with their uncanny abilities and deathly tricks. Sherlock morphs into Nayland Smith (hero of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu books) and has to fight assorted Yellow Peril villainy that is so dastardly evil and fiendish that a brother can kill his own sister (she wasn’t a Terminator-bot after all) without breaking into a sweat.

Gillian Facebooks me that she’s looking forward to them doing one of those pentatonic scale thingies, such are our expectations by now. They don’t do that but they do kill off the Chinese female lead character as they must according to the rules of Anna May Wong Must Die!: she’s sexotic so she has to go. And life in these heah parts is cheap.

I too am rapidly losing the will to live. Still, I am at least relieved that Sherlock is not as frenetic and hysterical as its Joss Whedon-wannabe stablemates Dr Who and Torchwood. Eventually, clever Sherlock identifies the McGuffin as being a jade hairpin worth nine million dollars or pounds or yen (I was having trouble concentrating at this point as I had to go feed my vampire bats and torture someone) and defeats the cruel circus-mistress by doing something-or-other that’s very clever.

For much of the programme I was hoping clever Mark Gatiss et al would do something remarkable and witty with the wily oriental clichés that would leave me gasping with delight and applauding their clever audacity. This is, after all, the 21st Century and we all do irony now. Evidently this was beyond their capabilities. Unaccountably, they omitted the obligatory Limehouse opium den scene. WHY?

The idea of updating Sherlock Holmes is a spiffing wheeze. Nevertheless, there are some Victorian values which should be locked in a hansom cab back with the swirling pea-soup fogs.

Review by Anna Chen first published 1 August 2010

Further reading

YELLOWFACE: Dehumanisation starts by being rendered invisible and turned into a blank canvas onto which constructed images are projected, supplying a permanent reservoir of scapegoats. A raft of exclusions despite Britain’s record of colonisation embed yellow peril stereotypes deep into the collective unconscious. Some examples can be found at this page.

Sherlock: The Blind Banker. Episode 2.
BBC1 9pm, Sunday 1st August 2010

Have you seen the script for The Blind Banker? Soo Lin Yao “a fragile little doll”.

More orientalism on BBC: Fu Manchu in Edinburgh

Sherlock BBC

Gemma Chan’s not to blame for the shortage of parts for Asian actresses which has gone on since the birth of the film industry. It’s a shame she had to tread the same route to success as Anna May Wong did in the early 20th century who missed out on the blockbuster movie, The Good Earth. Here’s Gemma Chan on playing the role of the disposable Chinese doll in Sherlock.


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