The Talons of Weng-Chiang ★★★★★

Mr Sin, Magnus Greel, giant rats... A grisly pastiche of all things Victorian makes for a Grand Guignol classic

152

Season 14 – Story 91

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“Have I ever, in my 30 years in the halls, seen such a dazzling display of lustrous legerdemain? So many feats of superlative, supernatural skill? The answer must be never, sir. Never” – Jago

Storyline
In fogbound Victorian London, a trail of disappearing women and gruesome murders points to the Palace Theatre music hall. Chinese stage magician Li H’sen Chang and his lethal dummy, Mr Sin, are allied to the Tong of the Black Scorpion and in the service of their lord, Weng-Chiang, a disfigured maniac lurking in the sewers. The Doctor and Leela befriend the theatre owner Mr Jago and pathologist Professor Litefoot. They realise that Weng-Chiang is in fact Magnus Greel, a foe from the future using the missing women to recharge his life force and determined to recover his precious time cabinet…

First transmissions
Part 1 – Saturday 26 February 1977
Part 2 – Saturday 5 March 1977
Part 3 – Saturday 12 March 1977
Part 4 – Saturday 19 March 1977
Part 5 – Saturday 26 March 1977
Part 6 – Saturday 2 April 1977

Production
Location filming: December 1976 at Ealing Studios, Wapping, St Katherine’s Dock and Southwark in London; 24 Cambridge Park, Twickenham
OB recording: January 1977 at Northampton Repertory Theatre; St Crispin’s Hospital, Duston, Northampton
Studio recording: January 1977 in TC1 and February 1977 in TC8

Cast
Doctor Who – Tom Baker
Leela – Louise Jameson
Li H’sen Chang – John Bennett
Henry Gordon Jago – Christopher Benjamin
Professor George Litefoot – Trevor Baxter
Weng-Chiang/Magnus Greel – Michael Spice
Mr Sin – Deep Roy
Casey – Chris Gannon
Joseph Buller – Alan Butler
Ghoul – Patsy Smart
Sergeant Kyle – David McKail
PC Quick – Conrad Asquith
Lee – Tony Then
Coolie – John Wu
Teresa – Judith Lloyd
Cleaner – Vaune Craig-Raymond
Singer – Penny Lister
Ho – Vincent Wong

Crew
Writer – Robert Holmes
Incidental music – Dudley Simpson
Designer – Roger Murray-Leach
Script editor – Robert Holmes
Producer – Philip Hinchcliffe
Director – David Maloney

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
“It’s a floater, all right. You’ve got it, guv.” A Dickensian crone (Patsy Smart with her teeth out – “Ghoul” in the credits) strains to see as a constable fishes a corpse from the Thames with a boat hook. “On my oath!” she gasps. “You wouldn’t want that served with onions. Never seen anything like it in all my puff. Ugh! Make an ‘orse sick, that would.” Grotesque, gratuitous, absolutely hysterical… So very Robert Holmes.

But then The Talons of Weng-Chiang as a whole is a scriptwriting tour de force. With its theatrical milieu, florid dramatis personae and high horror quotient, it makes for Doctor Who at its most blatantly Grand Guignol.

A fantabulous feat of “legendary legerdemain”, as Jago might put it. Name a slice of Victoriana, and Holmes has blithely bunged it in: his namesake Sherlock, Jack the Ripper, Fu Manchu, Sexton Blake, Pygmalion, The Good Old Days… Amazingly, the resultant scripts are a triumph of pastiche over cliché.

And all brought to life by a sparkling cast under the accomplished direction of David Maloney. The evocation of Victorian London is immaculate, as Maloney uses an authentic theatre (albeit in Northampton) and films along eastern stretches of the Thames that in the 1970s remained dismal middens (since redeveloped almost beyond recognition). His shots at night and in pallid, misty daylight are incredibly atmospheric. It’s galling to reflect that this would mark Maloney’s final curtain call on Doctor Who.

Holmes creates yet more indelible guest characters. Jago, the buffoonish theatre owner who marries the bluster of Nigel Bruce (the 1930s/40s Dr Watson) to the grandiloquence of Good Old Days’ host Leonard Sachs. His every line from “Corks!” to “I’d have propelled him onto the pavement with a punt up the posterior” is perfectly pitched by Christopher Benjamin.

Fusty Professor Litefoot is perhaps a truer Watsonian figure – although as the serial progresses and he responds with gentlemanly kindness to Leela’s barbarism, he shows closer links to Colonel Pickering from Pygmalion/My Fair Lady. We’ll gloss over the implausible coincidence that, as the pathologist investigating the Tong murders, Litefoot should also own the sought-after time cabinet.

Roll up, roll up! Three villains for the price of one! John Bennett is terrific as stage magician Li H’sen Chang, even if today it would be unthinkable to give a British actor oriental make-up and bandy about the term “yellow”. Mr Sin is a hideous ventriloquist’s doll turned eviscerating, porcine pygmy.

Last but by no means least, Weng-Chiang, aka Magnus Greel, is another of Holmes’s Phantom of the Opera indulgences (indeed his second disfigured dungeon-dweller in season 14). The maniacal cackling and talon-flexing veer perilously towards panto, but there’s no disputing the impact of the glimpse of Greel’s molten face when Leela tears at the Velcro securing his mask. It’s “rip-off” made literal in a cliffhanger.

Without doubt, this story is Leela’s finest hour. She’s startling: knifing Mr Sin in the throat, then bouncing on Litefoot’s dining table and flying through his window. Ferocious and hilarious: pouncing on Greel with the cry “Die, bent face!” Fearless: “Kill me any way you wish. Unlike you, I am not afraid to die.” Greel dubs her a she-devil and tigress. Sadly, Leela has shed her usual costume: why wear skins when Victorian curtain fabric will suffice?

Similarly, had he not swapped floppy hat and scarf for cloak and deerstalker, this would be an iconic fourth Doctor adventure. He’s authoritative (effortlessly commanding respect from the police, Litefoot and Jago), heroic (hunting rats in the Fleet and pursuing Greel through the theatre flies) and deliciously flippant (to Greel: “Never trust a man with dirty fingernails”).

Holmes laces the dialogue with incidental detail, not only evoking the Victorian period, but also alluding to events in the future: World War Six; the pig-brained Peking Homunculus and the Icelandic Alliance; Greel’s doomed Zigma time experiments and his war crimes as the “Butcher of Brisbane”. Glancing references to time agents and the 51st century would be developed three decades later by Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat while fleshing out Captain Jack Harkness.

As the drama transfers to the East End, described by Litefoot as a “place of appalling vice and squalor”, adult material gets in under the radar. Prostitution: a “contemptible slattern”, evidently heading home after a hard night, is hypnotised by Chang. Narcotics: Chang smokes opium to ease the agony of his rat-gnawed stumps.

The production’s single failing (inevitably) is the wretched realisation of the giant rat. I bitterly recall from 1977 my sisters hooting at footage of an un-ferocious “gerbil” and, later, as Leela writhed in sewage in filthy bloomers while a tufty “sleeping bag” chomped on her ankle. I strongly suspect these shots have been “regraded” for the BBC DVD.

Holmes is renowned for his deft character pairings. In The Talons of Weng-Chiang, we have the Doctor/Leela, Doctor/Jago, Doctor/Litefoot, Leela/Litefoot and eventually Litefoot/Jago, as well as on the dark side Chang/Sin, Chang/Greel and ultimately Greel/Sin.

But the most impressive partnership of all, coming to an end here, is that of Holmes and producer Philip Hinchcliffe. In three seasons, they’ve raised the standard of storytelling – and level of horror – to heights that would rarely be achieved again.

– – –

Radio Times archive

Talons billings 1-4
Talons billings 5&6
The big thrill for fans at the end of Season 14 was the first full-length documentary about the programme. The Lively Arts: Whose Doctor Who, fronted by Melvyn Bragg, aired comments from viewers and psychologists, and best of all presented loads of then extremely rare archive clips. It took me years to identify an excerpt of William Hartnell belting a man with his walking stick down in a sewer. Incoming producer Graham Williams answered a reader’s concerns on the letters page (RT 5 March 1977). There was a follow-up letter (RT 26 March 1977)
1977 letters and Lively Arts
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[Available on BBC DVD]