Cinematic heroes 10: Burt Kwouk

 

(c) United Artists

 

It was just as well for Burt Kwouk and his fellow star of the Pink Panther movies Peter Sellers that in the 1970s Britain had fewer lawyers and was a less litigious place than it is today.  Otherwise, Kwouk and Sellers would’ve surely faced a raft of lawsuits brought by furious parents whose offspring had injured themselves in primary-school playgrounds, trying to imitate Kwouk and Sellers’ kung-fu fights the morning after one of those Pink Panther movies had been shown on TV.

 

Imitating the kung-fu practised by Inspector Clouseau, the bumbling French detective played by Sellers, and his Chinese servant Cato, played by Kwouk, as they engaged in friendly but bruising combat through Clouseau’s apartment was easier than imitating the skilled, athletic and balletic kung-fu practised by the likes of Bruce Lee.  Basically, it involved doing lots of frantic foot-kicking and hand-chopping and shouting “Haaaiii-ya!” every few seconds.  It also involved doing stupid things such as attempting to jump / kick your way through the air in slow motion.  I tried this once after seeing a clip on TV of Sellers doing it – possibly from The Return of the Pink Panther (1975) – and was perturbed to discover that slow motion doesn’t occur in real life when you’re sailing through the air with your body parallel to the ground.  Luckily, I landed on something soft.  My head.

 

(c) United Artists

 

Cato is the role running through Burt Kwouk’s career like toffee lettering running through a stick of rock.  Mention him to any British person my age and that person will still probably sink into a crouched kung-fu fighting position, raise their hands combatively and go, “Haaaiii-ya!” (though they’re unlikely now to try to jump through the air in slow motion).  Yet Kwouk deserves a place in British acting history for a more general reason.  For many of the sixty-odd years that he was active in the nation’s films and television, his was probably the only British-Oriental face that the public were familiar with and could put a name to.

 

By British standards, Kwouk’s beginnings weren’t exotic – he was born to Chinese parents in the Lancashire town of Warrington, almost midway between Liverpool and Manchester – but his upbringing was.  His family took him to Shanghai, where he remained until the age of 17, and later he headed to the USA and studied at Bowdoin College in Maine.  Back in Britain in the mid-1950s, he was supposedly ‘nagged’ into the acting world by his girlfriend of the time.

 

Unfortunately, Kwouk’s roles were subject to the narrow mind-set of post-war British cinema, meaning he had to play a lot of bit-parts and (minor) villains – adding a little Oriental colour to pictures whilst conforming to the period’s common stereotypes.  One early job, though, must have given him hope of meatier roles to come.  He played a convict called Li in Mark Robson’s The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, the 1958 film-version of the real-life story of British missionary Gladys Aylward, who in 1938 saved a hundred young orphans from a Chinese town before it was overrun by invading Japanese troops.  Aylward wins Li’s respect when she intervenes to defuse a prison riot and later he helps her evacuate the orphans, although he loses his life in the process.

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

With an ingenuity born out of budgetary restrictions that was typical of the British film industry at the time, the filmmakers, unable to make the film anywhere near China, shot its exterior scenes in northern Wales.  The Chinese orphans, meanwhile, were played by youngsters bussed across the Welsh / English border from the Chinese community in Liverpool.  Incidentally, the real Gladys Aylward detested the film.  She was unhappy about being portrayed by Ingrid Bergman, who was altogether more Scandinavian and less Cockney than she was; and infuriated at how the filmmakers overly romanticised her character’s relationship with another character played by Curt Jürgens.

 

Around the same time, Kwouk debuted on British television – an early appearance being on Hancock’s Half Hour, perhaps the greatest of all British TV comedies, where he manifested himself before the inimitable Tony Hancock dressed as a robed Chinese mandarin.  Thereafter, Kwouk appeared in espionage and adventure shows like Danger Man (1961 and 1966), The Avengers (1964), The Saint (1965, 1967 and 1968), Callan (1967 and 1969) and Jason King (1972): sci-fi ones like The Champions (1967), The Tomorrow People (1978), Doctor Who (1982) and Space Precinct (1994); crime ones like Shoestring (1980), Minder (1980), The Bill (2003 and 2005), Judge John Deed (2005) and Silent Witness (2006); comedies like It ain’t Half Hot Mum (1977-78), Robin’s Nest (1979) and The Kenny Everett Television Show (1983-84); and populist dramas like Warship (1977), Howard’s Way (1987), Noble House (1988), The House of Eliot (1991) and Lovejoy (1993).

 

Never losing his Eastern accent, he was also useful as a voice-over artist for anything with an Oriental theme.  Thus, he lent his distinctive tones to such items as the BBC version of the Japanese-made, Chinese-set drama The Water Margin (1976-77) and the no-holds-barred spoof Japanese gameshow Banzai (2001-2003).

 

For many years, his most famous TV role was probably as Captain Yamauchi in Tenko (1981-84), the BBC wartime drama about a Japanese POW camp for women.  Poor Yamauchi is a patriotic type who’d rather be fighting for his country on the front but, due to ill-health, has to suffer the indignity of running a camp full of gobby, snotty and saucy British, Dutch and Australian females instead.  Predictably, Tenko was filmed nowhere near where it was set – it was shot in Dorset – and it wasn’t the only time that the Chinese-blooded Kwouk was cast as a Japanese.

 

(c) Eon Productions

 

During the first half of his career, Kwouk was the go-to guy if your film needed an Oriental assistant, henchman or minion.  Not only was he bossed around by Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther films but he was at the beck and call of two James Bond villains, Gert Frobe in Goldfinger (1964) and Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice (1967).  He also took orders from two different versions of Fu Manchu, Christopher Lee in The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966) and Peter Sellers (again) in The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu (1980).  It’s telling that in both Fu Manchu films, the Oriental supervillain was played by a British Caucasian actor – at the time it was unthinkable that he could be played by a Chinese one.  (I’ve heard a story about Christopher Lee making his way to film a scene in a Fu Manchu movie when, in full make-up, he was stopped and quizzed by a genuine Chinese person.  Discovering Lee’s real ethnicity, the man remarked, “Well, at least your second name is Chinese,” and walked off.)

 

(c) Constantin Film Produktion

(c) Constantin Film Produktion

 

Some of the movies featuring Kwouk were bizarre.  He turned up as a ‘Soho youth’ in Val Guest’s take on the late 1950s music industry, Expresso Bongo (1959), in which Laurence Harvey plays a showbiz hustler trying to turn a young Cliff Richard into a star.  (Changing the name of Cliff’s character from the unappealing ‘Bert Rudge’ to the even less appealing ‘Bongo Herbert’ hardly seems the best way to do it.)  Dated in the way that only old British rock ‘n’ roll movies can be, Expresso Bongo was nicely summed up by critic Dennis Schwartz, who wrote that it “has a charm of its own, but that’s not enough to take the ringing of bongo drums out of my ears.”  Still, it’s probably a masterpiece compared to The Cool Mikado (1962), a pop-music version of the Gilbert-and-Sullivan opera directed by Michael Winner and starring comedians Frankie Howerd, Tommy Cooper and Mike and Bernie Winters, plus Lionel Blair, Dennis Price, Stubby Kaye and Kwouk (in the role of an art teacher).  I’ve never seen The Cool Mikado, but most people who have consider it a terrible film, even by Michael Winner’s standards.  The writer Christopher Fowler, for instance, noted how “(t)he crimson and green sets were emetic, the dialogue and dancing below the level of a drunken stag night.”

 

Also bizarre, and terrible, was the 1967 ‘non-official’ James Bond film Casino Royale, an all-over-the-place spoof that’s nowhere near as smart or funny as it thinks it is.  Kwouk appears in it briefly as a Chinese general; while among the big names at the top of the bill (David Niven, Ursula Andress, Woody Allen, Orson Welles) is, yet again, Peter Sellers.

 

(c) Columbia Pictures

 

Elsewhere, Kwouk’s movie CV is pleasingly varied, ranging from modest British comedies like The Sandwich Man (1966), The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977), I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle (1990) and Leon the Pig Farmer (1992) to big-budget Hollywood epics like The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968), The Chairman (1969), Rollerball (1975) and Empire of the Sun (1987).  Needless to say, though, a large part of that CV is taken up by the Pink Panther movies.

 

These days I have mixed feelings about those movies – Kwouk appeared in A Shot in the Dark (1964), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and The Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978), and he was also on duty as Cato in three more films made after Sellers’ death in 1980, The Trail (1982), Curse (1983) and Son (1993) of the Pink Panther.  In parts, they’re very amusing, thanks largely to Peter Sellers portraying Frenchman Inspector Clouseau in a way guaranteed to appeal to British and American audiences: convinced of his own intellect, refinement and irresistibility as a lover, whilst blind to the fact that in reality he’s a clodhopping, accident-prone idiot.  Anglo-Saxons have an inferiority complex before the French when it comes to cultural and romantic matters, and they enjoy nothing more than seeing French assumptions of superiority shot down.

 

But at the same time, I find the films a bit superficial — although their mastermind, writer-director Blake Edwards, gives them a glossy, sophisticated sheen, they’re essentially just strings of slapstick and (obvious) verbal gags.  Also, post-1980, Edwards milked the franchise beyond all human decency, until its reputation was as dead as Sellers was.

 

Not that this mattered when I was a kid.  I loved the Pink Panther films then, and in particular I counted the minutes until the next set-piece battle occurred when Cato sprang out of a refrigerator, dropped from the top of a four-poster bed, etc., and assaulted Clouseau.  (Although Cato was Clouseau’s manservant, he’d been instructed to attack Clouseau at unexpected moments, thus training the detective to be eternally vigilant.)  In fact, I suspect that for my generation Cato was a more popular character than Clouseau himself was.

 

(c) United Artists

(c) United Artists

 

Interestingly, when the Pink Panther movies were rebooted in 2006 and 2009 with Steve Martin playing Clouseau, the role of Cato was offered to Jackie Chan – who supposedly turned it down because he didn’t believe it was politically correct in the 21st century.  (Instead, Cato morphed into a French sidekick called Gendarme Ponton, played by Jean Reno.)  As a kid, any evidence of political incorrectness in the Pink Panther movies sailed over my head, although there are moments in them now – I can recall Clouseau referring to Cato’s “yellow skin” on one occasion – that make me uncomfortable.

 

Thanks to Roger Lewis’s 1995 biography The Life and Death of Peter Sellers and its film version nine years later, much has been made of Sellers’ awkwardness, insecurity and volatility, both as an actor and as a human being.  Kwouk, however, has always been gracious about him.  Describing the day that Sellers’ death was announced in Britain, he said: “it seemed that the whole country came to a stop.  Everywhere you went, the fact that Peter had died seemed like an umbrella over everything.”

 

The last two decades have seen Burt Kwouk become an institution himself in Britain.  Fittingly, his last two big TV roles were in shows aimed at opposite ends of the viewing spectrum.  A younger audience enjoyed him in Channel 4’s surreal, off-the-wall Harry Hill show (1997-2000), in which he played the Chicken Catcher, who each week would offer an excuse for failing to catch a chicken before breaking into a rendition of the song Hey, Little Hen.  Hardly had he finished his stint with Harry Hill than he started an eight-year association with the gentle and seemingly never-ending BBC sitcom Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010), whose fans tended to be of pensionable age.  Meanwhile, in 2011, the British establishment finally got around to acknowledging Kwouk’s ubiquity and popularity by awarding the actor, then 80 years old, the Order of the British Empire.

 

(c) The Press

 

The last credit on IMDb for Burt Kwouk OBE was dated 2012, meaning that the great man has spent the last three years in retirement.  I hope he’s enjoying that retirement, for he’s certainly earned it.  And now, after writing all this, I feel an unaccountable urge to practise some foot-kicking and hand-chopping kung-fu again.  Haaaiii-ya!

 

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