Disappointing adaptations of a unique series of detective stories.
"Judge Dee" was Granada's attempt to adapt the stories of Robert H. Van Gulik for television. These stories have been described by Julian Symons in his history of the crime novel ("Bloody Murder") as "simply curiosities" but this greatly underplays their charm and interest, set as they are in T'ang Dynasty China (but using the anachronistic trappings of the Ming Dynasty some seven or eight hundred years later). Gulik drew upon traditional Chinese detective stories and wove his tales around a character who really existed: Ti Jen-chieh (or Di Renjie). Judge Dee rose to high office in the empire, but in the early part of his career he was a district magistrate, dispensing justice and investigating crimes: it is at this period of his career that most of Gulik's stories and this TV series are set.
The stories offered (and offer) great possibilities as a TV series: typically, Dee and his four lieutenants -- Sergeant Hoong, Ma Joong, Chiao Tai and Tao Gan -- are involved in the investigation of two or three cases simultaneously, they range through all levels of the Chinese society of the time from beggars and prostitutes to high officials, and give a glimpse of life in a completely unfamiliar society comparable only to the very best science fiction and fantasy. And they also contain intriguing mysteries.
Unfortunately, Granada's changes to the stories made the series more than a little disappointing. Instead of three cases at a time, Dee only had one per episode. Instead of giving us the panoramic view of Imperial Chinese society, there was an excessive concentration on Dee's relationship with his wives. The four lieutenants became three, the redoubtable Chiao Tai disappearing; unfortunately, this meant that Tao Gan became more like him and rather lost the elements of sly cunning which are so distinctive in the books. Worst of all, bouts of "artistic" dance routines would stop the plot in its tracks and make the episodes more tedious even than the lacklustre adaptation would otherwise have been.
On the plus side, though, the costuming was superb even in black and white (even more so in the occasional colour photograph of the production, though these are very scarce today); and Michael Goodliffe was quite excellent in the title role, portraying Dee as thoughtful, decisive and magisterial.
Disappointing it may have been, an opportunity for a truly classic series lost, perhaps -- but the series retained enough of the books' interest to drive at least one person to find and read them.
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