Friday, September 4, 2009

Friday, September 04, 2009

Big Trouble in Thailand - Bravo Channel UK

This is a blog only
(Warning this article comes with a drop-intro)

I have a love-hate relationship with television.  Once in a blue moon I do a document then almost immediately afterwards, after the initial elation (because I almost always think they are good)  I vow never to do another one again, remembering the nightmare making it.
I would say it's like having a baby, if I knew.  (I do know where they come from).

Picture above: Howard Miller/Bravo

What usually infuriates me is the hassles of commissioning editors , executive producers, the politicking, and all the conditions put on filming... as if they want to take ownership just because they are providing the cash. There's  logic there, but I could never quite agree with it. 

Then there's those long shoots and edits and the problem of trying to keep everybody together.  Watching the 'camera director' trashing the 'Video or Film Editor' is not a pretty sight.  And again there's all these phrases used in Covent Garden wine-bars;  'production values' , 'speaking from a higher level plain' etc. etc

Currently expats in Thailand are a little bit up in arms about a documentary series going to air in the UK over the next few weeks called 'Big Trouble in Thailand' and it's based on the activities of the British Thai Tourist Police Volunteers and what we commonly know in the British newspaper business as, well, 'Brits in the shit'. And its taken two years to get off the ground.

'This is going to be more salacious crap'. 'It's going to make Thailand look bad'. 'It's going to make us all look bad'.  'Another nail in my coffin. My wife thinks I just come here for a golfing holiday' These sort of comments are going up on expatriate internet forums.

Does it do all that?  Well it certainly makes some people look bad. It certainly makes some tourists, British and others, look profoundly stupid.  But as for tourism, my guess is that young Brits having seen the series will be gagging to get here....and they are the film's demographic! ...'Thailand?  Dull it isn't ' should be the TAT's new slogan.

Of course that might sound all a bit like the famous Pattaya short-time bar owner,  who after being exposed in a British Sunday newspaper put up a sign saying 'Still just as sleazy as  featured in the News of the World'.  Seriously though, one can't really get indignant at a series which reminds us of just how tourism has developed in Thailand.

Actually the series, which goes out on the 'Bravo Channel' in the UK next week, is a first class presentation of many of the different facets of youth tourism in Thailand.  And, as it is based on the British members of the Tourist Police Volunteers, we know which side we are going to see.  It's not going to be old grannies asking police for directions to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Gavin Hill undercover in Pattaya

I have to declare a bias. I like the style of Gavin Hill, the producer and we have many joint friends. He has also bought me a beer or two. He is an old Asia hand, having worked for APTV first of all in Indonesia, Al Jezeera, and many US production companies; well just about everywhere.

Actually he has worked for so many people like me he has probably become unemployable, because we probably don't ever want to be employed any more. But he still wants to chase a good story. He is a class operator.  I am amazed at what he got on tape without somebody from somewhere throwing a punch.

Producing a professional video camera in Pattaya's Walking Street is never a picnic. As cameras pan,  rows of male tourists duck, the rest tend to come at you.. often each with a beer bottle in hand.

But that's maybe because Howard Miller, the Pattaya Group Leader of the foreign police volunteers, and his mates were around for protection.  And as for  Howard Miller.  Here's a chap I have underrated!

Gruppenfuhrer Howard Miller is a lot more relaxed in Pattaya's walking street in a Home Guard sort of way

I may have referred to him in the past as the 'Gruppenfuhrer', mainly because of his jet black uniform which some people say makes them all look like Nazi storm-troopers.
There's no better or worse libel than calling someone a Nazi. I have been sued before for calling a Polish Resistance fighter a Nazi.

( I named and photographed the right guy. There was just a Polish guy with a very similar name nearby.  The newspaper paid out £500 with a clarification saying something like Stanslwz Jankievizx of 2 Railway Cuttings is a former Polish freedom fighter and is not the same Stanslwz  Jankievizk  the sadistic former Nazi concentration camp guard who lives down the road at 2 Junction Lane)

Anyway Howard comes across, and I am sure it is genuine, as a rather likeable, albeit sensitive, chap who is just doing his bit and more than happy to go out of his way to help those with problems no matter how thankless the task is. He gets an awful lot of internet slagging from expatriates for taking up his Tourist Police assistant role, perhaps because the police in Thailand are not associated with old British values like 'fair play'.

I was only left puzzling. Why do it? Why bother? I still remain justifiably cynical of some of these volunteers but not those shown on the progamme. I guess Gavin Hill sniffed em out!

Anyway being a little cynical  I am convinced that more than a few middle-aged ex-pats in Thailand came to settle after seeing the first amateurish attempts of these fly-on-the-wall shows years ago in their homelands which featured bars with names like 'The Gobble and Go' and 'Cockwell Inn', before police started polishing up on their slang English.

What is amazing is that nobody ever gets it.  The same mistakes happen year in year out. Why do people bother going to 'Full Moon Parties' on Koh Phagnan?  I gave up 18 years ago!  Here in this series we see how rapes, muggings, druggings and of course arrests occur, every time, not forgetting the drownings and occasional murder.
Why don't tourists do a little research on places they are going to?  (I always do) Or do they know and treat Thailand as an adventure holiday? As a parent I might be worried.
And if you get thrown out of a brothel  for being drunk, why report it to police? Its amazing how drink begets moral outrage.

Although the programme does pull punches (they are working with the police after all) we can clearly see the monthly police rip offs as they cash in on their monthly 'Full moon arrests'...Pay the cash or go to jail!  A young kid sobs out a month in jail waiting to be fined £20. They can't film those who agree to play the money game but we hear the prices being demanded. 65,000 Thai baht - £1,666 - for possessing a smidge of cannabis - that's a lot more than the 2,000 baht (under £40)  the motorcycle guy at the end of my lane paid recently for a similar offence!

Its just another version of the well publicised Suvarnabhumi airport scam. (For those unfamiliar with this foreigners arrested on suspicion of shoplifting in the duty free stores were shaken down for as much as £8000 or face up to a year in jail facing trial alone)
We also see an American serviceman high on methamphetamines attacking a senior Thai policeman, and then the camera cuts on police orders, leading one to suspect that this shipmate is just about to learn the more discreet police version of  another aspect of Thai street culture  when foreigners are drunk or lippy-  It involves a lot of loud stomping by a frenzied and rabid mob.  I have seen it a few times. You don't want to.

 'There are Pattaya bar girls chasing, now well-outnumbered foreigners down the street shouting 'You. You. Give me  money'; then the drunken Australian being thrown very roughly out of a brothel. 'They stomped my head in', he wails then lunges at Howard.  Then Howard is seen politely asking his father on the boy's phone phone to come and collect him, all the while being called a 'dickhead' by the son. Gormless foreigners being led by their penises into oblivion.
There are of course lots and lots of drunks actually, and the British seem to score high here, later happily signing their film release forms, I guess as if signing for a medal. There is also titillation as skimpily dressed go-go girls frolic around poles in Pattaya bars. Well that is how it is,  so don't whinge about it to me.
This is not a film series about fancy spas and lush jungle resorts and so called Hi-So launch parties with twee people.  One can get that sort of  fur coat and no knickers production on 'Destination zzzz Thailand zzzzzz'. But this is still the real stuff that even high rolling tourists must find difficult to avoid.

Tooled up apparently - The film crew with armed escort - armed against resident expats

Gavin Hill and his team secured excellent co-operation from the Thai authorities and I mean truly excellent and unprecedented access.

They got into seven jails and spoke to young Brits about how they were coping, quite pragmatically actually as it turns out, with their predicament.

 They also got help from Britain's Honorary Consuls, those chaps who don't get UK salaries for helping helping out, and who thankfully are far removed from Whitehall, 'elf and safety', and the 'What we cannot do for you rule book'.  They include  Dave Covey on Koh Samui, and I suspect to come Barry Kenyon MBE in Pattaya.
 And of course they got help from Thai police, although they were seemingly treated with deep suspicion on Koh Samui and Koh Phangan (island folk you know. I go to these places cautiously).

 ' I think they took the view, why not? People coming to Thailand should know that if they behave badly or commit crimes the punishments will be severe. They should see the jails, and the police station lock-ups, and how they behave' said Gavin. 

I am probably a little jealous of the excellent results but then again I could not have done it. I fear my face is linked to too much trouble already!  I do not need some guy from the Blind Beggar saying to his mates 'Ere. That's the geezer what turned over Phil the Till' last year.'

This series also shows what police have to put up with, night after night,  for their, sometimes ill-gotten, rewards. All in all Thai police come out okay. There are some good eggs.
Britain's  only saving grace, outwith the volunteers,  in the first part of this eight programme series, comes from the Royal Marines who arrive at Phuket on HMS Bulwark.

As the sailors disembark for shore leave they are advised not to hire jet-skis on Patong Beach.  But at this stage they are advised only. US military are banned from hiring them.
We cut to a scene where a young Marine is banged up in some sort of builders-yard-come-boat-warehouse in the back of beyond.  He faces a gun.   It's either pay up or face the consequences. The Thai jet-ski operator is demanding 44,000 baht (£798)  for damage to his boat. Its a scam and a nasty one.
The Thai  boss 'JJ' makes it known on camera that he will resort to violence and has done in the past.
Around the scene are heavily tattooed Thais stripped to the waist.
More Marines arrive. Then along comes the ship's Military Police Sergeant Major.
JJ insists on his cash, raising his voice as his 1% of  integrity slips to Norway's initial average scores in the European Song Contest, but that's a little difficult to maintain anyway in his tacky lair.

'I'm a f..cking businessman!'
'Don't you shout at me!  You're corrupt. You're a  f...cking crook. This damage is old damage.  It's turned brown already!' shouts the Sergeant Major at JJ, 'How come this happens every single day here!'

The Royal Marines must miss the water quickly. Lots of them have been hiring jet-skis apparently.

I wanted to shout a few more expletives at the little worm on the screen myself.

'Go now!'  The Sergeant orders the poor unfortunate captive Marine to leave the scene.  JJ then orders his neanderthal  buddies to close in.
There's a stand off.  The Marines are ready to fight their side.  It's clear there are links between the local mafia and local police.  But at the end of the day the Marines know they cannot start an incident.

Eventually the Navy agree to pay a lesser amount,  but only because the young Royal Marine had been bullied into agreeing to it verbally earlier.  Series producer Gavin Hill was of course in the middle of this stand-off which would have cost a fortune to reconstruct with actors, and this was the real menacing truth.
The Royal Marines had just come from Helmand Province.  I admired their patience. ( But I guess  or rather I know they let some steam off in Soi Bangla where the military police were trying to save 'Our boys'  from drooling ladyboys). 

 The Sergeant Major's contempt was palpable, just as if he had just gobbled down a a couple of those 'Brussels Sprouts' which the ship's HMS Bulwark's Captain has apparently put down as 'an enemy of the state' and banned from his quarters.
I almost started singing 'Rule Brittania'. A pyrrhic victory for the Thai thug accompanied by a trashing, sadly, for Thai tourism.
Coincidentally this week the Governor of Phuket has stepped into the local jet-ski rip-offs row.
Punters are paying up to £50 for half an hour on these machines,  then ripped off for up to £1000 for alleged damage, which includes loss of alleged earnings while the jet-ski is being repaired. 
The first programme in the series 'Big Trouble in Thailand', Vera Productions for the Bravo Channel, goes to air on Monday.  Better than a lot, and I mean a lot, on the mainstream channels, it's as good an introduction to the non glossy side of tourism  in Thailand that you'll ever get,.... but the beaches and the 'craic' still look great. I would want to go and have a look. Its a voyeurs paradise if nothing else. 

The only thing annoying to me was the way this was dressed up with bells and whistles, which everybody seems to do today to grab the viewers attention. Britain has long since been going the American way to keep the audience's atttention span. (At Fox TV a sound grab was about five seconds max after which their American viewers apparently fall asleep, or go out for a Bud!)

I can live with this popular style, with the way several stories are interwoven, with a little bit of repetition, as if we have already forgotten, as in 'remember Howard' who is waiting for forensice reports on the drugs he has found (repeat sequence)..well now back to'.... After all I remind myself writing for the tabloids is harder than writing for the 'unpopulars' and of course the programme makers are going to the widest possible audience.

Overall I could not get enough of this and pray the series has not all been frontloaded.

Journalistically this series is a great coup because, even though its brief was not an investigative one, it only takes a bit of sense to see a what is revealed a little beyond the screen. You may not get the nuances if you still intend to hire a jet-ski in Phuket.


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