And so I went and started watching Yellowthread Street, the ITV-produced TV series from 1990 based on the wonderful – and highly recommended – novels by William Leonard Marshall.
So far I had only seen the title sequence… admittedly not much to express an informed opinion.
But Emma, in the comments, pointed me towards a handful of episodes available on YouTube. Only one season was produced, and there’s only six episodes available at the time of writing, but six is better than nothing.
Now, based on the general wisdom, I was led to believe that the series sucked. And it was easy to believe the general wisdom, because it is difficult to imagine someone being able to translate on the screen the mayhem and the intricacies of Marshall’s novels.
But talk is cheap.
What do the episodes really look like?
OK, my impression – and it could be absolutely wrong, mind you – is that someone at ITV, in 1990, got this big idea, and pitched it like there was no tomorrow:
Imagine Miamy Vice in Hong Kong!
There is a certain “look & feel” to the series that owes a lot, I think, to Michael Mann’s creature (whose last season was to be broadcast right then, in 1990): two rather street-stylish cops moving through the seediest and the most glamorous spots of Hong Kong, scary criminals, the Mob, beautiful women, night scenes with lots of neon and blue lights… There is a certain neo-noir feel that sometimes looks not fully realised, maybe because the series died in its infancy.
Also, 1990 was the year in which everybody, but everybody, discovered Hong Kong cinema, and directors like John Woo – The Killer had hit the screens the previous year, and there was a strong buzz going. Triads, gunfights, heroic bloodshed were entering into the collective imagination.
Why not ride the dragon?
All in all it is not bad, but very little remains of Marshall’s original take on Hong Kong, its chaos and its color, and the author’s ensemble approach to police procedural.
So, yes, if you are coming from the Yellowthread Street novels, the series sucks, boy it does.
On the other hand, if you don’t know the novels (what a pity!) and you come to the series as just another cop show, you might be positively impressed.
The locations, in pre-Handover Hong Kong, are beautiful, the cast is diverse and more than adequate1, the music feels like a jump in the past, as do the clothes.
The stories hold up nicely, even when they are predictable.
And I’ve still to see Spirit Runner, the only episode, out of a total of 13 filmed, actually penned by Marshall.
The bottom line seems to be, if you are looking for a cop show with some different elements and a lot of promise that never had the opportunity to really bloom, point your browsers to Youtube and do a search for Yellowthread Street.
And check the novels.
You’ll love the novels.
- and as a fan of the Longmire TV series, I was surprised and delighted in finding a youngRobert Taylor as one of the detectives on the show. ↩
30 March 2017 at 23:18
Glad you (kind of) liked them! Interesting you mention Miami Vice. I believe that was the pitch – they were trying to do a gritty British version of that. Stuff I’ve found on the Internet says that they were going to go for a more action orientated second season which probably would have taken it even further from its source material. Still, terrible though it is, I will be eternally grateful to the show for introducing me to the existence of William Marshall’s excellent series. I’m on Skulduggery at the moment and the plotting, writing, humour and characterisation is genius.
Enjoy watching Spirit Runner – of all the episodes, that is the only one that even slightly resembles the idiosyncratic books with its spirit runners and Ong, the 80 year old cat burgler.
It would be good to see a straight out adaptation of the books, but it’s hard to see how it could be done. Who on earth would they cast as Feiffer? I can’t even begin to imagine what actor could play that role.
And I have also been a fan of Robert Taylor’s since this show as well. I couldn’t quite get into Longmire though although I tried a couple of times. Maybe I’ll give it another go at some point.
31 March 2017 at 00:06
I often hoped for a film adaptation of the novels, but with the Handover and all that, it seems unlikely.
And give a chance to Longmire. The first episodes are a little raw, but then the series finds its pace,and its a great show.
27 July 2019 at 12:00
yes I remember this one – essentially a British version of Hawaii 5 0 – ultimately defeated by high production costs and big franchise changes at ITV in 1991 (lowbrow Carlton replacing highbrow Thames etc) – I believe the cast and crew had actually travelled to Hong Kong for the second series only to be told it had been cancelled!
27 July 2019 at 19:44
I did not know about the second season.
27 July 2019 at 20:09
I only know what I read in newspapers about it;
in 1991 itv decided to cut overall costs and so was planning to cull the expensive series – but the cast were saying that they still had contracts etc to go ahead with season 2 and so they set off to hong kong for the planned series with scripts and crew etc (maybe they set off in attempting to force the hand of itv to relent)
but itv still cancelled it anyway and the actors and equipment etc were then stuck in hong kong – I don’t know how they got home or if their contracts were honoured by itv etc – newspapers did say they were stranded there and had to figure a way back themselves.
it is a bit weird of course that a tv network can cancel a series but the actors can somehow still obtain all the equipment and crew to make it and then set off somewhere before still being told they are wasting their time as it won’t be shown etc – but that is what happened (according to newspapers anyway) – maybe it was an independent production company making it though.
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27 July 2019 at 21:16
Yes, I believe I read somewhere it was an independent production. And the whole thing is surreal.
5 July 2020 at 21:12
Great theme tune, great intro scenes….just god-awful acting, more wooden than an IKEA warehouse. Base-level stuff, but some lovely shots of a city I used to call home.
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