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TV review: Storyville – Fame in China

Ensemble from the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing in rehearsals for Fame. Photo: BBC/Tripod Media /The Central Academy of Drama

No new British comedies or dramas to review this week – the channels are obviously keeping their powder dry in preparation for the Christmas ratings war – but BBC4 saved the day with an excellent documentary that took a new angle on an old story.

Storyville – Fame in China went to the prestigious Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, where it found a class of young, multi-talented, attractive and ambitious students intent on stardom.

It was a scenario that could be replicated in every drama school around the world, were it not for two key factors unique to China. Firstly, the impact of the rapidly developing capitalist economy, one consequence of which is an enormous disparity in wealth between the richest and poorest student. Secondly, China’s one-child policy, strictly enforced since 1979, places a heavy familial responsibility, both financial and social, upon the fledgling stars.

“I do not expect you to bring the family honour,” responds one father to his son’s choice of career. “But try not to bring shame upon it.”

The flip side of being an only child is that children receive a lot of attention, much of it doting, from parents and grandparents. A good thing, surely?

“They are spoiled,” sneered their drama teacher, who saw an enfeebled generation incapable of withstanding the rigours of a career in the performing arts.

And the Chinese branch of showbusiness does seem to be particularly tough. If you are lucky or talented enough to study at the Central Academy of Drama – from 10,000 applicants a year, fewer than 1% are selected – postgraduate life involves competing for roles with 300,000 other actors in Beijing alone. A commonly held belief is that television companies store actors’ resumes by the sackload.

Lending the documentary its structure is the academy’s first ever official Broadway collaboration with the mounting of a production of Fame. Which is all very resonant to the young students. Their desire to win the lead roles is both palpable and painful to observe, and the audition and rehearsal period offers a window into their individual worlds.

Jasper, a US musical director whose credits include The Lion King and Avenue Q, flies in – several weeks late – from New York, without an explanation or apology in sight. I take against Jasper immediately.

My initial impressions are confirmed when he plays a trick on the group, offering eight of them the opportunity to work with him in New York. They audition, eight are selected and the rest are downcast. Then Jasper informs them that it isn’t true.

He wanted to teach them an important lesson about showbusiness, although I wasn’t altogether sure what that lesson was. Unless it was to inform them that the industry is full of pillocks such as Jasper – ego maniacs who cannot be trusted with an iota of responsibility without power-tripping on it.

For the record, the production of Fame looked pretty good, and in the documentary’s post-script we learnt that most of the students shown are doing pretty well.

Storyville – Fame in China, BBC4, Wednesday, December 4, 10pm

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