Someone got this for young F at Christmas, one of the 1970s Disney films made in England, set in 1920s London, featuring three nannies versus Chinese spies hunting down a secret message concealed by Lord Southmere on a dinosaur in the Natural History Museum. None of the Chinese speaking parts is actually played by an Asian actor (some of the extras might be); if you can put aside this rather insuperable failure, Peter Ustinov puts on a great show as the lead agent, explicitly linking the shenanigans to anti-colonial struggle; the nannies, played by Helen Hayes and Joan Sims, get rather less satisfactory parts though they and their cohorts do manage rather improbably to defeat twice their number of martial arts students. Derek Nimmo, aged 45, plays Lord Southmere, who is aged 31. The humour is basically slapstick with a dinosaur skeleton running round London and Windsor – Jon Pertwee, recently ex-Doctor Who, turns up as a deranged colonel determined to bag it for his wall, and various other luminaries of British comedy make appearances. The two rich young white boys under Helen Hayes’ care work out what is going on before anyone else does, and give the secret to Peter Ustinov (or rather give it back since Derek Nimmo stole it from the Chinese in the first place). Not a film that could be made by any director with the remotest sensitivity to race and gender issues today.
I had read the novelisation as a child, and it was interesting to go back to it as an adult, particularly having read the Doctor Who novelisations comparatively recently. It actually manages to be more racist than the film, which is saying something: by making Derek Nimmo’s character, Lord Southmere, the narrator, the Chinese are quite comprehensively othered. There are some odd changes between film and book, perhaps reflecting different stages in the script development: the personal connection between Peter Ustinov’s character, Hnup Wan, and the mother of Marshal Wu Tsai, so crucial to the denoument of the story, is absent; on the other hand the character of Grubb, the police detective played by Roy Kinnear, is given much more development. As novelisations go, it’s not a bad example of converting script to page, and is illustrated with some rather lovely line drawings (but the artist is not credited).
The original book on which the Disney film was based is set in New York, not London, in the contemporary early 1970s, so the Chinese are Maoists rather than followers of a warlord. Also the dinosaur gets dismantled by the nannies overnight rather than driven off on the back of the truck; and, most crucially setting the tone for the book, in the opening scene the Earl of Hastings is killed by his own cyanide capsule when his ex-nanny belts him across the face, rather than being held captive for most of the story like Lord Southmere in the film. The book concentrates much more on the work of the police investigators of the dinosaur theft, a special team of stereotypes brought together to fight international organised crime. One of the nannies is shagging her employer, while another is allergic to men; this is supposed to be funny, as are the freqent citations of Mao by the Chinese and their eventual fate (sent to Taiwan, where they will probably be executed). One or two jokes from the book made it into the film, but really this is for grownups who aren’t looking for anything very worthwhile.