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Little trouble in big China

No permit, no filming in China as John Doyle discovers. "It’s a nation of dobbers, really."

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John Doyle and Tim Flannery may have had a relatively leisurely time filming three seasons of their Two Men series on the Murray-Darling, the Top End and the Great Dividing Range, but they were a walk in the park compared to the challenges of filming Two Men in China.

The duo spent 6 weeks filming in China last year but the red tape proved to be more than a challenge.

“When you film in China you have to go into partnership with a State-approved company and that means you have a minder with you that really is the State watching what you’re doing. By and large that’s reasonably useful, it helps smooth the way, because whenever you get out of the car with a camera within minutes the police will be there,” says Doyle (pictured, right).

“Even if you have the paperwork it will cost you 2 – 3 hours. They will look at the paperwork, and upwardly refer it, so you sit around for hours waiting for approval. So if you have 4 locations in a day you can add roughly 8 – 12 hours on top of that waiting for approvals.

“It’s a nation of dobbers, really. Someone will dob you in.”

Even being a day late to a location meant filming could not proceed.

Thankfully for viewers, there was minimal impact on the sparkling rapport between Doyle and his co-presenter, Tim Flannery, as they investigate how Australia’s mineral and agricultural wealth is helping to drive the Chinese economy.

“We were looking at the machinery that makes the place tick, what its aspirations are and what it thinks of Australia.

“We feed one end and buy what comes out the other end, essentially. So we look at the challenges of organising that many people and the standards of living for that many people. It’s an extraordinary challenge.

“But if you’re doing a story about recycling, as we were, they don’t think that’s a very interesting story. So they get in your way and start shouting at you. ‘Why aren’t you telling a better story? Look at our bloody big buildings! Look at our cars! Tell that story!’” he laughs.

“But there was nobody monitoring what we said, so we could say whatever we want, within reason. Obviously we didn’t go around looking for the Falun Gong or we would have got into trouble. Human Rights is something we tended to avoid because we were telling a different story.”

Doyle says it is impossible not to be daunted by the sheer scale of the country. Urbanisation is engulfing the country and “too many cars” are the cities biggest problems.

“You can go to a city I’ve never heard of and find a population of about 22 million people,” he recalls.

“There are vast forests of high-rise buildings with no-one living in them. There are really unusual landscapes. But having said that the standard of living for the average Chinese has risen extraordinarily since I was there last.

“How sustainable that is, is another question.”

Doyle and Flannery apply their unique perspective to the three episodes in Beijing, Shangahi, and Chengdu in south-west China.

“You can’t help but bump into Australians in Chengdu. It has a much cleaner atmosphere than Beijing, which is really challenged now. I don’t think there’s a day there when there wasn’t a government warning to stay indoors. The air was close to unbreathable.”

Despite our difference, there are also many similarities, if maximised by the sheer volume of China’s population. The country craves Western affluence and its brand icons.

“There are giant posters of David Beckham, Beyonce Knowles, selling the same sort of quality goods that people want everywhere. A shopping mall in Beijing, Shanghai or Chengdu it’s no different to a shopping mall in Sydney or Melbourne,” says Doyle.

“That’s what globalisation does, I suppose.”

The first episode next week begins in Beijing at one of the world’s largest ports, Tianjin, where iron ore from Port Hedland is unloaded. After meeting a former Australian ambassador to China, a controversial artist, and farmer turned inventor, the episode ends on the Great Wall of China.

There are just 3 episodes of the series, but the always-affable Doyle is pragmatic about ABC1’s launch on what is bound to be a news-heavy evening next Tuesday.

“After the magic of the Budget people will be ready for the magic of China.”

Two Men in China airs 8:30pm Tuesday on ABC1.

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