TV - Bangkok Hilton

Bangkok Hilton

There is no scientific formula to prove what is a cult show and what isn't, so we just hope you enjoy our look back at those TV shows we personally think of as cult TV. Steve Taylor-Bryant goes back to 1989 for a harrowing tale...

Long before Nicole Kidman was 9 feet tall and famous for marrying Tom Cruise, she was an Australian film and television star that I actually came across in the very early 80's in BMX Bandits (still the best BMX film ever!) and so, when 1989 came along, I was very pleased to find her in Dead Calm with Sam Neill and Billy Zane and a mini series with Denholm Elliot and Hugo Weaving. It is this mini series I wish to talk about this week.

Hal Stanton starts the 3 part series leaving Bangkok on a ship in the present day, explaining he has been travelling for years due to an act he performed when he was a prisoner of the Japanese in Bangkok during World War II. He betrayed his company of men who were planning an escape by telling his Japanese captors. This was done with good intentions and to protect his men who surely would be killed but later suffered a Court Marshall for it anyway.

The 1960's now and we find Hal using the assumed name of Graham Greene and working in Sydney, Australia, as a lawyer. He falls in love and has an affair with daughter of a wealthy family from an isolated mansion estate in the outback, Katherine Faulkner (Judy Morris). Katherine's family find out and send him packing but Katherine is already pregnant and gives birth to Katrina. Katrina is raised in shame due to the affair outside of marriage and never leaves the estate. As she grows up Katrina (Nicole Kidman) loses her mother to cancer and decides it’s time to venture off with her new found wealth after inheriting the family fortune. When she gets to Sydney she finds out her father isn’t dead as she had been raised to believe and travels to London in search of the man she never met. A lead that Katrina discovers mentions Bangkok and she plans to stop there on the way back to Australia but has started a romantic relationship with a photo journalist Arkie Regan (Jerome Ehlers) from the United States. Arkie agrees to help Katrina search for her father but mentions having a romantic holiday in Goa first. Katrina agrees and whilst in Goa Arkie presents her with a camera but he has hidden heroin in a secret compartment.

Whilst in Bangkok searching for Hal, Katrina tries to get the family lawyer Richard Carlisle (Hugo Weaving) to help with the search but he refuses. A despondent Katrina decides to return to Sydney but sniffer dogs at the airport seek out the heroin and, despite her pleas of innocence, Katrina is arrested. Arkie joins another queue in the terminal and disappears. Whilst her sentence is yet to be handed down, Katrina is sent to prison full of filth and squalor and massively overcrowded nicknamed The Bangkok Hilton. Mandy Engels (Joy Smithers) is a heroin addict that used her brother Billy (Noah Taylor) who suffers learning difficulties to smuggle drugs before they were both arrested and sentenced to death. She becomes Katrina’s mentor trying to help her come to terms with her surroundings. Meanwhile Richard has found Hal and told him he has to get involved. Hal reluctantly agrees and, under the guise of a lawyer from the Carlisle firm, visits with Katrina. Hal finds this doubly difficult as, not only is the first meeting with his estranged daughter, it is also the prison he had frequented at the hands of Japanese in the War.

This show tugged at the heart strings. The scenes involving the prison, especially when you see people put to death, are a nightmare to watch and you can’t view them without being emotionally impacted by the horror. For a 1980's show this was incredibly well filmed and a very strong cast played out a really good script. Hugo Weaving shows glimpses of the talent we would see in later years and Nicole Kidman may have won Oscars and the like but I don’t think she has ever put on a performance like she did in Bangkok Hilton. But it’s Denholm Elliot as Hal Stanton that I enjoyed the most. You do not realise what a loss he is to the British film and television world until you see this show. Just watching it for research purposes has brought back the raw emotion I felt as a teenage boy watching the show for the first time. Added to those feelings is a knowledge I now have as a grown man that these types of situations happen, and these prisons are in existence, which heightens all the feelings I had on first viewing.

If you have a strong stomach and don’t mind harrowing drama then this a gem.

Image - IMDb.