Monday, January 9, 2012

News Article: Mingpao Special Feature: A career in review – looking back at TVB producer Lee Tim Sing’s Top 5 series

Here's a MUST READ article for 80s TVB fans (well, it sort of extends back to the 70s as well).

As most of you probably know, 'golden' producer Lee Tim Sing (李添勝) has plans to retire next year -- for the past 43 years, he has been responsible for producing many many TVB series, most of which we would consider 'classics'. With his anticipated retirement at the end of next year (as well as the recent success of his latest series "Bottled Passion"), Mingpao Weekly did a special feature on Lee Tim Sing, interviewing him about 5 of the top series he had produced in his career.

I'm sure that many old-school TVB fans have probably watched the 5 series discussed in this article at some point in their lives -- if so, here's some behind-the-scenes information about those series, as recounted by Tim Gor himself.

As an 80s/90s TVB fan (and the 70s to some extent), I definitely enjoyed reading this article! Whether you are a fan of TVB or not, if you've watched any of the 5 series mentioned, I hope that this article will help shed some light on things that perhaps were not previously known about the series.

Anyway, enjoy!! :-)

Article originally published on January 7th, 2012

Mingpao Special Feature: A career in review – looking back at TVB producer Lee Tim Sing’s Top 5 series

Source: Mingpao Weekly, Issue 2252

Now that “Bottled Passion” has ended and his next series “Stairway to Heaven” is in post-production, TVB golden producer Lee Tim Sing (Tim Gor) has started preparing for his newest series “Detective Columbo” – actor Wayne Lai will star in this new series, which could very well be Tim Gor’s last production prior to retirement: “Unless something unexpected comes up, yes, this will most likely be the last one.” TV fans are surely hoping for something ‘unexpected’ to happen! After spending 4 decades in the industry, will Tim Gor miss the work? “It’s not really a matter of missing or not. I’m already 65 years old – it’s truly time for me to step down.”

With a career that spans 43 years and numerous hit series to his credit, Tim Gor does not wish to deliberately pick any one series as his ‘representative’ work: “I put my heart and soul into every single series I produce and each time, I strive to make the best series possible – though of course, it’s not always possible!” With limited production resources, of course it may not always be possible to achieve the best visual effects, however when it comes to choosing suitable actors and actresses for his series, Tim Gor certainly has an eye for talent. From a casting perspective, Tim Gor feels that “The Duke of Mount Deer” (1984) and “The Emissary” (1982) were ‘very close to perfection’, while classics such as “The Fate” (1981) and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (1979) had ‘golden couple’ Chow Yun Fat and Dodo (Carol) Cheng – two of his ‘beloved’ artists whom Tim Gor collaborated with often back in the day. Of course, the most ‘memorable’ experience for him was producing 1985’s grand anniversary series “The Yang’s Saga” in which every single artist employed by TVB at the time participated: “Back then, whenever we had a war to fight, everyone was invigorated!” [TN: the ‘war’ was between TVB and ATV: at that time, TVB produced the series to ‘fight’ ATV’s highly rated inaugural Miss Asia Beauty Pageant].

Looking at the state of TVB nowadays, does Tim Gor’s spirit and vitality still exist?

‘Close to perfect’ casting: Tony Leung (梁朝偉) and Andy Lau (劉德華) in “The Duke of Mount Deer” 《鹿鼎記》and “The Emissary” 《獵鷹》

In April of 1969, Lee Tim Sing joined TVB and was given the worker’s identification number of ‘365’ – perhaps it was fate that from that day forward, Tim Gor would work ‘365 days’ a year, every year, producing series for the small screen.

Having experienced the ‘golden era’ of TVB [back in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s] as a producer, it is of course difficult for Tim Gor not to lament TVB’s dire state today: “Back in the day, TVB truly had many great talents – in addition to the Five Tigers, there were also the more ‘mature’ actors such as Chow Yun Fat, Adam Cheng, Simon Yam, etc. – so in a sense, casting for series was easy!” A ‘classic’ example of this – TVB’s popular 1984 Jin Yong remake, “The Duke of Mount Deer”: “If at that time, our ‘artists vault’ did not consist of an actor named Tony Leung, the series definitely would have lost a lot of its vibrancy!” As Tim Gor describes it, Tony Leung’s portrayal of ‘Wai Siu Bo’ was akin to a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity – since then, the character has become ‘extinct’ so to speak: “When I had Jordan Chan (陳小春) play that role [in the 90s remake], it was a different feeling -- even Tony Leung himself, if he were to do the same role years later, would not be able to pull it off with the same freshness and purity as the original portrayal, since he would have gone through more experiences and his acting matured.”

Thinking back to that time, when TVB’s then Head of Production Lau Tin Chi (劉天賜) called Tim Gor into his office to give him the ‘marching orders’ to start production on “The Duke of Mount Deer”, Tim Gor’s first reaction was: “Ok, then Tony Leung will play Wai Siu Bo and Andy Lau will play Emperor Hong Hei!” Tim Gor revealed that the first time he cast Tony in one of his series was in 1982’s “The Emissary” – he did so primarily because Tony at that time was “a short, young boy who had a pleasant face and was obedient – the perfect fit to play Barbara Chan (陳敏兒)’s younger brother!” However, as filming of the series progressed, Tony’s meticulous acting and focus caused Tim Gor to see him in a new light: “Of course, when most audiences watch series, they will only pay attention to the main leads playing their roles in the front, but as a producer, I have to pay attention to those in the background as well. In “The Emissary”, Tony only played a supporting role and when [main leads] Andy and Barbara were playing their parts in the front, he would usually only be in the background – yet, the way he remained so focused and absorbed in the scene – it was obvious that in the future, that was the type of actor I wanted to work with; after all, who would want to work with a wandering spirit with no focus?”

Andy Lau’s situation was similar to Tony’s – the reason he got the ‘golden’ opportunity to be male lead in “The Emissary” was also because of his ‘background focus’: “In the series “The Lonely Hunter” (1981), there was a scene where a group of youth from the Acting Classes were cast as school students and had to perform the song ‘On the Songhua River’. I was in the control room and noticed that one of the students was especially enthusiastic and put 100% effort into performing that scene, so I asked my assistant to write down that student’s name. When it came time for me to start filming on “The Emissary” (in 1982), the first person that I thought about to play the lead role of a youngster from the police academy was that name I had written down: Andy Lau.”

Therefore, when it came time to film “The Duke of Mount Deer”, Tony and Andy were the first choice to play Wai Siu Bo and Emperor Hong Hei: “I would have to say that the casting for that series was close to perfection – even [veteran actor] Chun Wong playing the role of Mao Sap Bat was so well-suited!” The role that had the most ‘controversy’ at the time was Kiki Sheung playing ‘Ah Ngo’ – Tim Gor admits that back then, when he had decided to cast her in the role, there were definitely some people who objected: “As a producer, I cannot be wishy-washy – once the decision has been made, need to follow through with it. If I were to switch artists around all the time, not only would the artists themselves be unhappy, it would also affect the production. In addition to focusing on the quality of the series, I also need to be concerned with the artists’ feelings.” In deciding to cast Kiki for the role, Tim Gor states that her ‘obstinate’ personality was perfectly suited to the character: “If you say that Kiki is not pretty enough for the part, I probably wouldn’t refute you, but the character of Ah Ngo is the illegitimate daughter born out of wedlock to Chan Yuen Yuen and Lee Chi Sing and from childhood, was raised by a one-armed nun – based on her experiences, the character is supposed to have a self-determined, independent kind of stubbornness about her…Kiki definitely had this temperament that made her perfect for the role.”

In Jin Yong’s popular wuxia novels, anything is possible, however adapting the novels to the small screen is a challenge unto itself, both for the cast and crew alike. Tim Gor responds with a smile: “The scene where Wai Siu Bo finds the treasure was especially difficult to film, as there are limitations to what we are able to do in the studio. We did the best we could at the time, building a special set with an underground passage and tried to make the ‘treasure’ as realistic as we could….but of course, there will always be comparisons made! Look at all the Western films with those types of scenes – all the pillars, stones, etc. always look so grand – then take a look at ours…can’t compare!” When that scene was being filmed, Tim Gor had to give special instruction to the director to be careful with the camera angles and make the scene as short as possible: “No point in embarrassing ourselves!”

At this point in the interview, the scene in TVB’s recent anniversary series “Curse of the Royal Harem” where the Emperor and Empress are ‘riding’ in that makeshift balloon comes to mind….aiye….

Andy Lau and Deanie Ip’s mother/son relationship in “The Emissary”

In the 70s, TVB’s biggest competition was RTV [TN: Rediffusion Television, which later became ATV] and during that decade, a big focus for both stations was filming police dramas. After years of filming heavily male-oriented police investigative series, Lee Tim Sing (Tim Gor) suddenly had a thought – instead of filming regular police dramas, why not film a series about police cadets?: “Just like that, the series “The Emissary” was born!”

Prior to this series, Andy Lau did have some acting experience, however since this was his first time in a lead role, a bit of nervousness was unavoidable: “If you ask me whether Andy’s acting skills were always proficient, I would tell you ‘of course not!’ In the beginning, his acting was extremely stiff – my assistant would tell me: ‘that’s not going to work!’ to which I would reply: ‘give him a few more days and he’ll be fine!’” Tim Gor had a lot of confidence in Andy and very carefully helped him figure out where the problem was: “In times like that, you absolutely cannot yell at the actors because if you do, the situation becomes worse. Plus, at that time, it wasn’t completely Andy’s fault – during filming, there were a lot of people in the studio and it was quite noisy – unless you’re used to that type of filming environment, it’s difficult not to become slightly intimidated. As a producer, as long as you understand the circumstances, then it’s no big deal – the more at ease the artists are, the better the acting becomes. A few days later, when I bumped into Andy in the makeup room, I gave him a pat on the shoulder and told him: ‘You’ve been doing much better!’”

Of course, let’s not forget that Andy also had great ‘teachers’ to learn from, as other artists participating in the series included Deanie Ip (葉德嫻), Paul Chun (秦沛), Lau Kong (劉江), etc. – all of them were veteran artists who are known for their solid acting skills: “The veteran artists were very willing to help teach the younger artists at that time; after all, helping the younger artists was the same as helping themselves, since it meant everyone could get off work on time.” In real life, Deanie Ip and Andy Lau truly have a special ‘mother/son’ relationship and have remained close even now, 30 years later – with regard to Tim Gor’s role in bringing these two together, he states: “Actually, there really wasn’t any special reason why I decided to cast Deanie Ip in the series. My intention at the time was to create a very close-knit, unique mother/son relationship where the two of them could joke with each other and act like sister and brother rather than mother and son. I knew Deanie from years back, around 1972 or so, when I was still in an assistant (場務員) role and she was already singing in “Star Show” – later on, we got the chance to collaborate on a series – I remember that every time I saw her, I noticed that she was always smiling, so she was perfect for the ‘happy mother’ character I had in mind for “The Emissary”.”

‘Golden’ pairing of Chow Yun Fat (周潤發) and Dodo Cheng (鄭裕玲) in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” 《網中人》and “The Fate” 《火鳳凰》

Talking about ‘classic’ collaborations – Tim Gor’s 1979 production “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” created the ‘golden’ pairing of Chow Yun Fat (Fat Jai) and Carol (Dodo) Cheng: “Chow Yun Fat’s acting skills are unquestionably great and Dodo is an actress I love collaborating with! I remember back when CTV (Commercial Television) closed down, TVB had bought a lot of that station’s series. One of my scriptwriters at the time told me I should go watch Dodo Cheng’s performance in those series – to be honest, in the past, what time would I have to check out CTV’s series?” [TN: Dodo Cheng started her television career at Commercial Television in the mid 70s – when CTV went bankrupt and TVB bought them out in 1978, she became a TVB artist].

As soon as Tim Gor saw Dodo’s performance, he knew immediately that she was a talented actress – but, how she ended up becoming part of the ‘golden pairing’ with Chow Yun Fat was partly due to fate and the right timing. As we all know, in the series “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, Fat Jai was also paired up with actress Cora Miao (繆騫人) and part of the storyline revolved around which woman he would ultimately choose: “The original plan [for the storyline] was that when a man [Fat Jai’s character Cheng Wai] is faced with two women – one who is a perfect match for him in terms of background, education, and thought process and who he had once been in love with [Dodo’s character Fong Hei Mun] and the other who is his dream ‘goddess’ and who understands him well, takes care of him, and is very considerate of his thoughts and feelings [Cora’s character He Ying] – who will he ultimately choose?”

Before the writers had a chance to make a decision, fate already made the choice for ‘Cheng Wai’: “After Cora Miao resigned in the middle of filming the series, the answer was already obvious, as there was no other choice – Fat Jai will definitely be paired with Dodo in the end. Any other characters who were added as love interests after that (Susanna Au Yeung for example) were all ‘facades’ whose purpose was to ultimately bring Fat Jai and Dodo together and move their relationship forward.” Back when the series aired, TVB claimed to have received 200 letters from audiences on a daily basis complaining about ‘Cheng Wai’ being paired with a different love interest as well as requesting that he and ‘Fong Hei Mun’ reunite. When the pair did get back together in the finale, it appeared that TVB had complied with the audiences wishes, but in reality, Tim Gor already had that ending in mind long ago: “Actually, as soon as He Ying was written out of the script [the character died in a car accident], the storyline of Cheng Wai ultimately getting back together with Fong Hei Mun was already set. When Cora quit, we had to ‘give up’ a lot of the storyline that we had originally planned for her – for instance, we had written that George Lam (林子祥)’s character was originally going to fight Cheng Wai for He Ying, but in the end, his character was forced to ‘disappear’. With much of the storyline gone, there was a huge hole that we had to fill and on such short notice, it was not feasible to switch over artists who were currently filming other series, so in the end, we picked Susanna Au Yeung (歐陽佩珊).” When Tim Gor asked for Susanna’s help to participate in the series, he was very up front with her: “It was necessary to be honest from the start that her character (Au Hui Wah) was ultimately going to die – I told her that it was definitely unfair to her and I felt sorry having to wrong her like that, but since we lost Cora, we really didn’t have much choice.”

In the end, Susanna’s character is killed while trying to save Cheng Wai and his mother and later on, he gets back together with Fong Hei Mun – the series ends with the famous ‘last scene’ where Fat Jai and Dodo kiss for close to 35 seconds, which at that time, was billed as the ‘marathon kiss of the century’: “We never planned the timing of the kiss itself – my only request during filming was that the cart pushing the camera do one full circle. The cart had to be pushed slowly because if it went too fast, the cameraman would get upset – after practicing the speed a few times, we did the official take with Fat Jai and Dodo…we finished in one take.” Why not film a few more takes so that there would be more options to choose from? “Camera film was expensive in those days: it cost almost a dollar a foot, and that didn’t include printing and developing – if you film too many excess scenes, the company didn’t like it!”

The ratings for the series went through the roof and there was also much praise from the audiences. However, there were a few audiences who questioned a few aspects of the storyline: “Some people complained that it didn’t make sense for Fat Jai’s character to ruin his career and life by stealing $100,000 in order to help his mother [played by the late Tang Bik Wan (鄧碧雲)], as he could have easily borrowed that money. When I heard that complaint, I was puzzled – why would someone go borrow $100,000 from someone else for no good reason, especially considering that was the year 1979?” At the time, there were also complaints that Liu Wai Hung (廖偉雄)’s character Cheng Chan eating 30 hamburgers in one shot was unreasonable, to which Tim Gor responded: “Yes, I understand that it is difficult for an ordinary person to eat 30 hamburgers all at once, but the purpose of that scene was to show how foolish and ridiculous the character’s thought process was as well as demonstrate the concept of new immigrants wanting to try Western trends [eating a hamburger].” Indeed, the character of ‘Cheng Chan’ had a huge effect on HK audiences and even helped to coin the phrase ‘Ah Chan’ as a nickname for new immigrants settling in HK from Mainland China: “During that time, it was common for HK people to go back to visit their ancestral relatives in the villages and oftentimes, they would exaggerate how HK was a ‘land of gold’, which caused a lot of Mainlanders to come here illegally. I basically ‘borrowed’ the idea after listening to several brothers from the village tell their stories and based the character on this. As for why we chose the name ‘Ah Chan’ – well, that was due to a lot of the stereotypical nicknames that were prevalent in our old society.”

While “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” reflected the struggles of ordinary citizens trying to survive everyday life, Tim Gor’s series “The Fate”《火鳳凰》reflected a different type of struggle – one on a more psychological and emotional level involving the upper eschelons of society. Once again, Chow Yun Fat and Dodo Cheng were paired together – was this arranged by the company given the couple’s popularity from earlier? “No – the most important thing for me is the character and how suited the artist is to portray the role. The main character in “The Fate” is the adopted son of a former triad king and starting from the first scene, there are already scenes involving his background – when it comes to portraying ‘grassroots’ characters, Fat Jai definitely has a knack for it!”

Dodo’s character in the series is the daughter of a rich lawyer, so in order to emphasize the importance of her family’s background, Tim Gor specially purchased a real leather sofa worth ten thousand dollars (remember, this is back in 1981) to use as part of the setting for the scenes involving her home: “Of course, the company complained about the expense, but from my perspective, the family is affluent and in order to match the background and storyline, it made sense to have an expensive sofa – would you expect them to have a sofa made from cheap fabric in their home? Besides, I only bought that one piece of furniture!” Tim Gor was persistent, but it paid off: “Sure, I got yelled at a little, but I don’t care – as long as I’m able to put the investment to good use and it pays off, those people will stop complaining.”

Filming grand production anniversary series “The Yang’s Saga” 《楊家將》

In 1985, the ‘golden couple’ of Chow Yun Fat and Dodo Cheng was taken to a different level – both became ‘deities’! In the grand anniversary series “The Yang’s Saga”, Fat Jai played Lui Dong Bun and Dodo played Ho Sin Gu [TN: historical characters], however both roles were only cameos that they agreed to do to help the company [TVB] fight a war: “At the time, the ratings for flagship program EYT had dropped drastically (and the company had to battle ATV’s Miss Asia pageant finals) – in order to fight back, the company ordered that all their resources be utilized for a grand production and filming had to commence 10 days from the order being handed down. Back then, the organization and structure of the company was strong – as soon as the order was received, we notified the Artists department and they immediately posted letters to all the artists’ lockers letting them know to be prepared. Artists such as Fat Jai, Dodo, Maggie [Cheung] all had series that they were currently filming, so they were asked to return for 1 or 2 days only to film cameo roles as ‘deities’. The director at that time was Johnnie To (杜琪峰) and he asked me how deities were supposed to appear, as it’s not ‘realistic’ to have them just walk out – after some thought, I realized he was right. The result was that we created a precedent by utilizing 18 wires all at once to have all the deities ‘fly’ out in the first scene of the series!”

The reason why the historical story of the Yangs was chosen for this series was primarily due to the short timeframe with which the series needed to be filmed and released: “If we had done a modern series instead, we would have had to spend too much time explaining the story to audiences and promotion of the series would be too strenuous – however as soon as we say “The Yang’s Saga”, everyone already knows the story.” With the popularity of the 5 Tigers at the time, it made sense that they would be recruited to play major roles in the production: “Michael Miu, Felix Wong, Andy Lau, and Tony Leung were arranged to play the roles of the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th Yang brothers, all of whom carried much of the storyline – the personalities and mannerisms fit perfectly.” (Kent Tong did not participate because he was on hiatus due to Barbara Yung’s passing).

In the studio, everyone was originally in high spirits and ready to fight the battle, however after filming nonstop for a few days without any sleep, the situation became a bit volatile: “Everyone hadn’t slept for days, many people were in bad moods, and people were complaining. Johnnie To was pretty much yelling at people left and right – if the crew did their jobs quickly, then of course everything would be fine, but if they slowed down a little bit, then he would get upset and yell. At this point, I had no choice but to be the mediator and help settle things.” But Tim Gor also was filming without rest, right along with them: “Yes, but if I got upset too, we’d be dead! I had to keep the big picture into consideration.”

Tim Gor is definitely deserving of the title ‘natural born leader’!


  1. I had to skip several parts since I didn't finish 'The Emissary' YET. LOL! Will come back later to read after I finish. AND didn't watch CYF and Dodo's series yet. ('Cause I couldn't hunt it down. People are saying it's too old, they don't have it at their store. Maybe need to go buy it at some major places OR something.)

    The Yang's Sagas - I got confused when they say no Kent Tong 'cause isn't he the 8th Prince? OR did the article meant he didn't portray one of the Yang's sons? If so, I get it. BUT that was so cool to make the decision with all the deities fly at the same time at the beginning. It sort of was really cool seeing everyone participated right there and then they shifted gears to focus on the humans.

    Thanks for translating this for us - as always!

  2. @DTLCT: Lol....actually, I need to go rematch The Emissary too, since it's been years since I've seen it and forgot most of it already (in fact, I didn't even remember that Tony was in this series until the article mentioned it....)

    As for Yang's saga -- you are correct...Kent wasn't chosen saw one of the Yang brothers like the other Tigers cuz he was on hiatus at that they probably gave him a different role later when he returned. Either way, he was definitely in the series.

    Regarding CyF's old series....definitely hard to find. When I bought the dvd versions of both series mentioned a few years ago, the guy told me I should get them now because his series will be hard to find in the future....he was right....

  3. @llwy12 - I didn't realize Tony was in it either but when he appeared as Barbara Chan's younger brother, I was 'wow'. LOL! Was looking forward to more scenes of him YET not likely? *shrugs*

    The Yang's Saga - Got it. Thanks for the clarification.

  4. @DTLCT: Regarding Tony -- haha, good to see I wasn't the only one who didn't realize he was in there...but then again, it's been forever since I've watched that series, so it's not like I remember much from it anyways (except for like Andy and

    Btw, just wanted to say one other thing about one of the CYF series mentioned in this article:

    The interesting thing about reading the segment about the series "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" is that I had re-watched that series pretty recently (early last year, when I bought the DVD box set for it), so I still remember most of the stuff that happens. All those scenes that are talked about in the article (Cora Miao's character dying in a car accident, Susann Au Yeung's character killed by a mad man with an axe while trying to save Fat Gor's character and his mother, Liu Wai Hung eating 30 hamburgers, the famous 35 second kiss between CYF and Dodo at the end of the series, etc etc) are still fresh in my mind.....definitely makes the article a lot more interesting to read.

    1. I am also rewatching "The Good The Bad and the Ugly" and thinks that it is definitely one of the Chinese classics. This is the second time its been shown on one of the Chinese channels as I watched it only once before back in 1995. I feel very sorry for Fat Gor's character as he did not deserve to be put in prison. I did wonder also why he did not just borrow the money from Fong Hei Man (Dodo Cheng). Well, if he did then there would not be a story I guess. I can remember though that he falls for Susanna Au Yeung Pui San. Actually if there is a slight flaw, then I can honestly say that I don't think they match well together. Susanna was beautiful but she would be far better paired off with a slighter older man than Fat Gor. It pleased me no end when he and Dodo got back together in the end.