In a darkened editing suite in London, the final six episodes of â€’Big Trouble in Thailand” are slowly being pieced together. But the remainder of the reality miniseries that finally airs on the U.K.’s Bravo cable channel likely won’t be what creator Gavin Hill expected. Some might argue it never has been.
In truth, nothing about the eight-part series about Thai police and badly behaving Brits has gone according to plans, not Hill’s and certainly not those of the Thai bigwigs who months ago happily mugged with him for snapshots. The edited product is not the â€’Thai Cops” Hill claims he wanted to make and now Thai officials have gone into full witch-hunt mode, demonizing him, downplaying their involvement and doing all they can go discredit the show and bury the problems it highlighted.
Even officials in Pattaya, which so far has gotten off lightly, are promising that â€’heads will roll” after seeing a rough cut of Episode 3.
But should any what has unfolded over the past 11 days really have come as a surprise? Thais were never going to tolerate even remotely negative Western media coverage. And Hill’s own assertions that he never expected the reaction Episode 1 generated begs the question of not only how much he really understands Thailand, but whether he realized how little control over his pet project he really had.
â€’I certainly regret any offense caused to the Thai authorities,” Hill told me in an interview this week. â€’Any offense caused was certainly not deliberate, although now – with hindsight and having learned a lot – I can see why it may have happened.”
Not Your Father’s ‘Cops’
It’s not hard to see why Thai police officials feel betrayed. They were pitched a spinoff of U.S. reality hit â€’Cops,” which follows officers on the beat, portrays them duly upholding the law and spending little time getting into the personal lives of the people they arrest. What they got was something totally different: a series that blatantly infers cops are crooked and that the justice system is not only slow, but only works for people with enough cash to pay their way out of trouble.
That type of thing simply isn’t done. There is no free press in Thailand. There’s not even free blogging, as was made painfully clear to me when I had my own blog and suffered physical attacks and death threats for writing the â€’truth.” How could Hill possibly think he could put out a show that pounds home the â€’truth” that Thai cops are corrupt? Or, for that matter, why did he think he could – as he does in Monday’s Episode 3 – criticize Thai authorities for letting a well-known con-man live in Pattaya simply by paying off law enforcement?
â€’To think I could have made a western-style â€’Cops” series in Thailand … well, I must have been bonkers,” Hill wrote in a comment on my first â€’Big Trouble” story here. â€’I can’t begin to tell you what a challenge it was making this series for someone especially concerned – to the point of going out of his way – of not harming Thailand’s image.”
His claims of good intent don’t mesh with the final product, which definitely strays from the â€’Cops” model by delving deep into the lives of victims (and criminals), trying to put a heart-wrenching spin on their lives rather than simply focusing on law enforcement patrols as â€’Cops” does. That Hill maintains he was making â€’Thai Cops” makes you wonder if Bravo and Vera Productions, the film company partner that is editing the series, had their own ideas what the show should be.
â€’I wasn’t making a probing, investigative documentary series designed to expose anything,” Hill said. â€’That was not the remit. I was making a pro-police observational documentary series for a youthful demographic on a niche UK cable TV channel.
â€’I haven’t been responsible for putting the show together in London,” Hill added. â€’I am interested in playing more of a role in that respect, in the future … if that’s possible.”
The Crackdown Begins
Earlier this week, the future, however, seemed somewhat in doubt. Hill told the Phuket Wan newspaper Sept. 14 that the Thailand Film Office sent a letter to Bravo asking that future episodes be canceled.
”I don’t know what’s going to happen now with the series,” he said. The Thailand Film Office has ”pulled all the releases and permissions that are required to complete the series.”
He has been told there is the likelihood of a complaint being made to the British embassy. At least one volunteer expat tourist policeman in Pattaya had also expressed concern.
In an interview with friend and freelance British journalist Andrew Drummond, Hill went further, saying he was not only being singled out by the Thais, but ostracized by his U.K. partners as well.
Meanwhile producer Gavin Hill, who was working for comedian Rory Bremner’s Vera Productions, said: â€’At the moment our relationship has come to an end. They have not given any support. They are also not honouring some promises I made to the Thai authorities or corrections I am making to the scripts.
â€’They appear to have left me out to dry. The Thai authorities are trying to get the series stopped. But actually if they look at it closely they come off quite well. We were primarily looking at British tourists on holiday.
Today Hill is backing down a bit from those claims, which some might contend he made to sound like a victim, not a perpetrator. It could be his published comments upset those still working with his raw footage or Bravo, which finds itself with an unexpected hit. Episode 1 was seen by 113,000 people on TV. That’s not much for a country of 60 million, but more than the 95,000 Bravo was expecting. Many tens of thousands watched YouTube and pirated copies downloaded from the Internet.
â€’I have to be honest with you, I don’t know what is happening with regards to the Thai government, police and future episodes of the show… really,” he said in his interview with me. â€’This is because the Thai government, as such, has made no contact with me. I really don’t know what they think at the very top about the series. I only know what I read and, if the Bangkok Post article is anything to go by, then I assume the government views the series negatively. But that’s only an assumption on my part.”
Hill was referring to a Sept. 16 Bangkok Post piece claiming police were â€’furious” over scenes in Episode 1 they claimed were â€’staged” to show jet ski vendor Vinai â€’J.J.” Naiman threatening British Royal Marines with a gun in order to extort 34,000 baht from them for damage they supposedly didn’t cause to one of his watercraft.
Phuket authorities quickly arrested Vinai after the show aired Sept. 7 with Phuket’s governor winning plaudits for finally clamping down on Patong Beach’s infamous jet ski scam artists. But the governor seemed to be alone in taking a pro-active response to the negatives â€’Big Trouble” brings up. Everyone else in government seems to prefer denying, discrediting and covering up, with the governor and police now even cooking up anti-Thai conspiracy theories.
Pol. Lt. Gen. Santhan Chayanont, chief of Provincial Police Region 8 which covers the upper South, yesterday said efforts to tarnish Thailand’s image might be coordinated. …
In the clip of the British marine, Mr. Vinai was seen to go to a storeroom and return with a gun which he dangled by his side. Santhan said the way clips had been made suggested a set up.
They had been edited to tarnish the image of both Thai tourism and the police force and presented only the negative side of the story through narrators, he said.
Santhan ordered police investigators to find out if any Thai individuals were involved in the making of the footage. They could face criminal charges. He also ordered his subordinates to run a check on the production of the clips and report the findings to him as soon as possible. …
Phuket governor Wichai Praisa-ngob yesterday said the clips might have been produced by someone who stood to benefit from Thailand tourism losing its competitive edge.
Santhan’s probe has moved quickly, with the Post today publishing news that Thai video-production house hired to work with Hill now facing criminal charges.
Wanasiri Morakul, director of the Thailand Film Office which comes under the Tourism and Sports Ministry, yesterday said police had traced the tapes to a company called Black Sheep Productions.
She said the managers of the company, which had produced the â€’Big Trouble in Thailand” series for Bravo All News station in England, admitted to holding the copyright for the recordings.
Ms. Wanasiri said normal videos made by Thais do not require prior approval from the ministry’s Office of Tourism Development. But the people responsible for the Big Trouble In Thailand series … had violated Article 34 of the motion picture law by not having the contents examined by a Tourism and Sports Ministry film committee before they were broadcast abroad.
The company’s managers could face 12 months in jail and/or a fine of up to a million baht.
Seksan Nakawong, director-general of the Office of Tourism Development, said the film-makers also violated Article 23 of the same law for making a film tarnishing the reputation of Thailand. …
Sasisupa Sungvaribud, president of the Film Production Services Association, said the recordings took the form of a reality show and the events depicted were obviously staged and scripts written for the film.
Hill, of course, has strenuously and repeatedly denied the jet ski scene was â€’staged,” although debate here and here show the definition of â€’staged” varies based on who you talk to. TFS2M’s SideShowBob may have summed the incident best here.
My initial point I never made is I highly doubt that jet ski situation would have gone down the way it was setup to be. And I mean set up. Usually when any of the military guys get in scraps the military police or attaches will call in the local military for aid.
I know some guys who are the liaisons for these situations, so before they have problems usually they go in heavy and the locals back down. So in this case had it been handled properly, not setup for a â€’show,” J.J. would have been forced to talk to Thai military guys.
Tell me how that would have turned out: Chances are, since the kid lied, J.J. would have been put down gently and the military guys would have skated off Scot-free.
So, in that scenario, the Thais are getting screwed due to the close relationship of the two militaries.
Hill, however, sticks to his guns in my interview with him:
All I can repeat is that the scene with J.J. was not staged in any way; not by me or anyone connected with the series. J.J. invited us to film a case and that case panned out the way it did with me filming all the while. J.J. could have chosen any case to show us.
â€’I gave him an opportunity, a platform to tell his side of the story because there are always two sides to a story. That’s what I do: tell them as best I can. J.J. did his thing. The Marines did theirs. And I did mine. But my only role was to turn up and record what happened. And what happened was as much a surprise to me as I think it has been to everyone. Only I was there and witnessed it first-hand, which was unnerving at times.
â€’People keep asking why would JJ behave like that? Well, I think the reasons is pretty obvious: Why do many of us most often behave in ways we later regret? It ain’t rocket science and the evidence is there if you notice.
Clearly, jet skis are a real problem for Thailand’s tourist areas – Phuket, Samui (next on Hill’s hit list) and even Pattaya. The week before the British soldiers got swindled, Vinai took U.S. Marines for 70,000 baht. And, on Koh Samui, soon to be highlighted in the series, a Swedish couple had to be escorted to the airport after their lives were threatened by a jet ski vendor there.
Even in today’s Bangkok Post article Tourist Police Chief Adis Ngamjitsuksri â€’conceded the extortion of tourists was a problem which the police alone could not stamp out.” And more meetings were being planned in Phuket today to radically change the rental system there and impose an insurance scheme and much lower penalties for damage, as well as removing requirements tourists give their passports to vendors as collateral.
Episode 3: Pattaya Spotlighted
There’s also evidence to support that Episode 3 upcoming Monday – in which Pattaya will for the first time dominate the screen — has already had a positive effect.
Immigration police on Tuesday arrested 64-year-old Lance Frederick Shaw, an alleged Australian con man who supposedly cheated people out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in a gold-investment scam and other fraudulent ventures for more than 25 years. Episode 3 originally criticized Pattaya police for ignoring the complaints of defrauded investors and allowed him to live peacefully in Sin City by paying large bribes.
The episode that airs Monday now will show the arrest but not necessarily less criticism of the Pattaya authorities.
Hill told me today that Pattaya Police, which saw a rough cut of Monday’s episode, have promised â€’heads will roll” and that another investigation into Big Trouble’s makers will be launched.
Monday’s show also has a Pattaya jailhouse interview with Marcus Hilton (aka Marcus James) from the U.K. and Australia who was facing a possible death sentence. Also featured in Pattaya are a British bloke having a dispute with a very persistent bar girl who literally gives him a run for his money and a Kosovan man with a U.K. passport who gets a good beating from Pattaya cops after offending them in some way.
It will be interesting to see if the ruckus over â€’Big Trouble” will result in Vera and Bravo watering down the show or, as some alluded to earlier this week, making it more vanilla and palatable to Thai tourism authorities. Hill doubts it.
â€’I’m not sure how anything could be watered down. The content we’ve gathered is the content we’ve gathered,” he told me. â€’I can’t see anything more coming up that would upset anyone in the way it has. But then I didn’t expect the reaction to the first episode.”