“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

The China Rhyming Annual Round Up of Popular Culture Opium References – 2013

Posted: December 18th, 2013 | No Comments »

Another year almost over and those opium references keep on popping up in the popular media…


Nasty old mill Cheshire owner Samuel Greg reached for the laudanum as he made them kids work overtime in The Mill!

The movie version of Kerouac’s On the Road (better than expected) noted the desire to head “East” and do some opium, while the excellent Mr Selfridge (about Harry Gordon Selfridge’s rather louche life and London department store) also had a few opium references from the Edwardian West End. Sky’s adaptation of Bulgakov’s Young Doctor’s Notebook, with Daniel Radcliffe and Don Draper from Mad Men, showed the older Bulgakov as a heroin addict – in real life he wasn’t, but it added a little druggie opiates spice to the show. Series 2 began with the roles reversed and the Mad Men guy cleaned up and Daniel Radcliffe now on the dope (yes, Harry Potter does opium!!). A real literary dope fiend was Wilkie Collins and Andrew Lycett’s biography of him – A Life of Sensation – had plenty to say about the author’s life of dope and rampant sex with our old favourites – “fallen women”! Collins pops up inthe movie The Invisible Woman, about Dickens and his lady friends, but not doing the dope sadly.

indexTom Hollander as Wilkie Collins in The Invisible Woman

As expected the brilliant series 1 of Ripper Street from the BBC had opium and laudanum all over the place from the slums and whorehouses of Whitechapel to the swanky boudoirs of the City. Series 2 opened with a bang – and plenty of opium – down in Chinatown (Pure as the Driven Snow…) and went Limehouse-tastic-opium-crazy!!

Additionally, Channel 4’s dark (and I mean dark – half the time I was watching myself reflected in the plasma screen!) The Mill had a mill owner coughing up his guts and reaching for the laudanum. Less entertaining the really rather awful ITV drama Murder on the Home Front had a suspect die during the Blitz in “a Soho opium den” – highly unlikely such a thing existed in that part of town or anywhere much in the 1940s.


opium and laudanum flowed aplenty in old Whitechapel

But perhaps best was Cillian Murphy as 1920s Great War vet and gang leader Thomas Shelby in the brilliant BBC2 show Peaky Blinders smoking opium in his Brummie slum to forget the horrors of the trenches! A great show and a great opium moment.

imagessmoking dope and running the baddest gang in Birmingham

More seriously Jeremy Paxman’s Empire series for the BBC didn’t duck ‘the opium as engine of empire in the Far East’ and was a nice brief overview of the British mud trade. He even got in the gag about the Jardine’s building in Hong Kong being the House of a Thousand Arseholes! Paxman went on in 2013 to grow a beard and allow himself to discuss Cheryl Cole’s bottom tatt on Newsnight – so he may well have been reaching for the pipe at times! Serious opium reading was provided by Ashley Wright’s Opium and Empire in Southeast Asia and several new editions of de Qincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater appeared too.

Rustication_US_mech-3 for server.inddCambridge students doing drugs!! Surely not…

Opium popped up in popular fiction too as usual – Imogen Robertson’s fourth novel in her Harrier Westerman series, The Paris Winter, took us back to Belle Epoque Paris where secret opium addictions were a major theme while Benjamin Black’s (aka John Banville) second Quirke mystery (admittedly came out a couple of years ago, but I only just read it) The Silver Swan saw Dublin pathologist Quirke finding opium-based morphine ampoules all over 1950s Dublin – the BBC has filmed all the books in the series so we’ll see if this reference gets to the small screen soon.There’s also plenty of opium smoking in Weimar Germany in Marek Krajewski’s Eberhard Mock series, especially Death in Breslau, if you like your dope tinged with some pre-Nazi era decadence. David Downing’s new Jack McColl WW1 era spy series started with Jack of Spies and took us into a Shanghai opium den in 1913 while Charles Palliser’s Rustication had a young man in 1863 hooked on dope and sexual desire being booted out of Cambridge in some tasty Victoriana tales.

And, of course, Paul French’s Midnight in Peking (who on earth is he!!) featured opium dens in 1930s Peking with even more coming in his short e-book delving deeper into The Badlands: Decadent Playground of Old Peking.

And finally, while wandering around France this summer, down in the Catalan region, a lovely bar of opium soap was procured!!

(and do let me know if I missed anything?)


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