Category Archives: Gerry Troyna

Gerry Troyna at the Khoo Kongsi, Penang

KimGooi Photojournalist

Click the images respectively, for a larger view.

Gerry Troyna at the Khoo Kongsi, Oct 1996. The little gentleman, in the middle, wearing hat is Gooi Boon Jin (David) the author's young son.

See related story ‘A Shocking Experience’ and learn about the rot in Penang state’s Tourism Dept. circa 1996.  Other stories: – Dream Assignment; Border Run with Jon Swain.

 More on Troyna’s award-winning masterpiece click  –

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A Shocking Experience

KimGooi Photojournalist

The story ‘Dream Assignment’ talks about world renowned British documentary maker Gerry Troyna and the would-be blockbuster on Cambodia, Princess Diana and Earl Spencer. Though the documentary was aborted just after a fortnight of location scouting and research in Cambodia, we were all fully paid for an estimated three months work, according to the contract. We were disappointed but no one complained.

Gerry Troyna’s Indian Hill Railways Wins Royal Television Society Award in 2010

Best documentary film award 2012 for ‘American Nomads’ by Gerry Troyna

There was an attempt to save the documentary with a replacement for Earl Spencer (brother of Princess Diana) who withdrew at the 11th hour. Personal safety and the erroneously held view that the Khmer Rouge were still a threat in the countryside and the negative report of the British ambassador in Phnom Penh, I thought were the reasons for the last minute withdrawal.

Troyna said there was still a chance the documentary could be salvaged with a famous star or well-known personality to replace the Earl. A few names were mentioned: – Vietnam War photographer Tim Page; award-winning journalist Jon Swain of Killing Fields fame; and movie star comedian Mr Bean. Of the three, everybody agreed that it would be great if we could have Mr Bean.

But alas! The Earl proved to be irreplaceable. Without him the shine would be lost; Troyna could not persuade the financial backers to accept a replacement. The American TV made it clear that without Earl Spencer, they would withdraw. BBC was prepared to suffer the loss incurred so far. The project was scrapped.

Most hacks or documentary buffs will tell you the BBC or the British are the best as far as documentaries are concerned. Why not the French, Germans, or Americans? I guess it has something to do with tradition, they really spend a lot of time on research and the support and resources given to the producer/director are enormous. Spending a year or two doing a documentary is not uncommon.

Among the many famous award-winning documentaries by Troyna were – BBC Indian Great Train Journey series, Frontier Series, Doomsday Book, Unforgiven, David Bowie’s Magic Moonlight Tours and many others. See all of them in his website:

Penang, Oct 1996: – Troyna at the Khoo Kongsi, with him is my little son David Gooi

In October 1996 I managed to get Troyna to Penang to give free consultation to the State Government about making a documentary to promote the island.

At that time I was told by author Khoo Salma that the state government was engaging an American writer, Sue Gross to write a movie script on Captain Francis Light (the founder of Penang) and his mistress Martina Rozelle with the naive hope that Hollywood would be enticed to make a movie. Thus promoting the state to the whole wide world.

I was shown a contract drawn up by Gross, basically binding the State of Penang to pay her an astronomical amount of money for writing the script, something to the tune of US$70,000. And if it were accepted by Hollywood, she would be paid a further percentage of the movie production cost. Salma would be engaged by her to help her in research.

I sounded the alarm bell to Salma; this is not the way to do it. Salma managed to halt the contract signing and convinced the State Exco member to consult Troyna who happened to be in Bangkok at that time. He agreed to come without any fee, the State Government just had to pay the air ticket and for two days accommodation which came to about £300.

An October day in 1996 Troyna, Salma, and I happily trooped into the Exco’s (she is the Penang state minister for tourism) office at Komtar. She said the Penang state government had made several documentaries to promote the island but they could never get the BBC, American, European or Australian TV channels to broadcast. Thus the idea of trying Hollywood now, the Exco woman said.

Of course no self-respecting TV channel anywhere in the world would broadcast any government propaganda or promotional material, let alone UK and USA who were very strict on such matters, retorted Troyna. As for Hollywood movie, it was out of question – firstly it is too costly, the stars have to be big names (for the movie to work) and they are costly and temperamental.

You would have no editorial control. What is politically correct would be a box office flop and what turns out to be a blockbuster could be politically disastrous for Penang and Malaysia.

Then what was the solution? Troyna said, a docu-drama – which is part documentary and part drama where historical scenes would be reenacted by popular local actors. And it should be a joint production with the BBC with the State footing 49 percent of the production cost and the other borne by the BBC. The BBC would in turn sell part of their shares to the American and Australian TVs. But the BBC will have editorial control and Penang would be assured that the docu-drama would be broadcast in three continents.

The exco woman was ecstatic! It must have been the first time such sound information were heard by her. “WE will do that,” exclaimed the woman. “In the meantime would you draw up a working paper and send us some samples of the documentaries you have done.” These were duly done.

And turning to Salma, the woman said, “Please get the airline and hotel bills and I will reimburse Mr Troyna. It may take about a month.”

Salma and I were very happy at the turnout. We would be in the pre-production and production team. It would mean at least six months of work. For me it would mean working in my hometown for the first time – making a TV documentary with one of the best documentary makers in the world.

I flew back to Bangkok and met up with Troyna a week later. Feeling good I did what I thought was the right thing to do. I reimbursed Troyna the 300 pounds out of my own pocket, thinking that i would get it back from the Penang Government in no time.

Alas! sad to say it was not to be. To cut the story short after a whole year of talking ‘crap and bull’ from the Exco Woman (She even sent a team to meet up with Troyna’s production manager in London), it came to nothing. The incredible and shocking thing is that the Government can pretend to talk to you and acting (play) seriously while nothing is being done. The contract was never signed, the initial US$20,000 (agreed upon) to begin research and preproduction never came.

When I realised this, a year had lapsed and I haven’t been reimbursed the £300 yet. On 29 October 1997 I received this email from Salma: “I’m sorry about your payment. I will try to ask for it. I also haven’t been paid for a job a friend and I did in November. I’ll call the Exco again today.”

Finally after more than 14 months I went up Penang Hill with Salma and met face to face with the Exco Woman at a holiday bungalow. To defuse the embarrassment, she pretended to be surprised that i had not been reimbursed, took out a golden service Citibank VIP cheque and quickly wrote out the payment. On it was written “VIP service, no waiting”. Impressive? Too late, she can run but cannot hide!

The hard lesson I learnt – many politicians are a sly and corrupt lot.

Bangkok, Dec 1983: Kim Gooi, center, with Gerry Troyna during filming of David Bowie’s ‘Ricochet Serious Moonlight Tour’ documentary; in the background, far-left, is David Bowie


Filed under Gerry Troyna, KIM GOOI Freelance Journalist, Bangkok (TH)

Dream Assignment

KimGooi Photojournalist

Troyna shooting: a bridge too far at Kampot approaching Kampong Som. We had to break journey and take a boat across

As far as journalists’ assignments go, it was a dream story. It had literally everything one could ask for and more – adventure, romance, royalty, glamour, grinding poverty, horrors of war, backdropped by an exotic fable-like landscape going back in time.

Not long after the death of Princess Diana and her Egyptian boyfriend Dodi in a Paris car crash in 1997, the BBC commissioned renowned documentary producer/director Gerry Troyna (read about his fame in to do a documentary on the ‘Train Journey’ through Cambodia with Princess Diana’s brother Earl Spencer as the presenter.

Gerry Troyna is the world famous award-winning producer/director of the “Great Train Journey through India” series and many other famous documentaries. Earl Spencer, a former TV journalist, as the whole world knows, is the guy who delivered the biting eulogy at her sister’s royal funeral.

Lunch break with the Phnom Penh Express

A blockbuster documentary was assured by the combination of the two personalities and the news-shattering background. In fact such was their drawing power, the BBC had already sold the documentary to major American and Australian TV networks before production began.

Prior to her tragic and untimely death Princess Diana as head of the world demining programme was to visit Cambodia, which has one of the highest number of mine casualties in the world. Now her brother was to take her place, come to Cambodia, see the demining work (neutralizing and clearance of minefields), visit the mine casualties and talk about his sister Princess Diana’s wonderful work that had touched the hearts of so many.

It was not exactly serendipity that brought me into the production team, but being there at the right time and knowing the ‘Big Boss’. Director Troyna was looking for a researcher/field producer with local knowledge and experience. Language skills were also an advantage.

I happened to cover the war right from the beginning when the Vietnamese invaded and toppled the Khmer Rouge regime on Christmas Day 1978. I had known the producer/director and worked for him on some of his documentaries.

Together with Jim Gerald and the late Peter Swan, both documentary makers and Cambodian old-hands, I was recruited into the production team to assist Troyna in research and formulating the story.

In 1997 Cambodia was relatively peaceful after decades of war. The country was led by pro Vietnamese strongman Hun Sen, even though he lost the UN brokered elections to Prince Ranaridth of the Royalist Party. The election was boycotted by the Khmer Rouge which still controlled some parts of the countryside. Banditry and landmines dominated a good part of the landscape.

Kim Gooi’s note: 20 Laotians have been trained by the Menonites and MAG to detect and clear the bombies. Here they are painstakingly going over the ground of broken bricks that was once the thriving town of Khang Khay, Xieng Khouang Province, January 18, 1995.

Train locomotives were armor plated and travelled with an empty wagon in front as added protection landmines. The notoriety of Cambodian trains was made worse when months earlier, several westerners were kidnapped near Kampot and murdered, supposedly by the Khmer Rouge.

A brave landmine victim – I complained I’ve no shoes until I met a man who has no legs.

Against this backdrop we signed a work contract with the BBC. Pre production and production work would take over a month and we were provided insurance against death or injuries.

We checked into the Holiday Mansion (hotel), near the British Embassy in Bangkok and awaited the arrival of two ex Royal Marine commandos ostensibly to teach us how to avoid danger and ambushes and act as our bodyguards. They were from Centurion, a British private company formed to provide training and protection for journalists in war zones. After so many journalists were killed in Bosnia, the Western media were taking no chances, said Troyna.

Meanwhile Earl Spencer was taking the same one-week course from Centurion in his estate in England. After two days we flew to Phnom Penh to continue the training there while we conducted the research and recce (location scouting) in Cambodia. The ‘R & R’ would take about 10 days after which the Earl would arrive with the film crew from London and shooting would begin.

As depicted on the walls of Angkor Wat, the Cambodian Royal Ballet has not changed since ancient times, except the dancers are no longer topless.

In 1997 Cambodia was still the world top news story. Phnom Penh was swarming with hacks. It was important to keep our work secret. We envisaged a media circus when the Earl arrived at the airport when words got out. We checked into the Hotel Royale, Phnom Penh’s top hotel. The English manager was pleased to know about the Earl coming to stay, and offered us a good deal – junior suites with breakfast thrown in.

We took the train and ran the whole gamut of railway lines or what were left, from Kampong Som (Sihanoukville) on the southern coast to Sisophon towards the Thai border.

Cambodian trains were not for the faint-hearted. They were the poor man’s transport – just old coaches with wooden benches and open wagons piled with logs and goods. In the daytime it was hot and crowded right up to the rooftop. Many could not afford the fare, and the rooftops were always crowded.

We thought we had the most fantastic storyline worked out. Briefly, Earl Spencer would arrive in the deep-water port of Kampong Som and board the train and travel towards Phnom Penh. He would see the devastation of war and plenty of the countryside – an English aristocrat among the crowded bodies in the hot stuffy train. Noise, people and faces… fried grasshoppers, barbecued tarantula… all the exotic and weird food he would encounter.

Producer/Director Gerry Troyna (right) with one of the ex-Royal Marines bodyguard and happy Khmer waitresses in Battambong.

In Phnom Penh he would do the Princess Diana stuff – see the demining work, the casualties, the officials and talk of his sister’s work and selfless contribution. The Earl would board the train again in Phnom Penh and go north towards the Thai border. He would get off at Battambang and walk towards the Bassac River where he would board a motorised sampan and travel to the great lake Tonle Sap and Angkor Wat.

The boat hugged the river bank, passing Cham villages, fishing nets, and boisterous naked children and water buffaloes. The Chams are Muslims, ethnic Malays, and they are mostly settled along river banks and estuaries.

On the left bank, a bright mosque freshly painted white and green comes into view. The Earl would signal for the boat to slow down and stop. He would climb the steep bank and walk towards the building as the melodic sound of children reciting Quranic verses filled the air.

Evasive actions and precaution, the two ex-Royal Marines take charge, on the way to the Bassac River, Battambang.

The camera would pan towards the faces of little boys and girls in headscarves. The Cham children with their middle-eastern mixture, many are exceptionally beautiful. The Imam and village elders would greet the Earl and little children stare in curiosity. The Earl is told the mosque had recently been repaired and repainted by the Malaysian army.

“This would be great! It would be the highlight of the documentary,” exclaimed the director. “It would remind the British people that Princess Diana’s boyfriend Dodi was a Muslim. If they were alive, would Britain accept Princess Diana if she converted and married him?”

Another highlight was the splendour of Angkor Wat where the Earl would end his journey. Happy with the outcome of the Research and Recce, we returned to the splendour of the Hotel Royale to enjoy a beer and laze around the swimming pool while waiting for his ‘Highness’ to arrive from London.

Train stop near Kampot. Khmer children looking towards the future.

Alas, on the eve of his arrival we were told the Earl had backed out and cancelled the trip citing security and danger as the reason. We suspected the British ambassador might have had a hand in it. When we went to see him to request his help to apply for firearms permits for the two British bodyguards, he was uncooperative and unfriendly.

“He might have written a negative report to London about us crazy journalists!” I said.

Anyway we were really disappointed for missing out on a great documentary in the making…. but not that disappointed after all, for we were all paid in full because of the contract.

Postscript: There was an attempt to save the documentary with a replacement for Earl Spencer who withdrew at the 12th hour. The risk to his personal safety and the erroneously held view that the Khmer Rouge were still a threat in the countryside were the reasons. Troyna said there was still a chance it could be salvaged with a ‘star’ or well-known personality to replace him.

A few names were proposed: Vietnam war photographer/author, Tim Page; award-winning journalist, Jon Swain of killing Fields fame; and movie-star comedian, Mr Bean.

But alas! the Earl proved to be irreplaceable. Without him the ‘shine’ would be lost. Troyna could not persuade the backers to accept a replacement.  The American TV made it clear that without the Earl, they would withdraw. BBC was prepared for the loss incurred so far; the project was buried for good.  

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