Many unknown details about the daily life of China's late leader Deng Xiaoping (1904-97) have been revealed to the public for the first time via a new TV series. The pilot episode of this 48-episode production, Deng Xiaoping During a Historic Turning Point, was screened on Channel One of China Central Television on Aug 8 to celebrate the 110th anniversary of Deng's birth, which falls on Aug 22. It gained 1.76 per cent of the television audience, and the second episode reached 2.08 per cent.
The production, costing 120 million yuan (S$24.3 million), was made over five years, and was created after extensive interviews with Deng's family members.
It depicts Deng's life and those of many related figures since the end of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) to Oct 1, 1984, when people waved the banner "Hello, Xiaoping!" during the National Day parade along Chang'an Avenue in Beijing.
Some sensitive historical incidents during that time, including the arrest of the "Gang of Four", led by Mao Zedong's wife Jiang Qing (1914-91), are depicted on Chinese television for the first time.
The role of Hua Guofeng (1921-2008), who was the country's top leader after Mao, is also depicted in a television series for the first time.
Actor Ma Shaohua, 59, plays Deng, speaking with a Sichuan province accent. The first episode begins with a typical day at Deng's home on the eve of a changing political situation.
"We didn't need to look up at Deng when making the serial," director Wu Ziniu said at the premiere of the serial in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
"We look at him in a way that helps us to feel his emotions. At home, he was just a kind grandfather and father before he was a great figure."
Wu said in an interview with Sichuan News Network that many behind-the-scenes stories on important national policy decisions had never been revealed to the public before, and the portrayal of those details are able to survive the audience's scrutiny.
The show also has fictional figures representing ordinary Chinese families. This sub-plot runs parallel to the main story of the leaders, and reflects social changes at the time.
"We've seen many works on similar topics but they are too careful," television critic Li Xingwen wrote in a post on sina.com.
"They used to only grasp some episodes from textbooks or history files. Though they appeared to be dramas, they were actually documentaries. So, it is refreshing to see a breakthrough this time."
The pilot resembles a typical Hollywood political thriller. A thrilling atmosphere is created through fast-changing scenarios and a continuous soundtrack.
Creatively, it may remind the public of another historical drama from CCTV in 2003. Toward the Republic, a 60-episode serial depicting social upheaval in China between the 1890s to the 1920s.
That series also introduced some fictional characters and challenged the staid images of historical figures from school textbooks. Ma Shaohua also played the protagonist, taking on the role of Dr Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925).
The serial was highly praised by viewers, but it also prompted huge political controversies and was never broadcast on CCTV again.
Nevertheless, director Wu, 63, who was also born in Sichuan province, seldom mentions politics when speaking about the series, and repeatedly emphasised that it had more to do with nostalgia.
"My life path coincided with many historic events mentioned in the series," he told Sichuan News Network.
"It's not only a story about a period of history, but also an emotional entanglement of our generation."