WHAM! Bam! Pao! The judges are at it again - or they will be soon. Exactly a year after the rumpus between TVB and ATV over the Taiwanese television series Judge Pao, the scene is set once again for another ratings tussle between the two television stations: both are producing their own version of the popular series. While TVB's Justice Pao takes to the air on Monday at 7.30pm (Jade) with a new hand on the gavel, ATV is still rushing to finish the first few stories and reckons its version will only make it by the end of the month 'at the earliest'. But already bets are on to see which Judge Pao will be the chief dispenser of justice for Hong Kong viewers. Will it be TVB's new face on the bench - veteran actor Ti Lung - or will it be the 'original' Pao Ching-tin - Taiwanese actor Ching Chao-chun? It's enough to make the real Judge Pao go blue in the face. TVB had announced plans to film its own 'Hong Kong' version, after the fracas erupted last May over who held the broadcasting rights to the original Taiwanese series. But serious casting only started at the end of last year with a search that led producers to Taiwan, Shanghai and even as far as Beijing, before they decided on 50-year-old Ti Lung on the advice of Sir Run Run Shaw. Ti started his acting career at Shaw Brothers, and his 31 years in the business have included myriad roles from sword-fighting epics to cops and robbers. One of his recent better-known roles has been that of an ex-triad member in John Woo's A Better Tomorrow. But his role in Justice Pao, however, will mark his first television series. While the TVB machine was cranking into motion, ATV also decided it had to do the same - in what seemed like a repeat of events leading up to the May 1994 battle - and it wanted 44-year-old Ching to resurrect his role. 'TVB had two main reasons for wanting to do this series,' explained producer Chong Wai-kin. 'One, for commercial reasons, of course, and two, the show has good moral values and sets a good example for children. I think Judge Pao is an ideal figure for many people. 'All of us hope for someone like that to whom we can complain and be sure that he will dispense justice, irrespective of creed, culture or social status.' Although Chong acknowledged that Ching's image as the dark-faced judge had already been indelibly ingrained in the minds of Hong Kong viewers, the station decided not to use him in the role - despite having had a contract with him. 'We decided not to use [Ching] because we wanted it to be a totally new Hong Kong production,' said executive producer Chong Wai-kin, adding that TVB wanted to move away from the image of the Taiwanese series. 'To be honest, no one has ever really seen the real Judge Pao. So many people have played him before so who is to say who looks most alike? We have full confidence in Ti Lung. It is hard to explain, you look for certain qualities to bring the character alive and some actors have it. When we saw Ti Lung, we just knew.' Over at ATV, however, production consultant and the series' executive producer, Leung Tin, felt that having Ching lead the team would give them an edge. 'It's true no one knows what the real judge looks like, we can't deny that, but in the minds of most viewers Ching has already been accepted as Judge Pao, that's why he's an obvious choice,' Leung said. The only production inconvenience that Leung foresees on the as yet unnamed series would be the dubbing work that has to be done, since Ching does not speak Cantonese. 'The series will be a co-operative venture with a Taiwanese company and will be released in Taiwan as well,' he said. 'So we will be using faces well-known to Taiwan as well as familiar Hong Kong ones.' As far as familiarity goes, the onus will be on Ti Lung and his new team to prove themselves. The only advantage they appear to have will be the one-month headstart over their rivals. But the strain is already beginning to show on the TVB cast. During a publicity session last week, at which the cast went to pray to the real Pao Jeng, one of the main actors was heard muttering about 'no sleep at all' and 'confusing promotional activities'. Ti has been very vocal in the local press about the need for enough time - at least six hours - to rest and sleep, and to memorise his script. He has made no pretence about the fact that he took on the job out of deference to Sir Run Run either. 'I cannot do a thing unless I get enough rest,' a testy Ti said. 'Judge Pao has to look alert and sharp. If I didn't get enough rest, I wouldn't be playing Pao Gung [Lord Pao], I would be playing Chow Gung [Lord of Sleep].' Having got used to contemporary roles of late, Ti has also been having trouble memorising the formal 'court' Chinese that is necessary for the series. 'I can show you my script and you will faint at all the words I have to memorise,' he said. 'I have to have more time to digest everything. Otherwise it is impossible.' The ATV crew appears to be having an easier time because they know they are starting off as the underdogs, but Leung pointed out that this did not mean they were going to be complacent. 'We will be doing our best as I am sure TVB will be,' he said. 'But as an experienced producer, I don't find this series any different from any others that I have done.' CHING also seemed relatively relaxed on the set at the Clear Water Bay studios where the ATV series is being shot, chatting with co-stars and crew members, and leisurely putting on his makeup before shooting. He had no problems with the script, he said, because he was so used to costume dramas and their stilted language, not to mention the tight television shooting schedule. 'I have always preferred to be in costume dramas,' he said. 'For me, there is no need to memorise scripts. All I have to do is to look at the gist of the script and I will be able to ad lib.' Of course, he is helped by the fact that, even if he fluffs his lines, his voice will be dubbed anyway so no one will notice. Ti and Ching have refused to be drawn into the star wars of the stations, unanimously saying that there can be no basis for comparison. 'I refuse to be used as a ratings weapon between two stations,' declared Ti, a trifle heatedly. 'An old man I respect came to me and said I could do it, so I said OK I will do my best. That's all I can do. For me, it's not a matter of face or of money - in fact, I should be getting old age benefits. I will try and fulfil my promise that's all. 'I won't strive to be the Pao Jeng that Ching was. If that were the case, they might as well have him to do it. I will have my own interpretation of the role.' Ching agreed: 'There will always be competition between commercial television studios but there isn't any between the actors. Thousands of people have acted as Pao Jeng before, each with his own distinctive style. If everyone were the same, why would they bother looking for someone new? 'You can't compare Ti Lung and I, because you cannot compare two things that are different. You can take two ballpoint pens and say this writes better than that, but you can't take a ballpoint and a brush and compare. 'At the end of the day, the audience is not going to compare and say who is better. They will just watch the person they like. If they like Ti Lung, they will say Ching Chao-chun is no good, and vice versa.' As part of their move away from the Taiwanese Judge Pao image, producer Chong also said that they were aiming for a different Pao. 'Our Judge Pao will be younger, more human and more approachable,' Chong said. 'This will be different from the Judge Pao that was put on a pedestal before.' Most cast and crew members on both sets agree that their respective stations appeared to have spared no expense or effort in their productions. Tsang Sing-ming, publicity department manager (external affairs division) at TVB, for one, is ecstatic with the extra funding that has been pumped in. 'We have a budget of about $100,000 for publicity purposes, a lot more than for other series,' he said. With the money, the station has negotiated with shopping centres around the territory for permission to set up 'drums' and petition boxes for shoppers. There are also plans for special tissue packets and contests for schoolchildren. 'The shoppers write their grievances on forms that we have already printed and we will make sure that they are passed on to the relevant authorities for further action.' For Leung, who will produce the first 25 episodes for ATV, the money the station and its co-investors have put into the series will mean he has the luxury of taking the crew up to the legendary judge's hometown - Kaifeng, in Henan province - for location shooting next week. 'No one has ever taken the 'judge' back to Kaifeng,' he said. 'Our series will do just that. It will add realism.' TVB has initial plans to produce 100 episodes, although Ti has only committed himself to 20 episodes so far. 'If people accept me and if the conditions are right, I may consider doing more,' he said. 'If I'm not good in the role, there will be no meaning doing more. Maybe I'm not right for it.' Ching has signed a year's contract with ATV with work for about 100 episodes, although this includes other roles as well. He does not rule out dropping out of the series after a while either. Viewers, however, feel that TVB's head-start and its reputation might give it an advantage. 'I think I would most probably opt for TVB because it is the station I normally watch,' said Mrs Cheung, a housewife. 'Since they will go on air first, they will have another point in their favour. Besides I do not like the dubbing that has been done by ATV. I may watch TVB and then tape ATV to watch later.' And, with that, we rest our case - at least until the end of May.