Celebrating the Monkey Magic of the classic martial arts fantasy TV series.
There are certain points in your life that remain burned into your consciousness with startling clarity forever. For me, one of those points was in the winter days of 1979, when I scurried home in the dark from the school film society after a screening of The Slipper and the Rose, feeling understandably disgruntled with the movie choice, pausing only the pick up issue 5 of Starburst – with Superman – The Movie on the cover – from the only newsagent in the area to stock it; there had been distribution strikes and the magazine had been slow to appear on the shelves, but there it was, beckoning me in from the window display. There was little time to waste though, because I was in a hurry to get home in time to watch an exciting new TV show called Monkey, which was now on its second episode. I hadn’t seen the first one, but obviously, the schoolyard rumour mill had been at work, and I arrived home just in time to miss the opening titles and find the baffling sight of the lead character buried in a rock, only his head and hands free. What strangeness is this, I thought as I tucked into my evening meal? That night was the start of a life-long obsession, one shared by more or less everyone who was a small boy – and this was very much a boy’s show – when Monkey was first broadcast.
To understand the phenomenon of Monkey, you have to understand what a different cultural world the late 1970s was. Monkey arrived on British TV in the wake of the unexpected popularity of The Water Margin, another Japanese TV show set in Ancient China that, after some judicious editing of severed heads and careful dubbing, had become a peak-time hit on BBC2. It’s impossible now to imagine audiences watching a dubbed show without laughing it off the screen, but in the late 1970s, it wasn’t that odd at all – children’s TV was awash with continental shows like The Flashing Blade, White Horses and The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, and, if your tastes ran that way, you could probably see a couple of dubbed movies a week at your local cinema – from continental sex and horror movies to (more significantly in this context) Hong Kong martial arts movies. Fans of the kung fu action that was the big selling point of The Water Margin were entirely used to dubbed dialogue, often done rather more sloppily than on that show.
The martial arts aspect of The Water Margin was only a part of the show’s Robin Hood-style ongoing story of rebellion against corrupt authorities, but if you were a kid, it was a rare chance to see the forbidden fruit of kung fu. British kids in the 1970s were obsessed with kung fu, but while they ate up the books, the comics and stared lustfully at the film posters, they couldn’t see the movies, all of which were X-rated (and frequently censored) by a nervy BBFC. None of these movies were going to show up on TV, and so apart from David Carradine’s Kung Fu series – where the fight scenes were so infrequent that if you blinked, you missed them – The Water Margin was all that was available, and it was eaten up.
The popularity of the show meant that once it ended, the BBC was keen to find more of the same – family-friendly, action-packed and fun. And boy, did they ever hit the goldmine. Monkey more than delivered on the fighting front – the first episode, in particular, is almost exhausting seen now, so relentless is it – but tempered the inconvenient fact that Monkey would often leave a trail of corpses in his wake by making his enemies demons and monsters rather than humans, and was so fantastical, light-hearted and comedic in its approach that the show somehow failed to raise the ire of the usual censorial suspects (the fact that it was a foreign show on the niche appeal BBC channel helped too – you got the impression that Mary Whitehouse and her minions rarely switched over from BBC1). That, plus the moral message of the show – that fighting was bad and that we should forgive our enemies – helped make it seem somehow wholesome fun for kids, even if it did feature frenetic martial arts battles in every episode.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Monkey was a show broadcast between 1978 and 1980 in Japan, under the title Journey to the West, and based on the 16th Century novel by Wu Cheng’en. As ancient novels go, Journey to the West is actually very readable and humorous, but it only provided a starting point and thin thread of continuity for the series. The plot is simple: a miscreant Monkey God achieves a degree of enlightenment and declares himself ‘the Great Sage, Equal of Heaven’. At first, he is invited to join the Heavenly Hosts, but his mischievous monkey nature comes to the fore and he causes chaos. Stealing peaches that grant him immortality, he is booted out of Heaven and imprisoned by Buddha under a mountain for five hundred years to learn a little patience (which is where I came in). He is eventually freed by the young monk Tripitaka, who has been sent on a pilgrimage from China to India to fetch holy scriptures. For such a perilous journey, the monk needs protection, and so Monkey is ‘persuaded’ – thanks in part to a magical headband that contracts painfully whenever Tripitaka reads a certain mantra – to go along. Joining them are other disgraced Heavenly Hosts – Pigsy, who had become a pig monster after his gluttony and lustfulness saw him thrown out of Heaven, and Sandy, who was cast out and turned into a Kappa (a water monster) after breaking the Jade Emperor’s favourite cup (not much forgiveness in the Buddhist Heaven, clearly). After a dragon eats Tripitaka’s horse, the monster is forced to transform himself into a replacement – in the second season, he will also take human form, to the delight of nobody.
And that’s it – after a couple of episodes setting up the narrative, the series essentially becomes a collection of self-contained episodes; you can watch most of Monkey in any order, at least within a single season. Cast changes perhaps make it more disconcerting if you watch the entire series randomly, but in terms of the ongoing narrative, there is no continuation from episode to episode. Their holy mission is never really completed.
Within the very basic narrative of the show – not unlike one of the many, many episodic US series where characters like The Incredible Hulk would wander from place to place, allowing new locations and guest stars in each show – there was much to enjoy. Invariably, the band of misfits would encounter villainous monsters or humans along the way and have to deal with them, often while facing their own frailties – Monkey was boastful and disobedient, Pigsy fancied every pretty girl who came along, often leading to problems. All these issues would be solved with some aspect of Buddhist or Taoist philosophy, both the villains and the heroes learning the error of their ways, with a voice-over hammering home the moral message – but only after plenty of fisticuffs and martial arts mayhem. Monkey had a magical staff that expanded as he rubbed it (stop that sniggering), and could summon up an army of monkeys by plucking hair from his chest and blowing on it; he also had a magical pink cloud that he could summon through a whistle that every kid knew by heart, allowing him to fly huge distances in pursuit of enemies. Oh, and he could shrink to any size.
As a show, Monkey was hard to beat. It had comedy, pathos, spectacular fight scenes (usually with multiple participants) and a solid moral message. The characters were all likeable and just watching their banter and bickering was a lot of fun. The fact that none of them really look like the creatures that they are supposed to be – Monkey has sideburns and a hairy chest, Pigsy sometimes grows a snout, Sandy has a bald head – might have been down to budget restrictions, but it’s the show’s saving grace really. Subsequent attempts to tell the story have all too often featured Monkey as an actual monkey, and guess what? That’s a much harder character to relate to. Of course, we have to mention Tripitaka, who is played by a female actor, Masako Natsume, something that certainly caused a degree of conflict amongst determinedly heterosexual adolescent male viewers who found themselves attracted to the male monk. Masako was a model and pop singer and died at the tragically young age of just 27 of leukaemia.
As Monkey, Masaaki Sakai was perfectly cast – he was tough and childish at the same time, wonderfully exaggerated (nothing in Monkey was subtle) and a perfect lead for the show. But it was Pigsy who was the most popular character, perhaps reminding us all of our own foibles. He fancied every woman he met, was greedy and lazy, and all too willing to push the blame for his own mistakes onto others; he was, in other words, every teenage boy personified. So it was quite a shock when Toshiyuki Nishida was replaced in the role for series two by Tonpei Hidari, who never really looked right. This, the introduction of the human Horse character (played by Shunji Fujimura) and a new opening theme song, always made the second season a bit less appealing than the first.
The theme song, of course, was – and is – one of the all-time greats. Perhaps a bit overused in the show itself, especially in early episodes, it’s nevertheless an iconic bit of music, so popular that many people still think the show was called Monkey Magic, due to the refrain in the song. This and other songs in the show (including the more sedate closing credits tune Gandhara) were performed by rock band Godiego, and BBC Records released both a soundtrack LP and a single featuring the two main tracks in 1979; the single reached 56 on the charts.
Of course, for British (and Australian) audiences, the appeal of Monkey is as much tied up in the character voices as anything, and that is down to the BBC’s dubbing. Only 39 of the 52 episodes were dubbed – the entire first season and half the second. The remaining episodes have since been dubbed by distributors Fabulous Films, using the surviving voice actors. The dialogue was rewritten by David Weir, taking the basics of the original story but adapting it enough to work for Western audiences and, more importantly, reasonably decent lip-syncing. The voice cast – David Collings as Monkey, Maria Warburg as Tripitaka, Peter Woodthorpe as Pigsy, Gareth Armstrong as Sandy, Andrew Sachs as Horse and Miriam Margolyes as assorted female characters – bring their characters to witty, over-the-top life. It’s this over-the-topness that probably guarantees that we’ll never see the show on the BBC again – the exaggerated Chinese accents, performed by white English actors, would certainly be seen as the height of racism now, possibly on the level of blackface in terms of cultural offensiveness. Only Burt Kwouk, who narrated the show, would pass current muster. Yet surely this Japanese show, based on Chinese legends and featuring a gender-fluid lead character, is exactly the sort of diverse cultural experience that we ought to be encouraging – and one that we seem, ironically enough, to have slipped back from now. What was the last Asian TV show you remember being shown on a mainstream UK TV channel at peak time? This one, I suspect.
Monkey is a show that remains tremendous fun. It’s lightweight, it’s formulaic and it’s very silly, but as comfort viewing, you can’t beat it. It’s a show of characters we love, behaving in ways we can all relate to – they are petty, selfish, greedy and self-obsessed, but ultimately they all do the right thing and come together to help each other. It’s a show that tells us that no one is perfect, but that we can all become something better in the end, and it does so without seeming to preach – even when the closing narration literally spells out the moral message. It’s a fun romp that we sorely miss now when TV is obsessively chin-stroking, ponderous and desperate to virtue signal. BBC producers and schedulers would no doubt scoff at – and be appalled by – Monkey now, but the world would be a much nicer place with more shows like this for kids to enjoy. If you remember it from your youth, buy the box set and relive more innocent times. If you have kids, introduce them to it and allow them a more genuinely diverse and rewarding cultural experience than they’ll ever see on modern TV.
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