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News and stuff

News - 23 July 2008 - Article by Tom Geoghegan

What was Monkey all about?

The 1970s cult TV series is now an opera and its characters front the BBC Olympics coverage. But it's a mystery to those who never watched it. What on earth was Monkey about?

Say the two words "Monkey Magic" to a man in his late 30s and he'll turn into a child, putting on a funny voice and then moving his lips in exaggerated fashion.

A Japanese television series based on a 16th Century Chinese novel, badly dubbed in English, does not sound like a sure-fire children's hit. But Monkey - or Monkey Magic as it became known in the UK - was an unlikely success.

Fed a late-70s television diet of Multi-Coloured Swap Shop, The Six Million Dollar Man and the Red Hand Gang, youngsters watching Monkey on BBC Two one evening a week saw something completely different. And in the coming months, the characters that gripped a generation could find a new legion of fans.

An opera based on the famous Chinese novel that inspired the series, Journey to the West, opens in London a year after its Manchester premiere. Monkey: Journey to the West is another collaboration between Gorillaz creators Damon Albarn, who pens the music, and graphic artist Jamie Hewlett.

Hewlett has also designed the characters fronting the BBC's coverage of the Olympics in Beijing. "This is going to be the summer of Monkey," he declared last week.

For die-hard fans, the fascination has never dimmed. Although people aged under 33 could be discovering the characters for the first time, the popularity of the story has endured and the BBC series still enjoys cult status. There are several websites dedicated to it and a fan club on Facebook has 65,000 members.

But the collective memory of grown-up Monkey-watchers is a bit vague. They pick out certain motifs - Monkey riding a cloud, big sideburns, a headband, egg struck by lightning - but are a bit hazy on what was actually going on.

'Kung fu for kids'

Monkey was king of a monkey tribe and, as the memorable opening sequence explains, was hatched from an egg in a storm on a mountain top. He is later imprisoned under a mountain for disobeying the gods.

He is released by the young Buddhist monk Tripitaka, on the condition that he escorts him on a long journey to retrieve sacred scripts from India. They are joined by two other miscreant monsters in human form, Sandy and Pigsy.

So begins a series of encounters with demons and baddies, including some spectacular fight scenes, usually with Monkey using his magic staff that can grow in size. He can also fly on a cloud.

Tripitaka represents the moral force of the story, although he is probably best remembered for being played by a woman, in the finest panto tradition. He puts a headband on Monkey which he can tighten through prayer when Monkey steps out of line.

Guardian television critic Ali Catterall recalls rushing back from Cubs every week to watch it.

"It was kung fu for kids. Your older brother watched Bruce Lee and you would be into Monkey. It had dazzling storylines and it looked amazing. The day after at school, one of you would be Monkey and one would be Pigsy."

The one-dimensional characters play on children's recognition of archetypes from a young age, he says, and unlike the Water Margin, which was another Japanese adaptation of a Chinese novel, viewers could dip in and out of Monkey.

The stories in Monkey followed a formula, usually with the hero resolving in-fighting at the palace. "Pigsy fails to get off with pretty princess, Monkey plays up and Tripitaka admonishes him with ever-narrowing headband. It's joyous, partly because of its predictability but also because it was so fantastically realised."

For children's television, this was ground-breaking, says Lee Atkinson, 36, who runs a fans' website ( "No-one had done this at the time. We hadn't seen this on British television. As a kid it was easy to impersonate. The sound effects were easy to do with your mouth and we all like to swing broomsticks around and pretend we're kung-fu masters!"

The appeal as a child was the larger-than-life characters, he says.
"Pigsy was over-lustful, Sandy was over-philosophical and Monkey over-arrogant: Exact opposites of what Buddhism strives for and Tripitaka guides them on the way to enlightenment."

The television series never gets to the end of the story, but the novel reaches a resolution when Monkey learns to use his ego selflessly.

Playwright Colin Teevan, who adapted the story of Monkey for the Old Vic in 2001, says the journey becomes the sacred scripture the travellers are seeking.

"It's the story of the genius and the self-destructivity of mankind. Monkey is ingenious and witty and violent and impatient.

"He wants enlightenment and he wants it now but he does not know that one must journey and suffer to attain it. It's about what it is to be human - and it's about a monkey!"

How much the Buddhist themes resonated with the fan base in the UK is debatable.

And with a new generation used to sophisticated special effects, the magic of the original Monkey series may never be rekindled.

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