By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
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 fight scenes were legendary
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."
JOURNEY TO THE WEST
One of the four Great Classical novels of Chinese literature
Published anonymously in the 1590s
Author believed to be Wu Chengen
It comprises a series of stories about a real-life journey of a 7th Century monk
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.
Tripitaka is Monkey's moral guide
"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.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
I am only 31 but still remember the show very well. My girlfriend's (real) name is Sandy. I refer to my sons as Pigsy and Monkey as one is good at climbing and one is good at eating. I also own the original soundtrack and often go around saying my favourite line 'I fought dat Buddha waz a fella?'... I don't get out much.
We used to argue with our father about being allowed to watch Monkey as it overlapped the 6 o'clock news on BBC One. I loved it when Monkey produced the matchstick from his ear and it grew into his magical staff, then he'd call for the cloud by waving his fingers and blowing. All very strange and magical.
Ruth Greenwood, London
Monkey always had something to learn every episode and in turn we all learned a little on morality and good manners, something that's missing from kids' TV today.
Monkey Magic. Monkey Magic! Wow memories. I have watched Monkey since on cable and thought 'I was in to this because...?' The special effects seem so lame now but it is such a significant part of 1980s TV and always made me laugh. It's up there with the A-Team and Fame. I was more into The Water Margin though and adored the theme tune.
Madame Butterfly, London
I'm 41 and think I was just a little too old for Monkey. I remember younger kids at school wandering around saying "Mankeeeee" in the playground and thinking to myself "what idiots". By that time (1984) I was into The Smiths, The Cure and meeting girls from the local convent school. So if anyone over 40 is into Monkey they should be ashamed of themselves.
John Lyons, London
What is Monkey about? Monkey is the journey through life. Stuff happens. The only thing you have any control over is your reaction to it. Monkey, Pigsy, Sandy and others give examples of reactions (you could call these parables). Even Tripitaka repeatedly puts the mission at risk. But Truth prevails. Because Monkey cannot die, he eventually has to face himself and accept that his decisions have consequences. There is a lot of funny stuff that the guy that translated it made up and added. I still love it.
Estelle, Chorley, Lancashire
A big fan, I now live in Japan and have found out why Monkey says "ta ta ta" when his headband gets tight - "itai" or "ita" ... "ta" means "ouch" in Japanese.
Steve, Gunma, Japan
I've waited most of my life for this programme to be repeated. Is it not now time, BBC? I remember my first visit to a temple in Vietnam, seeing the four oh-so familiar characters painted large above the doorway. Perhaps perfect never to see it again though as it is steeped in such mystery and wonderment - as all aspects of childhood should be - that it would be a shame to lose that. I also have a sneaking suspicion that I might become obsessive about it were it to be re-broadcast. As for the opera, I saw it in Manchester and it was a little hit and miss. Hopefully they will have sorted out the subtitling fiasco, at least.
Darren Young, Clitheroe, Lancashire
Monkey Magic was one of the few things worth watching when I was a kid. It was just such wonderfully OTT, escapist fun!
It's not just 33-year-olds and over that remember Monkey - I'm 28 and I remember it being on when I was a child in the late 80s, although they were possibly repeats :-), fantastic days!
Monkey Fan, Shropshire
Natsume Masako died of leukaemia at the age of 27, the girl who played Tripitaka so well.
Ian Watson, United Kingdom
I was born long after the TV show ended, but I've seen it, read the book and seen the opera. The kung-fu scenes were amazing, but Monkey's wit and Pigsy's desires were to die for as well. Long live Monkey!
Mike Holmes, Nottingham
I was born in Japan and first saw the series on telly in England as a nipper. Since being back in Japan I have seen a remake of the series with Shingo Katori, from the boy band SMAP as Monkey and watch the original Monkey, Masaaki Sakai, on telly all the time as a presenter now. Circle in the round!
Afro Zen, Tokyo, Japan
Monkey was and still is a bostin (as we say in the Black Country) TV programme - a true classic. We perform our own ad hoc kung-fu battles to lift the mood in homage to Monkey (Jon), Pigsy (Rachel), Sandy (Justin) and Tripitaka (Robert) Monkey rocks!!!
Jon Round, Sedgley, England
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