In the worlds before Monkey, primal chaos reigned…
At 6pm on Friday 16th November 1979, BBC2 broadcast an unknown Japanese television show which it had dubbed into English. It was to become the stuff of legend, which is apt given the source material.
Monkey (or Saiyuki in Japanese) was the tale of a Buddhist priest called Tripitaka who is sent on a pilgrimage to India to collect some holy scriptures. On his journey he picks up a ragtag coterie of helpers, a monkey king, a pig spirit and a sea monster, and together they make the dangerous journey, fighting off demons and helping villagers on their way.
The premise was based on an ancient Eastern legend and the show actually stuck quite close to the original story. The programme quickly became a hit in the UK (it had already been one of the highest rated programmes in Japan) and was the talk of the playground and workplace every Monday. For kids the appeal was the pantomime violence and kung-fu moves, for grown-ups the same was true but a few of them also noticed the underlying story as well.
Viewed now, and even at the time, Monkey is an odd concoction. The priest, Tripitaka, was portrayed as a man but was very obviously played by a woman. The voiceovers appeared to be taking the piss, but were actually based on the original scripts and were clearly performed with some affection. The huge helpings of Eastern mythology and Buddhist teachings were highly unusual for prime time family viewing. It was an unlikely success, but a very big one.
The Japanese series ran for 52 episodes but ended after the second season, without the pilgrims ever reaching India. Only 39 of these shows were dubbed for broadcast in the UK. Nearly 30 years on, the show is enjoying a new lease of life on satellite and cable channels as well as being released on DVD. These include the 13 ‘missing’ episodes which have now been tracked down and dubbed by the original UK cast.
…the nature of Monkey was irrepressible!