BENEATH the streets of London's Soho, work is currently underway that will enable an epic and mythical ancient Chinese quest to finally be completed.
Smooth those confused brows, for it is here at Worldwide Recording Studios that 13 'lost' episodes of the cult Japanese series Monkey are being dubbed in preparation for release on DVD later this year - reuniting the original voice cast for the first time in 25 years.
For those SF fans, ahem, 'mature' enough to remember, 'Monkey' was a keenly-anticipated after-school fixture in the years 1978-80. Since then, the series has become a firm cult favourite and regularly repeated, most recently on Channel 4.
Based on an ancient Chinese legend, Monkey followed the adventures of the titular rough-and-ready minor deity Monkey, the child-monk Tripitaka and the much-bullied disciples Pigsy and Sandy on their journey from China to India to obtain holy scriptures which would save the world. Along the way, there was all manner of bickering about Enlightenment, fighting weird demons and flying around on fluffy pink clouds. [Yes, we know it sounds utterly mad - but trust us: it was the business. Really.]
Running for 39 episodes over two seasons [one of 26 and a second of 13], what wasn't generally known was that the second season in fact ran for a full 26 episodes. For reasons still a mystery, the BBC 'cherry-picked' a random 13 for original transmission. Not that the remaining episodes were entirely lost: they had always been available to Japanese audiences.
When it came to releasing the series on DVD in Britain, the 13 discs currently available each had an unseen episode as a bonus - but only with basic subtitling. However, as any fan will tell you [likely with an impersonation], one of Monkey's greater charms were the memorable voices supplied by David Collings [Monkey], Maria Warburg [Tripitaka], Peter Woodthorpe [Pigsy], Gareth Armstrong [Sandy] and various other roles filled by Andrew Sachs and Miriam Margoyles.
Impressively, Fabulous Films, the company behind the DVD releases, managed to get the original cast back together. George Roubicek, peripherally involved in the original dubbing sessions but now directing the latest sessions as well as responsible for translating the scripts, observes that the cast were very happy to return to the show: "All of the cast - even the people who did bit-parts in the original sessions - were delighted to be asked back. We certainly had some laughs on it."
David Collings, who played Monkey [also known to Dr.Who fans for his roles in various Tom Baker and Peter Davidson-era episodes as well as playing 'Silver' in the memorably bewildering Sapphire and Steel], recalls: "I had forgotten all about it! It was so many years ago. It was great fun to do - though we never thought for a moment it was going to become a cult favourite."
"I never expected that Monkey would rear it's quirky, Oriental head again." Says Maria Warburg, who infused the sensible Tripitaka with slender tones. She confesses to some trepidation about these new recordings: "However, it came back very easily. It was one of my few moments of fame doing Monkey."
So, what are her favourite 'Trip' moments? "Whenever we start bantering about Buddha, or enlightenment, or the road to India, or especially when I start dressing Monkey down: "This is not the road to Enlightenment, Monkey!""
While the recording sessions have been fun, they're certainly arduous: "The amount of concentration required is horrendous." Says Roubicek. "It all depends on how much your character features, which in my case usually quite a lot." adds Collings "Or, indeed, how difficult that particular episode is. Typically, we can spend two sessions getting one episode done."
Certainly, the march of technology has been of enormous assistance. Originally, says Warburg "...it was more like radio. There were always at least two of us huddled around a microphone doing the episode." The quick-fire nature of it meant that they had to nail the voices fast: "We had to do them terribly quickly," says Collings "so there was very little time to develop or refine. You watch it once then do it." Now, the actors do their work individually, reading their lines from an overhead-projected 'band' that runs underneath the viewing screen that has the equivalent English lines printed on it to run at the speed the characters speak.
For Roubicek, however, the greatest challenge has been ensuring those English lines are correct and reflect the humour of the original Japanese scripts: "I looked at the scripts that [Fabulous Films] had given me and they were okay - speakable dialogue - then I discovered to my horror they were transcripts of the subtitles! They never, ever bear any relation to a dubbing script! So, I had to start writing from scratch."
Ultimately, the reunited team agree that, even after all this time, Monkey maintains an irresistible charm: "Kids adored them as it was radically different that anything that was on TV at the time. It had a tremendous sense of fun." says Collings.
"The series was incredibly na´ve." Says Roubicek "The so-called Buddhist philosophy, the jokes, little puppets climbing up mountains.
The animation was hardly Lord Of The Rings - eat-your-heart-out! Yet, the
series has enormous charm." As the series narrator intoned at the opening of
every episode: The power of Monkey was irrepressible!