I Sing The Body Electric

Everything is within this and within this is everything.” Monkey

Some years ago, around 2010, before everything we’d ever seen, heard and done had been uploaded onto Youtube for reference, I went to the local library in London Bridge where we lived and took out an early 80s cult hit show Monkey (Magic) DVD from the library. Laptops don’t have DVD players inbuilt anymore, but back then it was easy to watch. As I did, a significant realisation came over me; there was a philosophical and spiritual side of Monkey that although I had forgotten it, I had so clearly imbibed. Buddhist philosophy is all over the series, yet as kids we didn’t notice. As an adult, I was grateful for the insight it had given me, although the memory had become pixellated over time. The same has just happened with the 70s TV series, Fame, which, looking back, I until now considered a pass-time, but now realise I owe a great deal as regards electronic music, the stage and youthful self-belief goes.

The dance teacher shakes her stick at the class. “You learn something once, and it’s yours for life, but first you have to become a dancer. Now you may be hot stuff up in Harlem, or you may have the best tutu collection in the country, doesn’t matter I don’t have time for primadonnnas, you want to become a dancer you’re going to have to work. […] You want fame, well fame costs, and right here is where you start paying, in sweat. I wanna see sweat and the better you are the more sweat I’m going to demand. So if you never had to fight for anything in your life, you better put your gloves on and get ready for round 1 and mummy and daddy’s little darling better come out swinging.”

For Monkey, as fun and as ‘light entertainment’ style as it had seemed, the televised story is based on the real-life adventures of Xuanzang, the monk who brought Buddhism to China during the Tang dynasty. The series follow the often comical adventures of the albeit serene monk Tripitaka on his pilgrimage to India to obtain the holy scriptures, assisted by Monkey (who is on a quest for immortality) and two fallen angels, Sandy and Pigsy. Tripitaka is played by a girl and you spend the whole series wondering about this. This motley crew are accompanied by a cantankerous dragon who also transforms as a horse, which Tripitaka rides. Together, they encounter monsters, demons, bandits and many setbacks learning Taoist and Buddhist philosophy through practical lessons en route.

Monkey book cover
Cover for an original translation by Arthur Waley

In the West, the story is known by the name Monkey or Journey to the West, after the translation by Arthur Waley. In the book Monkey is just as foolhardy, relatable and hilarious as he is on screen. So many more know the tale through the Japanese TV series made in the 1970s, and dubbed into English by the BBC. Colin Teevan adapted a play based on Monkey for the Old Vic theatre, London in 2001, of which he said,

“It’s the story of the genius and the self-destructiveness 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.”

In Fame, an unusually racially diverse TV programme for the time, young people of colour work towards fame against all odds in the dance, music and theatre industry. The lessons characters such as Coco, Leroy and Bruno learned in their inner city college were lessons we learned, the racial tensions they felt trying to get into an overbearingly white industry are tensions we felt in Thatcher’s Britain. They were fearless, experimental, and one thing they all had in common was that music coursed through their bodies, all of the time. The genre-bending here in this scene, in which the students reference the 1855 poem by Walt Whitman I Sing The Body Electric, is prophetic as far as my career goes.

These lessons of achievement and hard work were often at odds with the message we watching kids received in real life at school, on the street and on the screen.

So it is to feel grateful, then, to my often unacclaimed “baby-sitter” the TV. While mum was cooking I was happily alone in front of the screen, unknowingly imbibing the lessons that resonated within me. When I went to school, these incredibly deep and messages and often feisty examples took hold inside of me. For example when Buddha tells Monkey, “Everything is within this and within this is everything.” he shouts back fearlessly and matter-of-factly “I always thought you were a fella!”. Of course, she then teaches him an entirely transferable lesson about arrogance. These were our supports, these were our playmates, and our examples.

Fame, original script excerpt.