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See-Saw haunted by monkey from the sixteenth century

David Tiley

The latest and maybe the best reinvention of the old Chinese Monkey legend from The Journey to the West comes from Australia, with New Zealand and Netflix in close attendance.
See-Saw haunted by monkey from the sixteenth century

Image: the cast of The Legend of Monkey, L-R  Pigsy (Josh Thomson), Monkey (Chai Hansen),Tripitaka (Luciane Buchanan), Sandy (Emilie Cocquerel. Shot by Geoffrey Short for Monkey TV Holdings©.

With production underway in New Zealand, the ABC, TVNZ and Netflix have formally announced that they are joined in triangular matrimony to finance The Legend of Monkey, made by See-Saw films as a ten by thirty minute series. Screen Australia and Screen NSW are in the deal as well. The visual feel in the promo shot above is a bit like Spartacus meets Game of Thrones, with a touch of Hobbit whimsy as well. 

It does not look like a typical Emile Sherman and Iain Canning production - their tastes extend to The King's Speech, Lion, the miniseries Love, Nina with the BBC, and two series of Top of the Lake.

The monkiverse has already been turned into a Japanese series broadcast between 1978 and 1980, which was dubbed for the BBC and then transmitted on the ABC. There are grown adults working in television who can still sing the Monkey Magic title song. So, the See-Saw version is either an adroit reversioning of a cult classic or simply daft, depending on your attitude to a flying monkey with terrible sideboards. 

In fact, according to Rachel Gardner, the successful New Zealand producer lured to Sydney by See-Saw's to head its TV slate in Australia, the new series has nothing whatsoever to do with the original Monkey. 

'There is no comparison at all. It is a comprehensive creative reinterpretation of the sixteenth century fable, and it is not set in China. It is a non-existent fantasy world inspired by the fable. It is not a straight adaptation and not a remake. 

'It has been a life-long vision of Emile Sherman’s to make an adaptation of the fable and we’ve had various forms of the project in development across film and television. This particular version really resonated with the ABC who commissioned the early development of it.'

The series was set up as an official Australia-New Zealand coproduction between See-Saw and Jump Film and TV, with a team to reflect the deal. Head writer Jacquelin Perske is seeing her Seven Types of Ambiguity scripts broadcast on the ABC. Samantha Strauss has written for Dance Academy, while Craig Irwin comes from The Nowhere Boys and the Matchbox family.

The lead director is Gerard Johnstone, who directed the NZ series The Jacquie Brown Diaries, comedy horror film Housebound, and teen comedy series Terry Teo. Craig Irwin directs some episodes as well. 

So the writers are Australian, the directing work is split, the production is in New Zealand (think Medieval Asian Hobbit) and the post will be done by Sydney company Slate. Jump Film and TV is a key company - owner Robin Scholes was a producer on Once Were Warriors, Mr Pip, Crooked Earth and Greenstone.

The series is designed for 11-12 year old children. According to Gardner, 'It is completely suitable viewing for children down to six or eight, though some scenes may go over their heads. It will probably appeal to a family audience as well.'

The battle for live action kid's series is to create budgets large enough to bring the project out of the ghetto of tat, in which young people are somehow expected to ignore the moth-eaten costumes and special effects on steam-driven computers found in a paddock when the post office went digital. The original Monkey was one of those. 

The key financing partner is Netflix. 'Netflix is putting up more than half of the budget,' said Rachel Gardner. 'They have exclusive world SVOD rights but the ABC will run the first premiere in the world, and then New Zealand. And Netflix won’t run it in Australia or New Zealand for twelve months.

'Kid’s TV is notoriously difficult to finance. Really really difficult to finance. And coproductions and internet platforms like Netflix and Amazon make it possible to make a decently budgeted series for children. 

'Everyone is making series with Netflix now. They’ve put up the money and put their money where their mouth is. They are really supporting the series.'

The deal enables a Australian/New Zealand co-pro with a decent budget and a three month production schedule to reach a wide audience domestically, and around the world. Netflix brought no pressure to internationalise it - Gardner said the company was involved in the development but respected the creators, as did the ABC. 

The series will need plenty of cut-through, since the Chinese have been making at least one television series for export along with a feature franchise as well. Only one of those will hit the zeitgeist of popular culture.

But, said, Gardner, 'The fable is insanely enormous. It is a never-ending story. It’s serialised and we would hope to continue.' 


The story of Monkey comes from a sixteenth century Chinese Buddhist picaresque novel, 'The Journey to the West' said to be written by Wu Cheng'en, based on earlier folk tales. The See-Saw version is completely detached from its original culture, but this is what the traditional vision looks like. It too is a fantasy world. 

This is a detail from a picture in the Long Room of the Summer Palace in Beijing, shot by Rolf Müller. The heroes are Sun Wukong, Xuanzang, Zhu Wuneng, and Sha Wujing.

About the author

David Tiley is the editor of Screen Hub.