The Water Margin (1973)
Ok. It’s the late 1980s. It’s Friday evening. School is over for the week (thank God). You’ve flown through your homework in double quick time (math’s and geography – YAWN!). The Six o’clock news is over and your dinner is long disappeared off the plate. You belt up the stairs, uniform off, civvies on. You switch on the TV, grab the remote, flop back onto the bed and hit channel two all in one non-stop motion. BBC 2 flicks on and with it a weird yet by now familiar music. A strange Sino-Japanese tinkle punctuated by even stranger instruments against an electronic background.
It’s odd, its in grainy colour, its got dodgy voice dubbing and OTT kung fu action coupled with battle scenes that invariably take place in quarries – it can only be the ‘Water Margin’!
Based upon ancient Chinese legends, and dramatized by the Nippon Television Network Corporation as a television series in 1973, this is truly one of the most obscure of obscure cult TV shows. Plenty of people know dear old ‘Monkey’- but this one is more of a head scratcher, followed by a ‘Um…’, coupled with a ‘I’m not too sure…?’.
Broadcast by the BBC from 1976 to 1978 it was a sort of counterpart to the far more popular (and comedic) tales of the Great Sage Monkey. When one was off air the other was usually on, and it has been rarely repeated since then.
The storyline is anything but simple, and would take more space than I have to spare to explain but it centres on the trials and tribulations of 108 outlaws during the Song Dynasty. Imagine it as a sort of Chinese Robin Hood meets Kung Fu and I suppose it wouldn’t be far off the mark. Unsurprisingly then the episodes themselves were therefore not the easiest things to follow. But more often than not (truth be told) it was the action, the martial arts and sword dueling shenanigans that kept one’s attention. Like ‘Monkey’ this program was responsible for hordes of young Irish kids throwing all sorts of weird shapes and moves up and down the country. Or at least the thinking kids. The rest were probably watching ‘Airwolf’ or ‘Bluethunder’.
The ‘Water Margin’ holds a special place in my affections: for a few years of my childhood it opened up my imagination to a greater world out there beyond Ireland’s shores and began my life long love affair with the cultures of China and Japan. For me, and many others I suspect, the stories of the rebel outlaws among the marshes filled our minds and set some of us at least on a road that would one day lead to the works of Akira Kurosawa and others.
The original 1973 Nippon TV series with all 26 episodes is available in a nice boxed set, and is well worth a view – strangely it is still as good as it was back then. Now how many things from your childhood can you say that about?