Celebrating The Mysterious Cities Of Gold

It was long. It was epic. And it had that theme tune. Simon pays tribute to The Mysterious Cities Of Gold

It was little surprise to see the UK childrens’ television tea-time schedules of the 1980s stuffed full of whatever redubbed, imported animated shows that the BBC could get its hands on. With budgets tight, long-running foreign serials such as Dogtanian & The Three Muskehounds and Around The World With Willy Fogg ran for, well, years, it felt like. When the latter came to an end, even Andy Crane in the Childrens’ BBC Broom Cupboard dressed up to celebrate.

But towering above all of these was The Mysterious Cities Of Gold, a 39-part adventure that was co-production between a Japanese and French company, which only resurfaced recently on DVD, amid fears that the English dub had been lost. The discovery may not have made the headlines on the news wires, but for a legion of devotees, it damn well should have done, and a long overdue English language DVD release followed.

Origins

The show itself was produced and co-written by Jean Chalopin. Chalopin, a French producer perhaps best known for co-creating Inspector Gadget, had set up a studio in his native country to develop animated programmes that he outsourced the production of to more economical Japanese studios. It’s how he got The Mysterious Cities Of Gold made, and it’s how he also managed to make the likes of Ulysses 31, MASK and Pole Position.

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Many of the behind-the-scenes team who worked on Ulysses were also drafted in to help with The Mysterious Cities Of Gold. Co-director Bernard Deyries, who would also share writing duties on Cities, was one, while even the man in change of the English dub, Howard Ryshpan (who also voiced the character of Mendoza), has the show on his CV.

Yet, the translation was no quick job, and it was some time after the international premiere of the programme, in May 1982 in Japan, and a European debut of September 1983 in France, before it made it to British shores. But heck, was it worth the wait…

Nine Months

The BBC started showing the programme for the first time on 1st September 1986, and screened just one episode a week. Given the sheer number of instalments, it wouldn’t be until the summer of the following year that the final episode would be shown, making it all the more surprising that so much of its audience stuck around.

It took around nine months to show the lot, by which time most people had no recollection whatsoever of how it all started in the first place, save for what was repeatedly explained every week in the terrific opening credits.

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But that didn’t really matter. Because The Mysterious Cities Of Gold was as ambitious an animated adventure serial as anyone before had attempted. Granted, given the sheer scale of what was being attempted, there were some visual compromises from time to time (and the cheap outsourcing of animation production did occasionally shine through). But consider that the action one episode could see included a boat in the middle of a hurricane, and then next saw a giant bird soaring through the skies, and it’s fair to categorise the challenge of bringing this to the screen as ‘dramatic’. That it was realised as well as it was is all the more remarkable.

Yet, the animation quality is rarely cited as the reason for the show’s fervent support, anyway. Instead, there’s a long checklist.

The story, which followed young Esteban, back in 1532, as he attempts to ultimately find his father, was an adventure to the New Worlds, in search of the supposedly lost Cities of Gold. Rich with memorable characters, and with some cracking cliffhangers, the narrative was ambitious and, at times, extremely dark.

Those characters, incidentally, not only included a collection of individuals to root for – Zia, Esteban, Tao and Mendoza, for instance – but also some sinister and unnerving foes for them, including Commander Gomez and Governor Pizzaro. The tactics the assorted adversaries would resort to certainly pushed the cosy world of children’s television.

What’s more, there was no dumbing down here. This was a long story, and no attempt was made to shy away from that. That, in itself, was a distinction. How many programmes, supposedly for a young audience, have followed a single story with such depth and intricacy? Outside of the influx of imported serials of similar era, it’s hard to come up with much of a list.

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Let’s not forget too that The Mysterious Cities Of Gold featured quite possibly the finest theme tune ever to be broadcast on children’s television. Originating back in the days when a theme song and title sequence had to set the scene for the programme to follow (rather than some quickfire pop song and a few words splattered on the screen), this was the Rolls Royce of the genre.

Words on a page simply can’t do it justice, but when Phillip Schofield sat in the BBC Broom Cupboard and belted out the song as the end credits played for the last time, you could understand why he simply couldn’t resist.

Today

It’s thanks to the wonders of modern day restoration and good old fashioned determination that an English language version of The Mysterious Cities Of Gold finally sits on the shelves. It sits as a testament to both the cheap import policy of 1980s television, but also the sheer ambition that could be found in the most unlikely of projects.

It’s fair to say that it’s unlikely we’ll see a project of its ilk anywhere near kids’ TV again in the foreseeable future. And, surely, there’ll never, ever, be a better theme tune – so what finer way to end than with that…?

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The Mysterious Cities Of Gold interviews