Last year I pitched an article to Starburst Magazine that would be a look back at the making of The Mysterious Cities Of Gold (one of my all time favourite cartoon series). They liked the pitch and I set about writing the article. With the help of the official Facebook page I was put in touch with Jean Chalopin and Howard Ryshpan - two of the people responsible for bringing the show to TV screens - and with their help, the article was written and ran in Issue #398 of Starburst (an issue that is still sold out on the site to this day).
It was a huge thrill to talk to them both about a series that had me gripped and enthralled as a child and to write the article itself, which you can read here;
THE PATH OF THE SETTING SUN:
The Story Of The Mysterious Cities Of Gold
The year is 1986, childrens TV has been confined to the broom cupboard. Phillip Schofield - not yet the silver fox of daytime TV™, but rather a chipper young presenter with a puppet gopher - introduces us to a new cartoon series that will instantly capture the imagination of millions of children across the country. Join us as we take a look at the epic journey that led us to The Mysterious Cities Of Gold and beyond...
The path to The Mysterious Cities Of Gold begins with the publication of Scott O’Dell’s novel The Kings Fifth in 1962. The book tells the story of Esteban, a young map maker who finds himself on trial for murder. While awaiting trial, Esteban recounts his quest for gold, led by the greedy Captain Mendoza with the help of Zia, a young Inca girl who is their guide.
Around 18 years later, Jean Chalopin and Mitsuru Kaneko approached Japan’s educational TV channel NHK with the idea of making a cartoon series that was loosely based on O’Dell’s book. NHK had been looking to get into animated TV for a while and were looking for a project that would fit their educational remit.
With the green light given, Chalopin wrote the series, taking little more from O’Dell’s book than the character names. As well as making Esteban and Zia into young children, the character of Tao was also added, with the purpose of grounding some of the more science-fiction elements of the story in some kind of history.
The sci-fi elements came more heavily into play with the introduction of the Olmecs during the final few episodes of the series. To further fit the remit of the show having an educational agenda, a short documentary was added to the end of each episode to teach viewers about the history behind the key elements of the episodes.
Bernard Deyries was hired to direct the series, moving himself and his family to Japan to do so, and the series aired on NHK between 1982 & 1983 and was relatively successful, although it wasn’t until the French and, particularly, English language versions that the series really captured the hearts of its audience.
HOWARD RYSHPAN’S MYSTERIOUS CITIES OF GOLD
“It really goes back some time before the Mysterious Cities of Gold” recalls Howard Ryshpan on how he came to be involved in the series. “I was asked by the recording studio, Multidub, to take over the series Belle & Sebastian. I gladly accepted and, after the series was over, I was asked to become the studios resident English director.”
Mysterious Cities had caught the attention of the BBC & Nickelodeon and both had become interested in a joint venture to produce an English language dub of the series, hiring Multidub to produce it. “The BBC wanted the series to be voiced by Canadian actors since they felt Canadians would not have regional American accents which might be difficult for a young British audience to understand.” Ryshpan explains.
Ryshpan worked with Kelly Ricard (who was also the female narrator on the series) on adapting the French scripts.”Kelly had also worked with me on a number of projects, not only as an actor but as a translator/adaptor. Since her French was a lot better than mine, Kelly would do a first English draft. After we would then sit down together and readapt the text for dubbing. The technology was pretty rudimentary in those days so it was a case of 6th sense, timing and a whole lot of experience that would make it work in those days.”
Ryshpan then set about casting the series, making the choice to cast children to provide the voices of Esteban, Tao & Zia rather than adults, as was the standard at the time. “What a lot of people don’t seem to realize is that children often give line readings that are different than what an adult would give and yet make the utmost sense out of the line” Ryshpan says of his reasoning behind wanting child actors.
For the casting selection, Ryshpan selected four choices for each of the characters, which were then sent to France for the final selection. For the children, Shiraz Adam was chosen to play Esteban, with Janice Chaikelson chosen for Zia and Adrian Knight – who Ryshpan had worked with on Belle & Sebastian and Ulysses 31 – was chosen to play Tao.
“As I look back on the series, after all these years, I still recall the fact that it was really the cast that gave me the most pleasure.” Ryshpan fondly recalls of his time on the series. “I had worked with most of the actors before but somehow there was a real melding of people in this series. We worked hard and we all had fun being in the studio and working together. That goes for the children; who came to work and would, every once in a while, fart on mic to try and crack up my great sound engineer Doug Parry and to the older actors; who would bring in their newest joke or entertain us with their latest foibles.”
When it came to the casting selections for Mendoza, Ryshpan found himself with only three casting choices to send, so recorded an audition himself to make up the numbers. To his surprise, his was the audition chosen to play the part. “In playing Mendoza I tried to go beyond being a cartoon character and I think I succeeded, in trying to make Mendoza more human. I played him down and with less bravura. I tried to lift him off the paper and to have a little less makeup in my voice.”
“What appealed to me was that Mendoza was a flawed character. He was never one dimensional. He was out for his own end and purpose and only afterwards did he change for the good. In so doing he became not only very human but became one of us, someone we could identify with and relate to. In the end I suppose someone who is perfect is intrinsically boring or certainly becomes so after awhile. He also took on the mantle of being a hero. I don’t think that any young person could not embrace that.”
For the French and English language version of the series a new score composed by Shuki Levy - who had also provided the score for Ulysses 31 - was chosen to replace the one used on the Japanese version. Levy’s score is a thing of beauty, adding an extra dimension of both adventure and magic to the series, but for most the true crowning glory of the music is in Levy’s theme song for the series. Sang by Noam Kaniel, the theme is one of the most catchy and best remembered cartoon theme songs of all time.
The series aired in the UK on BBC One between 1986 and 1987 and was a huge hit with the audience, leading the BBC to repeat the series in 1989. Despite being shown again on one of the childrens channels on Sky TV, the series all but disappeared for the best part of 20 years before Fabulous Films, finally released the series on DVD in 2007.
SERIES TWO & BEYOND
“Mitsuru Kaneko, Bernard Deyries and I always wanted to do a sequel” Jean Chalopin explains “but the rights had been scattered all around the place, and it took us 12 years to get these rights back in our hands.” In the end it took the best part of 30 years for a second series to arrive, but in 2013 Blue Spirit Animation finally gave fans the long awaited follow up.
The series picks up where the first series left off and sees the children head to China in search of the next lost city, which largely fits in with Chalopin and Deyries original plan for the series. Chalopin explains; “The overall story that we had devised since almost day one is what has been followed: we know where to go, and why. In that sense it fits. But I am not writing this time, and none of the original artistic team is involved. There is another team and different sensibilities, so there is a different tone. Bernard and I are doing our best to help the team keep and respect the essentials.”
As with the French version, none of the English language cast was approached to be a part of the second series, much to the disappointment of the fans. “I would certainly have loved to direct the series again and to have reprised Mendoza.” confesses Ryshpan “Although many years have passed, my voice has hardly changed. Interestingly enough I could have reassembled most of the cast to, although we would, of course, have had to find the young children to play Esteban, Tao and Zia.”
“I watched an Episode in French with my children.” Ryshpan says of the second series “Personally, I thought the children were quite well done and I thought that the actor who played Mendoza was excellent. I think they have captured the feel of the old series both with the characters and with the sense of adventure while, at the same time, giving it a fresh look.”
As well as a third series currently in production – which according to Chalopin will see our heroes head to India and Egypt – there are still rumours of a film of The Mysterious Cities Of Gold. The rumours first surfaced in 2007 with the announcement of a film, but have since seemingly been forgotten, although Chalopin says there are two films currently being considered. “The first is an animation, which would be a prequel” he explains “and the other a two-parter in live-action which is an international movie reshaping the first series.”
There are many elements that have kept Mysterious Cities Of Gold alive in the minds of the adults who watched the series all those years ago, and in the new generation that have discovered it. Part of it can be put down to the fact that the series all but disappeared for 25 years before finally coming back into our lives on DVD, proof if ever it was needed that absence truly does make the heart grow fonder.
A huge part is in the genesis of the idea and the story and series that Jean Chalopin, Mitsuru Kaneko and Bernard Deyries created. For some it’s Shuki Levy and Noam Kaniel theme song. Chalopin puts the success of the French and English version down to warmth that came across in the translation that was absent in the Japanese version.
Whatever the reason, there is no denying that there was a magic to the series that stuck with people, engaging its audience in a way that no other cartoon series did at the time or has since. It’s the same magic that has enthralled a new generation who have either discovered the series off of the back of the new series or had their parents introduce them to it.
“I always thought: could I bring this home and show it to my own children? Would they like it? Would they even look at it? Would it stand the proverbial test of time? Fabulous films sent me a copy of the series which I gave to my children from my second marriage and said this is a series I made years ago, would you like to see it? “Oh sure dad” And I thought; it’s going to bomb” They put the first episode on and they never stopped until they went through every episode.”
For fans of the English language version though, it is fair to say that a large part of the magic came from the work that Howard Ryshpan and his team did on the series, so it is only fitting that the final thoughts on the series come from him.
“The Cities of Gold gave the young audiences three well drawn major young people that they could imagine themselves being or even playing. And what extraordinary adventures they all had. What extraordinary lands they went to. It was this excitement of adventure that drew the young audiences and kept them following each episode. I know that I certainly was drawn to it even though I, being much older, had already succumbed to some high adventures myself in some far flung lands. And in the end, if it had not been for the material itself we would not be talking about it at all.”