Looking back at Jim Henson’s The Storyteller

Join Neil at the best place by the fire as he celebrates a childhood favourite, the wonderful Jim Henson’s The Storyteller...

 

The accomplishments in Jim Henson’s life read like the well-worn pages of a beloved book: The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, The Dark Crystal, LabyrinthThe Storyteller? That’s right The Storyteller; a programme that if you blinked, you may have missed. But, without a doubt, it holds an esteemed place on the mantle of Jim Henson’s later life. So pull up a chair, stoke the fire, feed the talking dog, and sit for a spell. For a story from a realm called ‘the late 1980s’ is about to begin. 

With the recent success of 2011’s The Muppets, the world was once again reminded of the positivity of Jim Henson’s message and celebration of life. However, with most artists there is a darker side yearning to get out, and Henson was no exception. The last ten years of his life were very much a time of experimentation and testing the waters of how far the audience would go with him. Most people know The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. But, how about Dreamchild or The Witches? These projects not only pushed Henson and his team, but showed us the worlds beyond Kermit and the gang.

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Every story has a beginning, and it was a folklore class that his oldest daughter Lisa took at Harvard that ultimately brought Jim to The Storyteller. The concept was one that fascinated him, and the two conceived a show that would not only combine authentic multi-cultural folktales, but the technological might of the now-legendary Creature Shop. If the concept couldn’t get any better, the late British television writer Anthony Minghella was hired to script all the episodes. Does that name ring a bell? Oh, he just went on to direct a couple of films like The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley.

A script is only a script, and words are only words. That is until you cast actor John Hurt (Alien, The Elephant Man), as the eponymous title character, to read them. Hurt, wearing elfin-like prosthetics, lent the show an alternating aura of mischievousness and dark gravitas.  The two swirled together, and you were never sure which one you were going to get. Brian Henson, Jim’s son, provided the important comic relief for the series as The Storyteller’s dog named, well, Dog. Dog, like the viewers at home, hung onto his owner’s every word, frequently stopping him to clarify elusive plot points, lighten the mood, or just be plain scared. The casting of John Hurt and Brian Henson were the final pieces to Jim Henson’s creative puzzle, and without their energy the series would not have been quite the same.  

 

When you’re Jim Henson I don’t imagine it’s very difficult to get top-notch British directors to work for you. He enjoyed collaboration, teamwork, and what it brought to a project. The Storyteller was no exception, and the list of distinctive directors he hired to helm its various segments gave the show a high pedigree and the sense that you were watching a mini-movie. You may not be familiar with the names Steve Barron, John Amiel, or Charles Sturridge but, you certainly know their works. In fact, if you’re not careful you might even miss such accomplished  actors and actresses as Sean Bean (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones), Brenda Blethyn (Secrets & Lies), Jennifer Saunders (Absolutely Fabulous), Miranda Richardson (The Crying Game, Harry Potter), and the great Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Evita, Pirates of the Caribbean).

The original airings of The Storyteller are a lot like a tale told one too many times: a little muddled. Due to its intense production demands, the American network NBC began showing the initial episodes in a limited fashion, while the final installments were aired as part of the brilliant, but sadly short-lived The Jim Henson Hour. Hans My Hedgehog brings to life an early German folktale of Hans, a baby born in the form of a humanoid hedgehog. Hardships and bigotry follow him wherever he goes, until he abandons society for a hermit- like existence in a remote castle. However, his life changes forever when a king, who is lost in the woods, unexpectedly knocks on his door. The hospitality and help that Hans shows the king isn’t expected to go unrewarded, and a bargain is struck between the two. It is a bargain that will have dire consequences for them both. 

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It’s one thing to say “I’m going to make a half hour television pilot involving a large, talking hedgehog.” It’s another thing altogether to actually visualize it. From the clothing, to the make-up, to the creatures themselves, everything in this first episode is meticulously crafted and put together. Its dark fantasy realism is no accident as Henson had called in his frequent collaborator, artist Brian Froud, to be the conceptual designer for this episode. The creative synergy between these two men in The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth made both films what they are in look, tone, and character development. Fortunately this continued here. 

Froud’s palette and the team of Henson designers visually realized Anthony Minghella’s words in a way never before seen on television. Characters, majestic storybook landscapes, and the scenes they inhabit ebb and flow like the mercurial words of The Storyteller himself. While Rachel Portman’s evocative theme song and score only served to heighten the emotions even further. The bar had been raised and the stage had been successfully set for more.  

Of the initial nine episodes it might be hard for some to pick a favourite. Each one shines brightly in its own way and pushes the medium in directions that a television set almost can’t handle. However, if the spotlight has to shine on two episodes that I feel represent the absolute best of the series, then I’m always invariably drawn to A Story Short and The Soldier and Death

A Story Short, directed by Charles Sturridge, is unique in the sense that it is an origin story involving our main man The Storyteller himself. The segment, adapted from an early Celtic story, finds him long ago a homeless beggar trying to scrape together a meal. He stumbles across the kitchen of a King, and slyly convinces the head cook that he can make soup from a stone. The traditional stone soup fable plays out, and by the time the cook realizes that he has been swindled, The Storyteller’s belly is full of the richest ingredients of the pantry. 

He is hauled before the King himself with the threat of being boiled in oil in front of him. However, the King needs a storyteller and if our hero can tell one story every day for a year his punishment will be absolved. But if he can’t, the cook’s oil awaits him. Everything goes swimmingly for one year. He benefits from the riches of the king, and even acquires a lovely wife. That is until the very last day of the punishment when… The Storyteller comes up a story short. 

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This episode works because of the inventive way that it turns the traditional structure of the show on its head. Ironically The Storyteller is the subject of his own story, and for the first time he is at a loss for words. If that doesn’t whet your appetite, images of snow, shades of blue, and the feeling of cold permeate; serving to tonally heighten The Storyteller’s predicament. All the while John Hurt makes it look so effortless. 

I don’t consider The Soldier and Death the best episode of the series. I consider it to be one of the best things Jim Henson ever did. It’s the first episode of the series that he personally directed and his style, wit, and technological mastery are dominant throughout. Adapted from an early Russian folk tale, we meet a poor soldier who is returning home after a long twenty year war. He has nothing to show for it, but three biscuits that are sadly all he has for food. 

While journeying along a lonely road he comes across three beggars and gives them the biscuits instead of money. As a reward for his generosity each one gives him a beautiful whistle, a dance, and a pack of lucky playing cards along with a magic sack. Now this sack has the ability to trap whatever he wants inside of it, and rumors abound of card-playing devils in a nearby abandoned castle. The prize if he wins? Forty barrels of gold! If he loses? His life. The soldier makes his way to the castle, with his lucky cards and magic sack in tow. Now I’m not one to spoil a good story. But, rest assured images abound of intense card playing, Death trapped in a sack, the fires of Hell, and the ethereal tranquility of Heaven.  

The Soldier and Death has so much going for it, it’s impossible to fully put into words. What begins as a romp of a story becomes something deeper, something more pensive. The late Bob Peck, as The Soldier, only adds to this by painting a subtle and sympathetic portrait of a man too used to getting his own way. It’s no accident that he went onto achieve even more status in the fantasy genre as the cunning, but doomed hunter Robert Muldoon in the original Jurassic Park

However, it’s also a lot of fun. In my opinion, if you’re going to pick one of the top Jim Henson moments it’s when The Soldier quietly lights a match inside the darkened castle. Henson’s camera swiftly pulls back to reveal the swarm of devils laughing and cackling at the card table. It still gives me chills, and the animatronics beat CGI any day. Like the best of Jim Henson’s work, The Soldier and Death runs the gamut of emotions. You laugh, you cry, and in the end you think about life, and as this was one of Jim Henson’s final directorial projects it makes it all the more special. 

The Storyteller eventually finished its run in 1990 in a revamped format called Greek Myths. John Hurt had left for greener pastures but, Dog found a new home wandering The Minotaur’s Labyrinth with actor Michael Gambon (The Singing Detective, Harry Potter).These final four episodes, plus The Three Ravens from the first series, regretfully didn’t see the light of day in the USA. That was until the late 90s, when the cable network HBO replayed both series as a whole and the viewing public experienced them as Jim Henson intended. It was then, and with its eventual release on VHS and DVD, that people were reminded how beautiful and rare a show it really was. 

A mark of quality is when something you saw as a kid stays with you through the years. It never leaves, and the imagery remains imprinted inside you. For me, The Storyteller does just that. Although Jim Henson no longer is here, his work and his message thankfully are. It’s because of this that we will never have to look that far to find him, and he will always have more to say. But, that my friends, is another story. 

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