The Dark Crystal | Labyrinth | The Storyteller
When people kept alive their past with stories, explained their present with stories, foretold the future with stories, the best place by the fire was kept for the Storyteller.
- The Storyteller
Dark and delightful television series The Storyteller (1987) combines the talents of Oscar-winning writer Sir Anthony Minghella, whose lines are spoken by Sir John Hurt, with the visual imagination of Jim Henson. The series was lovingly crafted to showcase the talent of the newly-created Jim Henson Creature Shop and features a veritable rollcall of British talent. Despite winning Emmy and BAFTA awards and being a critical hit, it remains one of the most overlooked television series of the 1980s.
The Storyteller is a series of fairy tales narrated by a man next to a fire talking to his dog. In these stories, Good does not automatically triumph over Evil; sometimes after a great deal of suffering, Good may at best hope to achieve a hard-won draw. When The Storyteller features characters living ever after, they do not do so happily; instead they are cursed to spend eternity trapped betwixt Heaven and Hell. The first series of nine episodes was based on fairy tales and the shorter second series was inspired by Greek mythology.
When I first encountered the Creature Shop it was a place like no other, all cables and fun-fur and barely controlled chaos, as John Stephenson and his team seemed to be inventing the technology as they went along.
- Anthony Minghella
Throughout the 1970s Jim Henson tried to interest American television companies in a family puppet show to be enjoyed by adults as well as children, but to no avail. Lord Lew Grade, head of British television company ITC, saw the potential. Lord Grade specialised in selling television shows worldwide and had made successful puppet programmes like Thunderbirds. He persuaded Henson to move to London and The Muppet Show (1976-81) became one of the world's most successful television series, even in the USA. After the series ended and filming on The Great Muppet Caper (1981) finished, the talented and creative crew and performers dispersed, only to reassemble to make The Dark Crystal (1982), disperse yet again and reassemble once more for Labyrinth (1986), while other film and television productions, including The Empire Strikes Back (1980) made use of their expertise.
This persuaded Jim Henson that, rather than continually assemble and split up, it would make sense to have a dedicated, continuing company to keep these creative people together. This team would not only develop Jim Henson's projects but also provide their talents to television, film, adverts and theme park attractions as required. Thus the London-based Jim Henson Creature Shop was born. All that was needed was a way to make a statement and showcase the Creature Shop's unique abilities1.
The idea for the series came from Henson's daughter Lisa, who had studied European folklore at Harvard. Henson persuaded Brendan Tartikoff at NBC to fund a pilot episode and appointed Duncan Kenworthy2 as producer. Kenworthy described Henson's vision by saying:
Lisa had suggested making a series that exploited the visual aspects of the fairy tales. There is a lot of imagery in the tales to do with spoken metaphors: an arrow that's as fast as a speeding horse, or lips that are as red as cherries. We worked on visual ways of transcribing these oral tales. I thought it was a great idea, so we came up with a series proposal... Initially the idea was to do something that no-one had done before. That was the thing that always hooked Jim's interest.
One of the key decisions that Kenworthy made was to approach Isle of Wight-born Anthony Minghella3, already an award-winning playwright, to write the series, having been wowed by his television series What if it's Raining? (1986). Apparently Jim Henson worried that Minghella was too good a writer to be interested; however, an outline describing the series was sent to him.
That document said 'a man with a dog sits by a fire and tells stories. He's in a big hall, like the storytellers of old.' I think they were as shocked as I was by what I turned up with. I wrote what I thought they wanted and it was a surprise to them. The most obvious thing was that nobody imagined this dog would talk. I just assumed that because it was a Henson project that any creature would be a talking one. I remember Jim reading the first draft and saying, 'Oh, the dog talks – that's neat.'
- Anthony Minghella
Minghella then spent two years heavily researching fairy tales, particularly obscure fairy tales from all around Europe and not just those by the Brothers Grimm, and the work of fairy tale scholars, particularly Stith Thompson, before writing the scripts. Even though Jim Henson had specialised in spectacular visual creations, creating a feast of believable puppet characters, he was determined that this television series would encourage the audience to listen to the stories more than watch them, an approach Minghella described as 'persuading people to listen when so often with television they are only asked to look.'
In the foreword to his novelisation of the series, Anthony Minghella clarified:
None of the stories... is my own. From the riches of the European folktale I have plundered and borrowed and extracted those narratives which seemed beautiful or strange or delightful without the burden of scholarship to restrain me. These stories have been told and repeated through the ages, changing with each retelling, so that every country and culture has its own set of variants on the classic tales. In 'The Storyteller' I have felt like a man who hears a good joke and tells it to his friends. I have taken liberties, invented what I have forgotten and changed what I remembered.
People had taken fairy tales before and ransacked them to find stories. The reason that these fairy tales lasted for centuries wasn't just because of their storylines. It was more to do with the meaning behind the words. Our idea was to try to convey the power of these oral narratives through television. Creating the Storyteller character was an ideal way to do this.
- Duncan Kenworthy
As the stories combined lesser-known fairy tales it made it impossible to know where the story would go next, with the Storyteller delighting in the twists in the tales that puzzle and amuse his dog. The sole exception to basing the stories directly on fairy tales was episode 'The Soldier and Death', which was based on Arthur Ransome's4 adaptation of a Russian fairy tale, included in his posthumous anthology The War of the Birds and the Beasts (1984).
Initially the plan had been to make the Storyteller himself an animatronic character, similar to Hoggle in Labyrinth. When John Hurt expressed interest in the role, that plan quickly changed – Hurt had previously been Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated for his BAFTA-winning role in prosthetic makeup as the star of The Elephant Man (1980). The Storyteller's prosthetics were designed by Nigel Booth, who would work again with Anthony Minghella on The English Patient (1996).
The pilot episode, 'Hans my Hedgehog', was directed by Steve Barron. Barron was an experienced music video director, including for Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean'. He had previously combined animation with live action for 'Take on Me' by A-Ha and Dire Straits' 'Money for Nothing' which led to his being chosen to direct the video for Labyrinth's David Bowie song 'Underground'. Barron defined the look of the series by using money-saving techniques inspired by the work of Czech illustrator Jan Pienkowski, particularly the use of harsh lighting, and silhouettes appearing in front of flames. These techniques and the style were used throughout the series and would inspire Anthony Minghella to use similar effects on his later Oscar-winning film, The English Patient.
In 'Hans, My Hedgehog' a woman wishes for a baby to sing to, snoodle5 with and hug to bits so much she swears she would not care what it was, and soon after gives birth to a half-man, half-hedgehog Grovelhog named Hans. When Hans grows up he rescues a king from a labyrinthine forest in which you get so lost you lose your mind. The king promises Hans the first thing to greet him on his return, expecting to have to sacrifice his elderly dog, only for his daughter the Princess of Sweetness and Cherry Pie to get to him first. A year and a day later Hans marries the Princess. She learns that all she has to do is keep a secret for one day and Hans will turn into a handsome prince. Will she be able to keep his secret, or will she decide to burn him alive instead?
The episode starred Ailsa Berk as the body of the Grovelhog. She wore a prickle wig that incorporated the character's ears and a larger forehead, with a mechanical nose buried beneath the prosthetics that transformed her face into that of a male human hedgehog. Steven Garlick and Terence Harvey voiced the Grovelhog, young and old. Abigail Cruttenden played the princess while David Swift and Helen Lindsay played the king and queen.
We used to shoot one [episode] a week, it was hectic. We started eight weeks before, and then off we went at break-neck speed producing all this stuff. The Creature Shop really was a 24-hour place – it just never stopped.
- Creature Shop Creative Supervisor John Stephenson
The series6 quickly gained a reputation for being exciting to work on. British talent, attracted by the Henson name, were keen to sign up, particularly as each episode was filmed in a week making it easy to fit into their schedules. High profile actors who appeared included Sean Bean, Jane Horrocks, Jonathan Pryce, Brenda Blethyn OBE, and Miranda Richardson. Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders played the ugly sisters.
The Storyteller's Dog
The Storyteller's Dog incorporated a complex and realistic animatronic face designed to have four ear movements, four eyebrow movements, two nose movements, two mouth movements, and several lip movements, and was able to snarl and pant. This was in addition to the range of movement offered by the puppeteer and the characterisation provided by Brian Henson's voice.
When the series was revived for The Storyteller: Greek Myths, initially it was considered to have a new dog, possibly even Cerberus the mythical three-headed dog. Instead the original dog was heavily modified with an experimental new development, the Performance Control System. This involved a microchip linked to a joystick controlling 15 different movements. It was designed to enable one operator to control a much more varied and subtle range of emotions, rather than individual movements, as each command on the joystick was able to operate multiple controls simultaneously.
The series was broadcast at 7pm on Sundays on Channel 4 in Britain, where it was a critical and ratings success. The Storyteller, while gothic in tone, is rated U – Universal and suitable for all.
It was a different story in America, where audiences expected fairy tales to follow the whitewashed 'happily ever after' approach, where weddings are determined by shoe size and princes are permitted to force their way into ladies' bedrooms to give unconscious women non-consensual kisses before Sleeping Beauty and Snow White can say #MeToo.
In the US, NBC's Standards and Practices team reported that The Storyteller would upset children, leading television executives to consider it unsuitable to be broadcast as a standalone series. When the show was broadcast in the USA it was shown as part of a 'Jim Henson Hour', along with assorted other new Henson television productions7. The episodes were broadcast out of order and sandwiched between lighter Muppet banter titled MuppeTelevision in order for them to be sugar-coated. This gave the series an uneven texture and led to it being cancelled after only ten of the planned 13 episodes were broadcast. One episode, 'The Three Ravens', was never shown in the United States.
The Bechdel Test, which can be summarised as whether the film involves two or more named female characters who have a conversation together that does not include or mention men, does not really apply to The Storyteller. Since the episodes were written to reflect the aural tradition of telling fairy stories, few characters have names. The nature of retelling a fairy tale after all is: 'There once was a king and queen whose daughter the princess met a prince and a troll'. Almost every character in the series conforms to one of the generic stereotypes expected of a fairy tale character. In the episode 'Sapsparrow', the main princess is known only by her nickname 'Sapsparrow' while only one of her two ugly sisters is named: she introduces herself as Princess Badsister. Similarly, the episode 'The Three Ravens' is all about an unnamed wicked witch who has cursed an unnamed princess's brothers, turning them into ravens; the only way the princess can break the curse is to stay silent for three years, three months, three weeks and three days. Consequently the two women the episode is all about, the witch and princess, do not share a conversation.
The Greek Myths
The Storyteller won both BAFTA and Emmy awards8, and so Henson was keen to continue with a second series. He was inspired by Greek legends, aiming to make the series even darker. This time it featured Michael Gambon as the Storyteller, who is trapped in the Labyrinth of Knossos, accompanied by the same (upgraded) dog. His attempts to find his way out result in him discovering relics from the past that inspire him to tell the tales.
It had been apparent that it had been too ambitious to make nine episodes of as effects-heavy a series as The Storyteller on a weekly schedule. So only four episodes of The Storyteller: Greek Myths were made9, though these were even more elaborate. They were broadcast in 1989.
The Creature Shop, learning and improving their technique at all times, made the monsters even more realistic than the creatures in the first series, particularly the Minotaur, and the truly terrifying Medusa, whose mechanical snakes were attached to a fibreglass skullcap worn by actress Frances Barber behind severe prosthetics. Again these were successful in Britain, but Jim Henson's Greek Myths was too dark for the tastes of American audiences.
The Storyteller: Greek Myths won the Best Children's Programme BAFTA award.
A decade ago, I arrived to write the pilot screenplay for 'The Storyteller' series and have never really left... When the day came for me to move on after having been cajoled into writing the entire series of 'The Storyteller', I was emptying out my desk... when Jim [Henson] looked in. He was dismayed to see my packing up and protested that just because the project was over that was no good reason to leave. So I didn't. One of the things Jim and subsequently Brian were creating was an environment in which other directors and producers could work.
- Anthony Minghella
The Storyteller, though not as commercially successful as had been hoped, has left a large legacy with those involved in its creation. Duncan Kenworthy used the experience to produce the acclaimed 1996 Gulliver's Travels miniseries and has since produced highly successful films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999) and Love Actually (2003). Anthony Minghella spent the rest of his career working out of his office in the Jim Henson Creature Shop, so naturally when he needed prosthetics to transform Ralph Fiennes into the severely-burned titular character of The English Patient it was to the Creature Shop team that he turned. They also provided artificial arms for Willem Dafoe's character. The film went on to win nine Oscars.
Similarly, having worked with the Creature Shop on The Storyteller, when Steve Barron was approached in 1989 to direct the film adaptation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, he agreed on the condition that the Creature Shop was allowed to provide the costumes for the Turtles. The film, made for $13 million and, although rejected by every major American studio, made over $200 million, becoming the fifth most-successful film of the year. He would later involve the Creature Shop in The Adventures of Pinocchio (1996). Yet the benefits of working with the Creature Shop was not limited merely to visual effects.
Working with Henson's has changed my sense of what fiction can do... it taught me that bold narrative devices can work in contemporary fiction. We don't have to stay on the main road of naturalism to say things that have contemporary resonance. I think without Henson's, 'Truly, Madly, Deeply' (1990) would have been a very different film.
- Sir Anthony Minghella