Come in — sit by the fireplace here in the Green Man Pub and we’ll discuss one of the best series ever made. We’ll speak of storytellers, shaggy dogs who speak, trolls, comely maidens, ugly hags, and a whole lot more. So grab a mug of Ryhope Wood Cider and we’ll get started. . . .
Each of the nine episodes of The Storyteller, which are based on European myths, starts off with John Hurt as The Storyteller saying ‘When people told themselves 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.’ Another four episodes are based on Greek myths and feature Michael Gambon as The Storyteller. Though the premise of that set is that it’s a Greek storyteller taking refuge in a Labyrinth on Rhodes island, he looks more like a scruff.ly tomb robber.
The Storyteller series, which first aired on NBC in the USA in 1987 before moving to HBO in 1989 after airing on Channel Four in Great Britain is, in my opinion as one who’s watched almost every fantasy work they’ve done, the finest series that the Henson company did until the Farscape series came along a few years back. As with their other non-Muppet creations, such as The Dark Crystal, the Henson folks created a show filled with wonderful creatures that have the feel of a Brothers Grimm tale. This collection of nine stories were adapted by Anthony Minghella, who became an Oscar-winning filmmaker a decade later with The English Patient. Minghella interweaves the narration of the storyteller with dialogue from the stories to create the rather effective illusion that the Storyteller and the tales are part of the same continuous story. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Henson folks loved this series — it shows clearly in all facets of this endeavour. (They had an option, now dropped, on Robert Holdstock’s The Mythago Wood, another tale full of fantastical beings. I think they currently have an option on producing Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere.)
Each of the first nine episodes starts off in a room with a roaring fireplace and a chair of immense size. John Hurt, dressed in tattered clothes of fabric and Sweet Mab knows what else, has but a bit of make-up for his role, an odd sort of bulbous looking nose. Well, there were the bat-like ears. . . . Was he human, or some odd fey creature? Our imaginations were the only answer to that question as little is said of him. (No more is said of who the other Storyteller is.) Both of Hurt and Gambon are accompanied by a large scruffy dog who asks them questions and comments on the tale being told. This sheepdog-ish creature is called, appropriately, simply The Dog. It is a remarkable puppet voiced by Brian Henson. But, as Duncan Kenworthy, founder of the Creature Shop at the Henson company notes in Matt Bacon’s No Strings Attached: The Inside Story of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, there were originally going to be two puppets: ‘At first, Jim was quite eager that the Storyteller character be a puppet. . . . We experimented, and I think that Ron Mueck even designed and built a puppet head before we’d worked out how we were going to cast the rest of it. Jim was hoping that most of the characters would be puppets, but he was persuaded that doing a prosthetic face would be much more convincing.’ It would be Anthony Minghella who gave voice to The Dog as he notes in the same work: ‘The most obvious thing was that nobody imagined this dog would talk. I just assumed that because this was a Henson project that any creature would speak [but] It was just my misreading of the synopsis.’ Jim Henson liked it (‘That’s neat.’) so it stayed. I certainly think it’d be a poorer show if The Dog was silent as the give and take of him (my assumption as it’s not stated, but the voice is male) with The Storyteller is an intrinsic aspect of each tale. It’s worth noting the Greek myth episodes were shot somewhat later, so The Dog was a more animated being than the first Dog as it had more mechanicals in it. Or so the tale goes in No Strings Attached, but I must say that I can’t see a meaningful difference between the two of them.
I do like John Hurt better as The Storyteller than I do Michael Gambon, but that’s because I think the European set of folktales come across better as storytelling than the Greek series does. Certainly the premise of The Storyteller sitting in a large chair by an oversized fireplace in a very old room that’s fairly dark with shadows works better than The Storyteller standing in the ruins of something narrating a tale, but perhaps a person more inclined to Greek myths would find Gambon satisfying too. It’s worth noting that The Hellenic Storyteller, as the Gambon character is called in No Strings Attached, was to have a new dog — Cerberus! (Budgetary constraints doomed that idea.)
There are nine tales in the first series (“The Soldier and Death”, “Fearnot”, “The Luck Child”, “A Short Story”, “Hans My Hedgehog”, “The Three Ravens”, “Sapsorrow”, “The Heartless Giant”, and “The True Bride”), all of which were written by Minghella. All have a dark, almost too scary Brothers Grimm feel to them that was certainly aided by a visual style based on the work of Czech illustrator Jan Pienkowski, leaving the viewer guessing as to what was the real story and what was but a tale being told by The Storyteller. Complex puppetry such as that in “Hans My Hedgehog”, the pilot episode, was blended with first rate acting from the best of British acting such as Sean Bean, Miranda Richardson, and Jonathan Pryce. Though we should never forget that John Hurt as The Storyteller and Brian Henson voicing The Dog, for all practical purposes, were the true stars of the series!
Picking favorites is difficult, as every tale here is worth seeing over and over again, but I’ll single out “The Soldier and Death” as one of the ones that really raised my neck hairs. It was the tale of a young battle-weary soldier returning from war who trades his last biscuit for what he’s told is a magical sack into which anything summoned to go in will do so. First trapping devils, and then even Death Himself, the soldier brings peace to his country. But Death in captivity soon proves a greater enemy than one might expect. . . . And what happens when Death is no longer loose on the land? The depiction of Death is as nasty as one can do without scaring the shit out of the viewer! The other tale worth single out for praise is “A Story Short”, in which The Storyteller recalls his days of telling tales to a King for getting caught cheating the Royal Cook out of a much needed meal. (The setting where The Storyteller begins each episode suggests a ruined Great Hall in a castle that’s seen much, much better days.) A story a day was his punishment — or else he’s be boiled in the cook’s cauldron. All goes well until the final day . . . when he can’t think of a story to save his life! Ahhh, but he will think of a tale — and the nasty cook will regret that he did.
The second series, Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Greek Myths, consists of but four tales, “Daedalus and Icarus”, “Orpheus and Eurydice”, “Perseus and the Gorgon”, and “Theseus and the Minotaur”. None of these worked as well as the other nine tales did. I couldn’t figure out why until I reread “The Storytellers” chapter of No Strings Attached in order to do this review. According to the text there, the Henson folks are very proud of how much better the technical aspects of these are compared to the earlier episodes. And that’s the problem, as they forgot that storytelling is more than a matter of a story looking good — it must have heart too. Perhaps Nigel Williams, who replaced Anthony Minghella just wasn’t as good a writer of tales, but perhaps it’s just that they don’t feel right to me. I like my folk tales dark — these feel less dark and more just plain bloody! Don’t get me wrong — you should watch all thirteen episodes to see what you think.
These are not tales for young children unless they are steeped in fantasy already. Minghella is here a worthy successor to both the Brothers Grimm and Angela Carter in her In The Company of Wolves storytelling guise. He knows his myths and obviously relishes telling a good tale with just enough darkness to make me shiver. He would later publish these tales in a lovely illustrated volume so you too can sit in that overstuffed chair by the Fireplace in the Green Man Pub while you tell us the tales long into the night. Just don’t look behind you to see what’s lurking in the shadows! And don’t be surprised if The Storyteller shows up to see how you do!
(ChannelFour, 1987; DVD release, 2004)