Tuesday, 23 May 2017

The Best Place By the Fire by Steve Gladwin


When people told themselves their past with stories, explained their present with stories, foretold their future with stories, the best place by the fire was kept for  --- the Storyteller.

We have a friend who prides himself on giving us rubbish presents. He unashamedly gets hold of any old tat he can and wraps them up to look impressive, handing them to us with a big smile on his face like some grinning Lancastrian Santa. Then when we open them we find things like dog-eared old books of riddles and two year old chocolate. He even shows off about it. When a mutual friend saw the two huge parcels he was giving us a few days after Christmas and asked what they were, he said, ‘Oh it’s just a pile of old crap I want to get rid of.’

A couple of months ago however he redeemed himself totally by turning up with the best presents ever. Yes, he gave me not just the DVD but the book of my favourite TV series, The Storyteller, which was created and produced by Jim Henson and first appeared here on Channel 4 in 1987. The gift was particularly special because I used to have another version of the book which accompanied the series, but foolishly lent it to someone who said she’d give it back and of course never did.. And I’d only previously had a Region 1 copy of the DVD which won’t play.

The book itself is a thing of beauty and alone reminds me of why the series itself was so special. In place of the actual photos from the series and silhouettes which were in the version I lost, this version from Boxtree has a series of beautiful coloured recreations of many of the characters, situations and perils which bring back even more the whole wonderful experience of the series.

So what could possibly be so special about a warty, ugly storyteller in a faded patchwork cloak and his grumpy talking dog? Well just how long have you got?

Let’s start with the script, for this after all is the series which made me want to be a storyteller, and I confess that I still steal the odd jewel here and there to implant them in my tales because these rare gems. These glittering and shimmering stones poured from the pen of Anthony Minghella, and for me no-one has, or could do the art of storytelling a better service. Everywhere are lines which you simply couldn’t find the like of anywhere else.

Next there’s the creatures  - the misunderstood Griffin in The Luck Child, who likes a ‘scritch –scratch before his ‘snoozie woozie’, the trolls, father and daughter in The True Bride, the latter looking to me alarmingly like the Queen in a headscarf at Ascot, the wonderful red devils in ‘The Soldier and Death’ chain-smoking and playing cards, (at which they cheat incessantly, and above all the wonderful innocent beast in the adaptation of the Beauty and the Beast story in Hans my Hedgehog. And how could I forget the bug eyed Terrible Thing which lurks in the village pond with his siren daughters to lure unsuspecting travelers down, down and yet proves strangely susceptible to Fearnot’s violin playing in the story of the same name.

Talking of Fearnot brings me to my third reason. When Fearnot and Mr Mackay the crafty tinker who he employs to teach him how to shudder, rest in the village being terrorised by the Terrible Thing and his Sisters of the Deep, Fearnot dangles his feet into the village pond uncaring about the legend. But this isn’t the village pond, it’s the storyteller’s dog’s bowl, as the series - as it does so many times - shatters the fourth wall and simply doesn’t care. Things are seen from extraordinary angles and often with a dreamlike quality - rather as they were so wonderfully when Alfonso Cuaron was given his (regretfully) one go at the Harry Potter franchise in Prisoner of Azkaban. The house where poor Hans my hedgehog lives with the mother who dotes on him and the father who tries to love him but only ends up resenting him almost as much as the villagers who call him ‘Truffle Hog’, we first see on a dinner plate on the wall, and in The Soldier and Death, when the magical soldier first tries his skills at cheating death when his master the Tsar is about to die, the various priests and grey-beards are seen muttering, wagging their beards and shaking their sticks in small silhouettes.

'A music that started like hello and ended like goodbye'

Doing his own sad muttering with the magic glass which tells him whether the Tsar will die, (death stands at the head of the bed) or live, (at the foot) is Bob Peck as the grizzled veteran with no longer any war or cause to fight, who has to find a new one. Bob Peck is just one of a whole galaxy of stars who put as much into their portrayals as such a wonderful series deserves. In Sapsorrow you get French and Saunders as the ugly sisters and at one point Dawn French steps out of the story to shake her fist in the corner of the screen to shake her fist at the storyteller’s dog who is heckling her and her sister. There is Jane Horrocks as the resentful Anya, The True Bride, with Sean Bean completely oblivious to their love while he is under the spell of the trollop, (at the first sound of this word the dog blocks his ears up!), in The Three Ravens Jonathan Pryce as the grieving king is quite oblivious to the wicked wiles of Miranda Richardson’s witch, while his daughter Joely Richardson is all too aware of them, and in The Luck Child the veteran actor Robert Flemying gives a moving and haunting performance as the weary ferryman who is forced to make his ceaseless crossing carrying passengers to and from the Griffin’s island. And at no time does any of them give a single indication that they’re not taking their role as seriously as if they were playing Chekhov.

One of the great TV partnerships

Maybe none of this would work quite so well if the storyteller under the warts and make-up wasn’t John Hurt and the dog wasn’t portrayed and voiced by Brian Henson. It’s this partnership which is the real soul of The Storyteller, because while the storyteller tells the tale as it is, or has been told to him, the dog often provides the moral conscience, but does it in such an often jokey or sarcastic way that we miss the impact until we think about it, or because he rolls his eyes and sighs.

As for John Hurt’s performance, well I can do no better than Baz Greenland’s tribute to him in this role on Digital Spy, following the actor’s death.

John Hurt was simply captivating as the storyteller, playing off his animated muppet dog (voiced by Jim Henson's son Brian). He's almost unrecognisable under the make up, with his giant ears and nose, but it hinders his performance not one bit. With his ability to draw the audience in, he could make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up with a soft whisper of an enemy, or convey the boundless joy of a happy ending. There are many wonderful performances over the series - and from some well known faces like Sean Bean, Jennifer Saunders and Jonathan Pryce - but no one comes close to Hurt's. 

There was a second series called Greek Myths, in which Michael Gambon made more than a decent fist as a new storyteller stuck with his faithful dog, (yes, he gets around!) in the Minotaur's labyrinth to tell us the tales of Jason and Perseus, Daedalus and Orpheus, but there was only one John Hurt. When interviewed about the series itself, John Hurt says he was primarily attracted to it both by the wonderful script and the respectful attitude the programme took to traditional tale. The original idea and enthusiasm, it appears, came from a folklore course that Jim Henson’s daughter Lisa took at university and their mutual enthusiasm for doing something meaningful and honourable with multi-cultural storytelling.

Clearly in order to fulfill that sort of dream, you need experienced people at the helm and Jim Henson could hardly have done better with the likes of Duncan Kenworthy as producer, (and also of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually) and directors such as John Amiel (The Singing Detective) and Charles Sturridge, (Brideshead Revisited), as well as helming a couple himself which included possibly the best episode of all, The Soldier and Death.’

Which brings us rather inevitably to the sad fact of how many of the team behind or part of The Storyteller, are no longer with us. Sadly we lost the wonderful actor Bob Peck in 1999 and Jim Henson himself even further back in 1990, but in 2008 Anthony Minghella too took his glittering array of jewels to cast a light somewhere else, and more recently the storyteller himself, Sir John Hurt, has joined him. The old ferryman Robert Flemying also made that final crossing in 1995 and as the old saying goes, ‘we may not see their like again.’

Do yourself a favour and buy this now!

It is also unlikely that we will ever see anything like The Storyteller again because this was a series which broke so many rules without doing so in an obvious, flashy way that we were barely aware that it was doing it. It was profound and moving, gripping and at times terrifying. It had a wonderfully inventive score by Rachel Portman with a clarinet that wriggled as hard as any of the devils to be let out of their sack. Above all, it gave adults and children alike a reminder of the fund of treasures to be had in traditional tale and the means by which a truly gifted writer can rearrange tale type and motif to reinvent and clothe old bones with fresh new garments, grow new leaves on old trees and always leave them seeming fresh. The Storyteller has not aged in any way but feels timeless. It was conceived and created long before the explosion of CGI and virtual reality. If you haven’t got a copy or have even never seen it, I urge you to change that because you won’t regret it, and you will maybe find like I do discover that after viewing any episode, the world just seems that bit more right and fresh and above all magical because of it .  

The Storyteller by the way, won the Emmy for best children's TV programme in 1987, following that up with the BAFTA for the same in 1989. But we all know it was for adults as well. Now go out and buy it now!

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher

Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'


Mystica said...

It sounds like at last your friend redeemed himself with this gift. Thanks for the review.

Joan Lennon said...

I LOVED the Storyteller, and had forgotten all about it - thank you, Steve, for the reminder! I will go looking for it right now.

Becca McCallum said...

That sounds wonderful - I might have to put it on my birthday list!

Susan Price said...

Oh lord, yes, The Story Teller - arguably the best thing ever done on TV. So inventive and so beautiful.

Steve Gladwin said...

You must Becca. Oh you must! And Sue, I think we might even dispense with the 'arguably'.

Penny Dolan said...

Heard and obeying, Steve. Well, putting the DVD on my birthday list and going off for a wallow in my copy of the Storyteller book and the stills from the series.

Sue Purkiss said...

Never saw it - will have to track it down!

Enid Richemont said...

Don't think I ever saw it either. Must get hold of it - sounds magical.

Lynne Benton said...

You have inspired me, Steve - I've just bought the DVD! Many thanks for a fascinating post.