I remember it well, Jim Henson's The Storyteller aired in the evening on Channel 4 and scared the bejeezus out of 7 year old me. The year was 1987 and the show had been heavily advertised for a few months so the anticipation had been building. When finally the show aired it became an instant classic in my mind, the stuff of wonderful nightmares. The show presented nine lesser known northern European fairytale with a a mixture of live acting, animatronics, muppetry and surreally stylish imagery. With excellent production values, marvellous special effects and stunning matte paintings the various fantasy settings all came to life and drew me in.
John Hurt played the role of the eponymous Storyteller, and next to a hearth he would tell a story with relish, accompanied by his muppety canine companion. There would be occasional interludes where the Storyteller would elaborate or expand upon a point and his verbosity and wordplay would be like music to my young ears, even if a lot of his wordplay went over my head. So after nearly 30 years how does the Storyteller fare? Taking away the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia does the series deserve a revisit or is it best left in the past, in the vaults of the mind?
Well, the stories themselves are more mature and darker in essence than many of the Disney-fied version that most people are familiar with but still can cast a wondrous spell. The love, care and attention of the production comes through on the screen and even though some of the special effects have aged, this ethereal other-worldliness leaves the show an almost timeless quality. The soft focus and fuzzy recording make the show seem like a wondrous dream and even now fill my heart with warmth.
The nine stories are:
"Hans My Hedgehog" - A farmer's wife wishes to have a child so badly she doesn't care what it looked like. And as if by a miracle, she does get pregnant but the child, Hans, looks like a cross between a human and a hedgehog. Nicknamed 'Grovelhog' by the other children and unaccepted by his father, Hans asks for a saddle for his giant chicken and leaves. Twenty years later a king who has lost his way stumbles upon the Grovelhog's castle. The creature helps the king find his way home, but demands to receive something in return: the first thing that greets the king on his way home... This is a similar story to Beauty and the Beast and the special effects are good on this. The hedgehog is suitably scary yet presented as a sympathetic figure
"Fearnot" - A young man named Fearnot sets out on a quest to learn how to shiver in fright. He meets a traveling tinker called McKay who vows to lead the boy to frightening places. Still, nothing on their path manages to put the shivers into Fearnot, no matter how frightening it gets. The creatures in this one are silly to look at now and the story is probably the weakest of the bunch but still worth a watch.
"A Story Short" - The Storyteller recounts a time in his life when he came upon a castle as a beggar and talked himself into a commission to tell the king a story each night for a year. On the last very day he couldn't come up with one and would have been boiled alive in oil for breaking the deal, if it weren't for the timely arrival of a mysterious beggar. This is a good story and a chance for John Hurt to shine in his biggest central role in the series.
"The Luck Child" - When a cruel, cold-hearted king hears about the birth of a luck child prophesied to one day rule in his stead, he seeks out the child and tries to get rid of him. But luck is with the baby and against the king and the 17 years later when the ruler tries once more to sentence the boy to certain death, he ends up becoming his son-in-law and heir to the throne instead. Now the king has just one more card to play: in order for 'Lucky' to earn the hand of the princess in marriage, he must bring back the golden feather from the Griffin's back and venture to the creature's deadly lair. This is a great story with some impressive muppetry skills on show with the Griffin a standout creation.
The Soldier & Death" - An honest soldier receives a ruby whistle, a comparable dance, an unbeatable deck of cards and a magic sack for being kind to three beggars. He defeats a bunch of devils by playing cards and catches them in his sack when they refuse to pay up. Years later, the last devil pays his debt by showing the Soldier a way to tell if sick people have a chance of recovering or not. After a successful career as a miracle doctor, the soldier manages to trick Death itself and trap it in his sack but this has dire consequences... This episode bears a resemblance to the Tale of 3 Brothers by J. K. Rowling from her Harry Potter books and is the standout of the series for me. The little devil are well created and move impressively.
"The True Bride" - Anja has been forced to work for a nasty troll all her life. When her master's tasks become increasingly difficult, a magical white lion appears out of nowhere to help her out. After being rid of the troll, Anja finds true love in the form of a gardener but just before they can get married, her sweetheart is enchanted by none other than the Troll's daughter, the Trollop. The story is okay but the makeup on the troll and his sister are very impressive.
"The Three Ravens" - A witch has set her eyes on the widower king and manages to turn his three young sons into ravens. Their sister escapes the curse and vows to remain silent for three years, three months, three weeks, and three days in order to break the spell. But things become increasingly difficult when she falls in love with a prince whose new stepmother is the same witch that ruined her entire family. This is another standout episode and features standout performances from Miranda and Joely Richardson.
"Sapsorrow" - A king with three grown daughters is looking to find a new wife and proclaims to marry whomever fits the original queen's ring. When his daughter Sapsorrow puts on the ring by mistake, she plans to make her escape from the castle with help from her animal friends. Disguised as a dirty, ragged thing, she sets to work in another castle where she falls for a handsome prince. Now if only he can see her beauty beneath her Scraggletag appearance. This is a beautifully presented tale and features some impressive matte work.
"The Heartless Giant" - Young Prince Leo learns about a heartless giant imprisoned long ago by his father the king somewhere in his castle. The boy tries to befriend the giant, but the giant tricks Leo into setting him free. The other princes set out to recapture the giant but are turned to stone instead. Ridden by guilt, Leo decides to seek out the giant's heart instead. This episode is another standout and the one I most vividly remember from my childhood. The downbeat ending had a profound effect on me in my youth and asks 'Can bad people change if given a chance?'
The Storyteller series is masterful and well worth a watch or revisit. Some episodes are better than others (highlights include 'The Soldier and Death,' 'The Three Ravens' and 'The Heartless Giant') but overall the excellent cast and wonderfully written scrips by Anthony Minghella (a decade away from directing Oscar winning The English Patient) makes this a weird, unsettling but extremely satisfying series to watch.