The Great Muppet Caper (1981)

I do love it when our son enjoys a film more than I did. “That was comedy gold,” he exclaimed. I don’t love it when I enjoy a film a lot less than I once did. I honestly remembered 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper as being far more full of laughs than I found it this morning. There’s still a lot to like, but I was more amused by things that I probably wouldn’t have noticed when I last saw this, many years ago, like the costumes.

So for this outing, Kermit and Fozzie are investigative reporters who have followed the famous fashion designer Lady Holiday back to London to interview her about the theft of some of her jewels. Lady Holiday designs the ugliest things women have ever worn: bridesmaid dresses for ladies who hate their bridesmaids. It’s a beautifully unstated running gag, never acknowledged onscreen, while you just know Jim Henson had to keep sending back draft designs with kind notes that the ideas were simply not hideous enough. Lady Holiday’s brother, the irresponsible parasite Nicky, wears the worst men’s clothes in London. Even his socks are shocking.

I wondered how much of the script originally came from Henson, Oz, Rogers, and Goelz just sitting around with their characters improvising. There’s a hysterical moment where the Muppets break character and Kermit starts critiquing Miss Piggy’s performance. Piggy protests that she’s going for eighty emotions, and Kermit sighs that then surely she can get one of them right. The kid didn’t find this as funny as I did. Later on, Oscar the Grouch and Peter Ustinov bemoan their very brief cameos and I giggled for a full minute.

But the first of this movie’s two big problems is that the guest stars keep stealing the show from our heroes. I’m not sure it should be like this. Honestly, my favorite scene by a mile is when John Cleese and Joan Sanderson, who had played Cleese’s mostly deaf nemesis in a brilliantly funny Fawlty Towers a couple of years previously, have their dead pets and dismissed staff lifestyle intruded upon by a pig climbing the outside wall. Cleese begins hunting for the intruders with a fireplace poker and ends up recommending a supper club. But the problem from a Muppet perspective is that they aren’t amusing in response to anything the Muppets can do; their scene would have been every bit as hilarious if Tim Brooke-Taylor had played the wife and Marty Feldman had broken in.

This goes on all through the film. Diana Rigg and Charles Grodin, playing the Holidays, are far more interesting than Miss Piggy. Michael Robbins has a tiny scene as a museum guard who does not like pepperoni, and my eyes were on him, not Kermit and Fozzie. And then there’s Peter Falk, playing a tramp with a coat full of used wristwatches. Maybe he isn’t actually credited at the end because he felt bad for walking away with the movie entirely.

These probably don’t read like “problems,” but they are in a Muppet movie. The Muppets get in the way of the funniest stuff. In no universe should that ever be the case. Actually, the funniest Muppet moment is the first appearance of the running gag of everybody talking at once, and shushing at once, except for Janice, who’s in the middle of a mildly risque anecdote. Many of the later-day Muppet Show cast, including Pops and the Electric Mayhem’s trumpeter, Lips, are in this movie. Since it seems unlikely that seasons four and five of the Show will be seen again, at least in full, due to music rights issues, this is one of the few chances to see these characters right now.

That said, the other problem is that Paul Williams didn’t write the music. In The Muppet Movie, the songs are all great and they never overstayed their welcome. These songs aren’t and the film stops dead twice for very, very old-fashioned dance numbers. One’s all top hats and tails and the other is a water ballet with synchronized swimmers. The first could have been edited at least in half and the other should have been abandoned completely. Almost none of the other songs are in any way memorable; it’s been an hour and I’ve forgotten them already.

The exception is the Mayhem’s number, “Night Life.” This was actually a minor revelation to me, because I really just remember Lips’ trumpet being added to the TV show’s end credits music and didn’t remember what he added to the Mayhem’s sound. Granted, one part of my professed Electric Mayhem fandom is me being silly, and another part is just loving Floyd being such a smartass all the time, but Henson and company really did give the Mayhem some fine songs to play, and that trumpet in this song is awesome. I don’t know that Lips actually has much of a character, but he can play.

So it’s by no means a bad film, but I think it’s seriously flawed and about ten minutes too long. The kid loved it to pieces, because it’s full of slapstick and goofy lines and surprises and stunt drivers. At one point, Beauregard drives a cab right into the Happiness Hotel’s lobby, and I thought this might be our son’s favorite moment because he was laughing so hard that he was clutching his sides, and then, when he should have reversed out, he doesn’t. So it’s a great film for nine year-olds, and a pretty good one for their nitpicky parents.

Doctor Who: The Visitation (parts three and four)

So these are the Tereleptils, and I’ve always thought they were good-looking monsters. They made the interesting, and probably correct, choice, to give the one with the full animatronic mask the additional detail of being horrifically scarred and missing an eye. This unfortunately limited the aliens from ever returning to the show, because they’d have had to start from scratch and rebuild an entirely new head. Otherwise, you’d have dialogue like “You know, I met one of your species on seventeenth century Earth with wounds exactly like yours…”

Actually, they did reuse one of the non-animatronic heads for another alien that made a fleeting appearance in a story four seasons down the line. Perhaps they thought nobody would notice.

Fans and writers have thrown a lot of criticism at the producer of the show throughout the eighties, John Nathan-Turner, and as the program starts getting complacent and annoying – very soon now – I’ll have a lot to say about what I see as some very poor decisions. But let’s give him a round of applause for having that Tereleptil blow up the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver in part three of the story. Nathan-Turner believed that writers were using the device as a crutch instead of coming up with clever and inventive ways around problems. So when the screwdriver explodes, Marie told our son – who’s only seen the latest four episodes of what we call “the modern show” (and enjoyed them very much) – not to worry, that the Doctor can build another. But the beautiful thing is, he doesn’t, not for years.

Doctor Who: The Visitation (parts one and two)

As I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve mentioned the always-evolving production crew of Doctor Who as I go, but I’ve left a small hole with season nineteen because the script editor’s job was strangely in flux that year. About half of the stories were edited by Antony Root, and the other half by Eric Saward, who would keep the job for the next four years, but since they were made way out of transmission order, I wasn’t sure where to mention it.

“The Visitation” is the first of Saward’s scripts for the program, and I think he gets the balance of the character interplay just perfect in this one. He seems to lose interest in the lead characters after this story, preferring instead to use them as foils for the guests. This story, for example, is almost every bit as much about a gravel-voiced highwayman, played by Michael Robbins, the longtime star of On the Buses, as it is about the Doctor and his friends. Later Saward stories would be much more about the guests.

I had meant to give our son a teeny history lesson before we got started tonight, but I forgot. The story will memorably end with a cute revelation about the Great Fire of London in 1666. This, I figured, would be completely lost on our son, because the second grade curriculum in the United States doesn’t actually mention it. So we talked about the rats that the mysterious and scarred alien creature has been keeping in these Plague-fearing times, and then I mentioned that the really big world event that year was the fire, which destroyed thousands of homes. He told me that he knew all about it. Apparently, it’s revealed in one of his Beano Books that not only did Beryl the Peril start the fire, but she also ate five pies while starting it. Well, did she, now!

Adam Adamant Lives! 1.2 – Death Has a Thousand Faces

Another couple of oddball coincidences tonight: part of the action in the second episode of Adam Adamant Lives! is set in a chamber of horrors wax museum, just like the one we saw in the episode of The Avengers we watched last night. And in the cast, there’s Michael Robbins, who we saw in an episode of The Avengers just three days ago. We’ll see Robbins again in Doctor Who in about three weeks. He’s best known for his role as Arthur in the sitcom On the Buses, a part he played for many years, but he was in practically everything.

So “Death Has a Thousand Faces” is again written by Tony Williamson, and it’s just terrific. It’s set in Blackpool, where Adam and Georgina have followed an unlikely clue that’s led them to a plot to blow up the coastal city’s entertainment district, the “Golden Mile,” in order to increase the value of some land just north of the strip.

But the plot takes a back seat to two things: first, the story has an incredibly generous amount of location filming, and it’s just fascinating to look back in time 52 years and see all this footage of the city as it was. I’ve never been to Blackpool myself, but I was just riveted by what was there. Adam and Miss Jones even pop into an amusement arcade and the camera lingers on some of the old-fashioned games, almost as though the director wanted to ensure that the couch potatoes in other countries five decades later could see what was there for tourists to enjoy.

And speaking of Blackpool, there’s a great little revelation that Adam actually formally opened the Blackpool Tower in 1894, after doing the city the service of foiling the plot of some scoundrels to blow it up. He did this by throwing the ringleader off the top of the tower. That’s called foreshadowing. Michael Robbins’ character almost immediately reveals himself – a mysterious man in an overcoat eavesdropping – as if to tell the viewer “I’m next.”

The other great thing is that this introduces Jack May as a superb character called Simms, the third member of the team for most of their forthcoming adventures. Simms had previously been “in service,” as they say, as a valet, and had also worked the boards as a stage actor, but he’s down on his luck in Blackpool and working as a Punch and Judy man. It’s impossible to dislike Simms; he’s an incredibly upbeat, optimistic, and downright fun character. When the trio first compare notes together in a restaurant, he offers Georgina a cigar, and, much to Adam’s horror, she accepts.

Our son really liked this one as well, until we reached the scene where the villains have the upper hand and have our heroes captive in the wax museum’s torture chamber. He was so enraged by the bad guys that he broke out his trusty finger pistols and started shooting at the screen again.

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 4 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

The Avengers 7.17 – Take Me to Your Leader

I’ve never much enjoyed Terry Nation’s “Take Me to Your Leader,” possibly because all the wit is crammed into two minutes in the middle of the story. Well, while it isn’t a favorite, it’s not too bad, and Robert Fuest got to work his magic all over London with a larger-than-usual amount of filming on city streets, but it does feel like it needs a break from the narrative, which is our heroes swiping an attache case in a chain from one endless courier after another in one long night. Well, there is a break of sorts, with Mother discussing the situation with a character who wouldn’t have been more obvious as the Secret Master Villain if he had been wearing a T-shirt.

But while our son really enjoyed the constant stream of new characters, several fights, and a specially-trained courier dog, by far the best part of the story is in the middle. It turns out that a dance teacher played by Penelope Keith is actually the minder for a conniving little courier who’s more than susceptible to taking bribes, because a little girl has her future to consider, and a £25 investment would buy an awful lot of lollipops.

She’s a great kid. She probably works out her nefarious schemes on the playground with Wednesday Addams.