Not only did we just see John Hurt’s surprise introduction to Doctor Who over the weekend, but ten days ago, we took our first trip to Atlanta since the pandemic began. There, we visited the Center for Puppetry Arts, which is home to a massive Jim Henson collection. Among many other prizes and treasures, we met the StoryTeller’s dog and looked at the little corner where the strange little misunderstood and largely forgotten failure, The Jim Henson Hour, is spotlighted.
Told y’all I plan these posts out in advance.
If you do a little search for The StoryTeller, you won’t find any sites with deep production information, and you’ll definitely find sites with some factual errors about it. My favorite howler is that The StoryTeller was canceled due to low ratings, which is not even remotely true, but more about that later. The one thing that nobody’s quite nailed down is why this program was made at all. You’ll find several sources talking about how Henson, inspired by a course that his daughter did at college, wanted to produce a deep dig into familiar old tales in their unfamiliar, original context, but that doesn’t explain who greenlit the show and agreed to give our man Henson the money to start making it.
Editing this paragraph with revised information: The first StoryTeller installment was made as a pilot in August, 1986. It aired five months later to great success, and so eight additional episodes were filmed in two blocks: four in August 1987, and four more in March and April 1988. All nine episodes appear to have been in the can three months before they made the initial pilot for The Jim Henson Hour, about which, more at the end of the month.
In America, the first StoryTeller episode, “Hans My Hedgehog,” appeared on Saturday, January 31, 1987, scheduled between new episodes of the hits The Facts of Life and The Golden Girls. It won its timeslot opposite ABC’s comedy Sledge Hammer, which twenty-six people remember, and CBS’s Outlaws, which nobody does. It was the only StoryTeller episode to find a large audience in the US, and it won many awards, including an Emmy later that year for Outstanding Children’s Program.
We thought this was a really entertaining start to the series. “Hans My Hedgehog” features small roles for a few pretty familiar faces from the period, including Abigail Cruttenden as a princess who finds herself promised to become the bride of a strange beast man. The script by Anthony Minghella is downright beautiful. I loved his use of words to evoke music that we can’t quite hear, and it ends with a wonderful moment where our StoryTeller, who becomes part of his narrative when he reveals himself to be an occasional favorite of the royal family, shows the audience a memento that the princess had gifted him.
The video quality of this DVD from 2003 is about what I was expecting, about on par with the Twilight Zones from around the same time, quite faded and smudgy and in need of expensive remastering. The series was made on film but then transferred to video for all of the editing and the really interesting effects. It’s like a neat glimpse at an avenue that the evolution of special effects considered but then decided against, with curious composite shots in a sparse studio in front of overlaid computer visuals, and silhouette animation superimposed over static background shots. The music video for Paul McCartney’s “Pretty Little Head” was also made in 1986 and has a similar look to this. (See comments.)
Happily, our son really enjoyed this. We gave him a crash course in how these old tales were saved from being forgotten, and how some of the stories that we might encounter in these nine episodes might seem a little familiar, but not quite comfortable enough for the series to revel in fracturing. I confess that the tale of this hedgehog and all the promises around him only tickled a very distant little gray cell in my own memory, but it’s not the sort of thing I’m likely to forget now.