Neil McNally – When John Hurt passed away in late January many critics rightfully highlighted his performances in such classics as The Elephant Man, Alien, 1984 and many, many others. However, you would be hard pressed to find a mention of “The Storyteller” among the many glowing obituaries that flooded newspapers and online. That’s not to say that it wasn’t mentioned. But, you may have had to pull out a magnifying glass to find this long-ago, but fondly remembered gem of a program, that proved to be some of the last work of Jim Henson’s career.
While delving into the history of the program is best left to another article, what is worth featuring is John Hurt’s brilliant and subtle performance as the eponymous Storyteller. While everyone has a favorite, The Muppet Mindset has chosen to review “A Story Short.” It’s an episode that features John Hurt himself, in a memorable fable that serves as a bit of an origin story and prequel to the series itself.
In it, The Storyteller weaves a tale that focuses on his early days as a wandering beggar barely able to feed himself. As he stumbles upon a castle kitchen, he convinces the head cook that he can make soup from a stone. All the Storyteller needs are the best ingredients in the cook’s pantry. As succulent treats are tossed into the roaring cauldron, it becomes apparent to the gullible chef that he is being taken for a fool. There is no soup from a stone.
The Storyteller is hauled before the king where the chef begs to have him boiled in oil. The king thinks for a moment, and rather than give into the chef’s blood thirsty request he offers the Storyteller a deal. If he can provide one story per day the king, in turn, will give him one royal crown to fill his pockets. If he can’t fulfill his end of the bargain, the Storyteller will lose much more than a crown as the chef’s cauldron will be waiting for him. Seizing upon the deal, our hero spends the next 364 days weaving wondrous stories for the king and his family. It doesn’t take long for the Storyteller’s life to change for the better as he becomes a respected and well to do member of the king’s court. He even takes on a wife.
However, on the last and final day of his “sentence” a problem arises. The Storyteller is out of stories and if he doesn’t come up with one by the end of that very day…well you know the rest. As he roams the palace in deep contemplation his wife introduces him to a magical beggar who challenges him to a game of dice. As the stakes get higher and higher, he is forced to give up his wife, his 364 gold coins, and his own physical form as the beggar transforms him into a squealing rabbit and finally a microscopic flea.
What happens next? Does he ever regain his human form? Or for that matter, does the Storyteller ever come up with that one last crucial story? Not to give anything away, but the story takes many dark twists and turns before a very satisfying and emotional finale that really ties everything together bringing John Hurt front and center. In this case, my words really don’t do the episode justice and the episode, featuring a script by the late Anthony Minghella, is very much worth checking out either on DVD or You Tube.
In its nine initial episodes, The Storyteller not only broke important new ground in visual effects, but it pulled together many of Britain’s top acting talents in a way that had never quite been done on television before. His performance in not just “A Story Short” but the series itself is commanding, subtle, and mysterious all at the same time. It’s almost as if the role was tailor made for him, but you could say that about a lot of roles he played. Ultimately, the viewer is drawn to the character week after week just as much as Dog is. It is John Hurt’s inherent world weariness that lends the part a gravitas that another actor may not have brought to it.
Ultimately, Jim Henson’s decision to cast John Hurt in the title role really was one of the best creative choices he ever made. It put such a definitive stamp on the show that to this day John Hurt and the program are forever ingrained in fans’ hearts and minds. Without him and the ever-cantankerous Dog, the show wouldn’t have had its heart, soul, and entry way into these brilliant folk tales that aired in the US and Britain between 1987-1989. In these complicated times we live in, it’s good to know that the best place by the fire is still kept for The Storyteller.