Friday, 6 March 2015

In affectionate memory of Jim Henson's 'The Storyteller'.


....Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds' eggs and human hearts and dreams, are also fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks. Or they are words on the air, composed of sounds and ideas - abstract, invisible, gone once they've been spoken - and what could be more frail than that? But some stories, small, simple ones about setting out on adventures or people doing wonders, tales of miracles and monsters, have outlasted all the people who told them, and some of them have outlasted the lands in which they were created.
~ Neil Gaiman 

...And when you no longer listen, it lies silently in your brain, waiting. Stories are very patient things. They drift about quietly in your soul. ...They are always successful in their occupation of your spirit. And stories always have mischief in their blood.
~ Ben Okri

When people told themselves their past with stories... 
explained their present with stories.... 
foretold the future with stories.... 
The best place by the fire was kept for... the storyteller.
(From The Storyteller's opening credits)

Looking back at my childhood, its clear to me now, as an illustrator and writer, how much influence Jim Henson's work (The Muppets, Labyrinth, Dark Crystal – but most significantly, The Storyteller) had on me, and how deeply it fuelled me as a great lover of folk tales, mythologies - and stories - later in life. 


If memory serves, I think it was my Uncle Mark who first introduced me to The Storyteller series. 
This seems wonderfully apt, as Mark is a distinctive character and a storyteller-of-sorts in his own right. He is a most memorable figure - with long grey hair, a magus-style sweeping beard, a drover's coat and cowboy hat. And a head and heart full of  literature and poetry and art (he taught English for many years, and still continues to teach, even in retirement.) 
His small flat is crammed, floor to ceiling, with books. He helped to introduced me to Keats, Bronte, Plath, Hughes, Rilke (and countless more) as well as poetry, graphic novels, mythology and folklore. 

One storyteller passes on the mantle and tales of another. 


There is always the joy of rediscovering old ways of telling stories, of stumbling upon paths and roads not fully travelled along, of extending old lodes, old pleasures, of continuing old dreams.
...There is the joy of creating glinting images, submarine lights, wonderful philosophies, and narratives which are melodies, melodies which are moods, moods which will become tracts of childhood and forgotten lovely moments.
~Ben Okri

I was fascinated by the series from the very beginning. 

John Hurt's eponymous Storyteller was to be found waiting for us at the opening of each episode, ensconced comfortably in his dog-eared chair by a great fire. His faithful shaggy dog companion (by turns eager, cynical, gruff - and yet always endearing) at his feet, basking in the welcoming glow of the flames.
Hurt's gnarly-faced, gravelly-voiced, gnome-like weaver of fables - with his faded patchwork overcoat and sharp twinkly eyes and bright white teeth - was the perfect narrator and spinner of magical, mesmerising tales. 
And what tales they were. Monsters and castles, scarlet devils and great white lions, trolls and giants and bold heroines and heroes... 

In the hands of a less-skilled actor, the portrayal could so easily have been tedious or absurd - but John Hurt made the role magnetic and fascinating. 
You were beckoned in - not only by the warm earthy tones of fire and stone, but by this intriguing figure in his mottled, raggedy, sweeping patchwork coat - and by the promise of fantastical wonders. His Storyteller felt like a familiar old friend - comfortable and welcoming and warm-hearted. He leapt head-first, without hesitation, into the stories - with the consummate ease of a well-honed and devoted performer - proud of his skills and of his unconventional profession:

I am a teller of stories....a weaver of dreams... I can dance, sing - and in the right weather I can stand on my head. I know seven words of Latin. I have a little magic. (And a trick or two.) I know the proper way to meet a dragon. I can fight dirty, but not fair. I once swallowed thirty oysters in a minute.
I am not domestic - I am a luxury. And in that sense - necessary.

John Hurt brought to his teller a dignity and a depth, an earnest and genuine passion for the stories he spun. He reflected both the wisdom and worldliness that comes with maturity, but also a sparked with a mischievousness, a shrewd, impish energy and a vitality from the outset.

I return to it again and again over the years – not only in the original episode form, but also  in the delightfully transcribed and illustrated book, and with the graphic novel, (which expands the worlds and the stories). I return partly as it's an excellently-produced and delightful distraction – the writing, acting, sets, costume design and puppetry are superb, and obviously created with great dedication and love. 
But mainly I return to listen to stories. 
To explore the morals and life-lessons intertwined in the seemingly-simple tales. To wonder and gasp, to smile for the victories, root for the heroines, boo the villains, marvel at the monsters. To participate in a centuries-old act – of sitting down and suspending disbelief, and listening to a finely-told tale.


Hurt, wearing elfin-like prosthetics, lent the show an alternating aura of mischievousness and dark gravitas. The two swirled together, and you were never sure which one you were going to get. 
~ Neil McNally

... John Hurt, dressed in tattered clothes of fabric and Sweet Mab knows what else, has but a bit of make-up for his role, an odd sort of bulbous looking nose. Well, there were the bat-like ears...Was he human, or some odd fey creature? Our imaginations were the only answer to that question as little is said of him.
~ Cat Eldridge

Rediscovering the episodes now, I find myself observing how John Hurt's make-up changes subtly from episode-to-episode. 
I suspect this was due to a refining of the make-up style and prosthetics process as the series progressed - but whatever the reason for it, the transformation is a pleasure to watch. 
It seems that (intentionally or not) the Storyteller grows younger as the stories progress. White wispy hair turning to grey, his features becoming more angular-yet-elfin, the brown hazel eyes brighter and ever-more astute, the skin more weather-beaten and tanned, the teeth whiter and the smile sharper.  (His humour and worldly-yet-mischievous air remains consistent throughout, however. Nothing escapes this quick-witted character, with his endless store of stories and rhymes and snatches of languages and strange trivia.)
Perhaps the Storyteller is invigorated and revived by the telling. Perhaps his audience - who listen and imagine and create along with him - help him stay illuminated and alive. 
We are all sustained by stories.

 

..The storyteller's art changed through the ages. ...they became repositories of the people's wisdom and follies. They became the living memory of a people. ...Most important of all, they were the living libraries, the keepers of legends and lore. ...They knew of follies and restitutions, were advocates of new and old ways of being, were custodians of culture, recorders of change. They kept the oldest and truest dreams and visions of their people alive.
~ Ben Okri

I caught a most marvellous theatre production of Doctor Faustus a few years ago, in which actor Stephen Hudson doubled as both Wagner (Faustus' assistant) and Chorus - so that the servant also became the Narrator. Although the production was carefully costumed in authentic period Elizabethan dress, whenever on stage and addressing the audience, Hudson's Chorus wore a contemporary battered green anorak/overcoat over the top of his tailored jacket and hose. 
This was never specifically referred to or explained - but after the performance ended, I scribbled fascinated notes to myself, observing that using the coat: 

...propelled him straight into 'our' world, made Wagner seem perhaps a world-weary phantom, as if he were compelled to wander our modern streets, banished throughout time, like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, with a makeshift overcoat to cover his period garb....Saddened and matured, here to relate the tale of his masters' demise.... cursed with bearing the knowledge of his fall from grace, of having to watch it play out again and again and again....
He seemed to have walked directly out of a verse of James' 'Of Monsters and Heroes and Men':

Under the power lines which crackle and sparkle
Under the freeway, now, mostly rubble
The hungry still gather to fill up with stories
Of monsters and heroes and men
~ Lawrence Gott, Tim Booth and James Glennie

-The man who comes each night to stand beneath the crumbling freeway (or in darkened theatres) to narrate his tale to the homeless, to the lost and curious, and to those who have fallen between the cracks and been forgotten.

I like the thought of Hurt and Henson's Storyteller retaining a similar gift for immortality - or at the very least, long, long life - although without the weight and burden left on poor Wagner's shoulders. Silverquick and astute as he would be, perhaps subtly adapting his appearance to fit each period of time. An old, worn face, with young, sharp eyes. Travelling from place to place, seeking out a comfortable chair, a warm hearth, and a curious audience.

And not dissimilar to The Box of Delights' old travelling performer Cole Hawlins, who has wandered for countless centuries with his pack and his box full of exquisite wonders (‘I do date from pagan times and age makes joints to creak.’)
Who has grown his plentiful beard, and performed for many decades with his troupe of brightly-clad Punch and Judy marionettes. And always with his Barney Dog by his side.

Storytellers ought not to be too tame. They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society. They are best in disguise. If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys.
~ Ben Okri

If our storyteller were here amongst us today, who would he be? Would there still be a place for him to settle into our much-changed society? I like to think he would. That we have not lost the ability to seek out and sit with a narrator.

He would be changed somewhat, I think. Surely the long trailing coat of patches and textures – as glorious as it is – would have been lost. Perhaps it would be replaced by a comfortable suit of rumpled tweeds. A tartan dressing down and a fine moustache. Or a dusty bowler hat. Maybe a crooked bow-tie. Wire-rimmed glasses for the hours when the light thins and dusk draws in, (to save squinting over the tops of the books, to better observe the expectant faces of his audience). 

(Photograph of John Hurt by Julian Winslow. Used here with kind permission of the artist.
Originally found at the Minghella Film Festival Flickr stream.)

Perhaps today you'd find our Storyteller not a wandering narrator, but a writer, a professor, an artist, a subversive lecturer, maybe... an actor - a Player…. or a librarian - keeper of dusty tomes and rememberer of old tales.... 
Or some delightful union of all of the above. 
Conventional enough not to draw unwanted attention, but still unapologetically different, still an outsider. Compelling and wise and hypnotic. Old-yet-young, mischievous and unpredictable, yet kind and warm and trustworthy. Telling stories to illuminate the darkness.

... I think that now we need those fictional old bards and fearless storytellers, those seers. We need their magic, their courage, their love, and their fire, more than ever before. It is precisely in a fractured, broken age that we need mystery and a re-awoken sense of wonder.
~ Ben Okri


I think perhaps I return to The Storyteller so often not just out of pure escapism, but also because the entire concept resonates for me on a deeper level. It allows me to engage with a story.
Even the most deceptively simple tales can contain powerful messages about love, life and morals. They can make us reconsider, become curious, and open our minds. Stories require us to use our imaginations to not only suspend disbelief - but also to conceive of and consider people, lands and experiences outside of own. They make the universe huge and limitless - but also give us the means in which to explore it.

As Neil Gaiman so wisely observes, reading (and stories) allow us not only to escape, but to learn, empathise, and to dream of newer and better worlds:

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Stories require us to consciously make an effort. They force us to put aside the distractions of texts, Twitter or Facebook, of a swiftly-flowing media stream of news and images and ideas. They make us stop and listen and think. In our modern, crazily-fast-paced, often frenetic world, it's easy to dismiss the huge importance of going slow. Of immersing yourself in a narrative that lasts longer than a few minutes. That requires you to entirely engage and concentrate.
  
Caitlin Moran once very eloquently wrote that reading (and, I think, listening to stories):

...is not a passive act... A reader is something far more noble, dangerous and exhilarating - a co-artist.
Your mind is the projection screen every writer steals; it is the firing of your neutrons that makes every book come alive. You are the electricity that turns it on. A book cannot live until the touch of your hand on the first page brings it alive. A writer is essentially typing blank pages – shouting out spells in the dark – until the words are read by you, and the magic explodes into your head and no one else’s. ... And so to read is, in truth, to be in the constant act of creation.

There's something old - something ancient -  and universal about sitting down and listening to a wise, charismatic elder tell us a story. 
It's encouraging to know that we still seek them out. 
And that some things remain unchanged throughout the history of human experience. 

As children, we live in a world of imagination, of fantasy, and for some of us that world of make-believe continues into adulthood. Certainly I've lived my whole life through my imagination. But the world of imagination is there for all of us - a sense of play, or pretending, of wonder. It's there with us as we live.
As I've grown older, I've been attracted to fairy tales and folk tales, and the rich quality of these stories - grown richer as they have gone through generations and generations of telling and retelling. They're important - for the flow of information, and energy, and entertainment from the storyteller to his listeners as the storyteller calls upon them to meet him halfway, to create the story in their own minds.
It is our responsibility to keep telling these tales to tell them in a way that they teach and entertain and give meaning to our lives. This is not merely an obligation, it's something we must do because we love doing it.
- Jim Henson

Post script: 
While writing this, I learned that my lovely friend Michael had suddenly died. 

Mike was a beautifully eccentric, gentle, whimsical wonder of a man - an artist, craftsman, musician, poet and photographer. He was also a great observer of life and the absurd, and of the enormous beauty of the world. And, particularly in the last years of his life, a very prolific writer. He found wonder and humour in tiny things and unusual connections, and wrote with a precision and rare insight that reflected this. 
He spun strange and lovely worlds and characters into existence.

He was a true - and most unique - storyteller in his own right.

(Photograph of Michael Titus from his Flickr stream)

I will miss him for the rest of my days. 
Mike: thank you for all the stories, all the wonder, all the joy.

Tell me a story, Pew.
What kind of story, child?
A story with a happy ending.
There’s no such thing in all the world.
As a happy ending?
As an ending.
~ Jeanette Winterson