On Saturday evening in this land, a dancing dog won a television show in front of an audience of millions, ironically declaring that this fair island has ‘talent’. It captivated a nation, half in awe of the sheer entertainment of it, the other half in look-through-the-fingers-at-what-a-fucking-car-crash-disaster-that-this-flagship-show-stands-for in our society: fame above talent, instant gratification, public acceptance through premium texting while a Dominos Pizza is delivered. You don’t even have to leave the house. Perhaps “Eton’s Favourite Wanksock”, otherwise known as the Prime Minster, can persuade the House of Commons to introduce this technology to overcome voter-apathy? Or he could just stop being such an utter fuckwomble, determined to upset everybody in the developed World? Or we could just get Simon Cowell, the high-trousered Darth Vader of ITV to become Prime-Time Minister, and have done with the whole charade? Eh? Oh.
But, unsurprisingly, I digress. As my children grow, they want to stay up later and breach the 7pm watershed, that sacred moment that almost all parents – come on, admit it – countdown to, as their bedtime approaches, to be successfully celebrated by checking the time for wine o’clock. But, growing up, I was unaware that my parents were going through this ritual. My brother and I loved it when, as a family, we sat down altogether, and genuinely enjoyed the same programs. I don’t mean sitting through or enduring a screening of a Disney film at Christmas, I mean that Simpson’s-esque rush for a seat on the sofa, as it was the highlight of the televisual week.
The man responsible for uniting our family in this ritual more than any other through his genuine talent, died on May 16, 1990, and I was reminded of this as the anniversary of his passing was just yesterday. Jim Henson’s wonderful Muppet Show was the first time I was aware that kids and adults could get the same level of enjoyment out of the same program. It worked for kids, as it had bright colours, puppets, bangs, songs, and a cartoon mayhem brought to life with boggly eyes. The Muppets were cuddly, almost real, unlike they’re animated counterparts.
Their projection of chaotic joy was not confined to the screen, either. The second cassette our father bought for my brother and I, after Reggatta De Blanc by the Police, was The Muppet Show Cast Album – a collection of songs that was deemed essential after we had seen this absolute masterpiece of jazz humour, and laughed for what felt like hours:
Song after song made the seemingly life-long journeys to Doncaster not just bearable, but fun. Even the actual cassette itself was a frog-like green. And, recently, having shared these tunes with our children, their introduction to the Muppets began, and I can vouch for the enduring humour and sheer brilliance behind Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzy, Gonzo, Scooter and the gang.
Re-introducing the Muppets to the big screen this year was one comeback I feared would disappoint. Could they recapture the innocence that appealed to children, whilst attracting the parents that grew up with them first time round? Listening to those old songs again, it was apparent at how talented the writing and acting was 30 years ago, to be able to tread that imperceptible line between adult humour while remaining completely captivating to kids all over the World.
I’ve ranted about poor kids films here before, the ones that get the balance completely wrong, try too hard by thinking that casting a famous voice is enough, and a few well-placed nods to branding gives them a high-ground to sneer from. They fail. The Muppets film did not. It is brilliant: silly, song-filled, well-paced with an actual plot that re-introduces the characters in order to resonate with the youngsters. It also manages to maintain the air of coolness that the original show had, by obtaining the cameos of the famous of music and screen – Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, resplendent in wig and chain round his neck an early highlight, and can be added to the endless list of icons that were desperate to appear on the original show.
But Henson’s talent was not just at uniting families. With his Children’s Television Workshop, he also shaped Saturday mornings and education with the eternally youthful Sesame Street. The Bafta-award winning Horrible Histories is blazing a trail in a similar way, by being Blackadder for kids, whilst retaining an inherent reality that will last for years.
Another set of characters, including Grover, The Count, Big Bird, Bert and Ernie and loads more, the show was responsible for me and millions of others by counting to twelve in a funky way – accompanied by The Pointer Sisters from 1976. Another jaw-dropping moment that resulted in Weetabix falling from this writer’s mouth was when Stevie Wonder killing Superstition live:
His enduring influence doesn’t end there. It was Henson that recommended that his close friend Frank Oz acted as puppeteer and voice for Yoda in the era-defining Star Wars films. Explaining that Yoda and Fozzy Bear are from the same creative genius to the next generation, leads one to believe that genuine talent will endure for a lifetime. Not until this government falls, or after the adverts, or before the pizza gets cold. And we should champion and celebrate it whenever we can. Thanks, Jim.
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