Elgiva Box Office 01494 582 900

Elgiva Box Office 01494 582 900

It’s not easy being mean

Bah! Humbug! Sarah Helm's monthly film blog looks at The Muppets and the ever-popular Muppet Christmas Carol.

It’s time to tweak the Spotify holiday playlist!

It’s time to hang the energy efficient fairy lights!

Yes folks, the most wonderful time of the year is upon us, yet again (1, 2, 3 – everybody… “hasn’t it gone quickly?”), and soon The Elgiva will be flinging open its doors once more, welcoming in her audiences for a festive programme of seasonal merriment and cheer.

Nestled in between the family fun of The Elgiva’s panto, Sleeping Beauty, and December’s compulsory cinematic stalwart It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) – screened on 22nd December – comes everyone’s favourite puppet filled Victorian-style epic:

‘You there, boy! What day is it today?’

‘Why, Sir, it’s December 12th’.

‘December 12th, you say? Is The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) on at The Elgiva?’

‘Yes sir, at 4.30pm! And as soon as I finish at the after-school club, I’ll go and watch it’.

That’s Dickens for you, a little too on the nose sometimes, but a biting satirist nonetheless…

‘Twas the week before Christmas…

Once upon a December, as a surly teen who had watched The Breakfast Club (1985), a few too many times (or even just the once, if my parents’ recollection is anything to go by), I traipsed with my equally moody mates throughout the echoey decked halls of the Galleria shopping centre in glistening Hatfield. We were hoping to see the latest offering from the Henson band of enthusiastic but ramshackle vaudevillians, and in those pre-internet days, it was a case of either ACTUALLY QUEUING for a ticket IN PERSON or navigating yourself around a premium rate labyrinth with your parent’s credit card, hoping your voice was clear enough to select the correct options for your viewing pleasure. Suffice to say, Mr Visa and MasterCard were out of bounds that day, and by the time we’d reached the front of the line, the Muppets were entirely sold out, mainly due to all the adults in the vicinity wishing to relive their youth. So Ally, Judd, Molly, Emilio and Anthony just had to settle for Death Becomes Her (1992), the black comedy directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring the French Lieutenant’s Woman, Private Benjamin and John McClane (– it was Christmas, after all, but with a distinct lack of dirty white vests).

(I for one would pay a decent amount of chocolate coins to see a Muppet/Bugsy Malone style reboot, complete with splurge guns, set at the Nakatomi Plaza. Incidentally, there’s a stage show of the aforementioned children’s gangster classic currently being advertised in London’s West End – the posters are helpfully announcing that it’s a musical… Having said that, audiences did walk out, en masse at the Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter version of Sweeny Todd (2007), when their chirpy warblings started up, but then Sondheim (and latterly Depp) is an acquired taste.)

(Please also note that the Anthony mentioned in the above list, is Anthony Michael Hall. That’s the second mention of him in as many issues. If his name comes up again next month, esteemed CFS chairman Paul Vates will no doubt ask me for a retrospective, on which I will have to respectfully decline, albeit turning down the easiest pitch for a 150-word piece that I’ve had in recent times.)

Anyhooo… (No, it looks no better when it’s written down, does it?) It would appear that those auditorium monopolising adults in East Herts were very astute at identifying future festive classics, as The Muppet Christmas Carol is now 30 years old (see? Every day’s a maths day!) – and it has aged as well as Meryl Streep, after she drank the serum (so many call backs! Fozzie Bear would be proud!)

It’s time to get things started…

The Muppets (a marionette and puppet portmanteau) began life on American television as Sam and Friends, from 1955 to 1961. These were five minute sketches and songs, featuring a human called Sam, and a collection of puppets to guide him haphazardly through life, including an early version of Kermit (who was not officially a frog at this point). The Muppets’ creator, Jim Henson, played Sam and voiced many of the other cast members. Other humans who worked on the series included puppeteers Jane Nebel (future wife of Jim and mother of Brian) and Bob Payne, and writer Jerry Juhl, all of whom were beginning their long and established careers with the furry ensemble.

The Muppets gained wider popularity through talk show appearances and in 1969, the much beloved Sesame Street started, produced by the Children’s Television Workshop, in conjunction with The Jim Henson Company. (“Pub quiz, Hot Shot” – did you know it was the Pointer Sisters who sang The Pinball Number Count? Look it up on YouTube if you’d like a happy little earworm… 1,2,3,4,5…)

The first incarnation of The Muppet Show ran from 1976 to 1981 and won four Primetime Emmy and received a further 21 nominations. A string of subsequent projects followed, including cartoons, spin-off shows and even the very entertaining Muppet Vision 3D, a 4D movie at the Disney theme park. In 2004, Disney acquired the rights to the Muppets, ensuring that the legacy of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzie and company would remain prominent in modern popular culture for many years to come.

The first outing on the big screen for the company was The Muppet Movie (1979), followed by The Great Muppet Caper (1981), both directed by Henson, and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), this time helmed by Frank Oz (the voice of Miss Piggy and Yoda – now that’s a CV!).

Following Jim Henson’s death in 1990, his son Brian was approached to direct his first feature and the Muppets’ maiden venture into adapting a classic text.

And so it came to pass that, with over a year in the making, and featuring a cast of more than 280 puppets, The Muppet Christmas Carol was born at Shepperton Studios, in dear old Blighty.

It was the best of times…

The Muppet Christmas Carol tells the well-trodden narrative of Charles Dickens’ novella, focusing on the author’s preferred tropes of redemption, forgiveness, and society’s ill-treatment of the poor.

Mindful not to lose the nuance of the original text, writer Jerry Juhl added the character of Charles Dickens to narrate the film, played by The Great Gonzo, with help from Rizzo the Rat as the Greek chorus. Brian Henson recommended Gonzo for the role as he was the least likely choice for Charles Dickens, and so it would stretch his repertoire.

Incidentally, the roles of the three spirits who visit Scrooge on Christmas Eve were originally assigned to Scooter, Miss Piggy and Gonzo, as Past, Present and Future respectively. In the end, it was felt that new characters playing the roles would make the telling more ominous. Miss Piggy was recast as Emily Cratchit, the loving and feisty wife of Kermit’s Bob, and mother of Tiny Tim (played by Kermit’s nephew Robin, if that’s not too confusing), and Scooter was cut completely. (I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, don’t annoy the casting director…)

Talking animals aside, the actual script remains very faithful to the original, with many lines repeated verbatim. This respect and attention has helped to cement the film’s legacy as a Christmas classic, and it is considered by many as the best adaptation of the story.

There goes Mr Humbug

Several names were considered for the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, including David Hemmings, Ron Moody, David Warner and American comedian George Carlin, who is probably best known as Rufus in the excellent Bill and Ted movies.

Brian Henson recounted to The Guardian in 2015, that, upon offering the part to Sir Michael Caine, the screen legend promised: “I’m going to play this movie like I’m working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I will never wink, I will never do anything Muppety. I am going to play Scrooge as if it is an utterly dramatic role and there are no puppets around me.”

Unlike his mean and cranky nemesis, Caine agreed to the role of Scrooge so that his young daughter could watch him on screen.

Interviewed by GQ in 2016, he recalled: ‘I had never made a movie that a 7-year old can see. And so a man mentioned the Muppets and I said “That’s it! I’ll do that!”…And it was absolutely perfect for what I wanted. I could make it, and my daughter could see it. That’s why I did it. And it was lovely.’

Here’s hoping that he got more than a mug and socks as a thank you for his efforts…

(Fun Fact! Michael Caine had previously starred in the crime comedy, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), which was directed by Frank Oz, who voiced Miss Piggy. Just goes to show, it’s a small world after all – oh wait, that’s a different Disney property…)

It’s in the singing of a street corner choir…

Miles Goodman composed the film’s original score, and the songs were written by Paul Williams, who had previously gained an Oscar nomination for Rainbow Connection, which he co-wrote with Kenneth Ascher for The Muppet Movie.

The soundtrack included two songs not used in the film, Room In Your Heart, and Chairman Of The Board. A third song, When Love Is Gone, was cut from the original release as studio executives felt it was not cheerful enough to appeal to audiences. It did, however, appear on various formats when the film was issued for home viewing, including the UK VHS, and has gained something of a cult status. The video master and film negative of the song were then reported lost, and then found again, so whether or not audiences will get to see it is something of a gamble. But if you can track it down (see what I did there?), it’s worth a listen. (It had better be after all that!)

So, there you have it. A much beloved tale, performed by a group of glorious characters, who championed both body positivity and diversity long before those terms were in the public psyche.

So, don’t be the biggest turkey in the window! Come and celebrate The Muppet Christmas Carol’s 30th anniversary, and maybe even spot a nod to the cast and crew, written on the shop fronts in the film, including Micklewhite’s. (Oh, look it up, for goodness sake! Do I have to do everything for you? Humbug!)

Enjoy the festive season, however you wish to spend it. Stay safe, stay warm and we’ll see you at the movies!

Sarah

Information about the Chiltern Film Society can be found HERE