Remembering John Hurt as The Storyteller
John Hurt, who sadly died yesterday aged 77, was a beloved actor that made a huge impact to film and television. To many he was Kane in Alien, the tragic captain that fell victim to the franchise's very first chest burster scene. To others he was the Wizard wand maker Ollivander in the Harry Potter films or the voice of the dragon in Merlin. In recent years he cemented his role in Doctor Who lore as the War Doctor. But to me, he was always the Storyteller, a role that held a special place in my childhood memories.
For those who don't remember, John Hurt was the titular role in The Storyteller, a Jim Henson series of nine episodes that ran in 1988 and featured some of the most spectacular and creepy muppets ever seen on screen. Forget The Dark Crystal, it was The Storyteller which delivered the monsters of my childhood, from the mischievous devils in The Soldier And Death to the man with no legs that haunted the castle in Fearnot. And the stories were unlike anything seen on television before or since; these obscure Russian, German and Celtic fairy tales that formed the nine episodes are not something you would expect to see in a Disney movie.
John Hurt was simply captivating as the storyteller, playing off his animated muppet dog (voiced by Jim Henson's son Brian). He's almost unrecognisable under the make up, with his giant ears and nose, but it hinders his performance not one bit. With his ability to draw the audience in, he could make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up with a soft whisper of an enemy, or convey the boundless joy of a happy ending. There are many wonderful performances over the series - and from some well known faces like Sean Bean, Jennifer Saunders and Jonathan Pryce - but no one comes close to Hurt's.
He was the wizened old grandfather, the crazy uncle and the mischievous court jester all in one. And in one memorable episode, A Story Short, he plays the cunning hero, outwitting a villainous cook and a wise old King in exchange for a year's worth of stories. When he is threatened with death or loses his wife and fortune to a bet, the audience is with him all the way - and I speak as an adult now recapturing my youth as I rewatch the show after nearly thirty years and through my children who I have recently introduced the show too.
There was a show rarely as magical as The Storyteller. It would be easy to dismiss it as outdated after all these years but it still looks wonderful, the playful nature of Hurt's storyteller recounting these tales allowing the cheaper moments to look as if they have been animated off the page of a book. The muppets are still fantastic; the aforementioned devils truly are the demonic versions of Kermit the Frog, Hans the Hedgehog, an abomination of human and hedgehog both creepy and lovable, and the trolls of The True Bride amusing and horrible in equal measure.
The Storyteller is one of those rare childhood shows that is absolutely worth revisiting; finally after all these years of being a rare find you can get all nine episodes on DVD for around a fiver. It's on the creepy side for younger children but the stories are rich, the monsters monstrous and performances captivating. And John Hurt is legendary. He will remain the hapless captain in Alien and the War Doctor, but to me, he will always be the storyteller...