In 1977, when I was 12 years old, I won a Silver Jubilee commemorative crown in a painting competition staged by a garage in Northampton.
The theme was the 25th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne, and to mark this flag-waving occasion, I painted the cast of The Muppet Show – from memory – holding up a banner wishing Queen Elizabeth II a happy Silver Jubilee.
I was proud of the accuracy with which I had mixed the paint for important features such as Beaker’s orange hair and the pink of Dr Teeth’s top hat. I was, it’s fair to say, obsessed by these quintessentially American, textile-based puppets.
Honorary British success story
The show had been running for a year on ITV by then and had, in our house, become a Sunday-night staple for the whole family. Although essentially foreign in terms of its accents, characters and vaudeville tradition – who, in 70s Northampton, “got” that Statler and Waldorf, the show’s balcony-based critics, were named after two famous New York hotels? – The Muppet Show was an honorary British success story.
Having been being turned down after two pilots by the US network CBS, it was picked up by that legendary, cigar-sucking East End impresario of the old school, Lew Grade, whose Associated TeleVision (ATV) held the licence to broadcast across the ITV network.
Without Lord Grade, there might never have been a Muppet Show, and its American creator Jim Henson might exclusively be known for its pre-school forebear Sesame Street, an educational staple on US public television since 1969 that had introduced his portfolio of wide-mouthed, bug-eyed puppets to the world, and was shown here on various regional ITV outposts.
The Muppet Show, designed by Henson to appeal to all ages, was syndicated back to the US through Grade’s Incorporated Television Company (ITC), and made at ATV’s Elstree Studios. The music was played by ATV musical director Jack Parnell’s orchestra, and the show ended, with a decisive parp of the saxophone from blue-faced musician Zoot, with the three-diamond ITC logo familiar from shows like The Saint and The Prisoner.
The format of the show, which ran to five series and 120 30-minute episodes from 1976 until 1981, was simple: we would see a variety show from the stalls of the Muppet Theatre and glimpse its workings backstage, where Kermit (voiced and operated by Henson and as such his alter-ego), was showrunner, as well as host.
Miss Piggy was the resident diva – and Kermit’s cross-species love interest – Fozzie was the ursine comedian, Gonzo the stuntman, and so on. Segments were spoofs of other shows, notably sci-fi strand Pigs in Space, a nod to Star Trek, and medical drama Veterinarian’s Hospital, probably more appreciated by the grown-ups, although it was far more innocent than, say, shows that work on two levels, such as The Simpsons.
Next to the old-time theatrics, Dr Teeth’s house band, the Electric Mayhem, were pretty rock ’n’ roll (he was based on New Orleans legend Dr John, not that I’d have known this at 12), and contained my own favourite character, the feral, Keith Moon-like drummer, Animal.
You could, of course, see the wires that operated his arms, but he was real to me. The sheer panache and invention of the way the puppets moved and interacted – one or two were human-sized, such as Sweetums, but most existed only from the waist up – were something entirely new. Sooty and Sweep, this was not.
You actually believed in the world Henson and his co-writers, co-“Muppeteers” and co-voice artists created. No wonder it translated so effortlessly to movie spin-offs, specials, the pop charts and even guest slots on human shows, such as when Miss Piggy was famously interviewed by Parkinson, or, more recently, when she duetted with Olly Murs on The X Factor.
Despite the original show’s technical Britishness, we were frequently baffled by the human guest stars, a roll-call that was as obscure to young UK audiences in the 70s as it was illustrious; for every Twiggy, John Cleese or Bruce Forsyth, there was a Ruth Buzzi, an Avery Schreiber or a Leslie Uggams – look them up.
But we accepted these strangers as part of the package, and held out for the next Elton John or Julie Andrews, never really understanding why these foreigners were being allowed into our living rooms.
Measured and often self-parodic human interaction with the animals was key to the rough and tumble of the conceit, and the writing, sharply satirical, cut through any pomposity.
In a 1980 Star Wars special, Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and his two robots crash through the wall of a dressing room. C-3PO exclaims, “Excuse me, Master Luke, but what is this strange world we’ve come to?”
Skywalker replies, “Beats me, Threepio, seems we’ve landed on some sort of common variety-show planet.” Kids’ shows were not arch and knowing in the 1970s. We were many years away from Spitting Image.
I like the story that Jack Parnell, a drummer himself, persuaded Henson to have jazz sticks-man Buddy Rich as a guest, for it gave us the unforgettable drum battle between Rich and Animal in the penultimate show. (You can still see it on YouTube, as are many such gems.)
Jason Segel, the Forgetting Sarah Marshall star whose enthusiasm for the Muppets has precipitated their latest comeback in their first movie outing since 1999’s Muppets from Space, was not yet two when the final Muppet Show aired in 1981.
But through videotapes of the early movies, he was indoctrinated from an early age. Disney bought the copyright to the Muppets in 2004 but had done little with it until Segel barged into their offices and demanded Kermit and co be released back into the world.
The $45 million-budget comeback movie, The Muppets, based around a cast reunion when their theatre is threatened with demolition, was a hit in the US in November, taking $85 million.
Although some veterans of the franchise grumbled (Henson’s lieutenant Frank Oz was not interested in participating), it seems to retain what made the original series so beloved. Crucially, the puppets are still made of cloth and foam and operated by hand and stick; and as Entertainment Weekly says, there is no “winking hipster irony”.
Part of the culture
What started as a culturally alien concept is now so embedded in our daily life that no football match or episode of EastEnders seems to pass without somebody being called a “Muppet”.
Miss Piggy’s diva-like behaviour – karate chopping anyone female who dared steal her limelight – may have started in Hollywood legend, but has now passed to R’n’B luvvies.
The adult Broadway smash Avenue Q, whose puppets have nothing to do with Jim Henson, are clearly indebted to him.
The Muppets have come a long way since their appearance in my Silver Jubilee painting, but remember, there will be a corner of the Muppet Theatre that will be forever England.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 24 January 2012.