The Storyteller

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The Storyteller
Genre Children's film
Created by Jim Henson
Developed by Anthony Minghella
Starring John Hurt as the Storyteller (Michael Gambon in "Greek Myths")
Brian Henson as the Storyteller's Dog
Theme music composer Rachel Portman
Country of origin UK
Original language(s) English
No. of series 1
No. of episodes 9
Producer(s) Duncan Kenworthy
Location(s) Elstree Studios
Running time 22 minutes
Production company(s) Henson Associates
TVS Television
Original channel HBO (US)
VARA (Netherlands)
Picture format PAL
Audio format Stereophonic sound
Original airing May 15 - July 10, 1988
March 30

The StoryTeller is a live-action/puppet television series. It was an American/British co-production which originally aired in 1988 and was created and produced by Jim Henson.[1]

Reruns of The StoryTeller episodes were featured in some episodes of The Jim Henson Hour.


The series retold various European folk tales, particularly ones considered obscure in Western culture, created with a combination of actors and puppets. The framing device had an old storyteller (John Hurt) sitting by a fire telling each tale to both the viewers and to his talking dog (a realistic looking puppet performed and voiced by Brian Henson) who acted as the voice of the viewers, and was written in a language and traditional style in keeping with old Indo-European based folk tales (for instance the number 3 appears as significant in every episode).[2]

Episode guide[edit]

Season 1[edit]

The episodes The Heartless Giant, The Soldier and Death, The True Bride and Sapsorrow first aired (in that order) in the United States as part of The Jim Henson Hour. "The Three Ravens" aired as part of the Hour's twelfth episode, "Food", which was shown in the UK in 1990 and not shown in the US.

The Soldier and Death[edit]

Taken from an early Russian folk tale retold in English by Arthur Michell Ransome and is also inspired by Godfather Death. A soldier returns home after 20 years of war, with three biscuits in his knapsack. On his way he meets three beggars to whom he gives the biscuits; in return one gives him a beautiful whistle, one the jolliest dance, and the final man, who gets the last biscuit despite the soldier being hungry himself, in return gives him a pack of magic playing cards and a musty sack that has the power to trap anything ordered into it. Using the sack, the soldier manages to trap a flock of geese, and so manages to feed himself. Upon arriving at an abandoned castle overrun with small devils, he plays them in a game of cards, winning 40 barrels of gold, and when they try to kill him, he captures them in the sack only letting them go when they promise to never return. He makes one of them swear to serve him and keeps its foot as leverage. Quickly becoming rich and famous because he removed the devils from the Tsar's palace, his luck runs short when his son becomes deathly ill. Calling upon the devil, the soldier is given a glass goblet that allows the owner to see Death. If Death is at the foot of the person's bed (as was the case with his son), he or she will recover if sprinkled with water from the goblet. If Death is at the head of the bed, nothing can be done. Then the Tsar becomes ill and the soldier, seeing Death at the head of his bed, makes a bargain with Death: his life in exchange for the Tsar's. Death takes his offer and gives the illness to the soldier, curing the Tsar. Lying in his death bed, he summons Death into his sack, and stops death from happening everywhere. But as time goes on, he sees people everywhere who are waiting for death that will not come. So he frees Death, who fears the soldier and his sack so much that he refuses to take the soldier's life. The soldier, old and weary of life, seeks out a way to die. He travels down to the underworld, forcing the devils at the gates (the same ones from before) to give him two hundred souls and a map to heaven. Terrified of the sack, the devils agree to his demands. Upon reaching the gates of heaven, he asks to be let in with the souls while begging for forgiveness from God, but he is denied by the gatekeeper. He gives the sack to one of the souls, asking the soul to summon him into the sack when he has passed through the gates. But since there is no memory in heaven, the soul forgets and the soldier is condemned to live forever upon the Earth. In closing, the storyteller remarks (with a smile) that the soldier is still probably about his business. As the Storyteller tosses the bag aside, a devil emerges from the bag unnoticed by the Storyteller or the dog.

The episode stars Bob Peck as the Soldier and Alistair Fullarton performs Death. The Devils are performed by David Barclay, Michael Bayliss, Marcus Clarke, Richard Coombs, John Eccleston, Geoff Foxx, Brian Henson, Mike Quinn, and Francis Wright while Tony Jackson, Peter Hawkins, and Peter Manrinker voice the Devils. This episode was directed by Jim Henson.


From an early German folk tale. The Storyteller recounts the adventures of a boy who goes out into the world to learn what fear is, accompanied by a dishonest but loveable tinker. He faces many dangers without learning to be afraid, only to learn that fear is at home: the fear of losing his sweetheart.

Reece Dinsdale is Fearnot, Gabrielle Anwar appears as his sweetheart, Willie Ross is the Tinker, and Michael Kilgarriff voice-acted the Pond Sprite.

The episode was directed by Steve Barron.

The Luck Child[edit]

From an early Russian folk tale, with elements from Grimm's The Devil With the Three Golden Hairs and The Griffin. An evil king sets out to kill a 'luck child', the seventh son of a seventh son, whom it is prophesied will one day be king. Despite the king's repeated efforts, luck each time saves the boy, who ultimately exiles the king. The King ends up in a cursed life as a ferryman when he grabs the cursed ferryman's oar freeing the previous ferryman. The boy then marries his daughter and inherits his kingdom.

Steven Mackintosh is the Luck Child, Cathryn Bradshaw is the princess, Anthony O'Donnell is the Little Man, Robert Eddison is the cursed ferryman, and George Little as the voice of the Griffin (which is operated by Alistair Fullarton and Brian Henson).

The episode was directed by Jon Amiel.

A Story Short[edit]

From an early Celtic folk tale. In an adaptation of the stone soup fable, the Storyteller tells of a harsh time when he was forced to walk the land as a beggar. Finding himself in sight of the castle kitchen, he picks up a stone and fools the castle cook into helping him make soup from a stone, by adding it into a cauldron of water and slowly adding other ingredients to improve the flavour. When the cook realizes he has been swindled, he asks that the Storyteller be boiled alive. As a compromise, the King promises to give the Storyteller a gold crown for each story he tells for each day of the year - and to boil him if he fails. The Storyteller does well at first, but on the final day he awakens and can think of no story. In a panic he roams the castle grounds, running into a magical beggar who turns him into a flea. At the end of the day when the king calls for his story, the Storyteller confesses he has no story, and instead tells the king the true tale of his adventures under the magic of the beggar that day.

This is the only episode where the Storyteller himself plays a major part in the story he tells. His wife is played by Brenda Blethyn, Bryan Pringle is the cook, the king is Richard Vernon, and the beggar is John Kavanagh.

This episode was directed by Charles Sturridge.

Hans My Hedgehog[edit]

From an early German folk tale. A farmer's wife drives her husband mad with her desperate measures to have a baby. She says to him that she wants a child so badly, she would not care how he looked even if he were covered in quills like a hedgehog. That, of course, is what she gets: a baby covered in quills, as soft as feathers. His mother calls him 'Hans My Hedgehog' and she is the only one to love him; his father grows to hate him for shame. So eventually Hans leaves for a place where he cannot hurt anyone and where no-one can hurt him. Deep inside the forest, for many years Hans dwells with his animals for companions. One day a king gets lost in Hans' forest and hears a beautiful song being played on a bagpipe. He follows the music and finds Hans' castle. When Hans helps him to escape the forest, the king promises that he will give to Hans the first thing to greet him at his castle - which the king secretly expects will be his dog. Instead, it turns out to be his beautiful daughter, the princess of sweetness and cherry pie. Hans and the king have made a deal that in exactly one year and one day his prize (the princess) shall be his. A year and one day later Hans returns to the castle. The princess says she knows what she must do. Hans asks her if she finds him ugly and she replies that he is not nearly as ugly as a broken promise. They are married, to the dismay of the entire kingdom. On their wedding night, the princess awaits her husband in bed. He comes into the chamber with his bagpipes and takes a seat by the fire and begins to play the same beautiful music that saved the king a year prior. The princess is soothed by the music and dozes off. She wakes and finds a pelt of quills as soft as feathers on the ground before the fire. She sees her husband in the form of a handsome young man freeing the animals of the castle, to live with his friends in his forest castle. He knows she has seen him when he finds her slumbering on the discarded quills the following night. He tells her that he is bewitched and only if she can keep his secret for one more night can he be freed and remain in the form of the handsome man. She agrees. The next morning at breakfast the queen inquires why her daughter is so cheerful. The princess tries to resist but as her mother pries she gives in and tells her that Hans is bewitched. The Queen says that the only way to reverse the spell is to fling the quills in the fire. That night when Hans sheds his quills, she obeys her mother and burns them. She hears his screams of pain as if he were aflame, and Hans runs from the castle. The princess has a blacksmith make her three pairs of solid iron shoes and slips away in search of her husband. She wears the shoes to nothing and moves on to the second pair, with still no sign of Hans. When she is donning the third pair of shoes, she finds a river and reclines by it, taking off the shoes and rubbing her sore feet. Catching sight of her reflection, she sees that her hair has grown white. She weeps bitterly for her hair and her husband, forever lost. The next day she comes to a cottage, abandoned, covered in dust and cobwebs. Then comes the flapping of wings and she sees her husband whom she had so long searched for. He toasts a glass of wine to no-one, "to the beautiful woman who could not keep her promise." She speaks to him and he becomes rigid and asks how she found him. She tells him. She tells him all of the perils that she has faced and how she has walked the world and worn through three pairs of iron shoes. Then she flings herself into his embrace and with her confession of love and loyalty, he transforms into the handsome man, the spell lifted by her fidelity and affection.

Jason Carter is Hans' human form, Terence Harvey is the voice of Hans the Hedgehog, and Abigail Cruttenden is the princess.

The episode was directed by Steve Barron.

The Three Ravens[edit]

Based on the early German folk tale, The Six Swans. After the queen dies, an evil witch ensnares the king, and turns his three sons into ravens to rid herself of her rivals. The princess escapes and must stay silent for three years, three months, three weeks and three days in order to break the spell. But after she meets a handsome prince, this is suddenly not so easy, for her stepmother has re-married, and to the prince's father...

Joely Richardson is the princess, Miranda Richardson is the witch, and Jonathan Pryce is the king.

The episode was directed by Paul Weiland.


From an early German folk tale, this is a variant on Allerleirauh as well as containing elements of the Cinderella story recorded by the brothers Grimm. There is a widowed king, who has three daughters. Two are as ugly and as bad as can be, but the third nicknamed Sapsorrow is as kind and as beautiful as her sisters are not. There is a ring belonging to the dead queen, and a royal tradition that states that the girl whose finger fits the ring will become queen as decreed by law. Neither of the bad sisters wish their father to marry for fear that his bride will stand to inherit his title and riches. In an effort to secure the royal wealth for their own they each try on the ring, though the ring becomes stuck on one of the sisters' fingers and Sapsorrow is forced to remove the ring. When Princess Sapsorrow slips on her dead mother's ring for safekeeping, she discovers, much to her own dismay, that the ring fits perfectly and the king (against his own wishes) must marry her according to the law. The princess attempts to stall the wedding by demanding three magnificent gowns: a gown as pale as the moon, a gown as sparkling as the stars, and a gown as golden as the sun. Once her father provides these, on the night of the wedding she takes the gowns and goes into hiding, disguising herself as a creature of fur and feathers known as Straggletag. She lives thus for years, working in the kitchen of a handsome but proud prince. On the night of the ball, she discards her disguise and attends three different balls in one of her bridal gowns and captures the heart of the prince, leaving him naught but a single slipper as she runs off into the night. The prince scours the kingdom for the girl whose foot fits the slipper, and agrees to marry Straggletag when hers is the foot it fits. At this proclamation, her pets strip away her disguise for good and the two become happily wed.

Alison Doody is Sapsorrow, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders are her bad sisters, and James Wilby is the prince.

The episode was directed by Steve Barron.

The Heartless Giant[edit]

From an early German folk tale. A heartless giant, who once terrorised the land before being captured and imprisoned, is befriended by the young Prince Leo who, one night, sets him free. His older brothers go after the giant to capture him, but do not return, so Leo sets off to find the giant himself. Once found, Leo decides to find the giant's heart, but this is no easy task - it sits in an egg in a duck in a well in a church in a lake in a mountain far away. No easy task indeed. Even when Prince Leo finds the heart and brings it to the giant, one of the guards grabs the heart and squeezes it enough to kill the giant where its dead body becomes a hill. The Storyteller tells his dog that when Prince Leo became king, he retold the story where he states that he gave the heart back to the giant and that the giant never bothered the kingdom again.

This is a variation upon the Norwegian tale The Giant Who Had No Heart in His Body, though there are some parallels with the Slavic legend of Koschei the Deathless.

Elliot Spiers is Prince Leo, Peter Marinker is the voice of the wolf, and Frederick Warder is the giant.

The episode was directed by Jim Henson.

The True Bride[edit]

Based on an early German folk tale, The True Bride. A troll had a daughter, but she left straight off. So the troll took another girl to replace her to wait on him hand and foot. Her name is Anja and she has no father or mother, making the troll her only "family". Setting her impossible tasks, then beating her with his "contradiction stick" when she invariably fails, the troll makes sure to make her life miserable, until she one day makes a wish. Her wish is heard by the Thought Lion, a wondrous beast all in white, who completes her impossible tasks for her. When the troll asks her to build him a palace, the Lion build it for her, and the troll falls to his death in a bottomless room. Anja lives happily in the castle. When she finds her true love, he disappears one day, so Anja sets out to find him. When she finally does, he turns out to be bewitched in the hands of the troll's evil daughter, the Trollop.

Jane Horrocks is Anja, Sean Bean is her true love, Michael Kilgarriff is the voice of the Thought Lion, Alun Armstrong is the voice of the Troll, and Sandra Voe is the voice of the Trollop. The Thought Lion is operated by David Greenaway, Robert Tygner, and Mak Wilson while the Troll and Trollop are performed by Frederick Warder.

The episode was directed by Peter Smith.

Spin-off The StoryTeller: Greek Myths[edit]

The StoryTeller: Greek Myths is a four episode mini-series, which had a different storyteller (Michael Gambon), but the same dog (again performed and voiced by Brian Henson). This second series was first aired in 1990,[3] focused, as the title suggests, on Greek mythology, and took place in the Minotaur's labyrinth which the new storyteller and his dog wander through. Anthony Minghella was credited as the series' creator.

Season 1[edit]

Only four episodes of this series were made.

Theseus and the Minotaur[edit]

An Athenian storyteller and his dog take shelter in the labyrinth of Knossos. There he recounts the story of the Minotaur confined to the maze by King Minos ten centuries earlier. When the young hero Theseus came of age, he began walking the hero's path. Reclaiming his rightful place as the son of Athenian king Aegeus, Theseus insisted on traveling to Crete to face the dreaded Minotaur.

Perseus and the Gorgon[edit]

Owing to the oracle's prophecy that he would kill his grandfather, Perseus, the son of Danaë and Zeus, was born in darkness and captivity. Discovering Perseus's existence, the King of Argos banished Perseus and his mother to a wooden chest cast into the sea; they managed to escape death at sea. After coming of age, the young hero vowed to bring back the head of the Gorgon Medusa in order to stop the evil king Polydectes from marrying his mother. He was given special weapons and armor by the gods to complete his task. Using Medusa's head, he petrified Polydectes, who did not believe that Perseus returned with the true head of Medusa. Still, he could not escape the prophecy that he would one day kill his grandfather.

Orpheus and Eurydice[edit]

Orpheus, son of Calliope the muse fell in love with Eurydice the moment he set eyes on her. His love for her was so strong that when she perished from a poisoned snake bite, Orpheus traveled down to the Underworld to plead to Hades for her return. His music softened the heart of Hades' wife Persephone. Hades decided to let them both return to the living world as long as Orpheus did not look back. As Orpheus was not certain that Eurydice was following him into the sunlight, he looked back, forgetting the condition, and lost her forever. Thus, he refused to play any music for the villagers, instead hitting his lyre's strings with a rock over and over. The village's wild women knew that they had to end the awful noise, and so they killed him.

Art Malik portrays a convincing Orpheus and Gina Bellman appears as Eurydice while Robert Stephens plays Hades.

Daedalus and Icarus[edit]

Daedalus was the greatest craftsman in all of Greece. Unfortunately, his skill did not rub off onto his son Icarus. He was jealous of his nephew, Talos, who invented the saw, and threw him off a balcony, killing him. Because of the crime, Daedalus and Icarus escaped to Crete. Cruel King Minos of Crete asked Daedalus to design a maze to imprison the creature known as the Minotaur, then locked Daedalus and his son inside the labyrinth to make sure only he knows the secrets it hides. But Daedalus escaped, and built a pair of wings for himself and Icarus to escape Crete after he killed a vulture.

Derek Jacobi portrays Daedalus, Ian Hawkes portrays Icarus, Alastair White portrays Talos, and John Wood portrays Minos.


The stories have been made available through a variety of media.


In the UK, all 9 episodes of series 1 were made available in 1989 on a set of 4 VHS tapes released by Channel 5.

In 1999 four of the stories were re-released by Columbia Tri-Star across two VHS tapes in both the UK and the US. These were A Story Short, The Luck Child, The Soldier and Death and Sapsorrow.


Both series 1 and 2 are available in region 1 & 2 DVD format. They offer no extra features other than the original episodes in their original stereo format.

A more recent collection, Jim Henson's The StoryTeller - The Definitive Collection, which contains both series in full, was released on DVD in the US in May 2006.


Two versions of the book have been published; the text is the same but the pictures differ. The text, written as a series of short stories by Anthony Minghella, is adapted slightly to fit better the medium of "short story". One (ISBN 0-517-10761-9, Boxtree) features a photograph of the Storyteller on the cover; the illustrations within (by Stephen Morley) are the silhouettes as seen in the program, and photographic stills of the episodes alongside the text. The other version (ISBN 0-679-45311-3, Random House) has full page colour hand illustrations by Darcy May, depicting the stories alongside the text.

Graphic Novels[edit]

An anthology of The StoryTeller is due from Archaia Entertainment on December 6, 2011.[4][5] The stories announced are: "Old Nick & the Peddler" (from a Scandinavian folk tale), "Puss in Boots" (from a French fairy tale), "The Milkmaid & Her Pail" (from an Aesop fable), "Old Fire Dragaman" (from an Appalachian Jack tale), "Momotaro the Peach Boy" (from a Japanese fairy tale), "An Agreement Between Friends" (from a Romanian folktale), "The Frog Who Became an Emperor" (from a Chinese folktale), "The Crane Wife" (from a Japanese folktale) and "The Witch Baby" (from a Russian fairytale), this last being adapted from one of three unproduced screenplays for the original series by Anthony Minghella.[6] This is part of Archaia's arrangement with the Jim Henson company, by which they are also producing Fraggle Rock and The Dark Crystal graphic novels, and a graphic novel of Henson's unproduced Jim Henson's Tale of Sand, as well as having the rights to do Labyrinth and MirrorMask.


Series 1 was nominated for and won several awards.[7]

Year Result Award Category/Recipient(s)
1987 Won Emmy Award Outstanding Children's Program
Jim Henson (executive producer)
Mark Shivas (producer)
For episode Hans My Hedgehog.
1988 Nominated Emmy Award Outstanding Children's Program
Jim Henson (executive producer)
Duncan Kenworthy (producer)
For episode A Story Short.
1988 Nominated Emmy Award Outstanding Children's Program
Jim Henson (executive producer)
Duncan Kenworthy (producer)
For episode The Luckchild.
1989 Won BAFTA TV Award Best Children's Programme (Entertainment/Drama)
Duncan Kenworthy
1989 Won BAFTA TV Award Best Costume Design
Ann Hollowood
1989 Nominated BAFTA TV Award Best Make Up
Sally Sutton


  1. ^ Clark, Kenneth R (April 10, 1988). "Storyteller Is Back, As 'Luck' Would Have It". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2010-10-19. 
  2. ^ Goodman, Walter (January 30, 1987). "TV WEEKEND; JOHN HURT STARS IN 'THE STORYTELLER'". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-10-19. 
  3. ^ Greek Myths in the IMDB website, featuring in the list of Henson's productions
  4. ^
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ [2]
  7. ^ "IMDB Awards". The Storyteller. IMDB. Retrieved 2007-03-19. 

External links[edit]