One of the best things available on Netflix’s Watch Instantly service is Jim Henson’s “The Storyteller” series and its second series, “The Storyteller: Greek Myths”. They were two joint American/British productions made in 1988 and 1990, and they’re both wonderful.
It’s entirely possible that I was aware of them when they were coming out, but I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate them then, anyway. I would’ve lumped it in with all of the other non-Muppet releases from the Henson company, like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal: clearly full-to-bursting with imagination and craftsmanship, but they always left me cold. But where “The Storyteller” is different is that the stories truly are the focus; they don’t feel like just excuses to string together a bunch of creatures and effects.
Another key difference is that the series was developed by Anthony Minghella, and he wrote the screenplays for the first series, based on traditional folk tales. And the scripts are wonderful; he gets the cadence of the language and the spirit of the stories exactly right. (The title of this post is a perfect line from “The Three Ravens.”) It took a few episodes for the fairy tales to grow on me, but each one I’ve seen makes me appreciate the others more.
I started with the Greek Myths series, which is still my favorite. These are brilliantly narrated by Michael Gambon, and the whole production is skewed to that perfect level of non-quite-dark but not-quite-happy, not-quite-adult but not-quite-childish that the Henson company has (almost) always done so well. Even though I’d heard most of the stories before, they all added aspects of the myth I hadn’t heard, or presented them with such a level of drama that it felt as if the stories were being told for the first time. (I hadn’t heard any of the fairy tales stories before, so they were all new to me).
There’s more info about the series at Muppet Wiki and Wikipedia; I’d say just watch them and enjoy the feeling that you’ve unearthed a classic you had no idea existed. I was going to say that people just don’t make television like this anymore, but it’s actually worse than that: I can’t even imagine who would even have the idea to make something like this these days.
I have nothing to add, but “The Storyteller” is one of my all time favorite anythings of all time and it’s nice to see someone else knows of its existence. I haven’t watched the Greek Myths yet, but that’s mostly because I find it easier to accept British actors portraying German, Celtic or even Russian characters than Greek ones. But for the “fairytale” series, I was impressed most at how the stories were filmed and made good use of television as a medium, but still respected the original stories and methods of oral storytellers. Each episode wasn’t just a simple retelling of one version of a story, but more of an amalgamation of different versions that were simplified and synthesized into a “purer” base story suitable for a thirty minute episode. The storyteller and his dog manipulating and interacting with the stories modernized the telling while respecting the original art form; where the stock characters were charming instead of flat. You can tell that a lot of planning and research went into the show, which is probably why no one would try to make a show like it now. Who would put that much money into a mini-series, especially one people will assume is “for kids”?