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Minghella Film Festival Review: Conversation With John Hurt and Duncan Kenworthy

Monday, 15th March, 2010 at 4:42 pm, Isle of Wight

A Jim Henson family fantasy for television seems an unlikely contender at a film festival, but at its screening in the Anthony Minghella theatre, The Storyteller drew heartfelt appreciation.

The series starred John Hurt, prematurely aged, rushing from one Grimm’s fairytale to the next in a pair of prosthetic ears and a false nose. He insists this was ‘nothing, really’, given his previous transformations.

Do children like ‘Art’?

According to Hurt, people are surprised when they find out who the series’ writer was. “When you say Anthony Minghella, they say, what?”

Initially, even Henson had his doubts about bringing Minghella into the project.

Kenworthy tells of how, following their first meeting with the writer, Henson voiced fears that he might ‘want to make it into Art’, but this proved no bad thing and Minghella crafted the series delightfully. He possessed, Kenworthy said, a poetic side well-suited to adapting fairytales.

Minghella once described this project as a ‘charmed experience’, one of his breakthrough works in television, displaying a sophistication rarely found in children’s programming.

“It was one of the best scripts I’ve ever done,” says Hurt. “The key of good writing is to make a reality.”

Creating a world

The series guided viewers into a world both unsettling and immersive, combining fairytale elements from different countries. Kenworthy explains that the team did a lot of research: “Sometimes we made our own changes. The Seven Ravens was also known as The Seven Swans. Because we couldn’t afford seven, we made it The Three Ravens.” Faced with demand for more episodes, the team moved on to Greek myths. They wanted to produce something excellent, Kenworthy said, not ‘just very good’.

“Had we made them just very good we probably would have sold them more easily,” Hurt interjects.

Kenworthy agrees: “Television companies don’t want to up the ante to such a degree that they have got to make all their other shows as good as that,” he says. Some episodes were broadcast three months apart.

Wine and peril

The series also contained far more jeopardy than the rainbow-splashed clichés of children’s television. In one episode, the Storyteller is turned into a screaming hare and threatened with boiling oil (A Story Short). In another, a baby is cast from a cliff, only to survive when his swaddling catches on a branch (The Luck Child).

Happy endings ensue against all odds, but these are tales of tricks and peril. If evil exists in current children’s television, it often emerges as an abstract concept. The Storyteller’s villains can be cunning out of hunger, curiosity or greed. Hardship resides in stories from a harsher age.

Hurt wishes that the ambition of the series could have had more influence. “Most of what I see of children’s television is talking down to children,” he says. “I don’t think they like it. I think they have to like it, because if what you’re presented with is the status quo then that is what you’re going to choose.”

“We had to put our foot down,” Kenworthy explains. “In one of the stories the prince goes to sleep and in the fairy tale he has a glass of wine by his bed. The NBC said ‘can you make this warm milk?’” The pair laugh at this.

Unexpected inspiration

With the current jostle of space-hopping, hyperactive children’s programmes, The Storyteller remains an oasis of ancient tales and wild invention. Crucially, Minghella said that it awoke the whimsical turn of mind necessary to conceive of his first feature film Truly, Madly, Deeply. Kenworthy sums up the concept: What if there was a woman who loved her dead husband so much, she brought him back to life? A new story was begun.


The Minghella Film Festival will return on 11-13th March 2011. :-)
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