It’s been 15 years since the last “Muppet Show” was produced. But Angus Fletcher, the Creature Shop’s VP in charge of international development and co-production, says he’s “yet to meet anyone, anywhere in the world, who doesn’t know who Kermit is.”
When the bright-green felt frog appeared as guest speaker last October at the Oxford Union, Britain’s most prestigious debating society, the house was packed to the rafters, and it made headlines in the national press.
So it’s not surprising if Fletcher, whose taste for informal dress and snazzy waistcoats occasionally raises eyebrows among more straight-laced Henson executives, exudes the air of a man whose job yields a gratifyingly high satisfaction-to-frustration ratio.
His task of selling the new Muppet series “Muppets Live!”, due for launch in September, to international television networks across the globe isn’t, it seems, encountering too much sales resistance.
With the exception of the Arab countries – where the presence of Miss Piggy makes the Muppets a complete no-no – networks “in all the major territories” are eagerly slotting the series into their schedules.
Even France, notes Fletcher, casts aside its usual suspicion of Anglo-American cultural imperialism when faced with the appealing puppet troupe. And that’s even before the worldwide market’s been softened up by the cinematic release of “Muppet Treasure Island.”
“Muppets Live!” will retain the backstage ambience of the original show, though this time set in a TV studio instead of a vaudeville theater.
As before, each week will feature a guest human celebrity, and the cast will be joined by new characters such as Miss Piggy’s startlingly untalented nephews, Randy and Andy.
The tone of the new show will be pitched at broadly the same level as before. “There’s always the temptation,” says Fletcher, “to go more adult, perhaps move into areas like political satire.
“We’ve toyed with the idea, but the feeling is no – that way you destroy the franchise. And it can date you fast, as well. Look at the way ‘Spitting Image’ ran out of steam.”
For Fletcher, a tougher challenge than selling “Muppets Live!” lies in “translating the Muppet franchise into other Henson programs.” “Jim Henson’s Animal Show” has so far been sold to about 40 countries including Spain’s Canal Plus, RTL in Germany, VPRO in the Netherlands and Italy’s state network RAI.
Good things are expected from a new miniseries for NBC, “Gulliver’s Travels,” which boasts a lineup including Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen and John Gielgud. It is co-produced by Robert Hakim. Currently in production, “Travels” is due to hit the skeds in the spring.
Since Henson’s European strategy tends to be creatively rather than financially driven, as Fletcher puts it, co-productions “just seem to happen.” A recent example is “Jim Henson’s Secret Life of Toys,” co-produced with Germany’s WFDR network, with much of the production work carried out in Germany. The series, first screened in the U.K. and Germany in 1994, has so far been sold to more than 30 countries.
After 16 years on the slopes of Hampstead Hill, Henson’s London base recently moved to a building fronting the Regent’s Canal, a stone’s throw from the cheerful tumult of Camden Lock. From the outside, the building is solid and foursquare in its Victorian self-confidence.
The refurbished interior is spacious, light and airy, buzzing with a sense of excitement. It feels like an outfit that knows just what it wants to do.