Once Upon a (Television) Time

`Fairie-tale Theater’ is the collective name given to a series of 50-minute films I produced by Shelley Duvall, inspired by the classic stories from the Brothers Grimm and others. The project was a long-standing interest of Duvall’s, who had been collecting illustrated volumes of the tales since she was a teenager. Some 20 episodes were made between 1982 and 1984, and their major strength was the high-profile actors attracted to the projects: from Robin Williams to Elliott Gould, virtually every one has a star or two headlining.

Sometimes, this doesn’t quite come off. Mary Steenburgen as tittle Red Riding Hood’ is at least a decade too old for the role — though having said that, Emmanuelle Beart recently took it on in a French TV adaptation. But when the casting does click, the effect is startling, leaving you to wonder why , no-one thought of it before. Pee-Wee Herman as Pinocchio? Vanessa Redgrave as an evil stepmother? Inspired stuff. The actors who come off best are those who tend towards the “over” end of the dramatic male, since fairy tales provide much scope for scenery-chewing in one form or another, with subtlety and understatement negative influences. This lifts the show way out of the humdrum, and there are some truly great performances.

With such, presumably expensive, stars, it’s surprising how often the show comes across as having the production values of a pomo flick. Most obviously, some of the optical effects would have been rejected by `Blake’s 7′, and ‘few boast cast-lists which stretch to double figures, The stories are also shot on video, and even the outdoor scenes are mostly filmed on sets, but this does generate a faintly surreal air which doesn’t seem out of place — the Japanese anthology film ‘Kwaidan’ adopted a similar approach for its ghost-stories.

There’s little skimping on the icky bits, though TV constraints naturally preclude overt grue. The tales are straightforward, generally accurate to Grimm, have satisfactorily few Disney-style concessions and no gratuitous ‘Little Mermaid’ happy-endings. The best have tongue slightly in cheek, enough to keep adults interested without sacrificing child-like charm. Not all manage: some, such as ‘Sleeping Beauty’ are just too po-faced for their own good (prince Christopher Reeve could presumably now relate rather well to someone in a coma…). And at the other end? ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ with a Jewish giant. Oy-veh, and similar Yiddish exclamations…

Beauty and the Beast (Roger Vadim) – Mercifully free of dancing clocks and Tim Rice, instead this adaptation is obviously, and heavily, influenced by Jean Cocteau’s version. At first, it’s disconcerting to see Susan Sarandon as Beauty since from a 1996 viewpoint, she would not seem an obvious choice for the role, shall we say. But she certainly takes the right approach, giving the heroine both strength and vulnerability. The beast is Klaus Kinski, who plays it in Nosferatu mode – same fangs, just much more hair – which is still rather appropriate. Obviously set-bound, the look is subdued, though this may be deliberate, to give the actors full rein. While they are entirely satisfactory, the main problem is running time: condensing the story into the allotted time means large swathes are of necessity hacked out. This leaves, for example, Beauty’s sisters (one of whom is Anjelica Huston) all but superfluous. and the ending seems terribly rushed, failing to tie up loose ends at all. Not all fairy tales fit nicely into a 50-minute format.

The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers (Graeme Clifford) – Probably the best cast of the lot, with Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, David Warner and Frank Zappa (as a hunchback mute). Not a story I know, the title says it all: a boy wants to know what fear is like. He gets the chance when local king Vladimir (Lee) needs his castle cleared of ghosts, offering the usual kingdom/treasure/princess thing in exchange. [Trivia note: princess Dana Hill voiced Jerry in the abominable Tom and Jerry: the Movie!) Hero Peter MacNicol is sympathetic without being wimpy, somewhat like a young Billy Crystal, while Warner and Lee dead-pan admirably. Highlights include zombie bowling – skull for a ball, bones for pins – and a couple of nice twists at the end. Set designs are based on Durer and Albrecht, it plays She something Tim Burton might have knocked up, though perhaps more telling is that director Clifford was editor on Rocky Horror! Best line: “When I was a boy, all 1 wanted to do was think of naked Greek statues…”!

Hansel and Gretel (James Crawley) – How can a starving family afford to keep their offspring surgically well-scrubbed? Precisely what caused the death of the evil stepmother? And how is it connected with the new patio? Ok, forget the last one, but this barnstorming version features Joan Collins as both wicked witch acid a stepmother so evil she thinks nothing of stealing bread from her kids. The plot needs no resume and is all here: gingerbread house; tome-fed children, etc., etc. Definitely skirting round the boundaries of good taste, especially a Collins rant On witch mode) about the joys of eating young flesh..Needless to say, it all ends happily ever after, though as mentioned at the start too many open questions are left unanswered — expect a ‘Rough Justice’ documentary soon, proving that the wicked witch was innocent…

Little Red Riding Hood (Graeme Clifford) – Doo Bee Doo Doo… Malcolm McDowell’s casting as the wolf was presumably influenced by his then-recent appearance in ‘Cat People’ (at the risk of repeating myself, it’s the same fangs, just much more hair…), but is actually far closer to Clockwork Alex; any second you expect him to shout “Viddy well, my brothers” and leap on top of Granny. He doesn’t, though it is nice to see the wolf portrayed with some intelligence. The psycho-sexual aspects of the tale explored in ‘The Company of Wolves’ are also more present than anticipated, even if Mary Steenburgen plays Mu Hood as more Jewish princess than innocent teenager. Indeed, few characters are quite what you expect, with even Granny displaying an aggressive streak unusual for a senior citizen. It’s all most enjoyably warped.

The Nightingale (Ivan Parser) – Again, in this one the original story is basically unfamiliar, to I’m unable to comment on whether liberties have been taken. It’s about the Emperor of Cathay, who discovers that a clockwork nightingale (made in Japan — read into that what you will) is no substitute for the real thing. Given the setting, the cast are an odd mix of Western and Asian, led by Mick Jagger as the Emperor, who delivers a suitably dissolute performance. It appears to be more targeted at “mature viewers” with a bizarre nightmare sequence in which Death cornet for the Emperor, that as far as Jagger-tums go, appears to be straight out of the ‘Perforrnance’ book of weird. The production values are comparatively lavish, save the titular feathered critter which signally fails to be remotely convincing. This aside, it’s well told, providing dimension to a charming story, and on occasion is genuinely effective. The above are just a sample of the delights on offer, opposite is a list of the titles of which I’m personally aware. To follow up, Shelley Duvall also produced ‘Tall Tales Legends’, which concentrated on American folk-tales and history. The casts were just as impressive, for example Jamie Lee Curtis as Annie Oakley, in a story that features 1903 footage of Oakley shot by Thomas Edison. As kid-TV goes, just slightly better than the moronic Trev and Simon…


Beauty and the BeastSusan Sarandon, Klaus Kinski
The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the ShiversChristopher Lee, David Warner, Vincent Price
Cinderella3ennifer Beals, Matthew Broderick
The Dancing PrincessesLesleyann Warren, Peter Weller
Emperor’s New ClothesTimothy Dalton, Robert Morse, Alan Arkin
Goldilocks and the Three BearsTatum O’Neal, Hoyt Axton, Carole King
Hansel and GretelRicky Schroder, 3oan Collins
3ack and the BeanstalkElliot Gould, Katherine Helmond
The Little MermaidKaren Black, Helen Mirren
Little Red Riding HoodMalcolm /v1cDowell, Mary Steenburgen
The NightingaleMick 3agger, Bud Car+, Barbara Hershey
Pinocchio3ames Coburn, Carl Reiner, Paul Rubens
The Princess and the PeaLiza Minelli, Tom Conti
The Princess Who Never LaughedEllen Barkin, Howie Mandel
Rapunzel3eff Bridges, Skelley Duvall, Gena Rowlands
RumpelstiltskinShelley Duvall, Herve Villechaise
Sleeping BeautyBeverley D’Angelo, Christopher Reeve
Snow White and the Seven DwarfsVanessa Redgrave, Vincent Price
The Tale of the Frog PrinceRobin Williams, Teri Garr
ThumbelinaCarrie Fisher, Burgess Meredith