In late 2007 I was lucky enough to spend some time chatting with veteran television writer Victor Pemberton about his time working on cult 80s series, Fraggle Rock as script editor and producer.
While today the phrase “dance your cares away, worries for another day” could be a mantra used on Strictly Come Dancing, twenty five years ago these words introduced viewers to a world of Fraggles, Doozers and conflict resolution in the programme conceived by Jim Henson.
Henson, the creator of Sesame Street in 1969 and later the phenomenally successful Muppet Show in 1976, had a vision of an allegorical world of creatures that would reflect real world issues such as prejudice, social conflict and the environment. Heavy stuff for early afternoon on ITV…
Jonathan Melville: How did you get involved with Fraggle Rock?
Victor Pemberton: It was through a very dear friend of mine, Duncan Kenworthy, producer of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, who I’d met while working in Kuwait for American television.
He’d joined forces with Jim Henson and said to me one day “we’re going to do new show, based on material shot in Canada and each country will do their own segments – can you come up with an idea for what we can do with the UK segments?”
I said I’d have a go and I suggested various things, including setting it in a lighthouse. He sad he’d put the idea to Jim and let me know. In the meantime I had to go to Nigeria to do some TV work. I’d been busy teaching students and was knackered when one night I got a call out of the blue from Duncan who said “We’re going ahead with it and I need a 20 page synopsis.” I asked for when and he said “tomorrow morning”!
That was 1983 and there was no internet. I said “how am I going to get this to you?” and I sat up all night writing this and his secretary phoned up and I transcribed it. Two months later I got home and they said it’s going into production.
What was in the brief?
It was like a jigsaw puzzle. In the synopsis the main things were the location and character. In France it was a chef, in Canada an inventor, in German it was a scientist, so we had to do something different and the lighthouse was very different. I’d seen the Canadian segments and we fitted in to it.
You were brought in to write first?
For the first series I wrote all the segments and Duncan produced. If you look at the credits you’ll see there’s the American and the British. I shared credits with the US producer.
One of the main writers on the Canadian version was long-term Jim Henson collaborator Jerry Juhl, who died recently.
Jim was a great guy, very talented and heavily involved with the Muppets. I can’t claim to have known him that well but we always met at meetings and he came over from the States when I wrote the thing.
Duncan became head of international film production with Henson and he was involved in lots of new Muppet projects for them. So he came to me to ask if I wanted to change hats and produce it and I was on it for 7 years on and off.
What was turnaround like?
We did one show a day. Most of the editing came at the end of the 13 episode blocks we did at a time, but I was on it for 7 years. We did 96 episodes. There was a lot of hard work.
It was a co-production with Southern Television. The head of children’s TV at the time was Anna Home and it was between Duncan, Anna and myself. We took over an old cinema in Gillingham in Kent, and it was wonderful. There was a huge banner over the top of the original Muppet theatre. The auditorium was cleared of seats, the stage was raised and extended.
Were you on set for every episode?
Every episode. I never left, I had to be there all the time as it was quite a technical production and I had to learn this side of it. I watched Jim Henson and Frank Oz perform the Muppets at Elstree Studios and got the flow of the thing.
Were you involved in choosing directors?
Duncan suggested that I had a say. Jeremy (I think it was Swan) was suggested as the main director. We liked to think of Fraggle Rock as not only a family for the viewers but for us as well.
We always felt like a family and tried not to let our artistic tantrums run away from us – sometimes we argued or people behaved badly – but most of the time they were a lovely bunch and I’d never run any of the them down. We worked together, went out for meals and had a great time.
We had meetings every day, it was like a mathematical plan. We’d start the day with a script read through every morning and everyone would throw in their problems and I had to oversee this.
We ran the Fraggle sequences on VTR so we could relate to that and link the shots up. The director had to watch where everything joined up.
The hole down into Fraggle Rock was the beginning and end point for the production. Sprocket would put his head through the hole and we’d cut to the overseas material. You can see what a nightmare it was, lining everything up mathematically.
We loved making it, it didn’t seem like a days work, we loved getting into the studio and getting down to it. Every morning I’d walk into the auditorium, past wires and puppets, and suddenly I’d hear something – and of course Sprocket never talked – would look round and there was Sprocket speaking to me.
The puppeteers would know when I was coming in and would be ready. I’d ask him if he had a good night, and the paw and tail would go up. This went on every morning. Then from another door Gobo would appear from behind a door and say “Good morning Victor!”. All these Fraggles saying hello. It became normal after a while!
That’s the impression you get, that a Jim Henson set is a happy set.
I don’t use the word lightly, but Jim Henson was a genius. His imagination was extraordinary. I’d been to Europe several times, to Prague, to talk to puppeteers and they all revered him as a sort of god of the puppet world. That isn’t to say he wasn’t a very shrewd man, but artistically he was one of the great men of his generation.
How did you come to cast Fulton Mackay?
I didn’t cast Fulton, it was down to Anna and Duncan. I went along to meet him and I’d always admired him, thought he was a terrific actor with a great personality. My initial response wasn’t enthusiastic.
I have to say I found him a little bombastic at that meeting. He’d brought along a tape recorder where he’d recorded his comments on how he saw his role, and it put our backs up a little.
On the whole it went smoothly, but there were times when he was very difficult indeed. And he was quite jealous of the dog, Sprocket, one of the great heroes of television. This isn’t to run Fulton down – he got the show started for us, was a great lighthouse keeper and was basically very good – but when he had tantrums they were very tiresome.
He did well with some odd moments, barking like a dog – was he a trooper?
When you work with Muppets it’s different from working with live actors, but you’ve got to treat them like real characters, not cloth things. At times he found that difficult, but basically he was splendid and was very popular with the viewers.
Sadly he died near the start of the series – was he unwell during filming?
We did a lot of location shooting down near St Mores in Cornwall and had to do a recce by helicopter to find a location. He stayed on location, as did his wife, and we had good fun. By mutual agreement we only took him on for two series.
He was a Scottish lighthousekeeper – was Fraggle Rock set in Scotland?
Well, like everything Muppet, locations are quite neutral and we would have gone for Scottish, Welsh or Chinese, as long as the character was right and he could interact properly. He was Scottish and we were very happy he was Scottish because we cast Scottish again with John Gordon Sinclair.
I suggested we have someone younger next time as that might appeal to the kids, but little did we know many of the viewers were adults. I suggested him after seeing him in Local Hero, and he was terrific, a good actor is Gordon. He was great fun to work with we had a lot of laughs.
The only thing he wasn’t so keen on was the publicity as he didn’t want to advertise too much he was on a childrens’ show. He was great in the location stuff and with the interaction with Sprocket, as he was quite a handful.
Moving away from the episodes, there were a lot of messages in Henson series: prejudice, the environment, having your own identity. Were you given a ‘moral of the week’ to work with?
No, I had to think of something. They had it in the US version. Never forget it was filmed in Toronto at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Some things weren’t quite as right for our viewers as they were for US viewers. Sesame Street is a wonderful educational series without appearing to be educational, and kids still love it around the world. I worked at the Children’s Television Workshop and it’s a great industry, where the Muppets started.
The Fraggles were a kind of a way of educating children without making them feel like they were being educated. One thing we never did, and neither I nor Jim would have allowed it, was to lecture. We never did that. We’ve moved on since those years and the issues are somewhat different, children are older in their thinking, we all know what’s going on with teenagers.
Sex was never mentioned unless in very, very oblique ways. I remember I did try to introduce it into one of the shows but we couldn’t accommodate it as it just didn’t seem right, we were pushing ahead of our time I think. Today you could do that.
Did you have a typical viewer in mind?
I wrote it for myself as I enjoyed it, but it was a children’s teatime slot. Since then it’s gathered momentum and appeals to adults. I was speaking to someone the other day here in Spain, she used to be a prison governor and I happened to mention I’d be doing this interview, and she asked what my involvement was and she nearly fainted because it was her favourite programme. She adored it and used to watch it in the prison! I didn’t invent it but I suppose I was one of its dads!
And how were the Uncle Travelling Matt segments filmed?
Well you know that the name Travelling Matt is a joke don’t you? It’s a technical term used in filmmaking and photography. I wrote a couple of them, but we had a couple in Australia or France. We’d take some of their inserts and they’d take ours. Fraggle Rock was a jigsaw and it could be a real headache. We had to line everything up between the content filmed in Canada and the UK.
Would you have liked to have written more for the Fraggles themselves?
I’d have liked to have done, but I was quite happy with what I was doing. I absolutely adored Sprocket and I loved the Doozers and the Gorgs. As I talk to you at the moment I have clockwork Doozers looking down at me from the shelf, making sure I tell the truth! I loved the Fraggle characters.
After John Gordon Sinclair things changed again.
Yes, the time came for Gordon to inevitably move on. Duncan suggested Simon O’Brien. I didn’t know much about him, apart from the fact he’d played Damian on Brookside.
I have to say that immediately the chemistry was there. Why did I like Simon so much? Well he was such a happy-go-lucky guy and he was a true Liverpudlian, very funny, and he teased me mercilessly. We didn’t interview him, but he was perfect.
His rapport with Sprocket was fascinating, the chemistry absolutely right. You could believe he was his dog. Remember that so many families have dogs, part of the family, and he was important to whoever was in the lighthouse.
When we came to the end of the series we hired Dover Castle for the farewell party. We held the party in the dungeons. Jim was there and Duncan, and the cast and crew had got together to put on a half hour show to say thank you to me. There was a little stage and the curtains pulled back to reveal all of them impersonating me, every one of them, including Sprocket. They had every mannerism down to a tea. It was joyous but also terribly sad.
What is the legacy of the series?
Enjoy life and don’t take it too seriously. No matter how hard times are, there’s always light somewhere. The overall feeling is of joy. It was a joyous thing to do and to watch, helped enormously by those wonderful songs – they were so hummable. I don’t know how they did it.
Everyone used to wait for the opening song – don’t ask me to sing it – they used to start swaying to the music as you saw the Fraggles.
It’s a very moral show. Kids learnt how to do things and also things they shouldn’t do and they learnt respect.
Was that Jim’s view?
Oh yes. Jim was a very moral man. He was a Christian Scientist, which I think is something that led to his death. I was with him in New York a week before he died. We went to a restaurant and he ordered the entire dinner on Third Avenue in his Kermit voice.
He wasn’t well, caught a cold, wouldn’t see a doctor, caught the flu, wouldn’t see a doctor, developed pneumonia and died. He was a very loving man. Brian is in charge of the empire now.
Jim’s legacy was to bring happiness to the world: when you watched Fraggle Rock you couldn’t fail to have a smile on your face.
What are your views of the proposed movie version?
I think it’s a very good idea. With CGI they can do amazing things. As long as they get a good strong story it’ll work beautifully. I’d have done the same, take them out into Outer Space. It’s very difficult in a half hour slot to maintain the same situation and set. Sustaining 90 minutes means you need a strong plot. I’d want to take them into the real world, have a few guest stars and well-known names.
You can have a lot of fun with the characters, but get the story right. Grab them straight away or you’ll lose them. I hope the music will be there, with some great songs.
Writing will need to change from my day because attitudes have changed. The world has changed so dramatically since then, attitudes to religion, towards sex, have changed. You have to be aware of that otherwise the kids will just say “that’s not cool”.
They’ve got to do their own thing. There’ll be plenty of adults who remember it from when they were kids who’ll be eagerly awaiting it I’d think.
I’ll be one of them
Me too! I wish them the best of luck.
Victor Pemberton, thank you very much for your time!
The full audio version of this interview can be heard over at Steve Swanson’s fantastic MuppetCast website – it begins at 18.50.
All photos are copyright Victor Pemberton and are from his website – go check it out.