The Search for Fraggle Rock

It shouldn’t happen to a TV show. The result of months of work by a team of professionals, who then pass it on to a broadcaster to transmit to a few million viewers who then (hopefully) embrace it to their collective bosoms, a great TV programme should then be allowed to retire to an archive somewhere, occasionally receiving visitors in the shape of satellite channels or a DVD company.

In the case of Fraggle Rock, Jim Henson’s 1980s series which brought weird puppets and conflict resolution to teatime telly, something seems to have gone badly wrong in those archives.

Henson’s dream was to have series that appeared to be small-scale to the casual observer, but which underneath was a complex network of international co-production deals and filming schedules. The theory was that children would react better to a series made in their language and with references they understood.

Each episode would start in the “real” world with some business about an old man called The Captain (Fulton Mackay) living in Fraggle Rock lighthouse with his dog, Sprocket. After a few minutes the scene would then switch to an underground world of Fraggles, led obstensibly by young Gobo (Jerry Nelson). There would then follow an adventure in which one Fraggle would get into trouble and the others would save him/her while learning a valuable lesson about life.

If you watched Fraggle Rock in the UK then the lighthouse “wraparound” bit will sound familiar, though Fulton Mackay was replaced by John Gordon Sinclair and Simon O’Brien in later years. If you lived in America, Australia, Scandinavia, Spain or numerous other countries you would have seen Doc (Gerry Parkes), an inventor, interact with Sprocket. Doc’s mini-adventures took place in his garage.

French and German audiences again got their own wraparounds with local actors playing Doc.

Though Fraggle Rock went on to become a huge success around the world, spawning 96 episodes in total, that simple idea involving co-production deals would be the series downfall when it came to repeats, at least it was here in the UK thanks to TVS, a now defunct TV station, producing the UK wraparounds.

When TVS lost their licence in 1992, their back catalogue, and the documentation detailing it, was a victim of massive upheaval behind the scenes, resulting in only 12 episodes of the UK Fraggle Rock now officially remaining in the vaults. These were released on DVD a few years ago from HIT Entertainment on Region 2.

A bit of research (well, Googling) over the years from yours truly leads me to believe that, despite HIT contacting The Jim Henson Company to enquire about the episodes, the original master tapes are indeed missing. As is usually the way of these things, the fans are also doing a bit of digging around and, according to some recent posts on a missing episodes forum, we can add a further 17 broadcast quality episodes held by the BFI to the 12 that came out on DVD.

According to that post, fan Alex Taylor has a further 28 episode recorded off air (on his own video recorder), bringing the total number of Fraggle Rock UK episodes known to exist up to 57 – he’s kindly listed them all over on his own website.

I was fortunate enough to interview the producer of the UK wraparounds, Victor Pemberton, a few years ago and he mentioned that he at one time had every episode on VHS but that he wasn’t sure if he still had them in the basement.

The reason for my summing all of this up is that this week saw The Jim Henson Company upload six new clips to their excellent YouTube channel featuring Fulton Mackay as The Captain. Of the six clips, three now only exist as fan owned, off air, non broadcast quality episodes – The Trash Heap Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Sir Hubris and the Gorgs and The Garden Plot – and yet they all look in perfect condition to me:

So what does this mean for the existence of more UK episodes at The Jim Henson Company? Are these merely clips that have been lying around that have now been put online in isolation? Or are these excerpts from full episodes held by Henson that could, theoretically, be released in full? Do they have more clips still to be put online?

I’ve been holding back publishing this post for a few days as I’ve emailed the team at Henson to ask what the situation is, but assuming they’re busy with more pressing issues I may not hear back for a while.

It’s also useful to raise the subject once again in case any reader of this post has an episode on VHS that is missing, presumed gone. If so, feel free to let me know in the comments and we can try to get it into some new archive…

An open letter to Jason Segel re: The Muppets

Dear Jason,

How are things over in Hollywood? Right about now you’re probably knee-deep in felt as your dream project, The Muppets, slowly comes to fruition. I’ve been reading the various casting rumours and potential plotlines that seem to leak from every corner of the internet, and it all seems to be shaping up nicely.

Knowing your love for the characters of Kermit, Piggy, Gonzo and the rest of the gang – is it true you’ve always had Muppet pictures and figurines in your house? You’re a fanboy like the rest of us (except for the fangirls)! – you must be in your element and I’ve got high hopes that this won’t be another Muppets from Space.

There’s just one thing that’s worrying me. Well, me and the rest of the population of the United Kingdom. That’s the fact that while the film is being released in the USA on 23 November 2011 (happy Thanksgiving in advance), we won’t be seeing it on these shores until Friday 17 February 2012.

Now, I know that you know your Muppet history. You know that back in the mid-70s Jim Henson was having trouble getting his Muppets into a regular, weekly, TV slot on a US network. You also know that Henson ended up pitching the idea of The Muppet Show to UK TV impresario, Lew Grade, who agreed to produce the programme at Elstree Studios, just north of London, for worldwide distribution.

For five years, Henson’s gloriously bonkers world of talking frogs, bears, pigs and whatever Gonzo was, took the world by storm, with the second Muppet movie, The Great Muppet Caper, also filmed in the UK.

According to the brief blurb on IMDB, your film sees the Muppets team up to save their old theatre. The same one which was first built on a soundstage at Elstree back in the day. The one which was crafted by workers fuelled by British bacon butties and cups of tea as they stood proud for the national anthem and saluted the Queen every lunchtime. Maybe.

Since then the Muppets have left Blighty behind as their careers have peaked and troughed (that’s not a slight on Miss Piggy, by the way), TV specials, movies and online videos appearing sporadically as fans wait patiently for someone to recapture the magic of the Henson years and return them to their former glory.

With Walt Disney Pictures now the owners of the Muppets, we’re likely to get a big budget, well promoted picture with enough spin-off merchandise to fill each Disney Store a few times over. You’ll know all about that, and I’m sure children everywhere will be demanding Jason Segel action figures this Christmas.

Exciting times then. Well, exciting if you’re going to be in America on 23 November. As I mentioned above, here in the UK we have to wait for three months, as highlighted today by Muppet fansite, The Muppet Mindset. Even Germany, the Netherlands and France will see it before us and we all know where Doc Hopper got his ideas from…

Clearly something has gone wrong somewhere along the line. Does it really take three months to ship a print or digital copy of the film to the UK? Staggered release dates across different territories may be common practice, but sometimes there need to be exceptions.

As an example, the most recent Harry Potter film was released in the UK and the US on the same day, 19 November 2010, meaning it can be done if the property is seen to have value, and those pesky illegal downloaders are considered a problem.

You know that the Muppets aren’t just another brand name to be exploited by multinational organisations. OK, so Rowlf the Dog may have been created to promote dog food in the 1960s, but things have changed since then. Kermit, Piggy, Gonzo and the gang aren’t just bundles of felt. They’re bundles of felt with personalities and a global fan base waiting to welcome them back.

I’m not saying that just because The Muppet Show started here we have the right to watch the film on the same day as you. I’m not even saying that if it wasn’t for Lew Grade and a bundle of British bacon butties, you might not even be making your pet project right now.

However, I’ve read that your take on the Muppets will be “hilarious, fantastic, heart-wrenching, beautiful, nostalgic and remarkable”, and that’s admirable. So why wait so long to let the rest of us see that vision? We all suffered the bad times together (cough…Studio DC…cough) so why not let us share the good stuff as well?

If it makes a difference to your bosses, we’ll each go to our nearest burger chain and buy the relevant meal deal with free Animal glass on the day of release. Twice.

So, to wrap things up and let you get back to the set, can you perhaps have a word with those Disney execs who make the decisions? You managed to get a multi-million dollar movie into production starring a bunch of hand-operated puppets, so you’ve experience in achieving the unexpected. Ask them nicely to release your film around the world on the same date, or as near as possible to it.

Do this and you’ll make a nation proud of you. We’ll even make you a round of bacon rolls and a cup of tea when you come over to do the promotional work. The Queen may even salute you this time around.

Do it for Britain. Do it for yourself. Above all, do it for furry blue weirdos, talking vegetables and the next fan who buys all the merchandise and decides that in 20 years time he or she will bring back the Muppets in a movie, with a cameo from some old actor called Jason Segel.


Jonathan Melville

Return to Fraggle Rock: Victor Pemberton interview

Victor and Sprocket

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, a key contributor to the success of Sesame Street in 1969 and later the creator of 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?”

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