Talking frogs, a prima donna pig and madcap musical numbers are just some of the images that spring to mind when Muppets are mentioned, Jim Henson’s unique brand of puppet still known around the world over 50 years after their first appearance.
Now, Edinburgh’s Filmhouse in the UK is celebrating Henson’s legacy with an 11-day event, Muppets, Music and Magic. Alongside compilations of commercials and classic Muppet sketches, a selection of films will be shown, including the Park Circus-licensed The Great Muppet Caper, Labyrinth and Muppet Treasure Island.
We spoke to long-time Henson friend and collaborator, Martin Baker, who will be in Edinburgh to introduce a number of screenings over the Easter weekend, about his time working on these films and his involvement in the latest Muppet movie.
Park Circus: How did you first come to work with Jim Henson?
Martin Baker: I first met Jim in the late 1960s when I was a floor manager on a UK show called This is Tom Jones, a big weekly variety series. Jim and Frank Oz were an act on an episode. Jim returned over the next few years and, by the time he came to do The Muppet Show, Jim asked four of five of us to become part of The Muppet Show production team.
What can you remember about working on The Great Muppet Caper?
The Great Muppet Caper was the first project I worked on when I joined Jim’s company and it was wonderful. We had great guest actors and a wonderful cast. When we did the underwater dance routine we flew in the dancers from America and shot it in the heart of the winter in Elstree Studios in England.
We’d built a huge tank for this big dance number and had girls over from Los Angeles running around in bikinis with snow on the ground.
Labyrinth was a move away from the Muppets for Jim Henson. Was that a big challenge?
Labyrinth was a pretty amazing film. Here was this man who had the ability to create Kermit the Frog and the Muppets and the next minute we were making Labyrinth.
Labyrinth was a huge, epic, movie and we’d sit in these meetings thinking Jim was crazy because it was so big and unwieldy, but he knew exactly where he was going. While it may not have had the commercial success that everybody hoped for, it has become one of those cult movies.
Even after all these years I’m staggered by the amount of people who come to talk to me about the film and how it’s their favourite movie. It’s constantly appearing in film festivals. I was just in LA and every other Friday night there was a running of Labyrinth in movie theatres, with lines around the block.
Treasure Island again had a great cast including Billy Connolly, Tim Curry and Jennifer Saunders. We also had the young Kevin Bishop, who has gone onto bigger things on UK television.
He was one of several hundred kids we auditioned. Kevin was the first person we met for the part and we went through another 299 people and then went back to him. He was only 11 or 12 but we saw it in him then and where he’s gone is exactly where we thought he would.
A fun movie, even if we did all get a little bit seasick. We had the Hispaniola built on a set at Shepperton and it was put on a gimbal so we could give it movement – all the puppeteers would come off feeling very nauseous after hours aboard.
What can you tell us about the upcoming feature film, The Muppets?
The last feature we made was in 1999, with Muppets from Space, so it’s been great gearing up for the new movie. The Walt Disney Company now own the characters and they’re behind it 150%. They’ve been extremely supportive and we’re all excited about it.
Muppets, Music and Madness runs from Monday 18 – Thursday 28 April, full details are available on the Filmhouse website.
© Photography courtesy of The Jim Henson Company, The Muppets Studio, LLC, and Sesame Workshop