Gilbey on Film: We need to talk about Kermit

A triumphant cinematic return for the Muppets.

A triumphant cinematic return for the Muppets.

Aside from nostalgia, the primary responses to the generally encouraging quality of the new Muppets picture have been surprise and relief. But why?No other series with the exception of the Carry On films has maintained a comparably high standard over such a long period of time.

There may have been a slight falling-off in the late 1990s with Muppets from Space, and I can't vouch for the occasional TV films (such as a Muppet version of The Wizard of Oz), which I haven't seen. But elsewhere the various filmmakers and brand custodians over the years have been responsible for inventive entertainment that is never shy of breaking the fourth wall. Until The Muppet Movie in 1979, the customary route for TV shows transferring to cinema had been to spin out a typical 30-minute episode to triple the length, with little regard for the demands and contours of the larger medium. But the Muppets' movie outings justify themselves fully as pieces of cinema, building their gags and narratives around our familiarity with the form.

The new picture is called, simply and cleanly, The Muppets -- thank goodness the makers of this "reboot" didn't go for Muppets Begin or Muppets: Fully Loaded. The songs by Flight of the Conchords star Bret McKenzie are suitably infectious, if not quite equal to the earworms composed for The Muppet Movie and Muppet Christmas Carol by the Bugsy Malone songwriter Paul Williams.

The rudimentary getting-the-gang-back-together plot begins with Walter, a Muppet, seeing The Muppet Show on television and finally discovering what makes him different from his (human) best friend (played by Jason Segel, who also co-wrote the script). It's a coming-out story in essence -- a metaphor for realising that you are not alone in the world after all -- but the movie doesn't labour that point. Instead it sticks to the Muppet films' overarching commandment: Thou shalt not waste any opportunity to remind the audience it is watching a movie. So the road-trip which forms a large chunk of the picture is completed more quickly when the characters opt to travel "by map" (remember the red line inching across the page of an atlas in the Indiana Jones series?), while someone suggests that the lengthy recruitment of all the old Muppets back into the fold might be experienced more enjoyably in montage form.

This self-reflexiveness has long been the way of the Muppets. Remember The Great Muppet Caper from 1982? No, of course you don't: that's why I'm here, to remember it for you. There's a whole production number outlining the characters that the Muppets will be playing in the film we're about to see, and lots of dotty dialogue spoofing storytelling conventions. ("Why are you telling me this?" Miss Piggy asks after a particularly clunky speech by her another character. "It's exposition," comes the reply. "It's got to go somewhere.")

The Muppet Movie even begins with the cast gathering in a private screening room to watch The Muppet Movie. (At one point, the print burns up, Persona-style.) When the musicians from the Electric Mayhem catch up with Kermit and Fozzie in the desert, they are able to do so only because Kermit had given them a copy of the screenplay earlier in the film -- all they had to do was flick forward to page 57 ("Exterior. Desert. Night"). The adventure leads to Hollywood, where a studio head (played by Orson Welles -- who else?) asks his secretary to prepare "the standard 'rich and famous' contract" for the assorted felt animals who have crowded into his office. The Muppet Movie ends with the Muppets beginning work on The Muppet Movie -- the film we are watching. Far from being self-indulgent, the device works magically to draw the cinema audience closer.

Such playfulness has its echo throughout the NBC sitcom-about-nothing Seinfeld, and especially in Season 4, which is devoted to Jerry (Jerry Seinfeld) and George (Jason Alexander) trying to get their sitcom-about-nothing made at NBC. (Some of the story ideas they pitch are lifted from earlier episodes of the show.) It's there too in the work of Charlie Kaufman, particularly Synecdoche, New York (about a playwright mounting a scale version of his own life) and Adaptation, which stars Nicolas Cage as Kaufman and shows fictionalised scenes from the set of the writer's previous film, Being John Malkovich. Bravely, the film itself also turns into the same artistically compromised screenplay that Kaufman is shown writing -- a point missed by those critics who complained that the movie sold out in its final stretch.

The Muppets is a good example of the tradition of TV-oriented comic reboots which includes The Brady Bunch Movie, Starsky and Hutch and the forthcoming 21 Jump Street; it also has a slight head-start over those titles because its irreverence is already deep in its DNA. (It may be a reboot but it isn't a makeover.) I wonder where the series could go next; the excellent Muppet Christmas Carol, an affectionate and faithful adaptation of Dickens, and the almost-as-good Muppet Treasure Island, suggested that the form was particularly well-suited to adapting other texts. Glancing at my own bookshelves for ideas doesn't prove especially fruitful. The Muppet Who Fell From Grace with the Sea? A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Muppet? We Need to Talk About Kermit?

"The Muppets" is released on Friday.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon