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14 August 2019updated 03 Aug 2021 12:32pm

An excellent BBC radio documentary takes the listener behind the scenes of The Dark Crystal

By Antonia Quirke

Radio programmes about the “creative process” are so often fatally underpowered, skirting round the edge of banality as any moment of actual creation inevitably happens away from the microphone, once the presenter has left for the day. It is near impossible for a producer or presenter to go beyond the annoying and deathly pompous: “Well, it’s kind of… ineffable.” But there’s a lovely bit in this excellent little doc about the Froud family of artists and doll-makers (13 August, 11.30am) where the presenter Clem Hitchcock stands over illustrator Brian Froud and basically forces him to create.

The Frouds were behind the creatures in the 1982 film The Dark Crystal, the first movie ever to have an all-puppet cast, which is about to re-emerge as a ten-part TV series on Netflix. Hitchcock and Froud are in the artist’s studio on Dartmoor, which is stuffed with sketches and semi-realised, fantastical animals. “What’s that there?” asks Clem, pointing at something. “It’s a… jackalope,” reasons Brian. With wonderful bossiness, Hitchcock simply insists: “Expand?” Froud is then put to work, drawing.

We hear his fine pencil on the paper, darting about. “I still don’t know what I’ll do,” giggles Froud, nervously, but Clem keeps watching, serious. There’s an electric tension. Scribble, scribble. Brian eventually says he’s just sketching, hasn’t any plan, is letting the hand do what it seems to want. “Allowing something to break through?” needles Hitchcock, always patiently interpreting for the listener. “I always start with an eye!” realises Froud, suddenly.

That makes complete sense to anybody who’s watched The Dark Crystal. The most memorable thing about those puppets (especially the dastardly Skeksis species) were their eyes. Like a boiled fish; a misted grey-pale, beyond moral help. Froud later says that when he looks at grass he “doesn’t see grass but potential for spines… and things”. Again, spot on. The way Froud’s creatures bend, they seem to be all spine, ever-about to topple or snap. Too much dry bone. You feel you could crush them with your hands. Dead-bird delicate – but sinister. Art explained, or discovered, in a few perfectly placed and wholly spontaneous phrases. Vanishingly rare radio. 

In The Studio: The Frouds
BBC World Service

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This article appears in the 14 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy