The original Muppet Show series was produced in the UK at the ATV Elstree Studios in Borehamwood.
“It was huge fun, and things would always develop.. things would evolve from the performers” – Louise Gold, speaking to Distinct Nostalgia
The format, created by Jim and Jane Henson, was picked up by ATV boss Lew Grade when all the American networks declined to commit to the production. It became a must-see show on the ITV network for five seasons, and over 120 editions, between 1976 and 1981. The programme also was sold to broadcasters in over 100 countries via ITC Distribution.
The Muppets came to life in the 1950s following Jane Nebel and Jim Henson becoming friends while both taking part in a puppetry class at the University of Maryland. Not long after the pair formed a long-lasting creative and business partnership which ultimately devised ‘the muppet puppets’.
As a fine arts education major studying at the University of Maryland in 1954, Jane shared with Jim a unique approach to puppetry that was joyful and sophisticated. While still an undergraduate, Jim Henson was offered a spot on the local NBC outlet in Washington known as WRC-TV. He asked Jane Nebel to join him as a co-performer and creator.
The characters first made their television debut on a series called Sam and Friends. It wasn’t long before the Muppets were making special guest appearances on the top variety shows of the time stateside. Their first national television guest appearance was on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show.
By the end of the decade, the friendship and professional enterprise had also turned to romance for Jim and Jane. In May 1959 Jane Nebel married Jim Henson with children swiftly following; Lisa born in 1960, Cheryl in 1961, Brian in 1963 and John in 1965. Heather arrived a little later in 1970.
While it was happy families off-screen, getting their The Muppets into their own series proved difficult in the sixties and early seventies.
And after nearly two decades trying it almost came to an end in 1975. The Henson’s tried all the major American broadcasters with an idea of a family, primetime, entertainment series fronted by their puppet creations. The executives saw Kermit the Frog and friends, such as Miss Piggy, as something along the lines of educational children’s series Sesame Street (which some of the Muppets also appeared on) and no such evening format would ever rate. They admitted defeat when after a pilot CBS said it wouldn’t work. Things were bleak until a media mogul in the UK saw The Muppets in a guest spot and liked what he saw.
Jim and Jane took the idea to Lew Grade, the boss of ATV, who loved the pitch and snapped it up, with the show commissioned to be produced in the UK for ITV. Set in The Benny Vandergast Memorial Theatre the show made famous characters which continue to entertain to this day, such as Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, Fozzy Bear and Beaker – although they waved goodbye to the Henson Company some time ago and are now part of the Disney empire. The studios also saw big-star names lining up to appear with frogs, pigs and bears along with a host of other creatures, including Elton John, Roger Moore, Julie Andrews, Bruce Forsyth, Shirley Bassey and John Cleese to name just a few.
Fans of the show can enjoy a podcast reflecting on the ATV series in How The Muppet Show was Born in Britain. Produced by Distinct Nostalgia its the seventh edition in the series which also takes in other classic shows such as Thames Television’s Rainbow and ATV’s Pipkins.
Host Ashley Byrne assembles Gonzo (David Goelz) with Annie Sue Pig (Louise Gold) and Muppet writer Joe Bailey for a look back at the show’s formative years in Britain in the mid-70s. With a host of memories and facts from the production. You can hear the podcast by clicking here.
“It was a family, a really dysfunctional family and people drove each other mad, but they loved each other so much” – Louise Gold, speaking to Distinct Nostalgia
The ATV Elstree Centre, now BBC Elstree Studios, the former home of The Muppet Show.