JIM HENSON: THE BIOGRAPHY by BRIAN JAY JONES
Encapsulate the book in one sentence?
Exhaustive and wonderfully detailed biography of a man who built an empire out of doodles and hand puppets and silly voices.
When did I buy it? Where and why did I buy it?
Borrowed from Manchester City Library. One of those books you’d be tempted to buy in hardback, but it’s such a relief and a pleasure to find it in the library. It’s published by Virgin (2013), with thin pages and a very poor number of illustrations and photos, given the subject.
What’s your verdict?
It’s a brilliant biography, about someone I’ve always wanted to know more about, and to understand a little. It always seemed to me that Henson would be a wonderful, creatively generous man, and so it seems he was. We really get to find out all the good stuff from his family, closest colleagues and friends – they all talk brilliantly about him. Also, he left such a wonderful amount of stuff – finished work on film and tape and in notebooks and journals – we get a fantastically complete sense of this disarmingly idealistic man.
Did you finish it? Did it work for you?
The book lets us know what he was up to almost every week of his working life and, while in the most exciting parts – when he’s working on the late 70s Muppet Show, or making Labyrinth in the 80s, or on the point of selling his company to Disney at the end of his life, this can be fascinating and suspenseful – sometimes there can by a bit too much detail. The first hundred pages of his young life were a slog compared with what came after. It could have done with some tightening, perhaps.
What genre would you say it is?
It’s one of those blockbusting biographies of a famous person who was a great creator – whose career is measured in the ideas they had, and were determined to realise.
What surprises did it hold – if any?
Lots of behind-the-scenes type surprises. We learn so much about the process of making his shows and movies. I was surprised by stuff like – how he just slipped seamlessly into being a puppetry genius on TV at the age of nineteen. I was surprised at the way doors seemed to open at every turn for him, and how his struggles were mostly aesthetic ones. It’s refreshing to read, for once, about a non-thwarted genius. The world of TV and film in the decades when he was working seemed to greet a great innovator with open arms – and that’s a lovely thing to read about.
What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?
The grueling detail of his last days will stay with me, I think. His death was needless and sudden – and it takes us by surprise. But there are many other scenes and characters that will stay with me, too – of happier times. I love the tales of him settling into life in England in the Eighties, and making wonderful films like ‘Dark Crystal’ and ‘Labyrinth’ – and jetting back and forth between the US and Britain with almost unseemly regularity.
What will you do with this copy now?
Back to the library. But I’ll be tempted to buy my own copy. Perhaps the US edition. It’s the kind of biog it would be good to dip into again.
Give me a good quote:
“Today you’d rely on computers or visual effects to accomplish all that we did. But back then, everything on the screen – everything – was handmade…”