The princess and the frog

She is jarringly frank and confrontational. He does his best to steer a path towards harmony. Together they are Piggy and Kermit, clearly the most volatile couple in showbiz. Our reporter asks the questions . . . carefully

Muppets read The Irish Times and that’s official. A faithful re-creation of an Irish Times front page appears in several key scenes of the new Muppets movie, while the Muppets are in Ireland on a world tour.

Fri, Mar 28, 2014, 10:59

Well, this is strange. One gets to meet all sorts in the interviewing lark: faded, fetid heartthrobs; just-about-living legends; distinguished avatars of another era. But Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog – the fire and ice of zoological superstars – sit well outside the commonplace pack (or whatever the collective nouns are for swine and amphibians).

The frog first emerged as a hard-working newsman on Sesame Street before finding even greater fame beside his porcine significant other on The Muppet Show in the mid-1970s. How little they have changed. Forty years ago, Ms Piggy – not that such a thing could be possible – looked a little as if she had been modelled on Bette Midler: brash, overpowering, unwilling to settle.

Ms Midler no longer looks like her younger self. But Ms Piggy has not aged a day. Wrapped in a furry boa thing, she displays pink flesh that seems more bouncy then fresh foam rubber. The eyelids still flutter as aggressively. How does she do it? Has “work” taken place?

“You mean, how do I still look so beautiful?” she says, fixing me with a terrifying stare.

Well, um, yes. That’s obviously what I meant.

“You should use the right word then,” she snaps. “It’s very easy. I just woke up one morning and said: ‘I am not going to have any of that aging.’ It’s just willpower. I just look in the mirror and stare the wrinkles away.”

Let’s move on to other controversies. This week, the cast of The Muppet Show reconvene for Muppets Most Wanted, a fine sequel to 2011’s economically titled The Muppets. It’s a busy, hilarious, picaresque adventure that takes the gang from Madrid to Berlin and, eventually, Dublin. At this point, we encounter a plot twist that will appal all readers of Ireland’s most respected newspaper.

As we settle down to our conversation, I mention that I am representing The Irish Times.

The Irish Times?” Miss Piggy says with a bacony sizzle. “Didn’t you give us a good review? When I say ‘a good review’ I don’t mean it was well written, of course. I mean it was a positive review.”

Well, yes and no. As the Muppets travel the world, their show receives excellent notices despite innumerable disasters (such as Gonzo staging a live bull run in one theatre). During the Irish adventure the truth is revealed: their evil manager is paying off the critics.

In a truly shocking, scandalously misleading sequence, we see money being handed to a reviewer from (to use the language of the letters page) Ireland’s “paper of record”. As a former reporter for Sesame Street News, Kermit must understand the outrageousness of this accusation.

“I used to be a reporter,” he agrees. “It is very important to say that this is a movie. We are making no accusations against The Irish Times or the Irish journalistic corps at all.”

Always the gunboat diplomat, Piggy elects to stick in her snout. “It was meant to be about journalists in general!” she oinks.

She has had a bad time from the press?

“Me? No. I didn’t write the movie.”

“Look, we would never imply that,” Kermit continues. “Though I do have five bucks to give you if you would write a better article. No, I didn’t say that.”

The film offers a somewhat caricatured portrait of our fine little nation. It’s nice to see so much of The Irish Times’ elegant masthead. But there are rather more leprechauns about the place than one encountered in, say, The Wind That Shakes the Barley or Veronica Guerin. I wonder what surprised them about Ireland.

“What surprised me about Ireland was how much it looked like Pinewood Studios,” Piggy says.

“We would love to have gone there, Donald,” Kermit explains. “We were on a back-lot. We had the back-lot doublin’ for Dublin.”

One gets the sense that Kermit spends a great deal of his time mopping up Piggy’s messes. Whereas she is jarringly frank and unstoppably confrontational, he does his best to steer a path towards the arbours of harmony. It is, in that sense, a delightfully complementary relationship. She is very much her own pig. He remains the same frog we’ve all loved since the Nixon administration.

Yet rumours have abounded that the Muppets a re not quite what they seem. I notice that a human minder sits weirdly close to each interviewee. Are other people pulling the strings for Piggy, Kermit, Animal, Fozzie and the rest? We need to quash this gossip once and for all.

“Please, please. If anybody is pulling the strings around here, it’s me,” Piggy says in tone of heightened dudgeon. “I have been accused of being very manipulative. All right! So, I take that as a compliment. If anybody is being manipulative, it’s me!

“Look, I like to get my way. I can be very persuasive. I can land you in the hospital if I don’t get my way.”

Kermit is wriggling uncomfortably. It’s clear he would rather I’d taken another line of questioning. “Be careful. Be very careful,” he croaks.

It really is a most peculiar relationship. Piggy has always seemed the more romantically enthusiastic of the two – always pushing for a proposal – but that has not stopped her flirting outrageously with the likes of Michael Parkinson. Down through the decades, she and Kermit have somehow maintained a startlingly consistent volatility.

“It may look volatile in the movies,” Piggy says with a snort that she never gave Parky.

“It is volatile,” Kermit whispers behind his hand.

“People expect drama in the movies. In real life our relationship is anything but volatile,” she snaps.

This really is not going very well. The glamorous sow seems to have taken a serious dislike to your reporter. Forget Parkinson and Piggy. Think Parkinson and Meg Ryan.

The time has come, perhaps, to pour a little oil on troubled swill. It is impressive how the Muppets still remain relevant today. Their traditional music-hall values are soundly in place. But the las t Muppet movie managed to become one of the biggest hits of the year. How do they achieve this continuing connection with the zeitgeist?

“It’s because we live in the world like anybody else,” Kermit says. “I am sitting here with you. If we do another film next year I will come back and talk about what’s happening then as opposed to now. We stay relevant by being relevant in our lives.”

“It’s just . . . Oh, what he said,” Piggy says with ill grace.

Yet there was a time when they weren’t quite so popular. The previous movie began with the team living separately in ill-deserved obscurity. The writers took some licence, but the early years of this century do now seem like a wilderness period for the mighty entertainers.

“It’s a funny thing,” Kermit says. “During all those years, we were working and doing stuff. I guess the pendulum swings. We weren’t doing a regular TV series. But the people who saw us were still appreciating us.”

As ever, Piggy takes a more combative line.

“Fiction! Fiction! Just because you are not making a TV show does not mean you are dead,” she says. “There are a lot of people alive today who are not making TV shows. Right?”

Yes, right. So were there any drink and drugs scandals during those days? We all know the perils of the celebrity implosion.

“None that I would like to share,” Miss Piggy says cryptically.

At any rate, we can all agree that things have worked out swimmingly in recent years. Like Take That, the Muppets lost the surplus pounds and went on to surpass their earlier triumphs.

Just consider the celebrities who have queued up to appear in Muppets Most Wanted.Tom Hiddleston plays the Great Escapo. Saoirse Ronan does a turn. Usher appears as himself. (Fret not, there are plenty more star cameos we haven’t spoilt.) One of the movie’s best sequences finds Piggy singing a duet with Celine Dion.

At the risk of unleashing another whirlwind of fury, might we enquire whether there was any clashing of egos. These are all big stars. But no star is bigger than the well-dressed ungulate who sits before me.

“Everybody got on famously and did not compete with moi at all,” she says. “Especially since that was written into my contract. I had to be the biggest diva. If I am called to set, people are not to expect me for at least two hours. When I do come to set, people are then expected to bow before me. And I am not expected to actually work. I just go back to my trailer.”

“And she has the biggest trailer,” Kermit adds. “Everybody else’s trailer can fit inside her trailer. I usually just hang out in her sink. That seems to suit me very nicely.”

It is rare to discover two stars who, in real life, seem so much like their on-screen personae. Daniel Craig isn’t really a secret agent. Daniel Radcliffe isn’t any sort of wizard. But Piggy really does seem to be the possessive diva she portrays on screen. Kermit is just as reasonable in person.

Maybe I’m missing something. Perhaps they are just acting out their fictional roles for the ladies and gentlemen of the press.

“What you see on screen is a large part of me,” Kermit muses. “I play the role of ‘Kermit the Frog’. But I also am Kermit the Frog. The same is true for Piggy. I may seem serious. That’s because I have to look after the whole group. I have my moments of extreme silliness as well.”

“Oh, he’s boring,” Piggy retorts. “But that’s okay. I love sitting down with him after a long day and just watching some Downton Abbey .”

Ah, so that’s what the world’s greatest pig gets up to in her spare time. She’s a fan of our era’s most posh soap opera.

“Why, yes, Hugh Bonneville is in the movie.”

I know. He plays The Irish Times critic who accepts the brown envelope. He is, in fact, playing me. How does she think he was in the role?

The eyelashes lower. She adopts a more than usually sardonic tone.

“He’s a lot more handsome.”

What do you expect from a pig . . .