TV - Worzel Gummidge


Outstanding in his own field, Barnaby Eaton-Jones watched both episodes of the new BBC adaptation of Worzel Gummidge and interviewed cast members Ben Langley and Andrew James Spooner...

“Someone’s whispered a bum secret!” (Worzel Gummidge, The Green Man)

People of a certain age were reaching for a cup of tranquil tea and a slice of calming cake when a new television adaptation of Barbara Euphan Todd’s ‘Worzel Gummidge’ books was announced by the BBC.

The ripples of fear, not felt since Jon Pertwee’s anarchic take on the character first disturbed an audience in 1979, were not quelled by the first photos shared of new writer/director and lead actor Mackenzie Crook in full scarecrow make-up. This skewed closer to the book in looks, with people declaring he appeared to be the distant cousin of Freddie Krueger (the murderous and hideous character from the horror film series ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’).

The old adage of not judging a book by its cover could not have been more apt in this case.

Two hour-long episodes in what I hope will be a returning series were broadcast at Christmas in 2019 and I thought it would be the sort of programme that my two daughters (aged 7 and 9) would lap up. They’ve both seen episodes of the Pertwee series, finding it both amusing and unnerving in equal measures, and this new adaptation looked to have ramped up the folk horror quota Initially from photos on set – Pagan, pastoral horror movies seem to have been back in vogue of late and I was concerned that my girls would find it more scary than soothing.

I needn’t have worried.

Crook’s Worzel may initially look a little off-putting – with his turnip-type head and whiskery roots sprouting round his mouth – but the moment he moves and talks it was clear this was a gentle, warming, inquisitive and quirkily-witted scamp of a scarecrow. He was loveable and likeable, with a turn of phrase that delighted my ears.

The pace of the two new adaptations was measured and the lingering shots of flora and fauna, with long slow-moving images of the countryside, was as achingly beautiful as the musical score from English folk group The Unthanks (written by one of their members, Adrian McNally).

Scatterbrook Farm, which looks after Ten Acre Field (where Worzel resides), was a welcoming place of nostalgia for older viewers and probably alien to younger viewers – with Mr and Mrs Braithwaite (played just this side of caricature by Steve Pemberton and Rosie Cavaliero) have stepped out of a cosy 1950’s world that doesn’t have Wi-Fi and still kowtows to the eccentric Lady of the Manor who owns their cottage and the lands they tend to. But, the culture clash that the two young leads bring – India Brown as Susan and Thierry Wickens as John – serves as a reminder that these orphans are modern even if their surroundings aren’t. Their discovery of the delights around them is played out perfectly, as they slowly engage in country living.


The opening episode – The Scarecow of Scatterbrook - introduces us to Worzel Gummidge, who’s very worried about the weather and who mistakes the two ‘chillen’ (as he calls children) for scarecrows who have come to help him with what’s going on. His reason for thinking they are of his persuasion? Because of their unsuitable clothes for the country and their ill-fitting and unmatching nature when wearing them. It’s a lovely lesson in how adults can mistake personal style for perceived sloppiness in those younger than them.

Worzel initially turns back into a stiff, stationary and unresponsive scarecrow when he learns his new-found friends are humans – a process described by him as a ‘sulk’ later in his burgeoning relationship with Susan and John. It’s one of the many special effects that enhance rather than stand out like a sore thumb (Worzel’s innards just being a pole to keep him upright was particularly effective, as was his pet Robin).

The culmination of his investigations into why the crops haven’t ripened and midsummer doesn’t seem to be ending comes to a head when he visits his Aunt Sally – a wooden fairground attraction (the introductory description of her being a subtle reference to woman’s sufferage) – in her museum home and she reminds Worzel there needs to be a key to unlock the seasons.

The ecological themes that permeates both these episodes, with subtle messages and forewarnings, are sewn beautifully through the plot. There’s no heavy-handed speeches or sledgehammer rants about how we’re destroying the planet we live on, just a desire to point out that children are the future, whilst harmony and friendship can extend across differences in backgrounds and races.

Both stories are given room to breath and are all the better for it. Not a lot of plot happens but everything happens so magically that you are happy to be on the ride throughout these two moments of the scarecrow’s life.

The scene where he’s bargaining with his mortal enemies – the crows – in order to talk to the ‘Tree of Trees’ is very effective, especially for the comedy demands of the crows themselves when first asked what they want in order to help Worzel out (“Rooks with guns? Potentially dangerous!”). Crook’s writing blends songs and poetry throughout to give it an almost ethereal quality at times. One such example is when he places his hands on the Tree of Trees and summons the other scarecrows…

“Send to all scarecrows, a wake-up alarm,
Tell them to gather at Scatterbrook Farm.
The seasons are locked, we’re missing the key,
If one of you’s got it, then bring it to me.
Uproots, hurry Westwards, and all will be revealed,
By the light of the full moon at Ten Acre Field.”


And, of course, the other scarecrows come off their perches at night and what a hoot they are. This is by far the scariest bunch of scenes in both episodes and yet it’s also very clear that – although they come in all shapes and sizes – they’re a simple and crazy and joyous bunch, laughing at their own jokes and dancing around like the moon has infected them with a happy madness.

The key that unlocks the season comes in the form of intricate crop circles, danced out to the haunting melodies and chants of the music of the night.


This sets up the second episode, where – spoken of reverentially in passing during the first episode – the eponymously titled Green Man comes to Scatterbrook, in the form of Sir Michael Palin. It’s a delicious role of impish magic that – in looks – echoes his mad, scrambling old man that began the titles of episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but in personality is far removed from that manic persona. He’s an eccentric sage, at one with nature in dress and with a face that’s still undeniably sweet under the lines of time. He’s been quoted as saying the programme was an ‘oasis of calm’ and there is that very phrase in his perfectly-pitched performance.

His voice, oddly, very reminiscent of Geoffrey Bayldon’s Crowman in the Pertwee series that came before (whether by accident or by design) but he’s a gentle character who lays down rules but then is open to discussing the bending of them when It comes to his favourite scarecrow.

On the other end of the spectrum for this episode is the introduction of Lady Bloomsbury-Barton, who – by way of an invitation to afternoon tea for the newly-arrived Susan and John at Scatterbrook Farm – gets to accidentally meet Worzel and include him in her tour of the house and sit-down-chat over a pot of Earl Grey and some posh nibbles. She’s a caring, sharing type of a down-to-earth Lady, encouraging the gathering of the community she lives in around her, and it’s a charming role that actress Zoe Wannamaker grasps with both hands. The discussion, initiated with Worzel, of who it is that’s passed wind at the table is a brilliant bit of topsy-turvy of embarrassment and humour – with some great descriptions riffed off the tongue of Worzel himself of how to describe such a smell.

There’s also a gang of scarecrow ‘trubblemakers’, who are as rebellious as little children, and who all have vegetables for heads; clowning around on pretend motorbikes, allowing a subtle message of wayward youth and their disrespectful foibles like littering and disrespecting to be brought forward.

The stand-out guest spot for me, though (and who bridges both episodes as well) is Worzel’s best scarecrow friend in the vegetable plot at Lady Bloomsbury-Barton’s manor. Earthy Mangold is acted to joyous perfection (with a stunning use of make-up and prosthetics) by Francesca Mills. Her sheer delight when revelling in Worzel’s antics or her long-strided and lop-sided walk she affects when off her perch is just one perfect part of her detailed creation. She’s wide blue-eyed and friendly, with a perma-grin etched across her sack for a face. Her cuteness beaming from her in a way that makes you want to be her friend too. The sheer joy she brings when asking Worzel to re-enact the moment he stepped over the threshold of the manor she can see from her vegetable plot is magic.

As both episodes deal with similar themes, and all with a message of hope for the future, it’s safe to assume that if a series materialises then those themes will continue through and might educate those that are watching (or prick their conscience at least).

Mackenzie Crook has said in interviews that he never watched Jon Pertwee’s Worzel Gummidge as a child and thank goodness he didn’t. If he had, he might have thought twice about delivering his own version as there would inevitably be comparisons. Pertwee always said that – even though he was just as fondly remembered as the Third Doctor in Doctor Who – Worzel was his favourite creation and the one he yearned to play again and again. I hope Mackenzie Crook thinks the same about his new Worzel.

Whereas Pertwee’s Worzel was like an errant child full of naughty thoughts and often selfish demeanour, Crook’s take on the character is a gentler soul whose vanity is sweet and his personality is less self-aggrandizing and more self-aware. Whereas the previous Worzel tried to disrupt the country life around him, this new Worzel tries to create a harmony in his surroundings. Let’s hope the BBC create a harmonious relationship with this new Worzel too and we see more of his antics and adventures in the future.

Oh, and my two children that watched it with me? They were entranced, laughed at the jokes and took on board the green themes that appeals to them both anyway. It is a Worzel Gummidge for their generation.

Written by Barnaby Eaton-Jones © 2020





INTERVIEWS

ANDREW JAMES SPOONER (FLAT ALASTAIR)…


BARNABY EATON-JONES (BEJ): Andrew, hello! Thanks for agreeing to come down off your scarecrow perch and answer these questions. So, you had the hindrance of having a full-size ironing board strapped to you for this show, did that inhibit or enhance your characterisation of Flat Alastair?!

ANDREW JAMES SPOONER (AJS): Enhance totally. I'm also a puppeteer and you find that the quirks and limitations of a puppet dictate the parameters of your performance, and enhance it. The same with Flat Alastair, the fact that I had an ironing board strapped to me completely dictated what performance I could give by limiting how I could move. As a performer it's then up to me to work out what I CAN do. All this ends up informing the character.

BEJ: Do you have memories of the original Worzel Gummidge and what was it like to know you'd be part of a new version of the classic character?

AJS: I was never a massive fan of the Pertwee version. I did watch it, but mostly because Pertwee was in it and I was a massive Doctor Who fan. I was always up for watching what ex - Doctors did. Having said that, it was a real "pinch me" moment being cast in it. It was a straight offer, no audition, just "would you like to be part of this?" YES! That never happens to me! I knew it was going to be something special with Mackenzie Crook involved.

BEJ: Did you watch the broadcasts with your own children? What did they think and did they get excited to see you as part of the scarecrow gathering?!

AJS: I did. They got totally absorbed in the story and pretty much forgot I was in it! But that's what you want. There's a lovely feel to the show, a mix of magic, folklore and gentle humour, and they really connected with it. Having said that, I think that they were both proud of Dad.

BEJ: Thank you very much, Andrew!

You can find more about Andrew’s extensive work in film, television and radio by visiting www.andrewjamesspooner.com


BEN LANGLEY (CAB DRIVER)…


BARNABY EATON-JONES (BEJ): Ben, hello! You worked with Mackenzie Crook before on The Detectorists, which was another gentle but warm-hearted series set in the countryside. It seems to be a sort of an extension of Mackenzie's personality. Is he as warm and gentle as the series he produces?

BEN LANGLEY (BL): Mackenzie has always conversed with me in an extremely chilled, gentle and unassuming manner. I know he loves the countryside so it wouldn’t be wrong to think there is no coincidence in the subjects of both The Detectorists and Worzel Gummidge.

BEJ: Do you have memories of the original Worzel Gummidge and what was it like to know you'd be part of a new version of the classic character?

BL: I remember being aware of Worzel Gummidge and I met Jon Pertwee years ago. I’m not sure if we were allowed to watch it to be honest but I knew the premise of it all.

BEJ: Did you watch the broadcasts with your own children? What did they think and did they get excited to see you at the beginning?!

BL: Yes, we watched it on Catch Up as I was on stage when both episodes were shown. My boys are my biggest fans and although I had a tiny role they absolutely loved seeing me in it.

BEJ: Ben, thanks for your time!

You can find more about Ben, including his memorable appearance on Britain’s Got Talent, by visiting www.benlangley.co.uk

Images -BBC, Interview images - screenshots by Barnaby Eaton-Jones.

Worzel Gummidge comes to DVDand Blu-ray in April. You can pre-order them through Amazon below.