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DVD Review

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Worzel Gummidge
The Complete Collection


Starring: Jon Pertwee
Distributor: Fabulous Films
RRP: £49.99
Certificate: PG
Release Date: 25 November 2019

Worzel Gummidge is a walking, talking scarecrow who lives on Scatterbrook Farm, where he stands in the middle of Ten Acre Field. Made by the Crowman, he has a collection of different heads for different occasions – but all of them are in love with Aunt Sally, a wooden fairground dummy who is also able to walk and talk. Worzel befriends two children, brother and sister John and Sue Peters, who came to stay on the farm, but he often ends up landing them in trouble with his mischievous antics. Worzel Gummidge originally ran for four seasons on ITV between 1979 and 1981, with a further two seasons filmed in New Zealand and shown on Channel 4 in 1987 and 1989. All six seasons, totalling 53 episodes, are presented in this box set…

Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Though the original film negatives for this classic children’s programme were located by researchers Richard Latto and Stuart Manning in 2018, to date only one instalment, the 1980 Christmas special, A Cup o’ Tea an’ a Slice o’ Cake, has undergone restoration. This explains why the Christmas special got an individual release a few weeks prior to being included in this box set. The other episodes use the same dirty films and muffled soundtracks as before. Nevertheless, there’s plenty to enjoy here.

The Southern Television series departs considerably from Barbara Euphan Todd’s original books (in which Worzel is married to a scarecrow called Earthy Mangold and Aunt Sally is his actual aunt) by making Aunt Sally (Una Stubbs) the object of Worzel’s unrequited affection. This leads not only to a lot of comedy, as the self-centred fairground doll wraps the scarecrow around her little wooden finger, but also to many poignant scenes, with poor ol’ Worzel (Jon Pertwee) blubberin’ and weepin’. Another memorable innovation by writers Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall is the scarecrow’s comical collection of interchangeable heads, including a thinking head, a counting head, a brave head, a dancing head and many more.

Anyone who says that Mackenzie Crook’s recent version of Gummidge is too frightening should take a look at these episodes. There are some decidedly scary moments here, such as Worzel’s initial movements and words witnessed by the terrified John (Jeremy Austin) in the very first episode, Worzel’s Washing Day; a toothless and cackling old witch of a scarecrow in The Crowman; Worzel being stabbed with a pitchfork in A Little Learning; the zombie-like shambling of scarecrows in numerous episodes; the introduction of Dafthead (Frank Marlborough), with his crudely carved slash of a mouth, in Season 2’s Fire Drill; and Worzel being dismembered by a combine harvester in Season 3’s Worzel’s Wager. The latter is accompanied by comedy sound effects in an attempt to offset the horror, but that doesn’t help much!

After the initial set-up, with the Peters family – widower Mr Peters (Mike Berry), who is forever looking for an excuse to go to the pub, and his children John and Sue (an early role for Charlotte Coleman) – arriving at the farm of Mr and Mrs Braithwaite (Norman Bird and Megs Jenkins), the show introduces its semi-regular characters gradually. Worzel’s creator, the creepy but kindly Crowman (Catweazle star Geoffrey Bayldon), makes his entrance during the first episode, with Aunt Sally’s irate owner, Mr Shepherd (Michael Ripper, who previously had a recurring role in Southern Television’s other great children’s show, Freewheelers), following one episode later, in A Home Fit for Scarecrows. The fairground antique herself does not appear until the third episode, which is named after her.

Aunt Sally also marks the first appearance of Carry On alumnus Joan Sims as the posh but penny-pinching Mrs Bloomsbury-Barton. Her presence facilitates a class struggle within the narrative. Her lifestyle encapsulates many of the things Worzel yearns for: respect (especially that of Aunt Sally), wealth and privilege, not needing to work, and having all the cups of tea and slices of cake he can swallow. However, the lowly scarecrow is shown that he cannot acquire such status simply by donning a handsome head (in the fourth episode, The Crowman) or a butler head (in Season 2’s Very Good, Worzel).

The second season (originally broadcast in early 1980) adds new scarecrow and scarecrow-like characters to the mix. Another Carry On legend, Barbara Windsor, puts in the first of four guest-starring turns as a ship’s figurehead in Worzel and the Saucy Nancy. Chalking up three appearances apiece, Wayne Norman makes his debut as the delinquent Pickles Bramble in Worzel’s Nephew, with Bill Maynard following close behind as the red-faced Sergeant Beetroot in the ominous The Trial of Worzel Gummidge. All three characters are reunited with Worzel and Aunt Sally in the season finale get-together The Scarecrow Wedding and again in the Christmas special, A Cup o’ Tea an’ a Slice o’ Cake.

Season 3 (transmitted in late 1980) gets off to a strange start with Moving On, an episode that feels rather plotless and comes to a peculiar ending. It’s only when the next instalment, Dolly Clothes-Peg, begins that you realise this is a two-part story. The makers of the subsequent New Zealand series would learn from this mistake and would include a “To Be Continued…” caption whenever there was a cliffhanger. Dolly Clothes-Peg, of course, marks the first of two appearances by the delightful Lorraine Chase, playing to her strengths as a cheerful Cockney shop-window mannequin. Sadly, Joan Sims did not return for the third season. Taking her place from Worzel the Brave onwards is Thorley Walters as the blustering ex-army officer Colonel Bloodstock, though his character isn’t as successful.

The best episode of Season 3 – indeed, I would go so far as to call it the highlight of the entire box set – is The Return of Dafthead. This episode has laughs and shocks aplenty, and features an incredibly powerful discussion about death between Worzel and the Crowman. Facing the prospect of having his head knocked off forever in a duel, a worried Worzel asks his creator, “What’s it like not being a scarecrow no more?” The Crowman answers this question with a question: “What was it like before you were a scarecrow?” Worzel thinks about this for a moment, then replies, “I don’t know, sir. I don’t remember.” “That’s what it’s like,” explains the Crowman, with a sad smile, “It’s not remembering.” Just thinking about this scene brings a tear to my eye!

Between Seasons 3 and 4, A Cup o’ Tea an’ a Slice o’ Cake is served, a double-length Christmas episode that, unfortunately, only has enough story for a regular-length instalment. As a result of the extended running time and the inclusion of five different musical numbers, it’s hardly fast-paced. The plot is fairly aimless, largely involving Worzel looking for Aunt Sally but bumping into other people instead. Cue cameo appearances by popular returning characters such as Saucy Nancy and an appealing new one in the thistle-nosed form of Scottish scarecrow Bogle McNeep (Billy Connolly). Cut out the weak songs and Worzel’s wrong turns and this Yuletide tale could have been told in half the time. Still, I was amused when Gummidge is warned that, unless all the scarecrows remain at their posts to guide him back to the North Pole, Santa Claus could find himself in New Zealand – which is where the series itself ended up!

The fourth season’s The Return of Dolly Clothes-Peg demonstrates how Worzel is tragically trapped in an abusive relationship. At the end of the episode, he must choose between, as the Crowman puts it, happiness with Dolly Clothes-Peg or total misery with Aunt Sally. Just look at the expression on Worzel’s face as he finds himself compelled to take the road that leads to misery. He faces a similar dilemma in Will the Real Aunt Sally…?: the option of the nasty old Aunt Sally or an infinitely more pleasant model, played by Connie Booth. The twist here is that he is unable to tell the two Aunt Sallies apart. Other notable one-off characters in Season 4 include Beryl Reid as Worzel’s ‘mother’ Sarah Pigswill in Muvver’s Day and Bernard Cribbins as nautical mascot Jolly Jack in The Golden Hind, the penultimate instalment of the UK-based show.

Being a sailor at heart, Jolly Jack could quite feasibly have come ashore for a guest appearance or three during the New Zealand episodes (as, indeed, could Saucy Nancy), but sadly it was not to be. The only cast members to be carried over into the relaunched series, entitled Worzel Gummidge Down Under, were Jon Pertwee and Una Stubbs. Geoffrey Bayldon declined to reprise his role – presumably the first draft scripts had the Crowman following Worzel and Aunt Sally to the antipodes and setting up shop there. No one could truly replace Bayldon, but his character is referred to with high regard throughout the series, and Bruce Phillips does a creditable job as his New Zealand counterpart. The two new children, Mickey and Manu (Jonathan Marks and Olivia Ihimaera-Smiler, who are introduced in the second episode, The Sleeping Beauty), are OK, but they’re not as adorable or as believable as John and Sue.

In fact, Worzel Gummidge Down Under struggles to find its feet until the fourth episode, Worzel’s Handicap. Prior to this point, there’s rather too much reliance on the uneasy relationship between Worzel and Aunt Sally, and their near-constant bickering does become rather tiresome. In Worzel’s Handicap, we finally get a character in the mould of Mrs Bloomsbury-Barton or Colonel Bloodstock, someone who is full of himself and needs taking down a peg or two by Worzel’s shenanigans, namely Peter Harcourt as the Captain.

After this, the programme really hits its stride, with five brilliant episodes, starting with King of the Scarecrows, featuring a deeply unsettling recurring villain in the shape of the Travelling Scarecrow Maker (Wi Kuki Kaa). This ambitious story arc, which includes a pair of two-parters, is only slightly marred by the New Zealand Crowman claiming that he made Worzel’s heads in Ten Heads Are Better Than One – it appears that this line was accidentally left in a script originally written for Geoffrey Bayldon.

Writers Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall departed the show for its final season. The series has lost some of its magic by this point, though it’s hard to pin down precisely why, especially when you notice the names of the incoming writing team. Frances (Fran) Walsh, the wife of Peter Jackson and a writer on many of his projects, including his Tolkien films, made her screenwriting debut on six episodes. The other six were divvied up between director James Hill and another newcomer, Anthony McCarten, who would go on to write The Theory of Everything and The Two Popes.

It is perhaps a testament to how far the show had fallen that there is only one episode from the final season that I can remember from my youth. This is Elementary, My Dear Worty (written by Frances Walsh), a splendid Sherlock Holmes spoof in which Worzel dons a detecting head to try and solve a mystery. Perhaps this is also a nod to 1953’s Worzel Gummidge Turns Detective, the first-ever Worzel Gummidge television production, now sadly lost.

There are some enjoyable recurring scarecrow characters in the later episodes. Bulbous Cauliflower (David Weatherley), Weevily Swede (Peter Rowley) and Wattle Hearthbrush (Ellie Smith), a female scarecrow with very Eighties hair, are each introduced in episodes named after them, while Worty Yam (Ian Mune) and Irish bird-scarer Blighty Tater (Danny Mulheron) make their debuts in Elementary, My Dear Worty. Several of them are brought together for a season finale reunion, The Bestest Scarecrow, written by Anthony McCarten.

If you already have these episodes on DVD and want to upgrade to remastered editions, then don’t bother with this collection. You can buy the only spruced-up episode separately, or you might want to wait and see whether any complete seasons get a makeover at some point in the future. However, if you don’t already own this series, then this is the bestest Worzel Gummidge box set that you can get your twiggy hands on.


Richard McGinlay

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