For British readers of a certain age, Worzel Gummidge is forever entwined with the image of Jon Pertwee as the eponymous scarecrow. It’s so iconic that, even today – 40 years since that incarnation of the character made its first appearance – you’ll find adults that’ll do an impression of Pertwee in character – usually a “cup of tea and a slice of cake” reference. Sunday afternoons watching Worzel Gummidge repeats were simply part of growing up in the 80s.
People forget – or don’t even realise – that the character originated in a series of childrens books by Barbara Euphan Todd – and that the first was published as far back as 1936. Or that there was an even earlier TV adaptation in 1953, with Frank Atkinson in the title role. An even older version exists too, with a radio adaptation that was first broadcast in the late 1930s. Worzel Gummidge existed in many different forms way before Jon Pertwee played him.
Yet Pertwee’s version is the only one for a certain generation, which is perhaps why so many people turned their nose up at the idea or even the very suggestion of a new Worzel Gummidge – myself included. Reboot Worzel Gummidge? Why bother? We already have the perfect version! The look of the character was so different from what we were accustomed to as well – how could we accept this version over the one we were already so enamoured with?
Well, readers, those people – myself included – were wrong. Mackenzie Crook’s Worzel Gummidge, broadcast on the BBC over Christmas, is an absolute delight.
And it really is Mackenzie Crook’s Worzel Gummidge. He writes, directs and stars as the titular scarecrow and does a bloody good job with every one of those roles.
For those of you who don’t know anything about the character or his stories, Worzel Gummidge is a living scarecrow who befriends two children – John and Susan – and gets into lots of amusing scrapes with them, often involving him going into ‘a sulk’ and turning back into a ‘real’ scarecrow when other people are around. There’s humour to be found in his awkward, sweetly naïve nature and the fact that he’s made of a random assortment of objects and clothing.
Crook’s series – of which there are only two episodes so far – is beautifully shot, with lots of wonderful, rural British scenery on display. The writing is great and the performances spot on from everyone involved – Crook is joined by some great talent in front of the camera. Even the child actors do well, quickly establishing themselves in their roles.
The two stories are pretty gentle, with some more modern references to the climate crisis and pollution. A number of different scarecrows feature throughout the two episodes and they’re beautifully designed and realised, mostly with practical effects that work superbly. CGI is used sparingly and – it has to be said, especially when used to render wildlife such as birds – isn’t always effective, especially next to the stellar prosthetic effects.
There’s a slight creepiness to the premise that’s always been there – this was most often felt in Pertwee’s version when he was able to make use of different heads – and it does rear its head here, particularly when the diverse bunch of scarecrows band together under cover of darkness. It’s a testament to the direction that the creepy vibe doesn’t linger, however, being replaced instead with a sense of wonder and magic – the lovely score and songs are particularly helpful in this regard.
There’s a lot of hilarious moments throughout the two episodes too – Worzel talking about farts is a highlight, particularly the line “someone’s whispered a bum secret” – but it’s also, perhaps surprisingly, really touching and heartfelt. It’s a very old fashioned, nicely paced, absolutely magical and very British creation.
I’m desperate for more. Two hour long episodes simply aren’t enough. I want to go back to Scatterbrook Farm and visit my scarecrow friend in Ten Acre Field. To see more of his oddball, endearing friends and rivals.
And I’d very much like to stay there.
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