Looking Back At WORZEL GUMMIDGE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony puts a wur after w.
Any time you get the chance to give life, and story, and human complications to seemingly inanimate objects, you have a world that makes intrinsic sense to children.

When, for instance, Pixar launched the Toy Story movies, there were plenty of reasons why they were successful, but one of the most fundamental was the idea that kids everywhere kind of already knew in their imaginative heart of hearts, that their toys came to life and had lives of their own the minute they were alone.

That was the genius in Barbara Euphan Todd’s rural children’s fantasy books based on the adventures of Worzel Gummidge, the scarecrow of Scatterbrook Farm. When human beings weren’t around, the scarecrows of the world had their own lives to get on with, their own adventures, and their own conflicts.

The books were hugely popular for over 30 years, between the 1930s-60s, and there was 1950s televised incarnation of Worzel played by Frank Atkinson in Worzel Gummidge Turns Detective, written directly for the screen by Todd.

But by 1979, the time felt right for another, longer-form version of the Todd books on screen.
When Jon Pertwee – perhaps the most suave and dashing incarnation of Doctor Who we’ve ever had – left the show in 1975, it’s no secret that he was worried about finding different work, and being typecast in similar roles to his TV Time Lord.

He went back to the theatre for a while, to regain his flexibility outside of the iconic cult TV role, but it was to be the role of Worzel Gummidge that finally broke him out of his typecasting fears, because two more different roles than Pertwee’s Doctor and his Worzel Gummidge it would be difficult to find.

But it’s worth noting two things. First – the series nearly never got made. And second, it’s impossible to underestimate the contributions of the screenwriters, Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall.

Waterhouse (often with an uncredited Hall) is these days better known for his original works – he wrote Billy Liar, delivered the screenplay for Whistle Down The Wind, wrote the stage play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, and had decades as one of the most prolific newspaper columnists in Britain. The pair together also rewrote the script of Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain.

So it’s easy to understand why people don’t often appreciate the work Waterhouse and Hall did to Barabara Euphan Todd’s books to give them more depth and life on TV. It’s also difficult to imagine what the 1979 Worzel Gummidge would have been without their input.
In the 1979 TV version, Geoffrey Bayldon adds a spirit of rural mysticism to the piece as the Crowman, maker of scarecrows, and quite possibly he who imbues them with life. That’s a crystallisation and clarification from the Todd books, where the maker of scarecrows is simply a mysterious figure. Likewise, the shift of Aunt Sally’s position front and centre, to give Una Stubbs a much more leading role. In the books, Aunt Sally is, if anything, an antagonistic bully, whereas Worzel is married to another scarecrow, Earthy Mangold. That would have been possible to translate directly to screen, but it would perhaps have been much less funny, and the spur to much less drama, than the pairing of Pertwee and Stubbs.

And perhaps the most famous invention from the TV version – the different heads of Worzel Gummidge, a gag so good it was recycled in Red Dwarf – is also pure creativity from Waterhouse and Hall, as the books only give Worzel the one, permanent head.

As we say, the show was nearly never made, as it was (at least according to Pertwee’s autobiography) initially supposed to be a feature-length film dealing with a kind of ‘Scarecrows’ Revolt’ against being stuck on their own in fields, and while the cantankerously antagonistic nature of scarecrows among themselves is something rooted in the original books, there’s every chance the notion of scarecrows rising off their poles and marching on humanity would have struck far too much of a Hammer Horror note in the late Seventies.

With the project re-imagined though, Pertwee got the chance to breathe extraordinary life into his second iconic screen character, and broaden the range of parts he was offered significantly.
The pilot episode still dabbles with those dark, semi-zombie themes though – Worzel is used for more than one jump-scare, and his coming back to life sequence is filmed pretty much as straight horror, with mud, rain, a creepy crow, and Pertwee putting on a kind of zombie jerk as he trudges out of his field in search of some humans.

But where the 1979-81 version of Worzel Gummidge scores its triumph is in the accuracy of Pertwee’s performance of the central character. Barbara Euphan Todd cottoned on to the fact that children didn’t especially want overly sweet mythic characters. They wanted characters that reflected come of their own primal elements back at them, so they could both empathize with them, and sometimes force themselves into the ‘parental’ role of disapproving, while they secretly revelled. Worzel Gummidge is cantankerous, sometimes childish, given to sulks, and frequently wilful, to his detriment. But he’s also playful, often well-meaning, regularly anti-authority, and a lot of the time, the trouble he gets into is the result of his trying to figure out a confusing human world as best he can with the experience he has.

That makes Worzel a figure of both engagement and danger for children, and Jon Pertwee pitched him perfectly, making him a character that lights up the screen in any of his many moods. Pertwee had made his name mostly in radio comedy and especially for a range of comic voices. It’s a little ironic that his Doctor was one of the ‘straightest’ in the show’s first two decades, reflecting Pertwee’s personal character as a dashing adventurist more than any other role he ever played. With Worzel, he brought the comedy skills that had made him famous roaring to the fore, and gave the character a voice that was utterly distinctive, almost like a walking Mr Punch, only warmer.

Throughout four series, we saw Worzel get into mischief, and into some serious trouble too, while those around him tried to keep the scarecrow from running into – or being the cause of – utter calamity.

It’s worth saying that the quality of the cast that bolstered Pertwee in the role – and the quality of the occasional guest stars – was second to none for late Seventies, early Eighties TV.

Pertwee’s central casting was a stroke of television genius, and as we’ve said, Geoffrey Bayldon, TV-famous in his own right as Catweazle, gave the Crowman a twinkle-eyed rural mysticism that hinted of secrets and magic.

But the quality runs all the way through the cast. The two children who become Worzel’s most regular human friends, John and Sue Peters, were played by Jeremy Austin (who went on to nail some one-shot roles onto his resume in shows like Juliet Bravo, Johnny Briggs, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, and Red Dwarf), and Charlotte Coleman, who went on to be absolutely famous to a generation.
Roles like Marmalade Atkins in Educating Marmalade, Jess in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Lisa Yardley in Simon ‘Men Behaving Badly’ Nye’s How Do You Want Me?, and most internationally, Scarlett in Four Weddings And A Funeral, all followed for Coleman before her death at the ridiculously unfair age of 33. But as Sue Peters, Coleman gave life to an avatar for sisters with brothers everywhere, sarcastically tinged, and with more than a touch of ‘Why am I saddled with this idiot?’, but still, when the chips were down, knowing she could trust him to do the right thing.

Their father was played by Mike Berry, known to TV fans of an age either as Mr Spooner from Are You Being Served?, or as the Blue Riband Blues TV Commercial Guy.

Una Stubbs, as we’ve said, famous from films with Cliff Richard and as Alf Garnett’s long-suffering daughter Rita in Till Death Do Us Part played quite against type in the risky role of Aunt Sally, a pretentious fairground doll who is the apple of Worzel’s eye – and who makes him work extra hard to be worthy of her notice.

Beyond that, some of the comedy stalwarts of a generation added their weight to the show – Bernard Cribbins, Barbara Windsor, Billy Connolly, Bill Maynard, Norman Bird, Lorraine Chase, Connie Booth and more all appeared across the series.

Worzel Gummidge was pure fun and adventure with a mischievous, sulky, self-interested, anarchic scarecrow and the people who cared about him, and the story of its ending is as weird as its beginnings – when the network that showed it, Southern, lost its license and its programmes transferred to TVS, the new company simply declined to make any more.

The show eventually returned for a brief flurry as Worzel Gummidge Down Under in 1987, with a New Zealand location and only Pertwee and Stubbs on board from the original cast. But sadly, after drawing poor ratings, Michael Grade cancelled the show for good.

The thing about Worzel Gummidge is that the books continue to be read, because the central character and the premise instinctively appeals to children (including children with five decades under their belts!), and a more recent re-interpretation starring Mackenzie Crook in the lead role proved that the magic is still there in the role and the storytelling.

But the Jon Pertwee version has the magic from the very beginning, delivering a charm-sprinkled children’s story, with an unpredictable, sometimes cranky, but always exhilarating central character who still repays rewatching to this day.

Watch Worzel Gummidge today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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