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

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Looking Back At CATWEAZLE

“Nothing works!” declares Tony. “Except Catweazle.”
Acting is a peculiar game. Almost every actor will go through a whole career, putting on and taking off characters, inhabiting them all for a short while and then moving on.

Just occasionally though, if you’re very lucky, characters and actors come together, and with an almost audible click that ripples through the universe, everything comes together. You look at them and go “Ahh, there you are. I didn’t know I’d been waiting for you, but I’m glad you’re here.”

Now, let the record show that sometimes, finding the perfect role can become a burden, and even a torture, to the actors themselves (Harry H Corbett as Harold Steptoe springs to mind), but others learn to come to some kind of terms with the characters that almost become their alter ego. And when we see them, we recognise that clicking of the universe’s fingers of perfection.

Think of Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. Think of David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. Think of Tom Baker as the Doctor. Think of Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. Other potential actors are available, some may give you your own version of the universal click – but there are some combinations of actor and character that fit so perfectly as to eclipse all other contenders, either real or imaginary.

When Geoffrey Bayldon stepped into the costume and make-up of Catweazle, the generally hopeless 11th century sorcerer, from the very first few seconds, he is utterly captivating. Bright, inquisitive blue eyes, a beaklike nose, and a body skinny enough to have seen 11th century poverty and hunger were only added to by scraggly hair and face-fur and a seemingly one-piece robe to make the archetypal would-be tinkerer with the arts of magic and conjuration.
There was always something uncanny about Bayldon’s performances that inevitably remind one of William Hartnell’s First Doctor in Doctor Who (a role he later played in an ‘Unbound’ audio story for Big Finish). And from his first scene in the role, Catweazle has the same combination of elements – intelligence, wit, humour, and a sometimes grumpy inability to make his magic apparatus actually WORK.

Pursued by Norman knights, who take a dim view of all this mystic chicanery, he invokes the powers of the great spirits and jumps in a lake.

And when he surfaces, it’s not the 11th century anymore. It’s the 19th.

1969, to be precise.

If you sit and think about that for half a minute, the brilliance of the concept really hits you.

In everything from HG Wells’ The Time Machine to Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, someone from the time of the audience is catapulted hugely forward in time and has to deal with the situation they find there – in essence, the pleasure of speculative science fiction is to fill in the picture of exactly WHAT they find there, and the problems it throws up for someone from our time and level of sophistication.

It’s true of course that Mark Twain took things in the other direction with his Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court – how would a modern man survive in the remote past, of which he has only a sketchy, mytho-historical understanding.

The genius of Richard Carpenter – and an especially attractive genius to TV companies who didn’t want to have to splash out on a huge special effects budget – was to look at his contemporary world of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and then transplant someone from remote history TO that world.

Easy, easy sorcery and magic. Electric lightbulbs? “The sun in a bottle,” as Catweazle calls it, a product of the magic known as “elec-trickery.” Mass communication by what was, let’s not forget, in 1969, distinctly a static-as-all-heck telephone? It’s “the telling-bone” to a would-be sorcerer from the 11th century.
That’s an integral part of the charm of Catweazle – Richard Carpenter, writing his first major success for TV, having been a mostly bit-part actor before that, makes us take a whole new look at our world, and appreciate it as the scientific ‘miracle’ it is, by seeing it through the spirit-haunted eyes of someone who really isn’t from around here.

Richard Carpenter, by the way? Anyone know the name?

Creating Catweazle as your first major TV success is pretty good going, to be fair. Carpenter went on to create joyous historical and literary shows like The Ghosts of Motley Hall in 1976, Dick Turpin in 1979, and Robin of Sherwood in 1984, as well as having a hand in the arguably definitive TV versions of The Famous Five, The Adventures of Black Beauty, and The Borrowers.

Oh, and did we mention he wrote The Boy From Space for the Look And Read program? This is one impressive talent.

If Geoffrey Bayldon and Catweazle caused the universe to go click and the stars to align, then so did the union of Richard Carpenter and TV screenwriting.

It’s likely that someone with Carpenter’s skills would have been given another shot at writing TV if Catweazle had failed. But the fact that it spectacularly didn’t – it won the Writer’s Guild Award for Best Children’s TV Drama Script the year it was launched - got Carpenter known as a writer who could deliver a hit. If you’re a fan of any of his later work, it’s true to say that it probably wouldn’t have happened WHEN it happened, or in the WAY it happened, without the success of Catweazle to spur it on.
So, what actually HAPPENED in Catweazle?

Essentially, the would-be sorcerer arrives in 1969 and meets a farm-owner’s son, Edward (Robin Davies), known as Carrot because of the colour of his hair. While in the 11th century, his attempts to cast spells have been singularly unimpressive until now, Catweazle is able to bind Carrot into a vow not to tell anyone about him – seemingly either through hypnosis or some ACTUAL mystical power.

The key to Series 1 then becomes a pattern that would essentially be re-used by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall in 1979 for Jon Pertwee’s Worzel Gummidge series (which of course also starred Bayldon as the whole-cloth invention, The Crowman).

There are those on the inside – in this case, Carrot and Catweazle. Then there are those on the outside – everybody else, even Carrot’s father, which causes tension from early on in Carrot’s acquaintance with the sorcerer. And the trick is to keep both groups functioning, without the outsiders discovering the unusual element on the inside – Catweazle himself.

This would be fine, except that the very presence of Catweazle (and later, the presence of Worzel) is a magnet for all things comical and chaotic. So a fundamental element of the show is having an unpredictable friend that essentially, you have to keep secret.

Carrot gets put through the wringer trying to keep his life and relationships on track, but it’s by no means a one-way street. Living a relatively isolated life on the farm with just his dad (played by Bud Tingwell), Carrot hasn’t really been consciously aware of how lonely he’s been until a friend from the 11th century arrives to show him the difference between loneliness and friendship.

So – as would go on to be a hallmark of Carpenter’s writing – there’s more to Catweazle than just merry japes with a sorcerer out of his era.

That’s where having a stage actor of Geoffrey Bayldon’s mercurial intensity, and also his truthfulness to every moment of any character he plays, brings you dividends beyond your wildest dreams. Because Bayldon brings the reality of Catweazle’s bizarre situation to every scene he’s in. He brings the reality of his 11th century background, the trauma of being in a world that needs to be re-learned, and the loneliness of a man in need of a friend, but with a lot to offer in return.

In purely practical terms, the number of high-profile and high-quality guest stars that were keen to appear in a children’s show written by a relative newcomer is astounding. Carry On stars Hattie Jacques and Peter Butterworth are here. Future Last of the Summer Wine drinkers, Peter Sallis and Brian Wilde too. Elspet Gray, Bernard Hepton, John Junkin, and even Aubrey Morris (most remembered for his role in A Clockwork Orange) are all peppered throughout the 26 episodes of a children’s show about a temporally dislocated would-be sorcerer and his 20th century friends. That helps the show twinkle with star quality all the way along the line.

The second series of Catweazle feels a little like a reboot, maybe with international audiences in mind. The sorcerer has moved on from Carrot’s farm, and made a new home in an abandoned railway building. He’s also made a new friend, Cedric (Gary Warren), an only child living in a local manor house.

It’s true that some of the poignancy of the first series is also jettisoned in favour of a more openly farcical tone and something of a series arc, with Catweazle having to solve a 13-part riddle in an attempt to get back to where he ultimately belongs.

But the fact that Catweazle has its laughs but never entirely becomes ‘just’ a comedy idea played out for those moments of farce is down to the combination of two elements. Richard Carpenter, who wrote the character of Catweazle and allowed him to be more than a sitcom concept, and Geoffrey Bayldon, who never for a second LET him become a comedy punchline. In Bayldon’s hands, Catweazle is always a fully realized human being – innovative, witty, flawed and humane, but also lost, out of time, and depending on his friends.

Richard Carpenter.

Geoffrey Bayldon.

CLICK.

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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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