Worzel Gummidge is leaping to life on screen once more. Writer, director and star Mackenzie Crook reveals that his new version is a celebration of the English countryside.
Everything you need to know about the new BBC One drama Worzel Gummidge, starring Mackenzie Crook as the lovable scarecrow, including when it is on TV and a brief history of scarecrows in the British countryside.
Who wrote the original Worzel Gummidge?
Born near Doncaster in 1890, Barbara Euphan Todd wrote 10 Worzel Gummidge novels between 1936 and 1963. They were cheerfully quaint, episodic tales of two well-groomed but bickering children from the city who encounter a living scarecrow on their regular visits to Scatterbrook Farm. His mischievous nature keeps getting them into scrapes that they have to sort out while he sulks. Unlike in the ’70s TV series, there were no interchangeable heads, no Crowman, Worzel was married to Earthy Mangold and Aunt Sally was his bitter enemy.
The first three books were illustrated by Elisabeth Alldridge in a wholesome, simplistic style very much of its day. Subsequent artists introduced a darker tone, with Will Nickless’s proto-Tim Burton style bordering on the downright creepy. Diana Stanley favoured a moody, magic-realist approach while Jill Crockford’s quirky, kinetic covers practically exploded with wavy-armed excitement. The 1941 paperback reissue of the first Worzel Gummidge (right) was the first fiction release by the Puffin imprint.
Mackenzie Crook was clearly destined to play Worzel Gummidge, and not because he spent three years standing in fields in shabby clothes as Andy in Detectorists, the BBC Four sitcom he created. Rather, he felt a very particular bond with the character as soon as he started reading the original 1936 book, written by Barbara Euphan Todd.
“I have a tame robin in my garden who feeds from my hand,” he reveals. “He’s been around for three years now. Every day he comes. And as soon as I opened the book and I found that Worzel had a robin’s nest in his pocket, that struck a chord with me.”
Steve Pemberton, Rosie Cavaliero, Michael Palin, Thierry Wickens, India Brown, Mackenzie Crook and Zoe Wanamaker attend the “Worzel Gummidge” screening at The Charlotte Street Hotel on December 10, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)
Worzel Gummidge airs this Christmas on BBC One/Thierry Wickens (John), India Brown (Susan) and Mackenzie Crook (Worzel Gummidge)/ Photographer credit Amanda Searle
The famous scruffy scarecrow returns in two hour-long adaptations by Mackenzie Crook. Young Susan and John arrive in Scatterbrook village and soon meet Worzel Gummidge (Crook). Magic and mayhem ensue, as well as a hotly contested scarecrow competition and a visit from the venerable Green Man (Michael Palin). Full of humour and good-natured adventure, this is ideal viewing for all the family.
What is the new 2019 Worzel Gummidge remake about?
Crook’s new version of Worzel Gummidge, which he also wrote and directed, will air on BBC One over Christmas in two feature-length episodes. For those who remember the much-cherished 1979–1981 series with Jon Pertwee on ITV, don’t expect a remake. Crook admits he never saw that show as a child. “We only watched BBC in my house,” he says. “It took my parents a long time to come around to commercial television.”
Jon Pertwee played the role of Worzel Gummidge from 1979-1981Credit: Photo by ITV/Shutterstock
Instead, he thinks of the new show as more of a spiritual sequel to Detectorists – a gentle but funny series about treasure-hunters marinated in a love of the English countryside. “It seemed like a natural evolution, to be honest,” he says. “When that finished I was looking for my next project and Christian Smith from Leopard Productions said they’d got the rights to the original books, and would I be interested? So I read them, and saw that it could be a good time to bring Worzel back and to be able to weave an environmental message into it.”
Crook Mackenzie and Toby Jones hunt for treasure in the Detectorists/Credit: Alamy
Don’t worry, he’s not turning Worzel into an ecowarrior. “No, no. It’s really subtle. The message is just, ‘look after the natural world and look after each other’. It’s no more a militant message than that. Encouraging people to look at the natural world and enjoy the diversity of what we have here in this country.”
He describes his Worzel as, “a guardian of the natural world, very much attuned to the landscape, and its myths and lore. I touched on that in Detectorists with these little touches of magic realism. With Gummidge you have a more magical world and you can explore more magical themes in a much bigger way. Yet it’s still very much connected with the landscape.”
How has the character of Worzel Gummidge changed?
Make-up artists transformed Mackenzie into the turnip-headed scarecrow using amazing prosthetics/Credit: Alamy
The scarecrow of Scatterbrook Farm is also getting a new look. As well as a head carved from a turnip (and just the one – no spare heads here), Crook knew he “didn’t want him stuffed with anything. I wanted him to be just a wooden frame with clothes hanging off it. So when his jacket blows open there’s nothing inside – you can see through to the back of the jacket. Then there’s this robin’s nest inside his jacket.”
Who is Aunt Sally in Worzel Gummidge?
Jon Pertwee as Worzel and Una Stubbs as Aunt Sally in the first TV adaptation in 1971/Credit: Alamy
Lots of other scarecrows also make an appearance, including an entire biker gang and Aunt Sally (played by Vicky Pepperdine), although she won’t be the object of Worzel’s affections in this version. “I think Aunt Sally is amazing. I think once people get over the fact that she’s not Worzel’s girlfriend, [they’ll think] she looks incredible. She wears this big crinoline skirt, but, thanks to CGI, there’s nothing underneath it. She just glides around on this empty crinoline.”
A brief history of scarecrows in Britain
In medieval Britain, small children worked as bird-scarers, running through fields, clapping blocks of wood together. After the Black Death killed off almost half the population of Britain in 1348, exploitable children were scarce, so landowners instead stuffed sacks with straw, carved faces in turnips and erected the results on poles. At this time they were called ‘shewels’, derived from a German word for ‘fear’. The term scarecrow was first coined in the mid-1530s.
It soon became obvious that crows quickly lost their fear of inanimate hay people, so bird-scarers were employed well into the 19th century (the title character in Thomas Hardy’s 1895 book Jude the Obscure is employed as one). These days, drones, windmills, reflective ribbons and even wind-inflated tube men are among the more dynamic deterrence techniques employed. But that hasn’t stopped ‘living’ scarecrows invading popular culture. As well as Worzel Gummidge, famous examples can be found in The Wizard of Oz (1939), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and the Doctor Who episode Human Nature (2007).
Regional names for scarecrows include gallybagger (the Isle of Wight); tattie bogles (Scotland); mommets (Somerset), and hodmedods (Berkshire).
Who is the Green Man?
Also undergoing a metamorphosis is the Crowman who becomes the Green Man, played by Sir Michael Palin. Mackenzie points out that the Crowman was an invention of the 1970s series; as in the books, Worzel’s creator is a hedge-layer.
“So we’ve made the Green Man a travelling hedge-layer. He’s a link between the human world and the scarecrow world. He turns up in the second episode because he’s got wind of the fact that Worzel has been talking to humans, and that’s a no-no
in the scarecrow world.”
The children who befriend Worzel have also had an update, although they’re still called John and Susan. “In the books, it was middle-class children coming to stay with their poor relatives in the countryside, which seemed very much of its time and a dated idea. I wanted them to have a fish-out-of-water feel. So we made them foster kids shipped out to the countryside for the summer holidays. They have all this stuff to discover and we’re seeing it all through their eyes: the magic of the countryside and the magic of this scarecrow who comes alive.” He says there is an element of “city kids waking up to nature” but, “not in a preachy, ‘mobile phones are no good, get out for a walk’ sort of way. Over and above everything it’s a comedy and it’s fun.”
Crook finds writing for children a satisfying challenge. “When I come up with a good joke for children that I know isn’t patronising, it’s a better feeling than writing for adults. You almost have to be cleverer to write a children’s joke.”
Crook’s love of the countryside originated in his childhood, despite the fact he’s always lived in the city or suburbia. “I spent a lot of my childhood in the countryside on my own. I had friends – I just liked being on my own. Then, during my summer holidays, we often went to my uncle’s tobacco farm in Zimbabwe, and there it was a different type of wildlife. My childhood was just steeped in the natural world. I always thought I’d go into a profession involved in the natural world, but my life went down
a different path.”
Instead, he ended up buying 3.2 hectares of ancient woodland in Essex, partly to pass on his enthusiasm for nature to his own children.
“I bought that so we could go there and I could hopefully instill an interest in them. It’s been on maps for over
400 years, so it’s probably always been there and doesn’t need me for it to get on with what it does. But I do manage it. I’m actually building a sort of dead hedge all the way around at the moment.”
So while there’s a lot of CGI-illusion in the new Worzel Gummidge, for Crook, one of the most magical memories from filming was something much more intimate.
“I was always looking out for bits of nature to film. As in Detectorists, I like cutaways to details of nature. And there was this brilliant moment when I was standing at the monitor, with the scene being filmed off down the way. I looked down and right at my feet there was a mossy log that looked as if it had been placed there. And as I was watching, a vole came out of it. I whispered to the camera man to bring his camera over. And it turned out it must have been the vole’s nest in this log, because before long five of them were running around it. He managed to capture five minutes of footage of these voles. It was just incredible.
“So I’ve got all this footage of voles, of which I’ll only use a second. But it’s a lovely second.”
Dave Golder is a TV and film journalist who specialises in writing about magical worlds. He often roams Hampshire’s woodlands with his three-legged lurcher.