Although I was first exposed to Doctor Who in the late 1970s as a three or four year old, I wasn’t watching the series “properly” and understanding the different eras, different Doctors, and so on, until much later into the 1980s. Which left a middle ground where in the early 1980s I was watching Worzel Gummidge avidly, without realising the Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, was the titular Worzel.
It’s also a series that I don’t recall being heavily repeated in Australia, so although I have some memories of catching it again after getting into Doctor Who and declaring to anyone passing by, “That’s the Third Doctor there, playing Worzel…” with a little wobble of my head, it wasn’t something that happened very often. Indeed, I would estimate a good 30 years have passed where I haven’t seen any episodes of Worzel Gummidge on TV here at home. It may have been on, but wasn’t on my radar.
Fast-forward to April of 2018 with news breaking that Mackenzie Crook was going to revive the series by writing and starring in it. Naturally pop culture fandom went into apoplexy. How on earth could Gareth from The Office do this justice? This was dancing on Jon Pertwee’s grave. And so on, and so forth. Personally, I could see it. Crook is a quirky guy and his turns in material as diverse as Pirates of the Caribbean and Detectorists proved his ability. If I was looking for oddball, rake thin guys who could play a scarecrow, I think he would have actually made my shortlist pretty easily. Proof again, as if it was ever needed, that pop culture fandom tends to shoot from the hip without thinking first.
If you’ve never seen Worzel Gummidge before, whether the original series or the reboot, think:
In the English countryside, a scarecrow befriends some children and has adventures. He’s not meant to be seen “alive” by other people, so can revert to true scarecrow form when necessary.
And that’s it. Like all good stories, the premise is simple, clever, and fires children’s imaginations.
At the time of writing there are only three episodes of the series available to comment on. This year will see another three; one of them being a Covid-affected story that was meant to air last year, plus another two episodes. The current set-up for Worzel Gummidge seems to be two episodes a year.
If I had to summarise the rebooted series in one word it would be: lovely. This is gentle, whimsical, funny television aimed fairly and squarely at kids, but with themes and sometimes even a dash of melancholy that I think only the older viewers in the audience are really going to hone in on.
The third episode, for example, Saucy Nancy, deals with the figurehead of a Napoleonic era ship wanting to get back to the ocean and her ship. The titular Nancy is a delight, with a never-ending array of made-up (but scarily realistic-sounding) put downs and swear words as befits someone who has been around sailors. Yet we know long before she gets to the sea that all the ships of her time are gone. What will happen? While there is a resolution in her favour, a sad folk song is simultaneously being sung at a pub by the sea (folk music features in all episodes thus far), and you can’t help but think about the strange lives these characters – whether the scarecrows or some other construct that has had a form of consciousness and life breathed into it – have seen over some hundreds of years.
I find this a series that I’m not knocking down walls to get to when there is a new episode. It is, at the end of the day, a children’s series and with a million other things to catch up on, it’s not a Top 10 or even Top 20 priority. That said, however, when I actually find the right moment and am in the mood for it, Worzel Gummidge hits all the right buttons. It is, like I said earlier, lovely. There’s no simpler way to put it. Crook has updated the concept from the original Barbara Euphan Todd-penned novels, via the Jon Pertwee series, and still emerged with something that feels new and right for modern times, yet is absolutely in keeping with the past. No mean feat in today’s television market where it seems writers and/or producers can go too far to make their mark, but – thus far – Crook has navigated this well and in doing so, actually makes his mark better than if he had gone overboard making it too different.