❉ The Worzel Book’s Stuart Manning on Gummidge’s return to DVD!
Worzel Gummidge is back this Christmas in two new BBC One specials, starring Mackenzie Crook. But before the much-loved scarecrow returns to TV, there’s time to turn back the clock to 1980, when Jon Pertwee’s version of the character rode high on ITV in a musical festive spectacular.
It’s hard to fully convey just how popular Worzel Gummidge was at its height, but 1980 was Jon Pertwee’s golden year. Worzel was everywhere – merchandise, personal appearances, a novelty record in the charts… It wasn’t quite The Year of the Scarecrow, but it was close. Worzel Gummidge was a TV juggernaut, with high production values and the very best of Britain’s character actors lining up to don mud and straw for coveted guest spots on Saturday teatime. Jon Pertwee was named ITV Personality of the Year, there was a hit stage show, and Worzel rounded off the year with A Cup O’ Tea An’ a Slice O’ Cake, a lavish double-length musical episode.
The premise is straightforward – more of a stage variety show than an actual story – with Worzel deserting his post on Christmas Eve, an important night for scarecrows everywhere, when they point north to guide Father Christmas’ sleigh. Selfish to the end, Worzel is feeling distinctly un-festive – more pre-occupied with finding his would-be wooden inamorata Aunt Sally (Una Stubbs in brilliant, bitchy form). This dubious quest sends Worzel wandering through the countryside, where he encounters ship’s figurehead Saucy Nancy (Barbara Windsor), misanthropic Scottish scarecrow Bogle McNeep (Billy Connolly) and incurs the wrath of his maker the Crowman (Geoffrey Bayldon), costing Worzel his invitation to the Christmas Scarecrow Ball. All is not lost, however, and Worzel and Aunt Sally get to join the party just in time for a rousing closing song-and-dance number. Think Lionel Bart with straw-stuffed coat sleeves.
For the uninitiated, this episode is Worzel’s Greatest Hits, which is to do it no disservice. Amidst the tinsel and sparkling wordplay there’s pathos and heartbreak at the hands of the selfish Aunt Sally, folk-horror eeriness as the Crowman recites a forbidding, pagan-style hymn to scarecrow masses lurking in shadows, and finally some gentle morality about the true meaning of Christmas. It’s heart-warming, uncynical entertainment for the child in everyone, and effortlessly entertaining throughout.
Filmed on location in Hampshire – complete with a disastrous shoot in Lymington, where fake snow drifted out of control during filming – the production is handsome, with the finely choreographed musical numbers standing out as highlights: Saucy Nancy delivers a Gilbert and Sullivan-esque ode to the joys of pantomime, accompanied by a rabble of candy-coloured pirates, Billy Connolly stomps and sulks his way through ‘I Hate Christmas’ and Una Stubbs is every inch the perfect fairy-tale princess in a winsome song where Aunt Sally dreams of her handsome prince… all while having to made do with a downtrodden scarecrow.
Throughout it all, Jon Pertwee’s Worzel is the highlight. Three series in, the role of the scarecrow fits him like a twiggy-fingered glove, and every gurn, twitch and grimace is perfectly judged. He’s stroppy, unpredictable, amusingly awful and yet fundamentally loveable. Despite his moments of slapstick and glee, Worzel is forever a sad clown. “I reckons all our dreams is worth no more than a row of scabby cabbages, Aunt Sally,” he muses at one point, in a moment of piercing melancholy. It’s a beautiful, dignified piece of acting from Pertwee, miraculously unencumbered by his straw wig and rubber nose. And therein lies the genius of his performance – an utterly indelicate character played with supreme delicacy.
Available for decades as only a murky, low-band video transfer, this new release has gone back to the original camera negatives for improved picture quality. To say that the results are night and day would be an understatement: The grimy browns and greys are replaced with picture-book colours, and the show’s photography, art direction, character designs and make-up shine like never before. It’s an attractive presentation, but not a perfect one. There are occasional picture shifts, showing evidence of film shrinkage, which would benefit from digital stabilisation, while a more considered colour grade could have added greater vibrancy and atmosphere to the pictures. But these are minor criticisms. For a budget release, this is a significant upgrade and does much to restore the detail and charm of one of Worzel’s very best episodes. The definitive presentation of Worzel Gummidge has yet to come, but this release aptly demonstrates the potential of the material in the meantime.
❉ ‘Worzel Gummidge, Christmas Special’ is released on DVD, 28th October 2019 by Fabulous Films Ltd/Fremantle Media Enterprises. Cert U. Run time 52 mins. RRP £5.99. Cast: Jon Pertwee, Una Stubbs, Billy Connolly, Barbara Windsor, Bill Maynard, Geoffrey Bayldon.
❉ The Worzel Book (40th Anniversary Edition) by Stuart Manning, foreword by Mark Gatiss can be pre-ordered from Miwk Publishing.
❉ With thanks to Isabel at Fabulous Films, and Stuart Manning for proving the screen captures.