❉ John Rivers returns to Scatterbrook Farm for a cup o’ tea and a slice o’ cake…
‘He talked about how it was his dream was to make this thing and I remember him giving me the Barbara Euphan Todd books … He was desperate to bring these books to life. It was the time of things like ‘The Professionals’, and there he was, trying to make this thing about a scarecrow. Everyone thought he was crazy.’ – Sean Pertwee
Scarecrows are culturally schizophrenic. On the one hand they are largely malevolent and eerie, shambling across fields in ‘Doctor Who’ or exploiting the innocent’s worst fears in ‘Batman’. On the other hand there’s Scarecrow in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, Ray Bolger rolling around an MGM soundstage asking a lost girl for a brain. And there’s also ‘Worzel Gummidge’, brought to life by Jon Pertwee during the 1970s and 80s for ITV. It’s this particular scarecrow that is the subject of Stuart Manning’s excellent guide ‘The Worzel Book: The Making of Children’s TV Classic Worzel Gummidge’.
Worzel began life as ‘The Scarecrow of Scatterbrook Farm’ a one-off children’s play for radio broadcast by the BBC in 1935. Its writer, Barbara Todd, had been submitting material to the BBC for a number of years with varying success. Worzel though, the Scarecrow in question, was a hit and Todd suddenly found herself writing Worzel both for radio and in novels, as ‘Worzel Gummidge’ became the first ever Puffin Book to be published in 1941. Despite Todd’s creative enthusiasm for the character running dry, the books and radio series remained popular. Worzel made his first TV appearance on the BBC, in ‘Worzel Gummidge Turns Detective’ performed live for broadcast from pokey Lime Grove in early 1953. It was a surprise then that when Jon Pertwee decided to try and bring a Worzel project to life in the mid-1970s the BBC weren’t interested at all.
It was at Southern TV that ‘Worzel Gummidge’ found a home. Pertwee had joined forces with Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, the formidable writing partnership behind ‘Billy Liar’ and instigators of very boozy lunchtimes in London. The writers had seen the potential in Pertwee for the character, knowing his comic ability both for voices and physical comedy. A pilot was written and when Pertwee took it to producer Lewis Rudd who in turn brought in producer and director James Hill, the show had a production team determined to deliver it. And, much like Worzel awakening during a storm, the show came to life.
The cast was selected. Pertwee would be joined by Una Stubbs as Aunt Sally, Worzel’s unrequited love, a spiteful princess that just happened to be a coconut shy. Meanwhile Geoffrey Bayldon played The Crowman, a sort of mystical, near-pagan character well-versed in the lore of scarecrows. Alongside the adults, John and Sue were the two children that Worzel would encounter at the farm and help him navigate the real world, they were played by Jeremy Austin and Charlotte Coleman.
Manning’s book does a great job of documenting the creation and history of the programme and then provides an in-depth look of each episode across the show’s initial four seasons. Using archive interviews and many behind-the-scenes photographs, Manning details the production step-by-step, gathering quotes not only from the cast, but many of the crew also. As ‘Worzel Gummidge’ was a largely a location shoot, filming the programme could be quite a challenge. One pleasing fact is that Pertwee had his own ‘trailer’, this turned out to be a standard caravan.
As the 70s moved into the 80s Worzel’s success grew. Southern TV created four seasons of the show and it also transferred to the West End as a musical. However, Pertwee was not content with staying at four series. After an abandoned attempt with an Irish TV company he and James Hill eventually found backers in New Zealand; again Manning does a sterling job of looking at ‘Worzel Gummidge Down Under’, the concept of which baffled this reviewer when he first caught it on Channel Four.
Manning’s book is a labour of love and beautifully designed, with lots of archive material to pore over. It’s clear that Manning has approached the show with a certain reverence and this certainly comes across on the page. There’s also a great foreword from Mark Gatiss, who sits at the centre of the Pertwee/Stubbs/Folk Horror/Comedy venn diagram and is thus perfectly placed to deliver it.
‘Worzel Gummidge’ is a show that is certainly worthy of this kind of attention and Manning’s book does it justice. This a great companion and guide and ideal way to reclaim the sillier side of the scarecrow in your cultural imagination.
❉ The Worzel Book: The Making of Children’s TV Classic Worzel Gummidge was published by Miwk Publishing on 30 June 2016, RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from the publishers.