UK TV review: Worzel Gummidge (Season 1 and 2)
Ivan Radford | On 03, Jan 2022
Is there anything Mackenzie Crook can’t do? One suspects not, based on Worzel Gummidge, his new two-part adaptation of Barbara Euphan Todd’s children’s books. Stepping into the straw shoes of Jon Pertwee, who was the definitive Worzel for a generation of kids, he’s instantly iconic here with his own take on the scarecrow of Ten Acre Field.
Worzel Gummidge, of course, isn’t a name that many children today will recognise, and the scripts for these two one-hour adaptations wisely start from a point of familiarity, as we join Susan (India Brown) and John (Thierry Wickens), two teens arriving at their new foster home of Scatterbrook Farm, home to Mr and Mrs Braithwaite (Steve Pemberton and Rosie Cavaliero – both beautifully nuanced). The kids’ first question: what’s the Wi-Fi code? While their fixation on their smartphones is too easily overcome – in reality, they’d be longing for social media and WhatsApp and suffering FOMO for days – Wickens and Brown make for wonderfully likeable leads, their openness to new things (with an amusing dose of scepticism) carrying us along with them.
They’re also concerned about the environment – a note that will ring true with many youngsters today. With the harvest late and the seasons seemingly stuck in winter, they and Worzel are tasked with trying to restore order to nature. If that sounds like a heavy-handed mystery for the Extinction Rebellion generation, you’d be mistaken: Worzel Gummidge’s quietly remarkable achievement is how light it all feels, as Crook (who directs as well as writes and stars) delivers a modern piece of TV with the relaxed charm of old-fashioned family entertainment made decades ago.
Worzel himself is the main attraction, and Crook presents us with the walking, talking scarecrow like it’s the most natural thing in the world. The Wizard of Oz, this ain’t: Worzel proves surprisingly insightful even as he forgets words, confuses ideas and mistakes John and Susan for scarecrows – the thing that leads him to talk to them in the first place. His creator, the Green Man (played by Michael Palin with a sage patience and twinkling smile), isn’t best pleased, but it soon becomes clear that he’s a favourite compared to the other scarecrows.
Because yes, we do meet others, from Colin Michael Carmichael as the enjoyably arrogant Soggy Bogart, who leads a biker gang of dimwitted ruffians, to Francesca Mills as the delightfully grounded Earthy Mangold. We’re also introduced to chatty robin Winter George and the legendary Tree of Tree – located down by the local car park.
That deadpan juxtaposition of folklore and reality is a constant joy, never quite taking Gummidge’s mythology seriously enough, while still highlighting the significant of a scarecrow agreeing a truce with his sworn enemy: the crows.
By the time we’re watching Worzel take tea with local aristocrat Lady Bloomsbury Barton (a scene-stealing Zoë Wanamaker), we don’t even question the notion of him guzzling drink or being found out for what he is. As well as the impeccable make-up job, which avoids a straw-based look for something more akin to a long-lost farmer, a lot of that is down to Crook’s mild-mannered performance, which moves between “sulks” (which see him freeze up altogether) and Worzel’s gently proud streak. As his character, and reputation, is built up, and the Braithwaites and their wards grow closer together (the softening of Pemberton’s grouchy farm-owner is a lovely touch), the script slowly steps up the joke count to the point where laughs surprise you out of nowhere. (“Why do you even have bear traps? We don’t have bears!” exclaims Mrs Braithwaite. “Not anymore…” comes the reply.)
Season 2 weaves the folklore and environmental appreciation into an increasingly complex and thoughtful basket of ideas. A Bonfire Night story reunites Crook with national treasure Toby Jones, who hysterically plays every member of the local Bonfire Night Committee (and every other committee going) – just as “Guy Forks” night goes awry. Why? Because the Guy (played with rascally charm by Paul Kaye) is too busy bickering with Worzel, leaving Gummidge to have to take his place on the bonfire. The result is a delightful, witty tale of friendship and avoiding one-upmanship, all tinged with a gently creepy pastoral horror vibe, thanks to an eerie musical motif based on the old rhyme “Remember remember, the 5th of November…”
That contrast between the grounded perspective of Worzel and the kids and the self-centred, ego-driven philosophy of the adults around them becomes even more pronounced when a flock of choughs turn up at the farm – followed by a gaggle of birdwatchers. Mr Braithwaite is caught up in a contest with old rival Lee Dangerman, which sees the latter more bothered about ticking things off on his list than admiring nature’s full beauty in flight. More attuned to the magic around them is Mr Peregrine (a brilliantly eccentric Bill Bailey), the purveyor of a travelling fair who finds himself caught up in the legend of an enchanted organ that sends humans to sleep so scarecrows can enjoy the rides – a notion exciting enough to bring back familiar faces, along with Nneka Okoye’s Callope Jane and Vicki Pepperdine’s Aunt Sally.
Coupled with the gorgeously lyrical cinematography that made Detectorists such a pleasure – and the haunting soundtrack from The Unthanks – the result is a rich family adventure that, over six episodes, is bursting with heart, humour and old, floppy hats. Is there anything Mackenzie Crook can’t do? Here’s hoping one thing he does in the future is take us back to Scatterbrook for more.
Worzel Gummidge is available on BBC iPlayer until November 2022.
Parts of this review were originally published in 2019.