UK TV review: Worzel Gummidge (2019)
Ivan Radford | On 27, Dec 2019
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). 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 ranch-owner is a beautiful 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.)
Coupled with the gorgeously lyrical cinematography that made Detectorists such a pleasure – and a haunting soundtrack from folk group The Unthanks – the result is a rich family adventure that’s bursting with heart, humour and old, floppy hats. Is there anything Mackenzie Crook can’t do? Here’s hoping the next thing he does is take us back to Scatterbrook for more.
Worzel Gummidge is available on BBC iPlayer until December 2021.