Worzel Gummidge 6.2 and 6.3

This two-parter was extremely strange and not very satisfying, but the story behind it turns out to be even stranger. I’d argue that the reason that Worzel Gummidge works is because it gives us what is identifiably our world – the real world – and either through Worzel running amok and causing mayhem, or the magic of the Crowmen in Britain or Zoo Neeland making something odd happen, they affect what feels like a real world, populated by real people.

But in this story, “A Red Sky in T’Morning” and “Them Thar Hills.” nothing feels like the real world. It’s a goofy cartoon version. The Crowman runs afoul of a local taxman who stepped right out of an old Popeye. He wears ridiculous clothes, goes everywhere with a huge ledger, and moves/dances around like he’s the bad guy in a David Lee Roth music video. And Worzel falls down a mine shaft and ends up in a ghost town that’s just a few paces away from the locations they’ve been visiting all this time and nobody has known it’s there. The ghost town has one resident, a crazed American miner who acts like somebody from the 1850s and has unearthed more gold than anybody’s ever seen. Lots of talk about claim jumping and vittles follows as he bellows how he’s been prospecting for twenty years. A hundred and twenty, maybe.

But I suppose children don’t notice this sort of thing. At one point, the miner gets “blown up” by some dynamite and he gets blackened and smoked and his clothes get torn like what would happen to Wile E. Coyote and our son fell apart giggling. If dynamite had gone off in Mr. Braithwaite’s face back in Britain, it would have killed him. That’s the problem.

It doesn’t feel real, and so it doesn’t feel right, but there’s also a massive change in the visuals between the episodes. They were filmed a year apart! They made six episodes in 1987 with Una Stubbs, and six in 1988 without her, as she had other commitments and could not join the cast in Zoo Neeland. Fortunately the actors who played the taxman and the prospector in part one didn’t have other commitments as well. In fact, “Them Thar Hills” was the last of the twelve to be made, and it’s not at all an auspicious finale.

Image: 45 Worlds.

Worzel Gummidge 6.1 – Stage Struck

Well, it had to happen sooner or later. I’ve had this HP laptop for years and would have retired it in January 2020, except I learned to my chagrin that certain Region 2 DVDs from Network and Fabulous are copy-protected. All the years I was plugging in my Region 2 drive and using the PowerDVD that came loaded on it, I had no idea these things were copy-protected, because the laptop just ignored it and played away. Sadly, as the darn thing got older and crankier and a lot more tired, I bought a bright and shiny new HP which, maddeningly, pays very close attention to what the labels copy protect and what they don’t.

So the old laptop sat on a little side table to make screencaps, starting up each new time like an asthmatic walrus, spinning the disk impotently for two minutes while PowerDVD decided whether or not it wanted to open. I got a little tired, as we watched series five of Worzel Gummidge, of squeezing blood from a turnip, and now, six weeks of collecting dust since the last time I started it up, I decided life is far too short to spend twenty minutes getting it to work every time for twelve more screencaps. So from now on, you get a set image from 45 Worlds.

Anyway, “Stage Struck” is a pretty interesting little relaunch. Series six would be the longest series of Worzel Gummidge yet, with twelve episodes, but they were made without Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, who had written every previous episode. So these twelve had several different writers. They were filmed in 1987-88 and shown in the UK from January through April, 1989. This one is written by Fran Walsh, who’d go on to write or co-write a whole bunch of movies that Peter Jackson has directed.

The kid thought this one was terrific, but it’s really all a buildup to one set piece. Happily, the buildup is extremely amusing, and our son was in stitches just waiting for Worzel, making one terrible decision after another for about ten minutes, to dump a big bucket of fertilizer on somebody. It’s inevitable, and they did a great job milking it. I’m not sure the payoff was as hilarious as the buildup, but that’s okay, because the buildup is just fine.

Worzel Gummidge 5.10 – A Friend in Need

You know… it’s not like every episode of the made-in-Britain Worzel was a success, but this one just petered out completely. I think it’s fair to say that after five series, having bent the format so far that, over the previous stories, it really did break, the writers, Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, were obviously burned out of ideas. So after 41 episodes, the overwhelming majority of which were really entertaining, they bowed out with this story, which has a runaround with some sheep, a barn dance and hoedown, and lots more gags about food and animals and some slapstick, including Worzel losing a hand and destroying some of the Crowman’s old shellac records and really screwing up the needle on his gramophone. Perfectly child-pleasing stuff – and if you drop apples on Jon Pertwee’s head, this kid is going to laugh loudly – but the high point was definitely the Crowman just laying down the facts: Worzel doesn’t have any friends because he is mean and selfish and treats people awfully. Not that it will take, and we hope it doesn’t. Children’s television needs more characters as lovably grouchy as Worzel Gummidge.

We like to cycle things around to keep the experience fresh, and so that’s all from Worzel Gummidge for now, but we’ll be back to look at the final run, which featured scripts by new writers for the first time since the program’s inception, in May. Stay tuned!

Worzel Gummidge 5.9 – The Traveller Unmasked

Well, it’s not as though there isn’t a long history of the villains in children’s television having only the motivation that the present storyline demands of them, but this really was not satisfying at all. In what appears to be Wi Kuki Kaa’s final appearance as the evil Scarecrow Maker, he changes his mind completely about what he’s after, and I think everybody was ready for this to finish, even me, and I’ve been the main one championing it. He does have a remarkably gruesome final and climactic revelation about who he really is, which must have scared the absolute life out of any of the under-eights who were watching this back in 1987, but for me, it’s only that hideous high point, and nothing more.

Worzel Gummidge 5.8 – Slave Scarecrow

Y’all know me; I’m all about scaring the daylights out of kids. But I wonder whether the Traveling Scarecrow Maker might have been a step too far. The tone is so dark, so downright off that it doesn’t feel like the same program any longer. I think it’s still pretty good television, but this doesn’t feel like Worzel Gummidge anymore. The only concession to the show we started watching is Jon Pertwee babbling in gibberish and getting his words wrong.

I’m incredibly glad we did not start watching this program at the beginning of the blog. At nine, our son’s at the right age to handle a villain who is not played for laughs. At five or six? He’d be in tears, asking why one of his favorite funny programs had betrayed him so badly. Interestingly, I noticed that the DVDs of the twelve episodes in the next and final series are labelled G by Ireland’s Film Censor’s Office and U by the BBFC, while series five are stamped PG for older kids.

To drive the point home, the plot of this story – again the first half of a two-parter – is incredibly like the H.R. Pufnstuf tale “The Mechanical Boy”. There, Witchiepoo captures Jimmy, hypnotizes him into thinking he’s a robot, and sends him off to bring back Freddy. Here, the Traveling Scarecrow Maker captures Worzel, hypnotizes him into thinking he’s a zombie, and send him off with an ax to bring back Aunt Sally in pieces. And it’s not just the grim fate in store for the helpless quarry: Jack Wild walked silly and talked funny and punctuated the action with a goofy song and dance number. He isn’t a threat. Zombified Worzel even somehow has nasty razor-sharp teeth, and there’s certainly no dancing.

I enjoyed it, and so did our son, but I’m about ready for this show to get silly again.

Worzel Gummidge 5.7 – Worzel to the Rescue

In the second half of this adventure, the usual slapstick is mostly set aside for an interesting battle of magic between the Crowman and the Traveling Scarecrow Maker. I say interesting and not satisfying because the villain ends up being dispatched far, far too easily for my taste, but I do enjoy the feel of the Crowman’s magic. It’s not the sort of anything-goes incantations that wizards normally use (and which we enjoyed tremendously when the previous Crowman, Geoffrey Bayldon, employed them in Catweazle, when they worked, anyway), but far smaller powers which can only be employed with what I’d call earth magic, using twigs and roots. This fits perfectly within the folksy and rural world of the Crowman.

My favorite scene, however, didn’t have anything to do with their duel. It’s a delightful little gag that starts on a signpost whose letters are all scrambled before the camera tracks to Worzel, who cannot read the sign. When the camera tracks back to it, the letters have been reordered so that the audience can read it. Our son was really happy when the action briefly moved to a traveling fair, but that’s mainly because he likes bumper cars, I think. Also, carnivals in New Zealand also give away coconuts for prizes in the test-your-skill games.

Worzel Gummidge 5.6 – Ten Heads are Better Than One

I watched the first episode of Sherlock this afternoon. I invited our son to identify the actress who played Mrs. Hudson. He didn’t recognize Una Stubbs. Same as it ever was.

Anyway, this was a nice surprise: it’s the first part of a longer storyline, ending on a cliffhanger! Worzel meets a new friend in this one: the metal conductress of a Victorian-era calliope. She’s called Trudi von Crochet, played by Lee Hatherly, and unfortunately she only seems to appear in this one episode. Naturally, Aunt Sally is infuriated by her interest in Worzel. Just because she doesn’t want Worzel doesn’t mean she wants anybody else to have him either. Same as it ever was.

But remarkably, the episode ends with the Traveling Scarecrow Maker happening to be in the right place at the right time to abduct Aunt Sally. It doesn’t actually seem to be the actor Wi Kuki Kaa, who we met in the previous episode, this time, as the Maker is only seen from behind in his heavy cloak and doesn’t have any lines. But he certainly surprised the life out of me, and we’ll have to wait a few days to see what happens next. Stay tuned!

Worzel Gummidge 5.5 – King of the Scarecrows

“Holy crap!” I said. “Basically scarecrow zombies!” the kid said.

I found myself not having much to say about episode four, though it was nice to see a new upper-class jerk get a taste of Worzel and Sally’s chaos, but episode five is next-level good. Worzel is having a typically goofy adventure with a little slapstick. He ends up completing a new scarecrow’s naming ceremony, and unwittingly gives the fellow the name “Dangnation Take It,” and Dangnation thinks that Worzel is his king. When the Crowman finds out, he’s not happy.

But the Crowman has other issues, which are remarkable. This episode introduces the actor Wi Kuki Kaa as the Traveling Scarecrow Maker, who uses dark magic to bring slave scarecrows to a form of half-life. They cannot talk or dance or sing, and they can only walk between dusk and dawn. They are hideous and if I had seen this program when I was six, I’d never have come near the TV again. The Crowman wants nothing to do with this guy, but he seems to only have the power to tell him to go away, nothing more. The Traveling Scarecrow Maker has designs on the Crowman’s magic, because he needs small talismans to bring his creations to half-life. This guy is fascinating and I love the massive expansion of the show’s world to bring us a very radical new challenge. That’s exactly the kick in the pants I was hoping for, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Worzel Gummidge 5.3 – Full Employment

Aunt Sally seems to get her comeuppance more often in Zoo Neeland than she ever did back home. Maybe the English Crowman should’ve sent her down under years ago.

Our son completely loved this episode, especially a sequence where Worzel drives away on a motorcycle. Of course Jon Pertwee, who loved gadgets and fast cars, didn’t use a stunt double until the last possible moment. But the part that had us howling the most was when Worzel clarifies that Aunt Sally’s dress does not pong like a cow shed, it pongs like a pig sty. And he should know.

Worzel Gummidge 5.2 – The Sleeping Beauty

I like the Zoo Neeland Crowman. I don’t think that he quite knows what he’s gotten into, taking charge of Worzel, but he’s a quiet, intelligent fellow who’s written books on the subject of scarecrows throughout the world, and has some pretty radical theories about the Easter Island statues. Bizarrely, we learned just yesterday morning that at least one of those statues has been capable of speech for quite some time. I think a trip to Easter Island and some giant animatronic stone heads might have been a bit outside this program’s budget, but it’s amusing to consider!

This episode introduces two titchy hooman children, as expected, although Worzel still hasn’t learned to count and thinks there’s three of them. This story, interestingly, sees both Aunt Sally and Worzel getting a comeuppance in the end. Sally isn’t even remotely as evil as she usually is this week, so we’ll just call tonight’s punishment an overdue settling of old accounts.

Worzel Gummidge 5.1 – As the Scarecrow Flies

And now back to 1987, and the other side of the world, for the first series of Worzel Gummidge Down Under. Well, that’s how it’s billed, but I’m fine with just thinking of it as six series of one program rather than four of one and two of another. Life’s too short. After Southern Television lost its franchise, the producers spent about five years nailing down a financing deal that allowed them to keep rights and control over their show, and they found that money in New Zealand. In his remarkable The Worzel Book, Stuart Manning draws a parallel to the way that seven episodes, and a bit of an eighth, of The New Avengers were made in other countries.

Actually, that’s a really good example, because the last four episodes of that show are technically The New Avengers in Canada, but nobody calls them that.

It’s so strange to think that this show was in production in 1987 and 1989, because I was tape trading then, and was curious about the show, which was very occasionally mentioned in Doctor Who Magazine, but thought of it, then, as something old, archive television instead of something that was still being made. Only Jon Pertwee and Una Stubbs continue from the original cast and there aren’t any titchy hooman kids yet. There’s a new Crowman, played by Bruce Phillips, who Worzel, beautifully, calls “Mister Zoo Neeland Crowman Sir.” The plot this time is a simple pilot for the new format: Aunt Sally gets sold to a folk history museum outside Wellington, Worzel finds his way into the plane’s cargo hold, and they have no idea where they are, except that it’s probably better than Americky and they want to go home.

The kid was in seventh heaven. He was obviously starving for some mangled wordplay and slapstick because he laughed like a hyena all through this thing. I am just a little bit skeptical how much I’m likely to love Worzel without all the great British comedians and recognizable character actors popping in, but I’m hoping the format gets bent a little and we meet some new weird friends and troublemakers. As long as our hero’s getting smacked in the head with a shovel, though, our son sees no difference in what came before.