Worzel Gummidge 3.9 – A Cup o’ Tea and a Slice o’ Cake (take two)

Earlier today, my son and I rewatched the Worzel Gummidge Christmas Special, first shown in 1980, at its proper place in the running order. He enjoyed it quite a lot when we first saw it together, but I figured rightly that we would both enjoy it more since we both knew who all the characters were.

To be fair, I said when I blogged about it before that it was surprisingly weaker than I expected, and I stand by that today. It’s a very underwhelming hour, with far less mayhem than a usual installment. The music’s not bad and it has some amusing moments, but it would have felt slow even without the songs taking time. A dance routine, even an energetic one, doesn’t really substitute for havoc.

The real surprise was learning that this was the final appearance for several of the recurring characters. Mrs. Braithwaite, Colonel Bloodstock, Pickles Brambles, Sergeant Beetroot, and the Saucy Nancy aren’t seen again after this. It’s certainly a shame in the case of the colonel; they never did give him a spotlight episode anywhere near as strong as Mrs. Bloomsbury-Barton, the character he replaced. And because I just love the Saucy Nancy, I’m sorry that we won’t see her again.

Of course, the saddest surprise is that the whole show doesn’t look as good as this. As I’ve discussed before, the rights owners elected against the expense of restoring the entire program, just the special. You can compare these screencaps to the rest of the series, but it’s just depressing. I’ll admit that Worzel Gummidge isn’t going to set the sales charts on fire or move a million units, but I wish that the Endemol Shine corporation, which, earlier this summer, became part of a French conglomerate called Banijay Group, had just bit the bullet. I’m sure the golden parachutes would be every bit as golden if some executive had okayed restoring this goofy and wonderful show before the sale went through.

But in the meantime, hey, you out there in charge of Banijay, Stéphane Courbit, or whatever your name is! Look at this delightful and hilarious old show that you acquired in your two billion dollar purchase. Treat it right, won’t you?

And with that, Worzel Gummidge will go back on the shelf for a few months to keep things fresh and rotate something else in to enjoy. We’ll return to Ten Acre Field in November. Stay tuned!

Worzel Gummidge 3.7 – Captain Worzel

Poor Worzel. If he had a brain between his ears, instead of a turnip, he’d see that, even though she is now married to his cousin and no longer available for courtin’, the Saucy Nancy is a far, far better friend to him than Aunt Sally.

“Captain Worzel” is one of our favorite episodes. It’s completely hilarious, and full of fun little continuity moments. Cobber Gummidge is taking a little break from married life, since he found a pirate head and left his wife, who now has sea legs rather than wheels, in charge of his original Australian head while he pillages the Barbary Coast. Worzel is too cowardly to steal a ship and rescue Aunt Sally, so Nancy gives him Cobber’s head, which leads to a great moment where Jon Pertwee tries speaking in an Australian drawl while promising to go after his sheila.

But before we get to that rescue, which is the silliest and most wonderful sight you’ve ever seen, there’s this astonishingly funny argument where Aunt Sally and the Saucy Nancy have an absolutely epic exchange of insults, screaming bloody murder at each other. I just about stopped breathing. I’m so on Nancy’s side. Aunt Sally is a broomstick and she deserves to walk the plank. Barbara Windsor is downright magical and so funny, Una Stubbs, after her so-called “rescue,” is angrier than I’ve ever seen anybody in my life, and Michael Ripper, who plays Aunt Sally’s utterly clueless owner, is off so far in his own little world that when Worzel starts pelting him with rocks and garbage, I felt sorry for the poor guy. Nobody deserves to be stuck in the middle of these three.

Worzel Gummidge 2.8 – The Scarecrow Wedding

The second series ends in grand style, as, for the second time in a series, the Crowman calls all his creations home, this time to witness the wedding of Aunt Sally and Worzel Gummidge. He rescued her from a broken washing machine in a junk shop after she agrees that she’ll marry him if only he frees her. Then she goes back on her word until Sue points out that she’ll wear a pretty dress. Naturally, that’s the only reason she even walks down the aisle. She has no intention of marrying him; she only wanted to have a photographer take her picture in a pretty dress. But a scarecrow does get married, and then there is cake. Everywhere.

The episode brings back three of the new characters introduced in this series: Saucy Nancy, Pickles, and Sgt. Beetroot, and introduces two new scarecrows. Cobber Gummidge is Worzel’s cousin from Australy, played by Australian actor Alex Scott, and Soggy Boggart, who has been mentioned several times in passing and finally appears in person. Soggy is played by Talfryn Thomas, who we’ve seen in a hundred things, but they may as well have just hired one more extra, because Thomas’s lines were all cut for time. I particularly liked how everybody in attendance knows perfectly well that Pickles is going to cause trouble with his slingshot, and just kicks him in the rear whenever his back’s turned.

Interestingly, the Crowman is very specific that he did not create Aunt Sally. In her first appearance, Aunt Sally explains that the Crowman taught her how to walk and talk, but apparently somebody else is responsible for her. I should have realized. The Crowman is far too wonderful to have created anybody as ghastly as her!

That’s all for the second series of Worzel Gummidge. We like to put shows back on the shelf to keep them fresh, and we’ll look at the third series in July. Stay tuned!

Worzel Gummidge 2.1 – Worzel & the Saucy Nancy

And now back to 1980, and a lovely day by the seesaw. Worzel Gummidge started his second series by stowing away in the back of a bus carrying two dozen old folks taking a day trip to the Devon coastline and eating all twenty-four of their picnic lunches. I’m always fascinated by the little cultural differences between our countries. The trip included a portion of tobacco for all the gentlemen. Worzel says that it tastes terrible, but his new ladyfriend explains that she smokes it in her pipe.

Barbara Windsor plays Saucy Nancy, the masthead of a replica ship which you can tour for 10p. A sign beside it explains that it’s the same ship that had been used for filming in ITC’s action series The Buccaneers. It’s the Golden Hind, docked as a living history museum in Brixham, and the price has gone up to £7.00 today. Windsor is freaking hilarious as Saucy Nancy. We saw her briefly in the Christmas Special, which aired later in 1980, but didn’t really get the chance to understand who she is. Saucy Nancy was also created by the Crowman and has wheels rather than legs, and when her inevitable war with Aunt Sally reaches its peak, Aunt Sally gives her a shove downhill and I think the kiddo fell into several pieces laughing.

Incidentally, the direction and editing of this mayhem is much, much better and faster than what we saw in the first series. At one point, Worzel, Sally, and Nancy are being chased around Brixham by the crowd of old folks, the fairground crew, and a guy from a food truck played by Roy Evans, and they found a great location for the multiple mobs to converge. Nancy’s rollercoaster ride to the ocean is also cut really fast – and Windsor looks terrified as she rockets downhill in that big wooden dress – and it ends with a predictable but wonderful splash. It was gloriously ridiculous, we laughed like hyenas, and I’m glad we’re spending the next couple o’ weeks in the comp’ny of our old pal Worzel.

Worzel Gummidge 3.9 – A Cup o’ Tea and a Slice o’ Cake

Back when I first started scheming and plotting and planning this blog, I hoped that some good soul would restore, remaster, and rerelease Worzel Gummidge, the anarchic and hilarious children’s comedy starring Jon Pertwee as a troublemaking scarecrow. I wrote about it in this 2017 post after reading Stuart Manning’s thunderously good book about the show. The dual problems were the cost of the out-of-print set and what are said to be some very substandard prints.

Several months ago, many people crossed their fingers after Manning shared the news that a complete set of the negatives of all 31 episodes had been located. Time crawled, and then in late September, Fabulous announced a one-off release of the program’s Christmas special, remastered from the newly found prints. Originally shown in December 1980, one week after the third series concluded, it’s a double-length story with musical numbers, guest stars, and surprisingly few good gags.

I’m not sure which has been the greater disappointment: the subsequent announcement – actually more of an “understanding” than an “announcement” – that the rights owners decided against the expense of remastering the other 30 installments, or that “A Cup o’ Tea and a Slice o’ Cake” was so dry that I only chuckled about three times. I was dying inside because I just knew that our son was not enjoying this.

And I was wrong!

He didn’t guffaw like he normally does, but while some of the songs left him restless, he otherwise enjoyed this nonsense quite a lot. The only part that left him really cold was Billy Connolly’s appearance as Bogle McNeep, leader of a crew of Scottish scarecrows with pine cone noses, and that’s because he couldn’t understand a single thing that Connolly said. To be fair, only about 70% of it landed with me as well. I learned what Hogmanay is today, anyhow!

There’s a lot in this episode that should have worked. Several recurring players, including Michael Ripper, Thorley Walters, Wayne Norman, Bill Maynard, and in her fourth and final appearance as Saucy Nancy, Barbara Windsor, have small appearances. But even Saucy Nancy’s big pantomime musical number, with cardboard cutouts of pirates coming to life, was not particularly funny to me. Even my favorite line from the episode, when Worzel declines to put on his Sherlock Holmes head, sailed past Marie because she hadn’t yet got a grip on Worzel’s comedy West Country accent.

But our son was pleased enough that when I grumbled that this wasn’t half as funny as the episodes that I’d seen before, he said “Then I definitely want to see them, because this was hilarious!” I did warn him that the visuals won’t be any good, but we did just successfully struggle through those lousy prints of The Hardy Boys’ third season. The new, unremastered set is £30 cheaper than the previous one, so I’ll pick it up and it will join the rotation a few months down the line.

What We’re Not Watching: Worzel Gummidge

We’re not watching Worzel Gummidge for our blog, and that’s a shame. Three months ago, I wrote another entry in this occasional series, about The Space Giants, a program that’s never been available in English on home video. Worzel Gummidge has been released, but the DVDs that you can track down from Amazon UK have apparently been made from very poor condition prints. Since I’ve read so many complaints about their quality, I’ve decided against making the investment, though I hope somebody will remaster and reissue the show in the next few years.

I did see about ten episodes of the series quite some time ago, back in the VHS tape trading days. I was skeptical, as perhaps you might be. It’s a children’s series starring Jon Pertwee as a scarecrow. But holy anna, it’s so much more than that. This program is absolutely intoxicating, charming, anarchic, and completely hilarious.

Worzel Gummidge is set in a world where anything that has been built to look like a human can come to life. That includes scarecrows, mannequins, fairground aunt sallies, the statue of a busty woman on the prow of a ship, you name it. Mayhem ensues. Outright lunacy.

Two kids, played by Charlotte Coleman and Jeremy Austin, get let in on the secret: there’s a strange tramp called the Crowman (Geoffrey Bayldon) who goes around building scarecrows and giving them life. The scarecrows have laws, rules, regulations, and different heads for different occasions. Worzel Gummidge, dirty and uneducated unless he’s wearing the correct head, dreams of the good life, a fine house, a cup of tea and a slice of cake, and the hand of the beautiful Aunt Sally. She is a scheming, double-crossing, jealous, manipulative masterpiece of TV villainy played by Una Stubbs, and she only has eyes for Worzel when it suits her.

As the show went on, a who’s who of British comedy made thunderously funny appearances, either as shocked upper-class toffs or other creatures with weird life that upend everything. Joan Sims shows up frequently in the first two series as Mrs. Bloomsbury-Barton, and with a name like that, you know a dirty, horrible scarecrow is going to destroy her garden fetes. Other people cruising in for craziness include Bernard Cribbins, Barbara Windsor, Bill Maynard, Connie Booth, Billy Connolly, John Le Mesurier, and Talfyrn Thomas.

One of the UK’s commercial channels, Southern TV, made 31 episodes between 1979-81. The whole show was made on 16 mm film on location in various villages in rural England, so it doesn’t have that stagey videotape feel. I think almost the entire series was directed by James Hill, who’s probably best known for directing Born Free and the 1971 Black Beauty, but also a lot of ITC dramas and some of The Avengers.

After Southern TV was closed down in a franchise change with the ITV network, the show was shelved for a while, and TVNZ then continued the program with Hill, Pertwee, and Stubbs with 22 episodes of Worzel Gummidge Down Under from 1987-89, but there was a different Crowman in New Zealand, played by Bruce Phillips. I’ve never seen any of these, but understand that they’re lacking a little of the original’s spark, possibly because they had different writers and they didn’t have the same deep bench of well-known comedy guest stars.

Anyway, my interest was reignited when I read about Stuart Manning’s The Worzel Book, published by a small specialist company in the UK called Miwk. The book had enough rave reviews for me to take the risk, and it turns out to be one of the best books about TV that I’ve ever read, dense with photographs, interviews, and background information. Click the image above to get a copy from Miwk yourself. If this book doesn’t leave you badly wanting to see this series, something may well be wrong with you.

Unfortunately, the only way to get all 53 episodes in one place is to shell out a pretty fair chunk of change (£69.95 now) for an out-of-print box set, and if my old VHS boots and the samples you can see on YouTube are any indication, the picture and sound quality is just too poor at that price, especially with cash a little tight at home right now. My fingers are crossed that somebody will remaster the program very soon, because I’d love to watch it with our son before he gets too old and jaded. Anytime between now and 2022 will do just fine. How about it, Network? Simply? Do it fer ol’ Worzel!