Worzel Gummidge 4.6 – The Golden Hind

There are certainly a few really funny moments in this story, which introduces Bernard Cribbins as a ship’s wooden masthead figure, now doing service as an advertising dummy for a fish ‘n chips shop in the village. Another familiar face is the restaurant’s propreitor: Patrick Newell, who had played Mother in the Tara King years of The Avengers. Aunt Sally gets a job behind the shop counter, and the sight of Una Stubbs cramming fistfuls of French fries into her face is pretty hilarious. Our son especially enjoyed Worzel whining to the Crowman that he’s lost his Aunt Sally and his bestest friend and his fish and chips.

But really, with this series, there’s a strong sense of repetition. Cribbins is always a joy, but Jolly Jack doesn’t really bring any more of a dynamic to the show than any of the guest stars who preceded him. Weirdly, though, there are a couple of hints that this episode might just do something really different. For starters, there are flocks and flocks of seagulls chasing the rooks and crows away. There’s a weird sense that Jolly Jack should not be this far inland; it’s as though his presence is messing with nature.

There’s also a bit where Michael Ripper’s character, Mr. Shepherd, grumbles to the shop owner that there is a very weird crime spree going on in this village. He notes that Jolly Jack is missing, just like his Aunt Sally keeps disappearing and being returned. He almost starts to connect that Worzel, who the villagers just assume is a passing tramp when they’re not ignoring him completely, may be responsible for their disappearances. They don’t go anywhere with that idea, either. By far my favorite of these installments has been “Worzel in Revolt” because it’s so unlike everything else in the show. The other five episodes have been entertaining, but they also don’t do anything we didn’t see with more spark and energy in series two or three.

Doctor Who 4.18 – The End of Time (part two)

There’s so much that I like about this story, and so much that’s just so self-indulgent that it aggravates me more than it should. But that’s Doctor Who all over, isn’t it?

Surprisingly, our son’s favorite moment was the special effects padding scene, where Wilf gets to use one of those gun turrets that spaceships often have and shoot down a bunch of missiles. He was completely loving it, and it reminded me of his favorite moment in another Doctor’s final story, “Planet of the Spiders,” which reminded me that the show is for families after all. It needs some comedy and some padding and some unnecessary special effects for the younger viewers to hoot and holler.

The rest of the story is fun to watch, from the silly heights of “Worst! Rescue! Ever!” to the amazing and heartbreaking reveal of the “knocking four times” prophecy. Incidentally, if you haven’t read Russell T. Davies’s The Writer’s Tale, the way this scene was created will blow your mind. As for Tennant’s final act and its endless epilogue, well, you’d have to be a huge stick in the mud to complain about one last celebratory roundup, but there’s a larger-than-sensible part of me that wishes that the episode did not end with the regeneration. I’ve always thought that there should have been another way.

The TARDIS-destroying special effects regeneration blowing everything up could go for starters. It was idiotic then and it was idiotic when the TARDIS dumped Jodie Whittaker out the doors as well. I also detest the music. Imagine it if the Ood song abruptly ends when the doors close. Just give the man a little silence, and let the music pick up as the yellow sparklies start, but not so loudly that it drowns out the dialogue. I think everybody’s with me so far, right?

Now let’s say that the Tenth Doctor did not say goodbye to Wilf and Sylvia at Donna’s wedding. Let’s say instead that we skipped that scene, we let the Doctor regenerate without the explosions, just enough to rip up his clothes and make him a raggedy man, and we fade to black. And then we pick up at the wedding, and it’s the Eleventh Doctor, during the two-year gap at the end of “The Eleventh Hour”, who says his goodbyes, to let Wilf know that he made it okay and he has a whole universe to see with his new eyes. That ties in to their conversation in the cafe in part one and wraps it up very nicely, providing what I believe would have been perfect closure. And then let Wilf ask “Are you still by yourself? Still alone?” and let the Doctor hint about what’s to come. And end on Donna waving at the photographers on her big day.

I like Doctor Who so much that I can’t resist thinking about the what ifs and doing things a different way. Why should a regeneration episode just end with the regeneration? Just because they always do it that way unless circumstances are against them doesn’t mean they can’t change things up.

We’ll take a little breather from Doctor Who for a couple of weeks, but we’ll resume with Matt Smith and Steven Moffat in mid-September. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who 4.17 – The End of Time (part one)

So now we come to a big end, and let’s get the bad stuff out of the way. The Master stuff is appalling. That was my first takeaway then and I feel that way today. John Simm, as I’ve said before, is a brilliant actor but I don’t like his Master at all, yet. And Russell T. Davies goes for the bigger-than-last-time finale again, resulting in worse, sillier, stupider Master stuff than the last time. Now he’s a skeleton man who can jump a hundred feet and shoot lightning bolts.

Bizarrely, the writer even botches the cliffhanger. The Master Race business goes on forever, and then it ends with what’s supposed to be a wild revelation. Timothy Dalton, who’s been narrating, is revealed. It’s Time Lords! Read that like John Lydon rolling his eyes when Bill Grundy asks him about Beethoven. The real cliffhanger is neglected under the fireworks. Donna’s mind-barrier has broken down, she’s remembered series four, and she’s about to die. Nobody cares about the Master, and we certainly don’t care about the Time Lords. We are worried about Donna, nothing else.

However, when the show isn’t detouring into bombast, it’s genuinely wonderful. There’s a perfect little moment with two vagrants talking about President Obama making a worldwide stimulus to end the recession. We also see David Harewood, an actor so talented that he would later take DC Comics’ most boring character, J’onn J’onzz, and make him watchable for the first time in sixty years in Supergirl, mysteriously up to no good as a billionaire working on alien tech stolen from Torchwood. But most importantly, we return to the Nobles after an eighteen-month break. Bernard Cribbins is back, along with Jacqueline King – “You’re not leaving me with her!” – and Catherine Tate. One of Wilf’s friends is revealed to be the delightful June Whitfield, who quietly steals her scenes without anybody minding. She made a career out of doing that.

Russell T. Davies is so good with the small stuff. He’s one of television’s best. The scene in the cafe, with the Doctor and Wilf talking about their fears and what’s going to happen next, both men almost in tears, is completely amazing. It’s one of those scenes I’ve sat down to rewatch almost a dozen times, just to marvel at the pacing and the way that Tennant and Cribbins play it.

Davies has a power with words and names in Doctor Who that is almost unrivaled. Maybe Robert Holmes was about as good. Davies makes it seem so easy, so casual. His Doctor talks of the Phosphorus Carousel of the Great Magellan Gestalt and the Red Carnivorous Morg and the Shadow Proclamation and the Lost Moon of Poosh and Clom and the words are magical. Davies won’t be quite finished with the world of Who after this – there are still nine Sarah Jane Adventures to come – but even with so many great and wonderful adventures in the eight series that have followed this one, there is a Russell T. Davies-shaped hole in Doctor Who. It’s impossible to watch this story and not feel a little sad. It’s the end of a great era.

Doctor Who 4.11 – Turn Left

I think “Turn Left” is one of Russell T. Davies’s best scripts for the series and one of the very best hours that Graeme Harper directed. It’s an amazing story with lots of layers and things you pick up on repeated viewings and I love it to pieces. It gives us callbacks to five recent adventures and shows just how badly things would have gone down without the Doctor there to fix them, descending, inevitably, to a totalitarian Britain unable to cope with its own refugee crisis. It’s an ugly and frightening and breathtaking hour, with a brilliant performance by Bernard Cribbins.

I wasn’t sure how the kid would feel about it, and while I’m sure some of it – like the horrifying labor camps moment – went over his head, he otherwise enjoyed it a lot and was incredibly excited. Interestingly, the idea of the Trickster’s Time Beetle climbing on peoples’ backs was inspired by the 1974 serial “Planet of the Spiders”. We only watched that story once but our son must remember it vividly. As soon as the creature starts scuttling across the floor at Donna, the camera showing us its POV, before it even climbs on Donna’s back, he jumped a little and said “It’s one of those giant spiders!”

Also of note: UNIT gets its first repeat character in the revival. Capt. Magambo is not in the next story like she should be, but she does return in “Planet of the Dead” a bit later on. Billie Piper seems to have had a mouth full of cotton in some of her scenes, but it’s nice to see her again anyway, and our son patted himself on the back for spotting her “Easter egg” appearance in the previous episode.

Doctor Who 4.4 – The Sontaran Stratagem / 4.5 – The Poison Sky

There are several tiny little things about this story, cosmetic ones really, which for some reason aggravate me beyond reason. I can’t stand any of these UNIT officers saluting the Doctor. I don’t like the “flame-nami,” as our son coined it, traveling around the world at what must be thousands of miles a second. I’m irrationally annoyed by the death of Private Ross Jenkins, and that Colonel Mace is only in this one adventure. It’s not that I care about Mace, but UNIT works better as recurring characters, not an ever-changing bunch in either fatigues or British army uniforms. Jenkins should have survived, though. He should have been the Sergeant Benton of this iteration of the series.

Other than that, I enjoy this two-parter a lot, but not half as much as our son did. He was flipped out by this one; it was far too much excitement for one evening. He’s going to be a puddle when we get to the end of the season. The Sontarans have never been better. As far as I’m concerned, one of the show’s big omissions in the years to come is sidelining these newly-redefined and reinvigorated baddies in favor of the single comedy Sontaran played by Dan Starkey. He debuts here as a character called Skorr. Christopher Ryan, who had been a space alien twenty-two years previously as the Lord Kiv in “The Trial of a Time Lord”, is awesome as General Staal.

I also love the strange revelation that the Sontarans were somehow not allowed to participate in the Time War. There is so much about this that simultaneously doesn’t make any sense whatever and yet leaves me desperate to know more. The show has already told us that countless worlds were collateral damage in the war, so how’d they keep the Sontarans out? One side or the other didn’t object to obliterating the Nestene Consciousness’s planet, but they’ve got, what, time barriers in place to keep these guys from making things worse?

I also really like that Freema Agyeman comes back for a three-week run as Martha. It feels like one of those ideas that wouldn’t have made as much sense in the original run, because they did so few stories a year, but when you’re doing ten stories across thirteen episodes, why not check in on an old friend instead of making the only returning faces the enemies? And I love that Martha and Donna immediately click, and that our dingbat hero is surprised by this.

But yes, our son was blown away. This was one of his all-time favorite stories, although two episodes at the end of a very long day – we started with three hours hiking this morning and didn’t even have to social distance because we didn’t see another soul until we got back to the trailhead – was too much for him. He tends to be a hoppity kid even in the quietest times, but he simply could not keep still tonight and proved to be a real headache of a distraction. I was thinking about buying him a couple more Doctor Who action figures a couple of months from now as a back-to-school gift. Maybe I should see whether any Sontarans are available.

Doctor Who 4.1 – Partners in Crime

My favorite Doctor Who season? Maybe it’s seven, maybe it’s fourteen, maybe it’s twenty-five. Might be series four though. There are about ten minutes of this series I have actually never seen before – I’ll tell you why later this week when I see them for the first time – but I love almost everything else. There are a couple of bits in “The Doctor’s Daughter” that annoy the heck out of me, but otherwise this is a program that, even when its lead was at his most smug and the plots were at their silliest, executed its plans with confidence and style, and in series four, they nailed it every time. Doctor Who has been great in many of the years that followed, and occasionally quite excellent, but it’s never been as consistently wonderful, week-to-week, since it was in this run.

Tennant’s on fire, Russell T. Davies is on fire, and Catherine Tate’s here. For years, I’d tell anybody who listened that my favorite companions were either Benny Summerfield or Roz Forrester. And then Donna Noble dropped all her luggage and her hat box in the TARDIS. I enjoy them together so much.

I mentioned earlier this month that our son had us buy him some Who toys with his birthday money. One of the sets came with two little Adipose which look like they’ll be the easiest things in the world to lose. Between the Adipose smiling and waving at everybody and the Doctor and Donna’s beautiful mimed conversation from either side of a room, he enjoyed the daylights out of this one. It’s a great kid-friendly opener with plenty for jaded grownups like me to love as well.

Doctor Who 4.0 – Voyage of the Damned

Right at the end, “Voyage of the Damned” gets a whole lot more mawkish and sentimental than I like. It’s a fine disaster movie for a good while there, with a few top-flight names in small parts like Geoffrey Palmer and Bernard Cribbins. Clive Swift’s here for the duration. He effortlessly stole every scene he was in some 22 years previously, in “Revelation of the Daleks”, and he honestly does it here as well. Unfortunately, one day on the set, Swift managed to make Who fandom infamy by granting an interview to Doctor Who Magazine and, in the worst mood of any entertainer this side of Lou Reed, tolerated the experience with a mix of boredom and condescension. It’s probably around online somewhere; you should look it up to see what happens when actors wake up on the wrong side of the bed.

I think it’s interesting that this story shows the Doctor just flat out losing a lot more than he’s used to. He promises six survivors that he’ll get them out of this mess and loses four of them. And one is really surprising from a narrative perspective, although not a production one. Pop star Kylie Minogue is here as a waitress from the planet Sto called Astrid Peth. I like Kylie. I’m not a huge fan, but I like some of her stuff. I completely adore “On a Night Like This,” which is also a whole lot more mawkish and sentimental than I (usually) like, but I occasionally make allowances for silly love songs. So while it’s a sure bet that Astrid is a one-off guest star rather than a continuing companion, because Kylie has a big career and couldn’t have afforded nine months to make thirteen episodes in 2007-08, it really wasn’t until everybody started dying that I wondered whether she’d be killed as well.

I think the real surprise is that the Doctor asks her to come with him, and she accepts, and then she chooses to end her life by killing the villain and saving the day. That doesn’t happen often, although the Doctor did agree that Lynda-With-a-Y could come with him in “The Parting of the Ways” and she didn’t make it out alive either. The atoms-turning-to-starlight bit is sad, but the falling into the engines bit and the angry hero staring remorselessly while things explode silently behind him bit looks like a very, very bad Hollywood action film. Fortunately, just two minutes later, the Queen gets evacuated from Buckingham Palace in her robe while an assistant carries one of her little dogs in his arms. That’s better.

We’ll start series four of Doctor Who later this month. Stay tuned!

The Avengers 6.15 – Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers…

The brilliance of The Avengers is that it is said to be a program where absolutely anything can happen. So here, the veteran writer Dennis Spooner, who had contributed to Doctor Who and several of the ITC adventure series, decides to test that hypothesis and pushes the show farther into weirdness and farce than it had ever been before. It still doesn’t break. Now having said that, you can probably see the boundary from here. This is a deeply, deeply silly and hilarious episode, but it honestly doesn’t need to get any sillier than this.

If you’ve never had the great pleasure, “Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers…” concerns a gang of “resting” vaudevillians who are targeting the board of directors of the Caritol Land and Development Corporation, a big firm that has just landed an extremely important government contract. But among their holdings is a defunct chain of music halls and palladium theaters, and a crooked Punch and Judy man who knows more than he’s letting on seems to have convinced the gang that by wiping them out, they can open the curtains on their old shows again. Jimmy Jewel and Julian Chagrin play the lead killers, and familiar faces Robert James and Talfryn Thomas are among the other “resting” artistes.

Not one line of this is played straight. Getting to the hilarious final fight, we get to enjoy some of the all-time great television death scenes. Years ago, I watched this one with my older kids, and my boy just about stopped breathing with laughter when Jimmy Jewel introduces some puffed-up aristocrat to his magic carpet trick. John Cleese plays a civil servant tasked with painting the copyrighted faces of clowns onto eggs, and Bernard Cribbins plays a gag writer who comes up with far, far more duds than winners, and they both meet hysterically gruesome ends. Both actors just had me in stitches before they met their grisly deaths. Cleese, in particular, is a delight in the role of a put-upon government worker who desperately wants to avoid letting any member of the public into his office.

Of course our son loved it. He laughed like a hyena in places. This would be a terrible introduction to The Avengers, but I can’t imagine anybody in the world not liking this. For a hour about one sick-in-the-head murder after another, it’s just so darn joyous, which makes it even more amazing that this could very well have been the program’s final episode! I don’t believe that ABC had renewed the show when this was made in March 1968.

As I mentioned last month, in the US, The Avengers was running opposite Lost in Space, and NBC’s The Virginian, which was crushing both programs. CBS gave the ax to Space, and in the usual sort of Nielsen circumstances, there was really no reason to expect that ABC would ask for more Avengers. By the spring of 1968, the spy craze was ebbing, Diana Rigg had moved on, and the ratings were dropping. But ABC did order a full 26 episode season of the program anyway, because something was going to happen in the fall of 1968 that was totally unlike the usual sort of Nielsen circumstances… but more on that another day.

That’s all from The Avengers for now, but Steed and Tara King will be back in August for more adventures. Stay tuned!

The Avengers 4.17 – The Girl From Auntie

If the previous episode of The Avengers was heavy and dated, then this delightful comedy was just what we needed. Our son was very taken with it, which is encouraging, because it’s almost like the official template for the color series: lots and lots of dead bodies of unusually-named men in unusual circumstances, silly organizations formalizing a hobby led by a silly eccentric, grandiose crime, and great guest stars. It’s breezy and very, very fun.

Tackling the cast first, the big name here is the much-loved Bernard Cribbins as a fellow obsessed with knitting. His oddball knitting circle has the office next door to the baddies. Comedy star Liz Fraser plays Steed’s impromptu partner Georgie Price-Jones. She’s been hired to impersonate Mrs. Peel, who’s been kidnapped, and Steed brings her along to get to the bottom of it. There’s also the delightful Sylvia Coleridge, who we saw in an Ace of Wands installment, as a daffy old lady, and David Bauer, one of ITC’s deep bench of American actors, here playing an enemy agent from the eastern bloc. They never actually say Russian, of course. All part of the fantasy. Going back to the previous post about The Avengers and its unreality, even when Bauer’s character ends up in a jail cell, we never actually see a policeman on screen!

I really love the villainous enterprise this time. It’s called Art Incorporated and is led by Gregorio Auntie, played by Alfred Burke. Their shtick is they obtain the unobtainable for extremely exclusive clients and leave behind reproductions. Burke, who is best remembered for playing PI Frank Marker in the long running Thames drama Public Eye, is a really entertaining villain and he has a great scene opposite Macnee.

This template gets tweaked a little in the color series before it becomes pretty standard and, eventually, we have to admit, a little rusty. One positive change they’d make is letting the audience briefly meet the various oddballs with silly names before Steed and his partner find their bodies. Still, even though we have only the briefest acquaintance with John, Paul, George, and Fred Jacques (“the Starr Brothers”) in this outing, they’ll always be remembered.

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!