The StoryTeller 1.8 – Sapsorrow

The last of the nine StoryTellers to get an American network airing was “Sapsorrow,” and it was packaged together with a MuppeTelevision that guest starred k.d. lang and aired as the ninth Jim Henson Hour on July 30, 1989. I think having lang as a guest then was a curious but delightful choice, since she was still largely unknown at the time. It must have been taped at least a couple of months prior to the release of her fourth album, Absolute Torch and Twang, but since the Hour had been axed in April, it served as a nice little bit of promotion for a record that was getting great critical reviews. Sadly, of course, not very many people tuned in to NBC that Sunday evening, but if they had, they’d have seen some good music and a very entertaining StoryTeller.

“Sapsorrow” is based on an early variant of Cinderella, with wicked sisters and woodland friends, and a much, much creepier little bit of menace that 20th Century tellings of the tale omit: the whole business of the shoe fitting a humble girl without royal blood is actually a clever mirror to how the story began. The girl, Sapsorrow, was a princess in the first place, but fled her life in disguise to avoid a similar, yet nastier, rule about a ring that fit only her finger. Since we saw a fractured fairy tale version of Cinderella on Xena a few weeks ago, I think seeing the tale’s origins made for nice symmetry.

The kid recognized where the story was going, but in keeping with this blog’s longest running “joke,” he didn’t recognize Geoffrey Bayldon, who he has seen dozens of times as the original Crowman and as Catweazle. Joining him as his three daughters, Alison Doody, who had a starring role in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that same summer, plays Sapsorrow and is brilliant. Comedy legends Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders play her hideous sisters, and are magnificently repulsive. It was another fine little production and we enjoyed it very much.

Worzel Gummidge 4.7 – Worzel’s Birthday

And so we reach the last episode of Worzel Gummidge to be made in the UK, and the final appearance of most of the characters. The story, like most of series four, is slight and not very surprising, but our son found lots to giggle about. Worzel has decided that he has six birthdays, two for his legs, two for his arms, and one for his stomach, but his bestest birthday is for his head. The kids had to help him with arithmetic to figure that much out. He wants Aunt Sally to come to his bestest birthday party, and Aunt Sally wants to ruin it, and that sort of thing.

Behind the scenes, unfortunately, events were conspiring against continuing Worzel Gummidge in Britain. Southern Television lost its franchise to a network called TVS, who didn’t want to continue most of Southern’s programming. (TVS went on to produce several interesting programs for families, including the Third Eye serials Haunting of Cassie Palmer and The Witches and the Grinnygog. They later co-produced the Jim Henson programs Fraggle Rock, including the human segments with Fulton Mackay instead of Gerry Parkes, and The Storyteller, which we’re going to watch next year.) An investor bought the rights to Worzel with an eye to making series five in Ireland, but it didn’t work out, and the show remained in limbo for more than six years.

So this was the last appearance of Geoffrey Bayldon’s Crowman, along with Aunt Sally’s cranky owner, played by Michael Ripper, and the Braithwates and the Peters. It’s really the end of an era, since none of the recurring characters from the first four series will move into the next phase, but I’m curious what we’ll see next.

We’ll leave it there for now and take a break from scarecrow shenanigans. We like to mix things up to keep them fresh, and will pick back up with series five of Worzel Gummidge in February. Stay tuned!

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.

Worzel Gummidge 4.5 – Will the Real Aunt Sally…?

A couple of weeks ago, we watched “The Return of Dolly Clothes-Peg” and I wrote about the difficulty in finding a place for a sweet and kind character in a world as mean as this. With that in mind, this is a little bit of a retread. Another Aunt Sally shows up, and she’s gentle and polite, and that just won’t do. It’s amusing, but we’ve seen most of this before.

Connie Booth plays the new Aunt Sally in town, and I enjoyed how she moves exactly like Una Stubbs, since all Aunt Sallies should be built the same way. There is a really funny scene at the beginning of the episode, when we see each from behind, before we learn that the new one is not trouble. Worzel doesn’t understand that there are two of them, and thinks that she has somehow developed the ability to go in two directions at the same time.

Worzel Gummidge 4.4 – Worzel in Revolt

This was so funny our sides hurt from laughing. The Crowman decides that the way to get Worzel to stop doing whatever Aunt Sally tells him is to create a disobedient head. Unfortunately for him, it works rather better than he thought, and along the way we get some downright amazing, hilarious insults as Jon Pertwee responds to whatever she asks him by chewing her out. At one point, he threatens to take a steam roller to her, leading our son to roar at the thought of “Flat Sally.”

The other thing he really liked was what he called “an episode inside the episode.” The story is set in motion by something that happened offscreen: apparently Worzel and Sally destroyed a village tea party for the local bishop by starting a foot fight after destroying some nice French windows. I loved that they let us imagine this catastrophe; the kid’s trying to decide which of them he likes better for throwing the first cake.

Worzel Gummidge 4.3 – The Jumbly Sale

Here’s a little bit of keeping it in the family. He’s not credited in the episode, and not even at IMDB, but according to Stuart Manning’s indispensable The Worzel Book, that’s Sean Pertwee as one of the silent guard scarecrows who are about to throw Worzel onto the compost heap. He was about 17 at the time and didn’t have a credited role for another six years after this.

“The Jumbly Sale” is another one with Aunt Sally being remarkably cruel and hurtful to Worzel, but her appearance in the story is pretty hilarious. Throughout the first three series, Michael Ripper’s character of Mr. Shepherd has been insisting that his aunt sally is a valuable antique, but he’s finally given up trying to sell her and is tired of her constantly moving around and ending up where she isn’t meant to be, and has donated her to the village’s charity garage sale. She gets sold to a local fellow called Gypsy Joe, “rescued” by Worzel, and, like a bad penny, ends up at Mr. Shepherd’s house again. This time, he locks her in the attic, hoping that the blasted thing can’t cause him any more trouble. Doubt that!

Worzel Gummidge 4.2 – The Return of Dolly Clothes-Peg

Many of Worzel’s problems come from him being selfish and bad-tempered, and those are usually very funny. Once in a while, we see that his naivete in the face of Aunt Sally’s awfulness leaves him hurt. There are a couple of episodes that end with our hero in tears, which is strangely sad, because we know he’s just too fixated to quit Aunt Sally.

This one’s painful for a slightly different reason: Dolly Clothes-Peg, the lovely Cockney shop-window dummy who we met last season, may be just as dopey as the rest of this world’s animated creations, but she’s sweet and kind and incredibly generous, and everything that Aunt Sally isn’t. Dolly, played again by Lorraine Chase, is so good-natured that she is even welcoming and friendly to Aunt Sally, who treated her with contempt last time. Funny how it’s the city girl who’s the sweetheart in this otherwise rural program.

Tragically, it’s Dolly who ends this episode in tears, because Worzel is just too stupid to see that Dolly Clothes-Peg offers him a much brighter and happier future than he could ever have otherwise. I’m sure it ended just fine the way it did, but I’d like to think that those titchy human kids ran after Dolly to apologize for Worzel being so downright stupid. I bet they said that they wished Worzel would marry somebody as sweet as her and not that horrible Aunt Sally, and Dolly would thank them for their kindness, because unlike some of the characters around these parts, she has good manners.

I’m not sure what more you could do with Dolly after an ending like this, but this was the character’s last appearance. It’s kind of a shame, but last time I suggested that Dolly is too sweet to be part of a love triangle with these two. Honestly, it’s not that she’s a Clothes-Peg, she’s too much of a square peg to fit in a world as mean as the one they build and knock down around themselves.

Worzel Gummidge 4.1 – Muvver’s Day

And now back to Scatterbrook Farm and Ten Acre Field for the fourth series of Worzel Gummidge, which was shown in late 1981. There were a couple of minor cast changes for this run, which was the last to be made in the UK. Megs Jenkins, who played Mrs. Braithwaite, was unavailable for these episodes, and Thorley Walters didn’t return, so I’m not sure whether there’s any posh toffs, or wannabe toffs, living in “the big house” in these seven stories.

The goofball setup this time is that Worzel gets on the bad side of a crowd of mothers and nannies at a baby beauty contest, and they dunk him in the creek. The kids mention that it’s a shame Worzel doesn’t actually have a mother to take care of him while he has the shivers, and the Crowman agrees that perhaps a mother could potentially keep him out of mischief. It’s an entertaining, if slight, little story, but the highlight for me was the way Geoffrey Bayldon stopped in mid-sentence when he realizes the possibility.

Worzel’s head is a root vegetable called a manglewurzel, and, the year before the Crowman plucked Worzel’s head, he’d plucked one from the same hedgerow that became the head of a scarecrow named Sarah Pigswill, played by comedy legend Beryl Reid. But while Worzel thinks he’s getting a muvver to lavish gifts and treats upon him, Sarah Pigswill is not afraid to box Worzel’s ears, with real boxes, and doesn’t think much of all this human food he’s been eating, and insists he eat like a proper scarecrow, with dishwater tea, pebble humbugs, and sawdust porridge. And every bit of it, too, because people go starving in Africcy.

The kid was very happy to have Worzel back in rotation, but I’m afraid his biggest giggle came from mishearing a line. “Did she say TARDIS porridge?” he asked. It had taken me a couple of moments to realize that was Beryl Reid with dirt on her face and straw in her hair, but when our son said that, it suddenly struck me that she’d actually be on the Doctor Who set less than a month after this was first broadcast, taping the Peter Davison serial “Earthshock”.

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 3.6 – The Return of Dafthead

Worzel had made another scarecrow called Dafthead in the episode “Fire Drill” and I commented then that the fellow probably scared the pants off of some of this show’s younger viewers. When he turns his head to the camera to reveal that he’s taken Worzel’s post in Ten Acre Field, he scared the pants off me. Dafthead is amusingly hideous, although I’m sorry to say we did have a lot of trouble understanding Frank Marlborough under the mask and makeup. Unfortunately Fabulous’s DVD set does not come with an option for subtitles; it would have helped.

Even if we didn’t catch everything that Dafthead says, we still enjoyed the story, as Worzel tries one trick after another to get Dafthead out of his right and proper place on the post, and they’re all very funny. There’s a lovely bit of sweet continuity toward the end. The Crowman sadly decides that the only way to settle this matter is for Worzel and Dafthead to have a duel. On the morning, he instructs them to walk five paces forward. Worzel doesn’t move; he still can’t count that high.