Worzel Gummidge 2.7 – Fire Drill

Joan Sims’ final appearance in this series doesn’t see her going out with a bang. I think they should have changed the running order and shown this one prior to “Very Good Worzel”. That way we could assume that the poor woman was so scandalized by her luncheon being destroyed that she left town, never to be seen again. Here, she’s just pushy, and bulldozes her way into insisting that a charity bonfire is held on her property, and the plot moves on without her.

Worzel and the kids need to work quickly and build a new scarecrow, because the grownups need a Guy Fawkes for the fire and decide Worzel will do. But they hadn’t realized that Worzel, as a creation of the Crowman, has inherited his creator’s power to animate whatever he creates. The result is something they call Dafthead, and it kind of goes back to what I was saying a few chapters previously about how this series might well have scared the pants off very small children. Dafthead is a hideous thing, and it’s only right before he opens his eyes that the camera reveals that it’s a costume rather than a prop. John and Sue, who have been left alone in the barn with it, react with screams and run for their lives. I bet if we’d started our son with this series along with H.R. Pufnstuf and Thunderbirds, he’d have joined them.

Worzel Gummidge 2.5 – Very Good Worzel

Joan Sims’ character of Mrs. Bloomsbury-Barton, as I’ve mentioned before, is an awful, awful person. Simultaneously cheap and desperate to climb the social ladder, everybody sees through her, even the well-meaning owner of an employment agency. This time, she’s managed to get a few important people together for a small luncheon so that she’ll appear grand, and she needs a butler and an additional chambermaid for one day to pose as longtime servants.

Of course, there’s a terrible mix-up and Worzel and Aunt Sally arrive to fill the positions. Comedy legend John Le Mesurier shows up too late for the posting. The mayhem has already begun. Now you’d think that Mrs. Bloomsbury-Barton is going to get what’s coming to her, but she doesn’t. What she gets is a thousand times worse. Between Worzel locking people in the coal cellar and cleaning out soup bowls with live animals and Aunt Sally taking a break from eating all the food to just offer snacks to people by the handful, I actually felt sorry for the poor terrible woman. But not for long.

Our son’s sides nearly split. He hasn’t laughed this hard in at least a day.

Worzel Gummidge 2.3 – A Fishy Tale

This one was fun for all the mistaken identity nonsense piling atop each other, helped in a big way by Worzel having no idea what household appliances are. Mrs. Bloomsbury-Barton’s maid mistakes Worzel for a handyman, and he misunderstands her request for Worzel to look at the dishwasher as an invitation to sit in the drawing room and enjoy the sight of the fishwasher for a minute or three. From there, chaos erupts, and it’s wonderful.

Mrs. Bloomsbury-Barton is the hilariously horrible character played by Joan Sims, and she’s constantly looking down on her maid, who is, in turn, very much aware that her employer is a cheap and wretched person more concerned with appearances than anything else. So there are battle lines drawn on the class divide, but I think there’s also something about Enid coming from someplace where she learned the “wrong” way to say things, using regionalisms and slang instead of propah grammah. Seeing the old windbag get her comeuppance every time is delightful – a tin of worms has her screaming, for some reason – but she really isn’t much of a challenge for ol’ Worzel, is she?

Worzel Gummidge 2.2 – Worzel’s Nephew

I guess it’s a pretty good thing that we watch an episode of The Bugaloos every couple of weeks. Hmmm, that reminds me, we’re due, aren’t we? Anyway, in each episode, Wayne Laryea introduced the audiences of 1970, and 2020, to Cockney rhyming slang. That put our son one step ahead when we meet Worzel’s utterly horrible nephew from London, where he works as an “urban pigeon scarer.” Pickles Brambles speaks a lot more quickly than the actors who played Bugaloos did, and with a lot more rhymes, so it’s a bit harder for us to catch it all, but I do love it when he accepts Mrs. Braithwaite’s hospitality and requests a pot of Christopher Lee and a slice of Veronica Lake.

But yes, Pickles is horrible, and he doesn’t quite get the comeuppance that he should. In fairness, Worzel doesn’t act like a very good uncle when he treats his nephew like a four year-old instead of a young teenager. Since this was filmed in 1979, you can imagine Pickles listening to Sham 69 and the Banshees and rolling his eyes at these slow squares in the country. He claims he’s taking a holiday, but he’s a troublemaker with a slingshot – and seriously, given a slingshot, who could resist shooting Joan Sims in the rear? – and he probably ran from London after breaking too many windows. Even the Crowman is less than impressed with this creation. There’s some great slapstick, and our kid laughed a lot, but I’m very glad the little creep wasn’t used much more after this appearance.

Worzel Gummidge 1.7 – The Scarecrow Hop

The first series of Worzel Gummidge ends with an episode that’s far less riotous than most of the others. The final moments are really contemplative and evocative, but the big show-stopping dance number is more whimsical than silly. It’s set the day after that remarkable food fight, and begins with Aunt Sally getting sacked, with neither wages nor a reference of course, and having no place to go but Worzel’s old barn. She agrees to attend the village dance with Worzel, and even enjoys herself in the end, once the band plays a tune that Worzel’s dancing head can recognize. But any future that the couple may have is stymied by her owner. Michael Ripper’s character, Mr. Shepherd, finds and reclaims his lost property.

But in the end, Jon Pertwee and Geoffrey Bayldon share an wonderful scene where the Crowman quietly implies that he understands the “magic kingdoms” in the heads of scarecrows and aunt sallies, and that Worzel’s beloved will be much happier in Mr. Shepherd’s attic, where she can quietly daydream of foreign lands and dukes and princes, just like Worzel will be much happier in Ten Acre Field, where he can daydream of rooks and fledglings. There are times, watching this show, where I would like to spend just a few minutes talking with the Crowman about the night sky.

The silliest thing happened next. I was so taken by Pertwee and Bayldon’s scene that I remembered that we don’t often get opportunities to see the same two actors sharing scenes, so I popped in The House That Dripped Blood, which we watched, in part, a couple of years ago, and skipped to Pertwee and Bayldon’s scene in it. Our son said “I know that older man is the Crowman, and the actor playing the actor is one of the Doctors.” “He’s also Worzel,” I said, hoping those last two synapses would click, but they didn’t. “I know I’ve told you that Doctor played Worzel,” I said, disbelieving, and Marie agreed that I had, several times, but Pertwee’s transformation was so complete that our kid, who admittedly has no eye for faces in the first place, couldn’t tell that they were the same man less than four minutes apart. At least he was a little impressed by his chameleon powers. Wait until he’s old enough to start watching Robert de Niro movies.

We’ll put Worzel Gummidge back on the shelf for a few weeks to keep things fresh, but we’ll return for series two in May. Stay tuned!

Worzel Gummidge 1.6 – Worzel Pays a Visit

It’s the one with the food fight. I wondered whether I would lose consciousness laughing before our son. It’s epic.

There’s so much in the comedy of anticipation. The setup is completely wonderful: Aunt Sally has found employment as a housemaid to the local penny-pinching snob, Mrs. Bloomsbury-Barton. Sue has told Worzel where she can be found, over the objections of her brother. This scene also had me roaring with laughter, because I’d seen our son’s older siblings have arguments exactly like that, carrying on silently when I told them to hush.

But because Aunt Sally is a very proud liar, and because Worzel happens to come a’courtin’ while Mrs. Bloomsbury-Barton is engaged in some social climbing at another area snob’s invitation, she passes herself off as the owner of the estate. She says that she does not remember Worzel, because she ’as so many friends, and Mrs. Bloomsbury-Barton is her companion, not employer. But she chooses to entertain “Mr. Gummidge,” despite “staff problems” requiring her to do the serving, and she brings out more freaking cakes for tea than any two people could possibly eat. The more food that she brings out, the more hilarious it gets. It gets even funnier as it becomes evident that neither Worzel nor Sally can count, and Una Stubbs almost breaks down laughing herself as she explains that six is more than seven. And then they become cross with each other.

I don’t want to oversell it, just in case anybody reading this is thinking about ordering this series and expecting something on the level of the pie fight in The Great Race. No, it’s more contained than that, but still a majestic single-take wonder with cakes and eggs and sugar and buckets of water, all the while knowing, absolutely knowing that Mrs. Bloomsbury-Barton is going to return much earlier than expected. It was already the funniest thing ever, and then we learn that Mrs. Bloomsbury-Barton doesn’t have just a pack, she has a whole freaking army of little yipping dogs, and a shotgun. Everybody involved deserves a standing ovation.

Worzel Gummidge 1.4 – The Crowman

We haven’t seen Geoffrey Bayldon’s character of the Crowman since episode one. I really, really like him. That’s in part because it’s impossible to dislike Bayldon, period, sure, but I like the quiet, simple magic that surrounds him. There’s a lovely moment where the children quiz him about whether he made Worzel Gummidge, and whether scarecrows can walk and talk, and the Crowman replies with an absolutely perfect and gentle explanation about how scarecrows do come to life, but only after the world is asleep, and by the light of the moon.

When the Crowman later does a patch job on Worzel’s left arm, which has become infested with field mice, he gently but firmly chastises his creation for being seen walking and talking, and listens to him blubber about wanting a wife so that somebody will bring him a cup o’ tea and a slice o’ cake. There’s so much life in the Crowman that you can easily imagine an episode that follows him around repairing all his other creations and listening to all their tales of woe. We actually meet the first of these other scarecrows this time, although the character is not named and the actress is not credited. This female scarecrow is really, really uninterested in Worzel’s proposal, and when he presses her, she responds with violence and a manic, shrieking laugh. “She’s a witch!” our son shouted in alarm. Well, that would have been a plot twist!

Fortunately for our kid, the rest of the episode was far less alarming. That snob, Mrs. Bloomsbury-Barton, insists that the Crowman make a “decorative” scarecrow for her front lawn, and Worzel meets him there to swap one of his heads for a new, allegedly handsome head. A few misunderstandings later and Worzel enters for tea, wearing this utterly ghoulish head with a pencil mustache, waxed-down hair and oversized teeth, and things explode and furniture gets kicked over, and while it was all very funny, it was probably the sight of that hideous head that brought the biggest laugh. I thought about giving you a capture of it, but I’d rather not spoil the gag.

Worzel Gummidge 1.3 – Aunt Sally

Another new character is introduced this week. She’s played by Joan Sims and is called Mrs. Bloomsbury-Barton, and with a name like that she’s just asking for it in this show. Worzel confronts her in a country lane, looking for somebody to take his place on the scarecrow post for the afternoon. But Sims, a great comedy actress with a long list of credits, is really left in the dust by this episode’s other new addition.

Part of the joy in Worzel Gummidge is that the title character is really remarkably selfish and rude, but the show finds terrific comedy in this, in part because Worzel is a little too dense to realize that his selfishness could be hurtful. But then there’s Aunt Sally, who might very well be the most breathtakingly selfish and rude character in television history. Aunt Sally is played by Una Stubbs, who probably had to have a long bath at the end of every shoot just to wash all the awfulness from her.

Aunt Sally is a living aunt sally – a fairground attraction that guests threw heavy balls at to knock over – and Worzel falls helplessly in love with her as soon as he hears that she exists. And Aunt Sally sees this weakness instantly and exploits it. A really good TV villain can be counted on to take advantage of our heroes’ good qualities, but in the world of children’s television, there aren’t any so astonishingly ruthless as Aunt Sally. I mean, the instant Worzel admits that the word “bonfire” frightens him, Aunt Sally fixes him with the evillest eyes on the planet and silently mouths the word in his face. Witchiepoo, Benita Bizarre, and Hoo Doo are lined up outside the fairground tent to get her autograph. Worzel literally ends the episode in tears because she’s destroyed his straw heart. It’s all fun and games until a scarecrow cries.

I can’t wait to see what she’ll do next.

Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts three and four)

This season is flawed in many ways, but one that irks me is that we keep hearing about plots and subplots that are far more interesting than what we actually see. The story of some people from the Andromeda Galaxy stealing secrets from [REDACTED], the greatest information source in recorded history, and being forced into hundreds of years of cryosleep is much, much more interesting than the Doctor’s latest adventure. Though I really do love how the Doctor talks and talks and talks and completely fails to convince the robot to see his point of view, and Sabalom Glitz stumbles in, sizes up the situation, and instantly cons the robot into falling for his scheme.

Our son mainly liked the robot stuff, but he got a great laugh out of Joan Sims yelling at everybody when they can’t decide which way down a corridor to stampede. Older fans, for whom this show is very often such SRS BSNSS, have always hated a tiny bit where a supporting player gets a face full of slime like a contestant on an ’80s Nickelodeon game show. I always figured that was for the kids, but ours was completely indifferent to it.

I have a very odd little memory about “Trial” that I feel like sharing. In the summer of 1986, the letters page of Doctor Who Magazine printed several notes from readers speculating and passing along rumors of the new season. There was one which stood out, and this isn’t an exact quote as I don’t have the issue anymore, but one part of the letter went something like:

I have heard it is to be totally modernised, whatever that means. (Theme music by Frankie Goes to Hollywood?)

I’m sure the writer didn’t intend to start a rumor that Frankie Goes to Hollywood was doing the theme music to Doctor Who, but he offered that as an example of what “totally modernised” could mean.

So come August, and I was in a fan club in Atlanta called Terminus TARDIS that met at Emory University’s White Hall and showed old episodes and had a monthly newsletter. And just before the season started, whoever wrote the season 23 preview column ran that example as fact: the new theme music is by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. In actuality, it was by Dominic Glynn and I like it a lot more than the previous “starfield” music.

Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts one and two)

So now we’re in September 1986. Doctor Who was unfortunately back down to 25 minute episodes, and more unfortunately still shot entirely on videotape. Fans have been Monday-morning-quarterbacking season 23 more than any other point in the program’s history and saying what they would’ve done to prove the show’s worth in the face of its postponement and newfound hostility from the higher-ups at the BBC. My simple take, assuming anything was possible: instead of 14 half-hour episodes, seven one-hour episodes, each self-contained, on film.

Certainly instead of being so foolish as to reflect in the narrative that the show was “on trial,” I’d have forged ahead confident that the battle was won and the show had survived. That’s PR 101, but the producer’s instincts were at a pretty low point in 1986, and his script editor was so dispirited that he was just months from a flounce so spectacular that he hasn’t worked in TV since. So we’ve got a script by the amazing Robert Holmes that’s full of lines like “Be silent!” and “You must think me a fool!” among many other issues.

Joining the proceedings in weeks one and two, we’ve got Michael Jayston as a rival Time Lord who’s got it in for the Doctor, along with Tom Chadbon as a guard in an underground city, and Tony Selby as a new recurring character, the “lovable rogue,” it says here, Sabalom Glitz. The most interesting casting choice is Joan Sims, best known for playing daffy old ladies in comedy films, as the leader of a tribe of peasants.

The story was witty enough for our son to enjoy it, and he liked the two big robots a lot. Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant have a much more relaxed and friendly rapport in this story than we’ve previously seen, and there’s a genuinely great scene in part one where the Doctor tries, and fails, to reassure Peri that she shouldn’t be sad to learn that Earth, two million years in the future, has been wiped out, because all planets and stars find an end eventually. I really enjoy that moment. Like a lot of Doctor Who, it starts well for me and runs out of steam pretty quickly. The problem is that unlike a lot of Doctor Who, this continues running out of steam a lot longer than it usually does.

The Goodies 2.8 – Come Dancing

If our son was muted and polite about that Ace of Wands adventure, he was screamingly happy with another new-to-him escapade with The Goodies tonight. This time, we watched 1971’s “Come Dancing,” and he prepped for it by rewatching two of the episodes we’d watched previously this morning before I went to work.

He chuckled and giggled all the way through it, but I thought the climactic silly film bit wasn’t half as funny as the middle-of-the-show silly film bit, and that wasn’t half as funny as watching the guys step back to let June Whitfield and Joan Sims, who would later play an upper-class pest opposite Jon Pertwee in Worzel Gummidge, steal the whole show. They play rival gangsters stepping on each others’ dancing shoes to control the fixed ballroom dancing circuit. Whitfield spits out an amazing paragraph of gobbledygook when her subterfuge is revealed, and Sims’ character, Delia Capone, is like a villain from a John Wagner 2000 AD comedy.

Marie wondered whether this was originally made for 3D as the color is slightly off, with pink and blue bands occasionally overlapping the actors. It turns out that “Come Dancing” was one of the episodes that the BBC wiped, as they did back then. The print we have today was made from mating a decent quality black-and-white telerecording for overseas sales to a long-forgotten and beat-up color videotape that somebody at BBC Scotland had made of a 1972 repeat of this installment, discovered 26 years later. I remain amazed both at how good of a job the artists and technicians who perform these restorations do, and how frustrating it is that there’s a need for their services at all.