We’re very sad to learn that Una Stubbs, who we know best around these parts as one of television’s all-time greatest villains, has passed away. Aunt Sally could manage to destroy Worzel Gummidge in a way that no other baddie, in children’s entertainment or grown-up teevee, could do to the heroes of their programs, and she did it on a regular basis. She broke his heart, routinely, stomped it completely flat. Unlike her supervillain peers, her grandiose schemes usually succeeded; this was a bad guy who usually won. Aunt Sally was mean, conniving, utterly unscrupulous, and just about the most selfish creature you’ve ever seen, and Una Stubbs was, by all accounts, absolutely not like that at all, an inspirational actress who inspired a thousand loving anecdotes. She was a familiar face on British television for decades, from light entertainment and game shows to sitcoms, including the long-running and influential Till Death Us Do Part. One of her last roles was as Miss Hudson in the BBC’s Sherlock. Our condolences to her friends and family.
I’ve said a hundred times that one of the joys of Worzel Gummidge is that anything human-shaped can come to life. Episode eleven is set at a convent where the sisters are in need of a scarecrow to get the pigeons off their roof. The camera briefly shows us a statue of the Virgin Mary. Okay, so not that. They wouldn’t dare. Almost anything.
Anyway, these final twelve episodes were made in two batches of six a year apart. Una Stubbs was not available for the second block, so the episodes were shuffled around when shown so that Aunt Sally would not vanish halfway through. Episode ten is her final appearance, and episode eleven introduces a new female foil, a scarecrow named Wattle Hearthbrush played by Ellie Smith. Interestingly, the Zoo Nealand Crowman is unfamiliar with making female scarecrows and is unsure whether they can be given life. Back in the UK, of course, we’d seen several, including Worzel’s own mother.
Actually, I liked the episode with Wattle much more than what turned out to be Aunt Sally’s finale. The kid just about lost his mind laughing when Sally becomes part of a wacky modern artist’s latest canvas – this was twenty years since “Pop Goes the Joker” and teevee was still just going for the laziest possible shot in mocking modern art – but it didn’t break any new ground. Wattle Hearthbrush promises something new, and that’s much more interesting. And you can’t go wrong with Pertwee dressed as a nun and causing mayhem in a convent, even if the Virgin Mary stays right where she is.
Image: 45 Worlds.
Series six is definitely uneven, but the eighth and ninth episodes proved to be pretty good. “Dreams of Avarish” introduces the first new statue-comes-to-life character that we’ve seen in a while: a waxwork of a pirate who charms Aunt Sally into joining him on the high seas… or at least as far as the nearest island, where he thinks he’s buried his treasure. Weirdly, the production rented out the big calliope that we saw in “Ten Heads Are Better Than One” as part of the traveling fair, but the calliope’s character, Trudi von Crochet, doesn’t join the adventure. I think that’s a missed opportunity.
“Runaway Train” is even better. It introduces a French scarecrow, Aubergine, and gives Blighty Tater, who we met briefly in episode seven, a co-starring role with Worzel. These two bring out the absolute, hilarious worst in each other, getting into increasingly ridiculous and escalating trouble and instantly blaming the other. Not content with trying to pass themselves off as ticket collectors on a train, because they’ve somehow convinced themselves that titchy human passengers will reward them for their ticket-punching with cake and tea, they end up stealing the train and have no idea how to stop it. Our son absolutely loved watching this one build and build into chaos, likening it to “the butterfly effect.” It’s obvious that six series was just plenty for this program, but had they gone to a seventh, teaming Pertwee with Danny Mulheron for a full run of Worzel and Blighty causing havoc in tandem would probably have worked for another six or seven installments.
Image: 45 Worlds.
Well, I liked the second of these very much. It gives Jon Pertwee something very new to do as he dons a Sherlock Holmes head and costume, and he gets a one-off sidekick called Worty Yam. It also introduces Danny Mulheron, making the first of three appearances as Blighty Tater, and gives David Weatherly a second outing as Bulbous Cauliflower as the scarecrows try to deduce who stole the Crowman’s prized golden turnip trophy. The game’s afoot and it’s very silly and I laughed out loud several times.
Episode six was… less successful. It’s another example of the world suddenly not working like the real world, which is what Worzel Gummidge needs to feel right. This time, Worzel chases another scarecrow over a cliff for the sin of courtin’ Aunt Sally. Somehow he gets accused of murder for this and the police are offering a $3000 reward, which isn’t the sort of thing even small-town cops in Zoo Nealand would do if they can’t confirm there’s actually a corpse. I like that they’re building up a larger supporting cast, but they shouldn’t have done it at the cost of the show’s realism.
On the other hand, this one was so outlandish and full of slapstick that it turned out to be one of our son’s favorites in the whole run. He’s not quite viewing it through the same lens as I am. He just likes Worzel stabbing other scarecrows in the rear with pitchforks, and he is the target audience, after all.
Well, something just isn’t clicking with this series, and I don’t know what it is. These two episodes could have been made among the first four series, back in the UK. They don’t go anywhere near as off-key or strange as series five’s adventures with the evil Traveling Scarecrow Maker, or the previous two episodes’ heightened unreality. One is Aunt Sally misunderstanding something, acting posh, and causing a scene, and the other, written by Fran Walsh, introduces a new scarecrow, Bulbous Cauliflower, who appears in two episodes and is played by David Weatherley. But they both feel like there’s no energy to them. Episode four seems like a huge missed opportunity, because Aunt Sally having a mud fight with the staff of a beauty parlor should have been uproarious, and episode five does something quite new: it seems that certain toxic chemicals, like DDT, can permanently alter a scarecrow’s mind. The set pieces are too staid and too slow, a problem that hampered some of the earliest episodes. These need to be manic and raucous, and they aren’t.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!