Worzel Gummidge: bizarre memories of a kids’ TV classic

Listen up, titchy yewmans! With a Worzel Gummidge reboot on the way, we celebrate the Jon Pertwee-starring TV version…

Jon Pertwee is most often remembered around these parts for his role as the Third Doctor, but is just as fondly remembered for his brilliant work playing Worzel Gummidge on Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s cult ITV children’s series. Adapted from the books by Barbara Euphan Todd (TV’s second adaptation, after the first in 1953), Worzel Gummidge (1979-81) is the story of a misbehaving scarecrow who spends more time in pursuit of a cup o tea and a slice o cake, and chasing his “intended” Aunt Sally, than he does shooing away the rooks in Ten Acre Field.

Pertwee was joined by the wonderful Una Stubbs as Aunt Sally and Catweazle’s Geoffrey Bayldon as Worzel’s creator The Crowman, as well as a young Charlotte Coleman as Sue, and a cast of UK comedy favourites including Joan Sims and Bill Maynard. He was terrific as Worzel, from his voice to his gait to his singing and, of course, the Scarecrow Hop. The actor’s many public appearances in character at the time (see him here, around 50:35, sandwiched between The Monster Mash and Paula Abdul at the 1990 Children’s Royal Variety Performance) attest to how fully he inhabited the role, to the joy of kids everywhere.

Add to that a guest cast including Fawlty Towers’ Connie Booth, Billy Connolly, and Barbara Windsor (as ship’s figurehead-come-to-life Saucy Nancy), and for a generation, the result was unforgettable. Largely in a good way, but as shown by the memories stirred up when the first image of Mackenzie Crook’s forthcoming BBC adaptation arrived, also because…

 

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…Worzel Gummidge is pure folk horror

It’s well known that Ten Acre Field is in Scatterbrook Farm, but perhaps less well-known that Scatterbrook Farm is located on Summerisle, west of Midwich, just south of Heddaby, in the rural county of Creepy Nightmareshire.*

Even Pertwee, if this (uncredited) interview is to be believed, admitted that the show got off to an overly terrifying start and had to soften up from there. In the first episode, Worzel’s mud-covered face appeared to ‘melt’ in the rain as he twitched to life, prompting this rather neat George Romero-themed re-edit by @ScarredForLife2

Worzel’s awakening, his interchangeable heads, rival scarecrow Dafthead, Aunt Sally’s jerky movements and pale unblinking face, the eldritch, silent gathering of the scarecrows at his trial, the fact that Worzel’s ‘thinking head’ remained sentient and chatty even after it had been stashed in the rafters of Mr Braithwaite’s Dairy Farm… it was nightmare fodder all, but the creepiest element had to be straw-o-mancer The Crowman (Catweazle’s Geoffrey Bayldon).

The Crowman, a travelling tinker/witch who went around on a tricycle with his dog Ratter, was a shadowy supernatural figure, part Dr Frankenstein, part Vincent Price in Edward Scissorhands. Advertising his services to the local folk as a scarecrow specialist, he built them, brought them to life (confusingly, Worzel also had an elderly mother, played by Beryl Reid, but presumably she fulfilled more of a fostering role), maintained them, and then if required, presided over trials and sentenced them to death-by-compost-heap.

A kind of Scarecrow god – whatever was he planning to do with his ever-growing stuffed army? – The Crowman struck fear into Worzel’s soul… but also sometimes threw him parties and gave him birthday cake. He kept you guessing, the Crowman.

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*Furzedown Road, Braishfield, Romsey.

 

An ‘Aunt Sally’ is a real thing

The olden days not being famous for their great sensitivity, a popular fairground game in the Victorian era saw people queuing up to repeatedly pound balls against an old lady’s face. This was the Aunt Sally, a sometimes racist proto-coconut shy featuring a woman’s face painted on a skittle or piece of wood, with a clay pipe that chancers would attempt to break clamped between her ‘teeth’. Successful players would win a ha’p’orth of tar, or a chimneysweep in a little plastic bag of water, or one of the lesser British colonies. (The Aunt Sally was eventually made redundant by the arrival of MailOnline.)

That was the origin story for Una Stubbs’ Aunt Sally in the TV show. She came to her owner Mr Peters from a travelling showman, and was taught how to talk in both Yakkity (English) and La-di-dah by creepy dark magician/tinker The Crowman. All of which explains her references to her time with the Romany people, Worzel calling her an “old coconut shy”, and all the fairground trouble she continued to have in the show.

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Fun fact: in the original books, Aunt Sally really was Worzel’s aunt and not his “intended.” Though as Game Of Thrones has proved, there’s no reason she couldn’t have been both.

 

Its relationship model makes the Love Island couplings look healthy

In its time, Worzel Gummidge spread the odd positive message. There was the time Worzel’s death sentence was annulled because of his kindness to the robin red breast nesting in his tummy. There was that other time Worzel learned it wasn’t enough to have a ‘handsome head’, what mattered was being handsome inside, achieved through being considerate to others.

And then there were all the other episodes, which showcased the unhealthiest relationship since Bluebeard met wife number six: Worzel and Aunt Sally. He adored her; she abused him. He proposed marriage to her; she bullied and exploited him. A dreadfully conceited snob, Aunt Sally mistreated Worzel, who, sadly, wasn’t beyond the threat of violence in return. Arrogance (not to mention Aunt Sally’s patisserie addiction. That painted stick had a cream cake monkey on her back) met obsession and rage, and the result was Punch and Judy-levels of wrong.

 

Worzel really doesn’t want you to talk to strangers

Like much of Worzel Gummidge, silly fun is layered on top of a base of darkness here. The cheerily catchy melody of Worzel’s Warning, the character’s second single released in 1987 after his Top 40 debut (there was an album and a stage musical to boot), accompanies a stark message about never, ever talking to strangers, because if you do, you could end up dead. Strangers, says the song, like preying on girls and boys, and if you do end up talking to one, “you’ll wish you’d never met the stranger.” A public service from a childhood favourite.

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A stop-motion animation version was planned

For over 20 years, an unaired stop-motion animated episode of Worzel Gummidge, voiced by Pertwee and Stubbs, sat undiscovered in a Devon garage. As reported by the BBC here, the episode is the work of Claymation animator Maurice Pooley, and was discovered by his son. There were apparently talks for the animated show to air on Sky, but it never came to pass.   

 

A Worzel Gummidge doll rode atop Jon Pertwee’s coffin at his funeral

This interview in Michael McCarty’s Giants Of The Genre with horror actor Ingrid Pitt, who appeared alongside Pertwee in The House That Dripped Blood as well as Doctor Who, recaps the popular story that Pertwee requested that his casket had a Worzel Gummidge doll sitting atop it at his funeral. According to Pitt, the “straw effigy” of Pertwee in his Gummidge guise “slid off the top just as [the coffin] reached the doors. Someone said in a loud voice, ‘Just like Jon. Always knew how to get out of a sticky situation’.”

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Finally, without Worzel Gummidge, there would be no Lord Of The Rings film trilogy

It’s a bold statement, but we’re sticking by it. In 1987, two series of Worzel Gummidge Down Under were filmed in New Zealand starring Jon Pertwee and Una Stubbs alongside a local cast. 

A young New Zealand filmmaker and special effects enthusiast, at that time working on his feature debut Bad Taste, was hired to make a couple of props for the children’s TV series. That filmmaker was of course Peter Jackson, who met Worzel Gummidge Down Under’s co-writer Fran Walsh, the writer-producer of his Lord Of The Rings trilogy, on set. Ergo, no Worzel, no Middle Earth.  

Long live Worzel. Why not have a slice o’ cake and a cup o’ tea in his honour?