Despite attracting UK audiences of around 12 million, rave Press notices and boasting guest turns from the cream of the country’s most-respected contemporary character actors – Joan Sims, Bernard Cribbins, Barbara Windsor - Worzel Gummidge is a show which has very much slipped through the cracks of cult TV appreciation. Former Doctor Who Jon Pertwee brought the living scarecrow and his interchangeable heads created by writer Barbara Euphan Todd vividly to life in four gorgeously-realised and atmospheric TV series screened in Britain between 1979 and 1981, a spectacular stage production and two further series filmed in the 1980s in New Zealand. Yet Worzel is never repeated on television and DVD collections of his escapades are now hard to find. Notwithstanding the fact that 21st century kids are now more interested in grim dystopian adventures than Worzel’s quaint brand of farmyard frolicks, it’s hard to understand why the show has become quite so unloved and ignored. Stuart Manning’s lavish, expansive, beautifully-illustrated and designed tome exploring the phenomenon of Worzel Gummidge - and yes, girls and boys, it really was a phenomenon – serves to at least partially redress the balance and, if nothing else, to finally chronicle the history of one of popular fiction’s strangest creations and his sometimes-troubled exploits on both radio and television.
Todd created Worzel and his chums at Scatterbrook Farm in the early 1930s and her manuscripts only found an interested publisher following a successful run on the BBC’s Children’s Hour radio strand in 1935. Worzel was finally up and shuffling and he drifted in and out of fashion (often at the whim of producers and programme controllers) until 1952 when he made his first appearance on TV in a four-part BBC television serial starring Frank Atkinson.
But the story of Worzel’s explosion of popularity – and the meat of Manning’s fine, effortlessly-readable text – really begins in the late 1970s when writers Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall eventually brought Todd’s character to the screen with former Doctor Who Jon Pertwee joyfully seizing the opportunity to create another career-defining role. His passion for the character pretty much defined him for the rest of his professional life and his performances as the naïve, bumbling, well-meaning Worzel were the lynchpin of the series. But once again the industry initially seemed immune to Worzel’s unique charms; with some misgivings Southern TV bankrolled an intended thirteen-part TV series which entered production towards the end of 1978.
Worzel Gummidge was an enormous, popular hit. But throughout its run it was devilled by bad luck and misfortune. Every year the planned run of episodes was reduced for reasons usually entirely beyond the control of the production with the infamous ITV strike in 1979 shut down filming for months. Yet despite the exigencies of its making, Worzel was an instant success and the character – alongside bizarre supporting characters cast which included the mean-spirited Aunt Sally (Una Stubbs), the wily Crowman (Geoffrey Bayldon) and the busty Saucy Nancy (Barbara Windsor) – quickly became part of Britain’s cultural currency. Southern TV lost its franchise to TVS after the fourth series and Worzel promptly disappeared. But by now he had become so established that his return was in many ways inevitable. A planned relaunch in Ireland collapsed but Worzel and Aunt Sally finally made their way to New Zealand for two new series (21 episodes) airing in the UK in 1987 and 1989 on a clearly-disinterested Channel 4 which had co-financed the series but chose to air it in a graveyard Sunday morning slot. But the magic wasn’t quite the same (despite some scripts for later episodes written by Fran Lord of the Rings Walsh) and Worzel slipped quietly off our screens again and drifted away into our collective TV memory bank.
Whether you’re an ageing fan of Worzel in any of his incarnations or if, like this reviewer, you found the whole concept of the character a little creepy and macabre, The Worzel Book will tell you everything you could ever have wanted to know about the history of Worzel Gummidge. Manning’s research is absolutely meticulous; he’s spoken to virtually everyone still alive who worked on the radio and TV series and sitting alongside in-depth analyses of every episode are details of unearthed unfilmed scripts, the true story behind the aborted reboot set in Ireland (the plug was pulled just a handful of days before filming was due to start) and pretty much all points in between. A terrific book in its own right, this is one to sit back and enjoy whilst wearing your reading ‘ead and with a cup o’tea and a slice o’cake at your side.
THE WORZEL BOOK / AUTHOR: STUART MANNING / PUBLISHER: MIWK / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW