The adaptation of Barbara Euphan Todd’s Worzel Gummidge books starring Jon Pertwee was a big part of my childhood, so in the normal course of events I would probably have approached a new version with some trepidation. But I didn’t, and that was because of one important fact: it is written by and starring Mackenzie Crook. Being as Detectorists, which was also a Mackenzie Crook project, is one of the greatest television shows I have seen in my lifetime, I had a pretty good idea he wouldn’t screw this up. I was right.
It would have been the worst thing in the world to copy Pertwee’s performance as Worzel, and of course Crook doesn’t do that. He puts his own stamp on the role, a little gentler than Pertwee, particularly in the moments where Worzel is unhappy about something. He still has the innocence that is essential to the character, but lacks quite so much of the childish petulance. The two children are both well cast and entertaining. Only Aunt Sally fails to make so much of an impression as the previous adaptation, but the casting is actually truer to the source material. I suspect the supporting character who is more likely to stick in the minds of children from this adaptation is Earthy Mangold, the most important of the other scarecrows so far, played with charm and serenity by Francesca Mills. Making somebody with a sack for a face so loveable is quite a skill.
We are two episodes in so far, and both of them have been very enjoyable. In the first, the seasons are not behaving like they should, and that means the fields can’t be harvested and the birds aren’t leaving the nest. You could read this as an ecological message, especially as the tree Worzel uses to get word out to the other scarecrows and ask for help first needs to be cleared of plastic bags, but it’s subtle enough that it doesn’t feel like a forced message. The same applies to the littering in the second episode. If it makes some people stop and think about what they are doing then that’s a bonus, but I don’t think the intention is to preach. In the second episode Worzel risks being seen by too many humans, and the Green Man (Michael Palin!) arrives to try to set him back on the right path.
Crook knows how to balance out the different elements of a television series, and that really shines through this adaptation. There is just enough humour, but it is never forced. There are moments of drama but always appropriate to the family audience. Like the original adaptation, the series is at times quite visually scary, playing with the uncanny valley response and other traditional fears, but never overstepping the mark. In the first episode there is a visually memorable moment with the scarecrows assembling from all around, travelling across a field in darkness. It might serve as a scene from a horror movie, but here it is a safe fear in the context of a family show. Perhaps most importantly, this series serves as a showcase for the beauty of the British countryside, just like Detectorists did, with joyous aerial shots panning across gorgeous countryside on glorious summer days. It shows us how lucky we are with the country we live in, and how important it is not to spoil it. Mackenzie Crook has done it again: made another series that makes us laugh, makes us think, and most of all makes us feel blessed to live on the most beautiful island in the world. RP