Monday 6 January 2020

We Don't Go Back #92: Worzel Gummidge (2019)

(Did you see Mackenzie Crook's adaptation of Worzel Gummidge this Christmas? Wasn't it great? I'm going to talk about how great it was in detail here. That means spoilers. You know the score by now.

Screen adaptations of books usually become better known than the books themselves, and it's basically true that you're more likely to have seen the film or TV adaptation of most literary works than you are to have read the actual book. This isn't a bad thing. Making an adaptation is a work of democratisation. It allows you to access a story and may in fact introduce you to the books. My dad only heard of MR James because of the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas, and I only heard of him after my dad consequently got a book of MR James stories from the library. I first heard of Jorge Luis Borges (my favourite author basically) because I saw Alex Cox's adaptation of Death and the Compass on BBC's Arena strand back in 1996.

In some cases, the adaptation itself becomes so much more familiar than the books that a large chunk of the general public never realise that it was a book in the first place.

Disney has a lot to answer for here. I can guarantee that when you mention Mary Poppins, the proportion of people who think of PL Travers's melancholy, occult-tinged books rather than those heartwarming song and dance numbers performed by Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke (or even Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda) is vanishingly small. The same goes for Dumbo, Bambi, The Rescuers and Lady and the Tramp: there's a good chance that you may not even have known that they were adaptations.

One classic example of this is Worzel Gummidge.

(Jon Pertwee and Una Stubbs in the 1979-81 ITV series)
The 1979-81 series starring Jon Pertwee, Una Stubbs and Geoffrey Bayldon saw a number of repeats and was shown in an era when it could be reasonably described as one of the only things on the telly. I remember seeing repeats of it on Summer holiday mornings well into the 80s, but it wasn't until adulthood that by chance I came across the existence of Barbara Euphan Todd's whimsical rural fantasies. And I'm not alone in this, given the people on Twitter complaining that the new BBC adaptation is not like "the original", although given that the vast majority of those seem mainly to be upset that Susan and John (as played with deft charm by India Brown and Thierry Wickens) are black, they can be dismissed as mostly subliterate racists and Cyrillic algorithms.

And I'm not going to go further into its merits as an adaptation, other than to say that this version of Worzel Gummidge begins with the source material and then departs from it in a different direction to the older version. But the 1970s version, as fondly recalled as it is, still falls in the “scarred for life” category, with Worzel's interchangeable heads, and the stern, vaguely threatening Crowman, and the uncanny march of the scarecrows to Worzel's trial. I saw one guy on Twitter – one of the few negative statements that came from an actual human and which was worth at least taking seriously – complaining that the new version was “filmed like a horror movie”, to which the obvious response is, sure, I can see that, but have you actually watched the old adaptation at any point in the last forty years? Because let me tell you, Great God Above, it's creepy.
The plot of our new version is simple enough: Susan and John have been assigned to a foster home at Scatterbrook Farm, with Mr and Mrs Braithwaite (Rosie Cavaliero and Steve Pemberton). They're so scruffy that the scarecrow of the Ten Acre Field, Worzel Gummidge (Mackenzie Crook, only with a turnip for a head), who is, like all the scarecrows, forbidden to speak to humans, mistakes them for scarecrows and invites them into his world, and they have adventures. In one of the two episodes broadcast this Christmas gone, they help Worzel and a band of scarecrows unlock the Key to the Seasons, saving the harvest; in the other, they meet the Green Man (Michael Palin), the old traveller who enchants all of the scarecrows, along the way gently bringing a group of scarecrow "trubblemakers" back into the fold and advocating for the right of children to be heard.

And if that sounds a bit high faluting, this is a children's show, and all of this is coupled with a fund of gentle comedy, and even the mystical stuff is presented with a light touch, marrying wonder and laughter and not at any point failing either. And somehow the half-invisible man who has wandered the land forever, fixing hedges and imbuing scarecrows with life – Mr Woodwose, the farmer calls him, attributing to him the name of the medieval wild spirit-men of the forest – is no less a creature of myth when he's followed by a genuinely hilarious sight gag based around a word painted on a cow.

When we see the Scarecrows of Albion dancing crop formations to unlock the seasons – and there's an explanation for crop circles you didn't consider – it's as breathtakingly beautiful as it is comical (and that helped a great deal by the soundtrack, by contemporary folk band The Unthanks). Worzel is clownish, a bit of a fool, but he is also very old – it is hinted he has been here for centuries – and in his own way wise.
People are far too quick to forget that folklore is very often as funny as it is strange, and it is no less strange for being funny, and no less funny for being strange. This Worzel Gummidge understands how the comical, the poetic, the uncanny and the prosaic intersect.

The Tree of Tree, through whose branches every wind blows, and through which one can whisper to every scarecrow in Albion, is a short walk away in a supermarket car park (on Umsdale Road, it turns out, a place where the Detectorists Lance and Andy visit) and its branches are clogged with carrier bags, and the gag about it being a short walk away and in a supermarket carpark only adds to its wonder. Because the magical is nearby. Because it's in the everyday.

Scatterbrook is what a lot of writers these days might call a liminal space, and there's a sense in which Susan and John have to leave behind the outside world to enter it fully, and this is deftly signified by the loss of their phones – no WiFi, no charger, and finally dropped three times by a clumsy, well meaning scarecrow. They do, with aplomb, stepping across the road into the land of folktale, which is as close as a supermarket carpark.

It's impossible to make a rural fable now that doesn't somehow approach ecology, and of course Worzel Gummidge is going to have an environmental slant. How could it not? When the land is caught in an eternal summer, isn't that what anyone with sense is afraid of? To solve it for this year, the Scarecrows of Albion must dance the crop circles, but it's only this year, and there will be other years and it's for the children to be heard.
It's a simple enough message, and one that's by no means new, but this is a television programme for children. Having said that, it's delightful enough for adults and does not in any way make that infuriating move of having a sideways wink for the adults, from time to time. It stands on its own merits, and neither patronises the children nor pretends to adult worldliness.

Mackenzie Crook of course created Detectorists, a gently comic story of people looking for magic in the landscape and finding it, which gave us what was in my opinion one of the most moving final episodes of any television series. In its own way, it was of a piece with Worzel Gummidge, and the marks of Crook's craft – big-hearted comedy, an eye for magic in the mundane – are strongly evident in this new version of Worzel. It's on brand for folk horror fandom, of which I am, I admit, a part, to flip out over something like this, given our obsession with the haunted nostalgia of the 70s and the way that this is recurring, but this particular piece of children's TV, I feel, deserves better. The post-Christmas week is traditionally a time when the BBC go all out and make a piece of BAFTA bait, but this doesn't feel like that. It feels like something honest, and decent. Something that understands magic. It's exquisite. I hope they make more.