It’s a tough ask expecting anyone to approach BBC One’s Worzel Gummidge with a truly critical eye – from its gentle opening theme onwards, Mackenzie Crook’s adaptation of Barbara Euphan Todd’s original books is so genial and good-natured that to highlight any inadequacies would almost feel mean-spirited. Happily, though – and like its two predecessors from Christmas 2019 – the show’s latest instalment, ‘Saucy Nancy’, is also so accomplished that there’s actually very little to “grumble grumble” about.
Having come across a £20 pound note, living scarecrow Worzel (Crook, who also serves as writer/director) looks to spend his bounty at a local scrapyard, only to come across old friend Saucy Nancy (Shirley Henderson), a potty-mouthed (by Worzel’s definition, anyway) ship’s figurehead come to life, with the rest of the episode concerning his, Susan (India Brown) and John (Thierry Wickens)’s efforts to return Nancy to the craft from whence she came.
It’s an enchanting hour of drama – light on plot, yes, but rich in character, humour and good cheer. To call Worzel Gummidge “gentle” and “pleasant” almost seems like it’s doing the series a disservice, though – while it absolutely is those things, Crook’s script is also smart and sharp, with a number of laugh-out-loud gags and a knowing sense of its own glorious absurdity.
Crafting a drama such as this – sweet but not overly saccharine, soothing without being slow – is, one suspects, much harder to pull off than it looks. The same could be said for Crook’s quirky, charming, wide-eyed turn as the title character, which remains the heart of the show – there’s a heart and humanity to the performance, even through thick layers of prosthetics, that prevents Worzel from becoming a cartoon character. Likewise, his young friends John and Susan regard Worzel with just the right balance of adoration and good-natured mockery, with Brown and Wickens effortlessly endearing.
2019’s specials set a high bar when it comes to supporting cast, what with Sir Michael Palin guesting as The Green Man, but happily ‘Saucy Nancy’ doesn’t drop the ball here either – the role of the outrageous Nancy plays perfectly to Shirley Henderson’s strengths as a performer, adding a dash of salt to the show’s sweetness, and while we won’t spoil the specifics of Brian Blessed’s cameo here, suffice it to say his character Abraham Longshanks makes for a hugely memorable addition to this show’s cast of colourful characters.
To top it all off, Worzel Gummidge also looks and sounds glorious – there’s a strong musical element to ‘Saucy Nancy’, with a gorgeous soundtrack from folk act The Unthanks that not only heightens the emotional moments but also punctuates some of the episode’s best jokes, and while I promised myself I wouldn’t fall into the trap of describing this episode as “the perfect antidote to the year we’ve just been through”, this latest trip to Scatterbrook can’t help but feel all the more magical after many of us have spent the majority of 2020 locked away in our homes, far from beautiful, sprawling countryside.
Like taking a long, relaxing bath in pure kindness, Worzel Gummidge leaves the viewer with a smile on their face and their heart full – with only a slight bittersweetness lingering as the credits roll, as we’re left wondering when we’ll get to see Worzel and friends again. More please, BBC One – and as soon as humanly (or scarecrow-ly) possible.