Mackenzie Crook on the future of Worzel Gummidge and why playing the scarecrow is like "therapy"
"I don't know if I am an optimist. I know there are lots of things in the world that wind me up."
Mackenzie Crook's adaptation of Barbara Euphan Todd's Worzel Gummidge stories might've only premiered in 2019, but somehow these tales of a misfit scarecrow and his young human friends already feel like a festive tradition, with two new adventures airing this year on the 28th and 29th of December on BBC One.
"I wanted it to be event television – like a holiday thing that you would watch again and again," Crook tells RadioTimes.com. "If these episodes become some sort of staple, that would be amazing. Because I think that the BBC is a place where things like that can happen. Things become embedded in our consciousness and don't just drift away and are never seen again."
Christmas, a time of year when communal viewing – and in particular watching TV with the family – is at its height, always felt like a natural fit for the show to Crook. "I wanted this to be old- fashioned television, I wanted people to sit down and watch it together, not on a device with earphones in. That took a bit of persuading, that that was even a thing anymore. There was a little bit of wrestling backwards and forwards about the schedule, where it was going to be put, because I wanted it to air at a time when people would watch it live, as it was being broadcast – and I think that’s how a lot of people did watch it."
In addition to playing Worzel, BAFTA winner Crook has also written and directed all six episodes of the series, including the two latest: Twitchers, which sees Worzel's plan to scare a flock of choughs scuppered by a pack of birdwatchers, and Calliope Jane, an enchanting outing set against the backdrop of an old-fashioned funfair (and featuring a guest appearance from Bill Bailey).
"For these three episodes [a Bonfire Night special, Guy Forks, aired in November], I haven't used any stories directly from the books, just been inspired by the world that Barbara Euphan Todd created and the characters and place names, that sort of thing," Crook explains. "But these stories have come from my imagination."
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Drawing these stories out is something of a process for Crook, with a secondary task often keeping him his busy mind occupied while he also writes new Worzel scripts. "It takes me an hour or two before I even write a word, sort of just getting into the zone, whatever that may be. On the first series I was drawing, I drew sketches of all the different scarecrow characters, sort of got into a writing day like that. I usually do have to have some sort of other project going on at the same time. I do short bursts of writing and then swap it out to something else."
One prop which appears in the Twitchers episode – a handwritten guide to birds belonging to Worzel – was actually produced by Crook himself as one of these side projects. "I made that whilst I was writing this series and swapping between the two. I wrote the entire book – only a few of the pages are actually seen when flipped through it, but it was important to have this prop, and know what he was thinking writing his book.
"How would Worzel think? What would be interesting to him? It led me to understand him in a deeper way."
The end result is always something magical – back in 2019, RadioTimes.com hailed the first pair of Worzel Gummidge films as "funny, exciting, cheeky, magical, [and] feel-good", while last year's Saucy Nancy was similarly hailed as an "enchanting hour of drama" and the recent Guy Forks as "truly great television". Like its title character, Worzel Gummidge is a charming oddity – with heaps of heart and oodles of optimism, there's nothing else on TV quite like it.
Crook says writing and playing the character is "sort of therapy" for him. "I don't know if I am an optimist. I know there are lots of things in the world that wind me up. With Worzel, I have to force myself not to be cynical because the whole idea is to bring some good into the world...
"I have to keep an eye on sarcasm, and being a bit cynical. But I don't want it to just be saccharin and sweet all the way through, so I do try and put some irreverent bits in."
Key to the countryside-set show's ethos is its environmental slant, with its urging to respect and support wildlife coming straight from Crook and often being voiced by the show's youngest characters, Worzel's friends Susan (India Brown) and John (Thierry Wickens). "That is the case in the real world. It's the adults that are catching up and younger generations have lived with these questions about the environment all their lives. So they know about it and we're still to be convinced of some of it, it seems."
With Worzel, Crook has defied the old warning to "never work with children or animals" – though he admits his human cast-mates are far easier to work alongside than certain of their creature co-stars.
"They're revelations," he says of Brown and Wickens. "In the original books, Susan and John were these middle class kids that come to stay with their poor relations in the country... and that didn't really ring true anymore. So I wanted them to be foster kids coming from the city, which meant that there were no restrictions on who we could audition.
"I wanted to get Susan first because she had more lines – we saw loads of girls and India just just stood out from the rest. She was just so natural, and so easy-to-smile, if you know what I mean. Lots of the others came in thinking I wanted this sort of surly teenager, where India just came beaming smiles, and she was the one. And then I wanted someone who could conceivably be her biological brother – I thought it was important they were siblings – and so then we went and found Thierry and he was just as easy-to-smile.
"India had done quite a bit of work beforehand, but Thierry, I think this was his first job. I really have watched him grow – he was brilliant to start with but his comic timing, he’s honed that In the last couple of years. He’s a funny guy."
Crook is similarly full of praise for the crows who appear in Worzel Gummidge ("All the birds are quite incredible – they usually get it in one take") but adds that "foxes are more difficult".
"I should have learnt my lesson, because I had trouble with a fox on Detectorists and I put one into this, into the fairground one [Calliope Jane] and it took a very long time to get not very much footage of a fox."
Detectorists, the award-winning BBC Four comedy about two metal detector enthusiasts was also written and directed by Crook and ran for three series between 2014 and 2017. That series marked his directorial debut and while he insists he's "still learning", he says he's "certainly more confident" at the helm of Worzel Gummidge.
"I leant very heavily on my first assistant director and director of photography on Detectorists and now I feel more confident. But when I think back on Detectorists, it does seem like halcyon days – the sun was always shining and I didn't have to get up at three o'clock in the morning to put rubber on my face."
Though his love for playing the character shines through, it's clear that the process it takes to become Worzel on-screen has taken something of a toll on Crook. "It got really difficult, because before Worzel, I was doing [Sky series] Britannia and I directed a couple of episodes of that last year as well, and in that I’m in full prosthetics as well. So the last couple of years, I spent a lot of time caked in silicone.
"The days when I wasn't in prosthetics on Worzel Gummidge – I think there were 12 days throughout the nine-week shoot – those days were glorious. They were luxuries."
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There are other obstacles too which, sad to say, might prevent him – and us – returning to Scatterbrook again any time soon after Christmas 2021. "I've got a busy year next year – I’m in the West End from April onwards and I don't know when I’d get a chance to do any next year. And then the year after, will Thierry and India be too old to be playing those roles, and should I swap them out? There's lots of questions to be answered."
If this really is the end of a short but oh so sweet run for Crook's Worzel, he says he's "really happy" with the six films that have gone out. "I think it sits as a really nice body of work," he says, before adding. "But I'm not going to rule out making more. Because I love playing him. I really do."
Worzel Gummidge: Twitchers airs on Tuesday, 28th December at 7.15pm on BBC One, with Calliope Jane following on Wednesday, 29th December at the same time.
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