Worzel Gummidge without Jon Pertwee? It seems unthinkable. But then they probably said that about Doctor Who once. And besides, if anyone’s got what it takes to bring Ten Acre Field’s irascible scarecrow back to life, it’s surely Mackenzie Crook, whose sublime Detectorists has seen him dubbed “the Thomas Hardy of sitcom”.
As writer, director and star of two funny, poignant and heartwarming new Worzel films, Crook demonstrates the same painterly eye and passion for the English countryside that he brought to his bittersweet tale of middle-aged hobbyists Lance and Andy.
His Worzel, meanwhile, is a less petulant, altogether gentler soul than Pertwee’s iconic 70s incarnation – albeit one still prone to epic “sulks”, which see him become stubbornly inanimate whenever his pride is wounded. He’s physically different, too, swapping Pertwee’s straw man look for a turnip-headed, root-fingered stick figure that might have stepped out of the pages of Barbara Euphan Todd’s original books.
In The Scarecrow of Scatterbrook, we encounter Worzel through the eyes of siblings Susan and John (impressive newcomers India Brown and Thierry Wickens), foster ‘chillun’ who have arrived to spend the summer working as farmhands for Mr and Mrs Braithwaite (Steve Pemberton and Rosie Cavaliero). City kids who are initially welded to their smartphones, they’re soon forced to adapt to a simpler way of life, where the only tweeting is of the birds in the hedgerows.
Aunt Sally (Vicki Pepperdine) has also reverted to the original Euphan Todd model, in that she’s Worzel’s actual aunt, not his love interest. Instead, we have Earthy Mangold (Worzel’s wife in the books, though the nature of their relationship is rather more coy here), delightfully played by Francesa Mills.
The second film, The Green Man, introduces Sir Michael Palin, no less, who brings his trademark, crinkly-eyed charm to the eponymous role of Worzel’s creator. Zoë Wanamaker is also great value as the local lady of the manor – with whom Worzel takes tea, despite having no insides within which to absorb it – and there’s a scene-stealing turn by Colin Michael Carmichael as Soggy Bogart, the marrow-headed, leather-jacketed ruffian leader of a scarecrow biker gang.
Crook has sowed his scripts with a timely environmental message, casting Worzel as a guardian of the land, finely attuned to nature’s rhythms, and ever watchful for changes in the soil and the seasons. It’s a Worzel for the Extinction Rebellion generation, albeit one delivered with a subtlety and lightness of touch that never feels preachy. The films also invoke something of the ancient mythology and folklore of England, aided by a hauntingly evocative soundtrack from folk superstars The Unthanks.
But if pastoral beauty isn’t really your thing (because you’re, for example, 12 years old), don’t worry: above all else, these are funny, exciting, cheeky, magical, feel-good family films that make for perfect Christmas viewing. Indeed, for all the shots of blue skies and insects buzzing drowsily in the cowslip, this enchanting story of children befriending an inanimate figure who secretly comes to life shares much of its DNA with a certain other perennial festive favourite. It’s The Snowman, with added vitamin D.
As for former Office boy Crook, it seems swapping the concrete wasteland of the Slough Trading Estate for the fields and furrows of England’s green and pleasant land has been the making of him. Not content with being the Thomas Hardy of television, he’s proved himself a worthy successor to Jon Pertwee’s perch in Ten Acre Field as well.
Worzel Gummidge is on BBC One on Thursday 26th December at 6:20pm and Friday 27th December at 7pm