There comes a time in many of our lives when for once we have a little more money than we expected, a little more than we actually need. It’s like a gift from God: money to spend in pursuit of pure joy. The decisions we make at such a time define who we are.
It was 2008 and with three Pirates of the Caribbean movies under his belt, Mackenzie Crook had set his heart on a vintage Ferrari. Why not? He was now definitely in the Ferrari class – and here was just the car. “And then I had a revelation,” he says. “I realised that a Ferrari was the last thing I wanted to buy. Instead I bought eight acres of ancient woodland and it’s the best purchase I ever made.”
Crook is back on BBC One this Christmas with a third outing as Worzel Gummidge. To say that he “plays” Worzel would understate the link between character and actor; he inhabits the scarecrow’s world as writer, director and orchestrator of the country character’s revival.
As his BBC Four comedy Detectorists displayed, Crook is a passion-project man, and Worzel is a passion of the first rank. He sees the scarecrow of Scatterbrook Farm as a rough-and-ready guardian of the countryside: a champion of nature with a robin’s nest in his pocket.
“Nature was all I used to think about as a child,” he says. “I was obsessed.”
When Sir David Attenborough is asked how he got his love of nature, he generally replies: “How did you ever lose yours?” It’s something we’re all born with: but it helps if you have someone to encourage you.
“It was my father’s fault,” Crook says. “I grew up in Kent in a suburban cul-de-sac. But it was a short hop into the countryside and my father and I would take bike rides all the time. He would tell me the names of the birds and the flowers and the trees, everything we saw.”
But it wasn’t nostalgia that made Crook buy his patch of woodland, it was an enduring love. “It was a way of giving my family the nature they deserve,” he says. The wood lies in Essex, and it’s dominated by hornbeam coppice. For the uninitiated, coppicing is a way of managing trees so that they produce multiple trunks, although as he notes, “Here, the trees haven’t been touched for 100 years.”
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I recognise the delight in the voice; I own a few acres of Norfolk marshland that I manage for wildlife, so here was like calling to like. Naturally, I wanted details. For starters, what birds do you get in the wood? “All three British species of woodpecker,” he says, with justified pride, for that trio includes the elusive lesser-spotted woodpecker. There’s also a badger sett.
“The wood is marked on maps 400 years old,” he says. So is the place carpeted with wood anemones in spring? These lovely white flowers are powerful indicators of ancientness. “That’s right!” he says. “Then there are lesser celandines, and in May it’s full of bluebells.”
He has taken his children, son Jude and daughter Scout, camping there, though they go less often now they’re both teenagers. Crook goes up when he can, both to unwind and to do some maintenance; he is slowly replacing the boundary fence with dry hedging, made from fallen branches and other handy organic matter.
“I’m wondering about taking out a few trees to open up the canopy and let some light in,” he says. It might seem counter-intuitive, but sometimes tree-felling is good conservation, greatly increasing the biodiversity of a wood, most spectacularly for butterflies. “I like the idea of doing it myself with an axe – but that’s in the future.”
An intimate association with a place like this affects you even when you’re away from it. Perhaps it’s not the wood itself, but that sense of commitment, one that began in childhood, that drives his reworking of the scarecrow’s story.
In his first Worzel film, the scarecrow and the children realise that the seasons are “all locked up”. Together they bring about a merry miracle that sets the seasons free again.
“It seemed obvious to me that there should be an environmental message,” Crook says. “But I soon realised that kids don’t need that message to be spelt out – they’re already completely into it. It’s my generation that needs a kick up the a***. But I had my dad to teach me the names. I’d love to see kids educated in British nature, so they can understand the diversity of our incredible wildlife.”
Perhaps Worzel will help them. “He’s a smashing chap, I love him. He’s kind, childlike, trustworthy, a bit petulant… I’ve never been a great one for improvising, but when I’m doing Worzel I can improvise as I’ve never done before. There was a time when we were filming near a school and I was surrounded by five and six-year-olds. In the moment, I was Worzel and I made them all laugh. Nature is a thread that runs through all of Worzel. He looks after it, he loves it, he sees every sunrise, he sees every sunset, he notices everything. That’s his job.”
It’s fair to say Worzel would never have set his heart on a Ferrari, probably because the nearest thing he has to a heart is that robin’s nest. For him it’d be the woodland every time. Wouldn’t the world be a little better if we all felt like that?
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.