1 9 7 9 – 1 9 8 1 (UK)
31 x 30 minute episodes
Children’s novelist Barbara Euphan Todd created the character of Worzel Gummidge – a scarecrow who became a star of radio in the 1940s and featured in a one-off TV adventure in the 1950s. After her death in 1976, the rights to the novels were bought by noted 60s cinema writers Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall.
Seeing the potential for a children’s feature film and armed with a script they managed to involve a very enthusiastic Jon Pertwee, the former Doctor Who star. But the three failed to raise the necessary finance for a movie and so turned instead to television. The BBC and several of the larger ITV franchises turned the project down before Southern accepted it.
Pertwee starred in the series as the mischievous turnip-headed scarecrow from Ten Acre Field at Scatterbrook Farm. “Worzelese”, the West Country yokel scarecrow language, and the concept of Worzel’s interchangeable heads were both devised by Pertwee.
Waterhouse and Hall replaced Worzel’s old love interest Earthy Mangold with a revised version of Euphan Todd’s Aunt Sally – in the books she really had been Worzel’s aunt!
Worzel befriended young John (Jeremy Austin) and Sue (Charlotte Coleman) Peters who had just moved to the countryside with their dad (having recently lost their mum), transforming their lives with his clumsy antics and good-natured humour.
The Crowman, Worzel’s creator, was played by former Catweazle star Geoffrey Bayldon, while Una Stubbs played Aunt Sally.
Worzel also fell for Barbara Windsor’s Saucy Nancy (a ship’s figurehead) and flirted with a tailor’s dummy called Dolly Clothes-Peg (Lorraine Chase).
In marked contrast to his role as Doctor Who, the part of Worzel Gummidge gave Pertwee the chance to show off his comedy skills and the funny voices he had used on many BBC radio shows including The Navy Lark.
In 1980 Jon Pertwee even released a novelty single called Worzel’s Song which became a minor chart hit.
The 1979 ITV blackout stopped filming, and only eight of the planned 13 episodes were filmed. The Christmas edition – made in October in Lymington, Hampshire – snowed more trouble for the production.
The fake snow was a white powder used for making toothpaste. Unfortunately, it blew everywhere and clung to the food in shops as well as to furniture and clothes on people’s washing lines. Restaurants had to throw out the dish of the day and dress shops had to get rid of ruined items.
But the worst was yet to come – Southern Television lost the franchise, and the new company (TVS) declined to continue with Worzel.
A saviour appeared in the form of Harlech Television, but eleven days before they were due to start filming more episodes, the project was cancelled because of a dispute with technicians.
Channel 4 repeated the series in 1986 but Worzel and Jon remained bumswizzled until an independent New Zealand company came to the rescue and purchased the rights to make Worzel Gummidge Down Under with Worzel taking up residence in the Antipodes (the series was actually filmed in New Zealand) in 1987.
Makeup artist Marion Durnford made Worzel’s warts from Sugar Puffs cut in half and painted brown, while his wispy whiskers were actual carrot roots or spring onion or turnip roots, applied with spirit gum and gauze. The eyebrows were real ears of corn.
Television’s first Worzel Gummidge was Frank Atkinson, who played the part in the 1953 series Worzel Gummidge Turns Detective.