‘You put a Wor after W, and a Wor after O, a Wor after R, and it's away we go. You put a Wor after Z, a Wor after E, a Wor after L, A zel after Wor, and you're left...with me!’
Worzel Gummidge, who was created to protect the crops on Scatterbrook Farm, was not your conventional scarecrow. Given a heart, and a brain (of sorts) by the Crowman (a slightly creepy scarecrow maker with mystical powers), Worzel talked, walked and most of all, had emotions like a human being. The character of Worzel was often referred to as ‘tragi-comic’, with the television script intending you to both laugh and empathise with his most humorous, and his most heartrending moments. And there were plenty of both, as Worzel spent most of his time getting into preposterous situations whilst trying to woo the love of his life, the snobby coconut shy doll Aunt Sally. Four series and a Christmas special were made in the UK (with two further series relocating to New Zealand using the name Worzel Gummidge Down Under), and along the way Worzel had plenty of chances to find romance with other characters. The free-wheeling Saucy Nancy (a ship’s figurehead played by Barbara Windsor) and Lorraine Chase’s Dolly Clothes-Peg (a shop mannequin) both had a soft spot for him, but unfortunately he didn’t have eyes for anybody except the vain Aunt Sally, who considered herself too good for the likes of scruffy scarecrows and was repeatedly nasty to poor old Worzel.
Played by Geoffrey Bayldon (also known for playing the title role in the slightly eccentric series Catweazle), the Crowman made, and gave life to a collection of scarecrows that were propped up in various fields around the area. Dressed entirely in black, he and his dog Ratter rode a tricycle around the countryside, keeping an eye on his creations and trying to ensure they stayed out of trouble. He had his work cut out with Worzel, who was forever forgetting what his purpose as a scarecrow actually was, and spent his time instead getting into scrapes, usually in pursuit of his red-cheeked, stiff-limbed lady love. On the odd occasion he was distracted from this by the thought of stopping for ‘a cup o’ tea an’ a slice o’ cake’, his second passion in life. Although Worzel was incapable of doing as he was told for long, he remained in awe of the Crowman and his magical ways, and often called him ‘Your Worship’.
Trying to help Worzel remain in the Crowman’s good books were Sue (the wonderful Charlotte Coleman) and John (Jeremy Austin) Braithwaite, the children who lived at Scatterbrook Farm. They spent most of their time being dragged into Worzel’s latest escapade, and an equal amount of time trying to get them all out of it again.
Worzel Gummidge originally appeared in a series of books by Barbara Euphan Todd, the first of which was published in 1936. He was brought to life several times over the following decades, both on the radio and the small screen, but it was former Doctor Who Jon Pertwee taking the lead role in the 1979 to 1981 Southern Television series that really brought the loveable scarecrow to life for generations of children and adults alike.
It was a children’s programme ostensibly, but there were often moments that carried an eerie feel (The Trial of Worzel Gummidge was a particularly dark episode) and it was occasionally genuinely moving. The Scarecrow Wedding saw Worzel rescuing Aunt Sally from a junk shop washing machine in return for her agreeing to marry him. Worzel was obviously ecstatic after chasing her for so long, and whilst the Crowman was not convinced that she meant it, the ceremony was planned. Aunt Sally had no intention of marrying him of course, and poor Worzel was left standing at the altar. If it is possible to feel sadness on behalf of what is in essence a bale of straw tied together with string, in that scene you do.
Another aspect that had younger children covering their eyes was Worzel’s head-changing scenes. As well as his main ‘Worzel’ head (made from a mangelwurzel), the Crowman bestowed on him several alternative heads, all of which had unique attributes and could be twisted on and off his straw neck with a bit of brute force. For times when he needed an added boost of intelligence he had his Thinking Head, or if he needed to summon up some courage then he could turn to his Brave Head. Which begged the question - given his propensity for getting into ridiculous situations - why didn’t he wear one of these alternative heads all the time? The answer is probably that although the heads didn’t totally change his personality, without his regular head he wasn’t his complete self, and ultimately that dim, naïve, but good-hearted scarecrow was who the Crowman, John and Sue and everybody else who met him loved. Except Aunt Sally of course.