Six years after Jon Pertwee’s scarecrow of Scatterbrook Field left our screens, following a classic TV series that thrilled and terrified children in equal measure, the show was remounted in New Zealand. A further two series comprising twenty-two daft and loveable adventures followed. The 16mm film prints have now been stunningly restored for this new release on Blu-ray. The colours under the bright Australasian sunshine have never looked so vivid, nor the picture quality so crisp. For fans of the show, a revitalised ‘Worzel Gummidge Down Under’ is an irresistible way to enjoy these cherished episodes at their sparkling best.
‘Worzel Gummidge Down Under’ benefits from scripts by original creators Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, who knew the characters inside-out. Jon Pertwee, who is the heart and soul of the series, returns in the titular role. Una Stubbs was available to play Aunt Sally, the object of Worzel’s affections, in around half of the episodes. This ensures that stylistically, there is much crossover from the original series to the relocated New Zealand adventures.
One notable difference is that the Crowman is played by a local actor. Bruce Phillips steps into Geoffrey Bayldon’s shoes and does a sensational job. Physically and vocally, he is identical to the established portrayal and makes the transition seamless. The two children are played by young New Zealanders. Olivia Ihimaera-Smiler and Jonathan Marks are delightful as Manu and Mickey, combining mischief, a sense of fun and a good moral heart.
The series is unique. The concept is wonderful, terrifying and charming all at the same time. It was hopelessly dated even at the time it was made. How many kids in the late 1980s would have known what an Aunt Sally is? Characters on an organ of the type kids had never seen and for which they had no reference point come to life. Jon Pertwee brings an abundance of music hall skills to his ingenious portrayal. There’s an immense amount of physical comedy and dance routines that would have delighted working class stage audiences when Pertwee was a child. Music hall has been a lost art for some time. The stories upon which the series was based were published before World War Two. All of this makes ‘Worzel Gummidge Down Under’ an intriguing curiosity. Nostalgia is riven through its very fabric. It was the case then, and, now in the succeeding century, even more so. Who does this bizarre but often brilliant series appeal to? Those who fell in love with it as a child, certainly. Aficionados of cult classic television will find much to love. Jon Pertwee continues to attract adoration all over the world for his performance in ‘Doctor Who’ in the early 1970s. His fans will love seeing him bring out his considerable talents for comedy.
Once you have fallen for the charms of the dirty, stupid, self-pitying, selfish and always childish scarecrow who drinks sheep dip and eats pig swill, and his vain, pretentious wooden sidekick Aunt Sally who always spurns his affections, then you’ll want to keep coming back to the show.
The wheeze is that Aunt Sally is acquired by a collector at a Museum of Folk History in New Zealand. Unable to see the love of his life taken to the other side of the world, Worzel contrives to join her on the flight and tracks her down to a farm in rural Wellington. There, he meets the man who is ‘a’ Crowman, rather than ‘the’ Crowman, and the scene is set.
The strongest episodes undoubtedly occur in the first batch of episodes. Worzel saves Aunt Sally from the glass display cabinet having roped in help from two local children, but naturally not without leaving a trail of devastation and chaos in his wake. The strongest episodes of the opening season feature the sinister Travelling Scarecrowmaker (a fine performance by Wi Kuki Kaa). Worzel needs a collection of his finest heads, including his thinking head and brave head to stand a chance of rescuing Aunt Sally. The lopsided scarecrows that only animate at night (like vampires!) are as scary as any monster you’d find in ‘Doctor Who’. They lumber like zombies in a Romero movie and are startlingly creepy for children’s television.
Only a few episodes later, the menace is replaced by whimsy as a melancholic Worzel wants a birthday tea party but the Crowman tells him he doesn’t have any friends to invite. Aware of his callousness, he gifts Worzel a little Robin. The bird then nests inside the scarecrow’s belly and keeps his straw free from insects. Later, the barn is filled with the music of the local folk band, allowing old Worzel the opportunity to have a knees-up. When he misses out on all of the cake, the children take him to a picnic, only for the farmyard animals to snaffle their snacks before they can be eaten. A barking mad synopsis, but a beautifully-told morality tale when you sit and watch it. Worzel Gummidge at its best.
Perhaps aware of what a great villain they had in the Travelling Scarecrowmaker, the writers brought him back for another double bill a few episodes later. It’s at this point that the feeling sets in that the main weakness of ‘Worzel Gummidge Down Under’ is that it cycles around a few themes and covers the same ground rather too often, sometimes effectively, sometimes less so. Various themes are returned to, such as Worzel being out of his depth or incongruous in certain situations. The early episode on a golf course is a good example of this fish-out-of-water scenario working well. The intended farce within the second season opener that sees Aunt Sally aspiring to be a ballet dancer, on the other hand, falls embarrassingly flat. A later episode in which Worzel dons deerstalker and cape and turns detective is, by contrast, a lot of fun. The run of form was inconsistent by the end, lurching between inspired and tired. The child leads were dipping in and out, as was Una Stubbs as Aunt Sally, who had other commitments.
In the rich and wonderful world of Worzel Gummidge, there are plenty of incidental characters who were fleshed out. William Kircher as the Second Scarecrow, Ian Mune as Worty Yam and Gerald Bryan as Rooney (a character from the original stories) all give great and memorable performances. Having said that, the strength and depth of the original series, that called upon the talents of Joan Sims, Barbara Windsor, Beryl Reid and others for bit parts, isn’t there to the same extent in ‘Worzel Gummidge Down Under’.
Although not every episode is strong, and overall the remount is weaker than the original English series, ‘Worzel Gummidge Down Under’ still has masses to recommend it. Watching Jon Pertwee play Worzel has filled me with joy since childhood, and I never tire of his silly voices, jaunty mannerisms and hilarious mispronunciations. Just watching him in the scarecrow costume is a nostalgic treat. Although she is in fewer episodes, the fact that we miss Aunt Sally so much when she is not around reveals how essential Una Stubbs was to the success of the series. She is the perfect foil to Pertwee, and is every bit as meticulous and perfectionist a performer. The leads were true theatrical greats, and how fortunate we are to be able to return to their work decades later.
Although the New Zealand location happened almost by accident (they went where there was money from financial backers) it adds an interesting dimension to the show. Appropriately, rural settings with fields were easy to come by. These episodes truly look stunning now that they have been restored, and there is a whole host of extra features on the discs to give those who love behind-the-scenes stories plenty to dive into. The opening episode have individual commentaries with Bruce Phillips, Jonathan Marks and Olivia Ihimaera-Smiler who all recall the series with great fondness and reminisce about how they got involved and what it was like on set.
The fact that these episodes have been beautifully restored, and surviving cast and crew members jumped at the chance to talk about, means that ‘Worzel Gummidge Down Under’ is a welcome release that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed revisiting and reviewing. Although the quality of the episodes is variable, especially in the second season, once you find yourself immersed in Worzel’s crazy world, observing the code of the scarecrows, it’s a show you can’t help but have enormous affection for. Best enjoyed with a cup of tea and a slice of cake, of course. Even if the cake has green mould all over it!
Cast: Jon Pertwee, Una Stubbs, Bruce Phillips, Olivia Ihimaera-Smiler, Jonathan Marks, Ian Mune Director: James Hill Writer: Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall Certificate: PG Running time: 549 mins Released by: Fabulous Films Release date: 13th November 2023 Buy ‘Worzel Gummidge Down Under’