Peter Jackson Did The Special Effects, And 19 Other Facts About Worzel Gummidge
We remember Worzel Gummidge with rather a lot of fondness, but we’ll also never forget being extremely scared when he took his own head off and replaced it with another one. For better or worse, you simply do not get anything close to this on children’s TV shows these days!
But in case your memory isn’t quite what it used to be, let us remind you that Worzel Gummidge was a walking, talking TV scarecrow who was played brilliantly by the late Jon Pertwee, and below are 20 fascinating facts about this classic children’s TV treat.
20. Before TV, the character featured in a series of books
Rather than begin life in the TV show we know and love, Worzel Gummidge was first seen in a series of books. Ten Worzel Gummidge books were published between 1936 and 1963, all of which were written by English author Barbara Euphan Todd.
Todd was born in Arksey, near Doncaster, in 1890, though she soon moved to Soberton, Hampshire. Her early life was typical of a young girl at the turn of the century, growing up in the countryside and finding much of her inspiration for Gummidge, her most famous creation. However, as was the case all across Europe, the start of the First World War in 1914 changed everything.
During the war, Todd worked as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment), or military nurse – although, technically speaking, the VAD was an independent entity to the military. These nurses would work both as field operatives, working close to combat zones, and as specialists at recuperation centres back in Britain.
After the war, she married a naval officer and they wrote poetry and fiction together, with the first Worzel Gummidge book appearing in 1936: Worzel Gummidge, or The Scarecrow of Scatterbrook.
Todd did live to experience a radio play adapted from her work, as well as a television adaptation, though not the Jon Pertwee version. Pertwee would take up the role in 1979, three years after Todd’s death.
19. Some legendary British TV actors guest-starred on the show
The show featured both regular and one off guest appearances by a number of well renowned British TV actors. Guest stars included Billy Connolly, Bill Maynard, Barbara Windsor, Connie Booth, Mike Reid, Joan Sims and Lorraine Chase.
Windsor, well established in her Carry On success, guest starred in an episode titled Worzel Gummidge and Saucy Nancy – no prizes for guessing which character she played – which was the debut episode of the second series.
Worzel encounters a group of pensioners taking a trip to the seaside by coach, and stows away. While at the beach, he encounters Saucy Nancy herself, a ship’s figurehead who lusts after him and seeks to marry him. All the thrills and spills of the seaside fairground ensue, and Worzel must rescue Aunt Sally from a fairground ride while extricating himself from Saucy Nancy’s clutches and his new love triangle.
Staying with the Carry On theme, Joan Sims stars in the Series 1 episode Worzel Pays a Visit. Attempting to track down Aunt Sally, Worzel visits the home of Mrs Bloomsbury-Barton (Sims) where Sally is working as a housemaid.
Aunt Sally pretends to be the lady of the manor and invites Worzel in for tea, which is not appreciated by the house’s true owner.
Based in Ireland, Worzel Gummidge (Horse) is the child of Robin Des Pres and Ya Dont Say Nicola and has been competing between April 2018 and as recently as February 2019.
Whereas Worzel Gummidge (played by Jon Pertwee) is an inanimate scarecrow come to life, Worzel Gummidge (Horse) is generally just inanimate, though he has managed to come third in a handful of races.
Other horses named after famous children’s TV properties have done better. In 2014, Neil Callan famously rode to victory in Hong Kong on a horse named Pikachu. There have also been horses named Gryffindor and Aladdin.
Worzel Gummidge never ended up riding a horse in the TV show, despite living on a farm, but given the good news we’ll be writing about later on in this post, there might still be a chance to see Worzel Gummidge riding Worzel Gummidge yet.
17. In the books, Aunt Sally was actually Worzel’s aunt
The Worzel Gummidge TV show differed from Barbara Euphan Todd’s books in a number of ways, the most important of these being his relationship to Aunt Sally. Because in the original books, Aunt Sally was actually Worzel’s aunt rather than his lady-friend, and from the way she treated him in the show, he probably wished she still was!
But even in the books, Aunt Sally was rotten to our dear Worzel. Mentioned only in one chapter of the first book, Aunt Sally is described as someone who bullies Worzel and attempts to make his life miserable.
Instead, Worzel is married to a character called Earthy Mangold, who appears in earlier TV series such as Worzel Gummidge Turns Detective (1953) but is curiously absent from the Pertwee series we remember fondly.
The reason behind dropping Earthy Mangold and transforming the role of Aunt Sally isn’t entirely clear, though it might well be the case that producers felt the cast of characters should be condensed to make the story more easily understood.
They might also have enjoyed the antagonistic nature of Aunt Sally’s character, which leads to all kinds of conflicts, scrapes and japes for Worzel.
16. Worzel had a top 40 hit in the UK
Did you know that Worzel Gummidge himself had a Top 40 chart in the UK? Worzel’s Song, which was performed by Jon Pertwee himself, actually reached the charts – a highly respectable feat for a song about a TV show.
The song was written by George Evans, who had previously worked on the BBC sketch show Broaden Your Mind alongside John Cleese, Bill Oddie and Bill Cryer among others, but is best known for working on sitcoms like Bless This House (1971-76) and Love Thy Neighbour (1972-76).
Featuring the immortal lines, “You put a ‘wur’ after W / And a ‘wur’ after O / You put a ‘wur’ after R / And it’s away we go,” the song peaked at number 33 in the UK charts dated the 9th of March 1980.
For context, the song was more popular than Turn It On Again by Genesis, and Happy House by Siouxsie and the Banshees, both of which had newly arrived in the charts below a comedy song by a talking scarecrow with multiple heads.
The 45 vinyl also included Who’d Be A Scarecrow, also performed by Pertwee, on its B-side.
15. There was a musical with the original cast
Worzel Gummidge The Musical, created by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, who were also the ones behind the TV series, hit London’s West End in 1981. It featured many of the same cast members as the TV show, including Jon Pertwee, Una Stubbs and Geoffrey Bayldon.
Remarkably, the songs were composed by Denis King – of vocal trio The King Brothers, considered by many to be Britain’s first boy band – who was already an Ivor Novello award-winning composer.
King has scored several TV shows such as The Adventures of Black Beauty and worked with stars like Dame Edna Everage and Albert Finney. He continues to write musicals with the celebrated playwright Alan Ayckbourn.
The musical premiered at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1980 as part of its Christmas season and received outstanding reviews; this warm reception led to the musical being transferred to the Cambridge Theatre in the West End from December 1981. Not only that, but it performed so well that its run was extended until February 1982.
An album featuring the voices of the original cast was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in 1981. If you know a Worzel Gummidge fanatic, that sounds like a fantastic Christmas present!
14. His name comes from a real vegetable
You might think that Worzel Gummidge’s name derives from his West Country accent, or that it’s simply a fun made-up word that children would like to say. In fact, everybody’s favourite talking scarecrow actually gets his name from a real vegetable that you could eat – though it wouldn’t be especially tasty.
The mangelwurzel is a root vegetable of the species beta vulgaris, and is closely related to the beetroot and sugar beet. Its primary use is for feeding livestock, in particular cattle and pigs. For human consumption, the roots can be prepared like a potato, and the leaves can be served like spinach.
Also known as the mangold wurzel – explaining the origin of Worzel Gummidge’s original wife’s name, Earthy Mangold – or the more poetic ‘root of scarcity’, the mangelwurzel has a surprising history in England of being used in the sport of ‘mangold hurling’.
During the Irish Famine (1845–1852), orphaned boys between the ages of five and 15 were taught to farm mangelwurzels on the site of a former nunnery, though subsistence solely on these root vegetables led to what relief workers described as ‘mangel-wurzel disease.’
As for Worzel Gummidge’s surname, it’s likely a distortion of ‘gummy’, in reference to the scarecrow’s lack of teeth. He certainly wouldn’t be able to eat any mangelwurzels!
13. The show was resurrected by a New Zealand TV network
In its original incarnation, Worzel Gummidge ran for 31 episodes, spread over four series that originally aired between 1979 and 1981, and Pertwee’s casting was far from coincidental. In fact, Pertwee had been involved behind the scenes aiming to get Worzel Gummidge on the air – first as a film pitch, and then as TV pitches rejected by the BBC and Thames Television.
When the show was finally picked up by Southern Television, Pertwee was overjoyed, and noted that after the broadcast of only four episodes it was already becoming “something of a cult.” As such, when Worzel Gummidge was put out to pasture in 1981, Pertwee was ready to go back into the trenches to campaign for the show to be renewed.
After a six-year absence, the show was at last picked up by TVNZ, a New Zealand network, and was reimagined as Worzel Gummidge Down Under. Aunt Sally is sold to a museum owner, and Worzel is in hot pursuit, meeting and teaming up with indigenous New Zealanders as he goes.
The series ran for two years, until April 1989, and was broadcast in Britain on Channel 4. Interestingly, the TV industry in New Zealand was heavily deregulated in the same year as Worzel Gummidge’s demise, meaning he was likely bumped during a rush towards edgier, more experimental broadcasting.
This would not be the last of Jon Pertwee’s relationship with New Zealand, however. In 1985, he was enlisted in his role as the Doctor for a series of TV commercials promoting the telecommunications arm of the New Zealand Post Office.
12. A British politician drew comparisons
Michael Foot, the British Labour Party leader in the early 1980s, was compared to Worzel Gummidge by the UK media. The comparison was due to Foot’s supposedly unkempt appearance, although looking at archive photos, we believe that the media were being rather unfair!
You might think the furore over Jeremy Corbyn’s scruffy waterproofs is the first time a firmly left-wing Labour leader has been criticised for being unkempt, but in the early 1980s it was Michael Foot who was accused of being too slapdash in his appearance – and who invited something of an embarrassing comparison.
After James Callaghan was roundly trounced by Margaret Thatcher in the 1979 general election, the identity of his successor was far from certain. Michael Foot was elected as a compromise candidate at a time when the party was riven by division between Tony Benn and Roy Jenkins. Unfortunately, Foot was unable to stop the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) which broke away from Labour in 1981.
As a result of this tumultuous leadership, Conservative MP Kenneth Baker – who would later become Home Secretary – remarked that “Labour was led by Dixon of Dock Green under Jim Callaghan. Now it is led by Worzel Gummidge.”
The comparison stuck, especially after Foot attended a Remembrance Day ceremony in 1981 wearing a donkey jacket, widely seen as inappropriately informal given the gravity of the ceremony.
Foot resigned the leadership after a disastrous election result in 1983, in which the Labour Party earned their lowest vote share since 1918. Foot would later be depicted as a scarecrow in the satirical puppet show Spitting Image.
11. A re-booted TV series starring Mackenzie Crook is currently in production
In 2018, it was revealed that Worzel Gummidge would be re-booted by the BBC, bringing us a brand new contemporary take on the classic character. The new show will initially take the form of two hour long episodes, the first of which will see two young strangers discover Worzel after they arrive in the village of Scatterbrook.
In June 2019, it was revealed that The Office star Mackenzie Crook would take on the titular role, and the announcement was accompanied by a picture of Crook in costume.
“I’m thrilled to be back working with the BBC … to bring Worzel Gummidge to a new generation of viewers and reintroduce him to old friends,” said Crook, who is reportedly hugely excited for the project. “Fingers crossed for a glorious English summer as we head out to Scatterbrook Farm and Worzel’s Ten Acre Field.”
In contrast to the famous TV series, in which Geoffrey Bayldon starred as the mysterious Crow Man – Worzel’s creator – the new series will instead feature the Green Man as the animator of scarecrows, who is less than happy that Worzel is communicating with humans.
Crook is not only starring in the lead role, but is also a contributing writer for the series. Shane Allen, Controller Comedy Commissioning at the BBC, has said: “Mackenzie’s widely adored and multi-Bafta award-winning Detectorists was a grown-up love letter to bucolic England and with Worzel he takes a similar approach to English folklore, rural rites and the magic of childhood. His visionary and fundamental reinterpretation of this classic is that rare and special achievement – a BBC One family-friendly comedy.”
10. The reboot is full of comedy legends
Showcasing the enduring legacy of Worzel Gummidge, the reboot has landed some incredible comedy stars to round out its cast. While the original hung most of its star power on Pertwee and Stubbs, it’s clear that Mackenzie Crook is willing to share some of the limelight in this project.
Vicki Pepperdine is set to play Aunt Sally. Pepperdine is perhaps most famous for playing Princess Anne in the satirical comedy The Windsors (2016-), but has also garnered two BAFTA nominations for having co-written the sitcom Getting On (2009-12) and was personally nominated for a British Comedy Award for her role in the show.
Zoë Wanamaker will take up the role of Lady Bloomsbury-Barton, originally played by Joan Sims. Wanamaker is a Shakespearean actor who gained broad appeal for her roles in the Harry Potter franchise and in the sitcom My Family, which ran for over a decade.
Most excitingly, Monty Python alum Michael Palin will play the Green Man – given that the second episode is simply titled ‘The Green Man’, we hopefully can expect to see a lot from Palin.
Commenting on the progress being made with the reboot, Palin said: “It’s a lovely part for me, but the whole script is very memorable and touching, and very funny too. It quite skilfully weaves in something for everybody all the time.”
9. It’ll be the most eco-friendly version of Worzel Gummidge yet
Climate science has come a long way since the show first aired in 1979, so it’s no surprise that the 2019 reboot will also update the environmental concerns of the show.
While the Jon Pertwee original always had a concern for wildlife at its heart, there will be some particularly eye-catching changes in the two episodes that air this Christmas, described as “woke twists” on the character.
For one thing, Worzel’s head will apparently be an organic turnip, will be made of organic and pesticide-free straw, and the scarecrow will be foregoing is famous twice-yearly baths in order to save water.
Mackenzie Crook is reportedly hugely passionate about the environment, and wants the show “to be a non-preachy way of making youngsters more aware of what is going on” in terms of the growing climate crisis.
It’s also been reported that the show will feature an electric tractor, though the extent to which climate change will form a significant part of the plot has yet to be seen.
8. There was a Worzel Gummidge doll on Jon Pertwee’s coffin at his funeral
Jon Pertwee continued to act – whether by voiceover or in person – until his death at the age of 76. While in America to promote the release of Doctor Who: The Movie (though as an ambassador rather than a star) in an attempt to rekindle the franchise in the US, Pertwee died of a heart attack in his sleep.
Fellow Doctor Colin Baker said of Pertwee, “He was a man of such presence and stature. I can’t believe he has gone – it is a great shock. Of all of the interpretations of the Doctors his was the most straight in terms of avoiding comedy.”
However, Pertwee’s warmth, while more measured in his Gallifreyan role, was evident in his performance as Worzel Gummidge and even extended to his funeral.
Such was Pertwee’s love of the talking scarecrow that he left instructions in his will that a toy Worzel Gummidge should be affixed to his coffin during funeral proceedings.
However, according to horror actor Ingrid Pitt, the doll “slid off the top just as the coffin reached the doors, [and] someone said in a loud voice, ‘Just like Jon. Always knew how to get out of a sticky situation!’”
7. Aunt Sally’s name is a pun
For readers less familiar with the show, Aunt Sally is a fair-ground coconut-shy doll come to life, played by Una Stubbs (who is best known these days for playing Mrs Hudson in the Benedict Cumberbatch-led Sherlock).
As a character, she plays into the archetype of a femme fatale, using her beauty to lure Worzel to do her bidding, and is often depicted as cruel and conniving. Interestingly, however, for a children’s TV show, her name is actually quite a sophisticated pun.
Aunt Sally is a traditional English fairground game in which players throw sticks at a model of an old woman’s head, which is still played competitively today by some teams in Oxfordshire and neighbouring counties. An Aunt Sally Singles World Championship has taken place at the Charlbury Beer Festival since 2011.
The game functions much like a coconut-shy, which is the main and literal inspiration for the character’s name. However, Aunt Sally is also a name for a logical fallacy which involves refuting an argument your opponent never made.
This fallacy is commonly known as the ‘straw man’ error, an interesting connection given that Worzel is himself a man made of straw.
6. It’s ranked as one of the most disturbing TV shows of all time
Worzel Gummidge is certainly one of the best-loved TV characters of all time, whose oddball antics inspired a whole generation of kids and adults alike. But, and we hate to be the bearer of bad news, part of what makes Worzel Gummidge memorable seems to be that a lot of viewers found him incredibly disturbing.
News of the upcoming remake inspired a Guardian article which discusses a wide variety of old TV shows that – either in retrospect or when viewed as a child – were actually quite anxiety-inducing.
From Grotbags to Mr Blobby, it seems that quite a lot of television fare at the time was focused on loud and strangely malformed characters, and Worzel Gummidge is one of them.
The article mainly focuses on Mackenzie’s Crooks’ vision of the character, with his “crumpled” skin and “creepy roots sprouting from his chin.” But, if we’re honest, the fact that Worzel was constantly decapitating himself and screwing on a new body part was more than scary for viewers of the original series.
Whether the reboot will take a darker tone has yet to be seen, but hopefully they’ve updated the sound of Worzel taking off his own head. Like scary music in horror films, it’s always the sounds that really get you.
5. There was a Christmas special
It seems like there isn’t much room for the hallowed Christmas special these days, except for the big hitters of television like Doctor Who and the soaps. But back in 1980, Worzel Gum-mania was sweeping the nation, and a seasonal episode was commissioned.
The special, titled A Cup o’ Tea and a Slice o’ Cake after Worzel’s famous catchphrase, was double the length of a normal episode and included musical numbers, many of which made it on to the musical album as part of a four-song ‘Maxi Single’.
It’s Christmas Eve, which is apparently the most important night of the year for scarecrows, as they are tasked with standing motionless to guide Santa Claus back to the North Pole. Of course, Worzel, that ragamuffin, decides he’d prefer to indulge in the local festivities rather than stand around all night, thus throwing all of Christmas into chaos.
Unusually, perhaps due to its already burgeoning length, the Christmas special does not include the regular Worzel Gummidge title sequence, or indeed any mention of Worzel Gummidge at all. Instead, the title of the episode is shown, and then the cast credits are shown.
While technically classified as a Christmas special, Series 3 of Worzel Gummidge aired from the 1st of November through to the 20th of December, meaning the episode could also be seen as the series finale.
4. Most of the viewing audience were adults
Much like Jon Pertwee’s other major credit, Doctor Who, a show originally intended for children ended up appealing to a much broader audience. Pertwee himself has admitted that most of the audience were adults.
According to radio interviews with Pertwee, “Worzel was originally purely a children’s show and we were on at a children’s time on a Saturday. Literally within a week or two we were a cult and we had enormous viewing figures and we realised about sixty five percent of our viewers were adults. There they stayed and we got more and more and more.”
He also discusses making public appearances as the character, for which there was “an enormous turn out of people – and it wasn’t just children.” The interview in question has the unfortunate honour of being the last Pertwee gave before his death in 1996.
Interestingly, in an earlier interview at the height of Worzel Gummidge’s popularity, Pertwee comes across as very defensive over the project. For example, though he hoped he would be able to sell the character in America after its muddled production in the UK, he insisted that nothing about the show could be changed.
“…you made a terrible mistake in America – you see our programmes, you say ‘That’s good’, you buy the programme, and instead of showing it to your audiences, you put your own people in them and you alter all the dialogue. We won’t let that happen with Worzel Gummidge.”
3. Peter Jackson worked on the show
It might be hard to believe, but that scruffy talking scarecrow from Scatterbrook shares an interesting link with the medieval marauding of Middle Earth, and not just in the West Country accents of the Hobbits.
When Worzel moved to New Zealand, a young Peter Jackson was enlisted to help with the show’s special effects. This was around the time that Jackson was working on his first feature film, Bad Taste (1987) which had a protracted development due to filming mostly taking place at the weekends.
After Bad Taste was completed and – due to the generosity of New Zealand Film Commission director Jim Booth – shown at Cannes, the rest was history. The film rights were sold to twelve countries, and Jackson no longer needed to work on eccentric children’s shows about scarecrows.
As a fan of the ‘splatter’ genre, Jackson was evidently quite comfortable with physical effects and costuming, the experience with which would have come in handy for Worzel Gummidge.
It seems Worzel Gummidge made an impact on Jackson, however: in 2012, a rumour circulated that Jackson would directed a film revival of the character with Russell Brand in the lead role. The rumours, however, amounted to nothing.
2. An animated series was planned but never finished
As Pertwee neared the end of his life, he was still passionate about playing Worzel Gummidge, though he was long since past his ability to act on stage. Never one to give up on his dreams, Pertwee instead set to work planning an animated series in which he would voice the scarecrow.
Sadly, Pertwee died soon after, though artefacts related to a mid-production pilot have since been found. Negatives of the animation have been located in the BBC archives, though it was thought for twenty years that the accompanying sound had been lost.
Amazingly, the recordings – thought to be the last by Pertwee before his death – surfaced in a garage in Devon, and work has begun to reassemble the episode for viewing.
The animation would have been in the claymation style, and also features Una Stubbs’ voice. Scripts and storyboards exist for future episodes, though only audio for the first was ever produced.
The project was a collaboration between Pertwee and animator Maurice Pooley, who were assembling a pilot independently to pitch to networks such as the BBC.
1. Jon Pertwee’s son is also an actor
Acting is often a family business, but you might not realise that Jon Pertwee’s son has been cropping up on our screens for years, as well as making it big in America.
Sean Pertwee has starred in the Paul WS Anderson film Event Horizon (1997), as well as playing Inspector Lestrade in Elementary, an American revamp of the classic Conan Doyle detective.
Pertwee is perhaps best known, however, for his portrayal of Alfred Pennyworth – Bruce Wayne’s butler – in the Fox TV series Gotham. Coincidentally, one of Batman’s nemeses is Dr Jonathan Crane, also known as The Scarecrow.
Amazingly, Jon Pertwee’s father was also an actor and playwright. Roland Pertwee wrote the play Swank and worked on dozens of films including the Boris Karloff horror The Ghoul (1933)
Roland Pertwee was instrumental in starting Jon’s career, having been one of the writers on A Yank at Oxford (1938), the Vivien Leigh film in which Jon made his screen debut.