The word on Worzel
Iconic literary scarecrow Worzel Gummidge is returning to television in a pair of hour-long episodes written and directed by and starring Mackenzie Crook. The Office and Detectorists star tells DQ about becoming Worzel and adapting Barbara Euphan Todd’s novels.
One of the UK’s best-known comedy actors, Mackenzie Crook made his name in Ricky Gervais’s seminal workplace mockumentary The Office before taking on roles in Skins, Game of Thrones and Britannia, as well as the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
More recently, the Bafta-winning writer has become equally known for his work behind the scenes, writing and directing acclaimed comedy Detectorists, in which he and Toby Jones starred as a pair of eccentric metal detectorists.
Crook is now once again combining writing, directing and acting in his latest project, a modern-day adaptation of Barbara Euphan Todd’s classic Worzel Gummidge novels, which first introduced the walking, talking scarecrow that was previously brought to life by Jon Pertwee between 1979 and 1981.
Commissioned by BBC1 in the UK, Crook’s adaptation comprises two episodes, each an hour long. The first, The Scarecrow of Scatterbrook, sees Susan and John, new arrivals to the town, first encounter Worzel Gummidge, the scarecrow of Ten Acre Field. In the second episode, The Green Man, the titular character arrives in Scatterbrook and is unhappy to discover Worzel has been mixing with humans.
Worzel Gummidge is a Leopard Pictures production in association with Treasure Trove, Lola Entertainment and Pidgeon Entertainment, with Kew Media Distribution handling international sales. Kristian Smith (Detectorists), Lisa Thomas, Patrick D Pidgeon and Eric S Rollman executive produce.
Here, Crook tells DQ about his approach to adapting the novels, juggling writing and directing duties and getting into character.
What is your relationship with the Worzel Gummidge novels?
Before being approached by Leopard Pictures, I hadn’t read the novels or seen any of the earlier Worzel Gummidge TV series. As children, my sisters and I were discouraged from watching commercial TV so I missed out on a lot of my friends’ favourite shows. I read the cartoon strip in Look-in Magazine, but that was as far as my relationship with Worzel went.
Why did you want to adapt them?
It felt like an evolution from Detectorists: stories connected to the landscape and the myth and lore of the countryside but with a whole new layer of magic realism.
How was the project developed with Leopard Pictures and the BBC?
Kristian Smith, MD of Leopard Pictures, came to me when Leopard secured the rights to the novels and asked if I was interested in getting involved. Soon after I began to read the books, an idea of a new interpretation began to occur and I could picture the world and the tone almost immediately. Even before the books, Barbara Euphan Todd wrote Worzel Gummidge radio scripts for BBC Children’s Hour, and the first television adaptation was on the BBC in 1953. So it felt right to bring it home.
Were you always keen to write and direct the films, as well as star in them?
Yes, I had a very clear idea of how everything should look and the rhythm of the dialogue and jokes, so directing as well was a natural choice.
What has been your writing process in adapting two novels for the films?
Our films take their themes and characters from several of the books, rather than being direct adaptations. There are 10 Worzel Gummidge books, which I read, noting down the appealing storylines and developing our plots from there.
How do we first meet Worzel in the series and how would you describe him as a character?
We first meet Worzel in his beloved Ten Acre Field doing what he does best. I stuck quite closely to the beginning of the first novel. Worzel is kind and funny, prone to mood swings, naive in some ways and wise in others. He’s concerned about the plight of the countryside around him and feels a responsibility to help.
What was your experience of directing yourself?
I’m usually uncomfortable watching myself on screen but with Gummidge it’s somehow easier because I’m very fond of him and he’s so much fun to play. I asked our producer, Georgie Fallon, to keep an eye on my performance and give me notes.
How did writing, directing and acting for Worzel Gummidge compare with your similar roles on Detectorists?
This was a bit more gruelling, as I was on screen for so much of it. Added to which, the lengthy prosthetics application meant starting three hours before everyone else.
What challenges did you face in the writing or production stage?
The scripts are set 90% outdoors in a blazing hot summer. It rained for the first nine days of the shoot, including on the days we shot the big village fete scene. That was disheartening at the time but, through the magic of lighting, editing, grading and so on, it all looks as though it was shot in glorious weather.
How involved were you in Worzel’s look and what considerations were involved?
It was his look that came to me first. Before I even began writing, I started sketching his costume and turnip head. I knew I wanted him in an old military redcoat that I imagined he found in a long-forgotten soldier’s trunk at the back of a barn. I didn’t want his clothes to be stuffed but rather just hung on his wooden frame, so that when his coat blows open you can see right through.
He needed to be the right balance of scary and appealing. His job is to scare, so he had to appear alarming at first, but we very quickly warm to him when we hear him speak and see his smile.
Describe the make-up and costume process you faced every day to get into character.
I was usually in the make-up chair by 5am, ready to start shooting at 8.30am. The prosthetic came in six separate pieces that were glued directly onto the skin and then painted with spirit-based dyes. The ‘rooty’ strands of the beard were added individually with every application. The costume, by comparison, was simple to put on and comfortable to wear. Underneath the coat and trousers, I wore a blue suit that was painted out in postproduction to create the hollow effect.
How might viewers compare this modern Worzel Gummidge with the Jon Pertwee series many will remember?
Both series are very different interpretations of the books and, as such, I think they can happily co-exist without needing too much comparison.
Why do you think this character and his stories have stood the test of time?
It’s a timeless and very simple premise for a story: lonely kids, away from home, find a secret – a magical friend who leads them into fun and adventures. Worzel’s charming mix of kindness, mischief, naivety and wisdom make him a scarecrow you want as your friend.