Mackenzie Crook’s lovely reimagining invites tired, spirit-crushed grownups to embrace nature and change their lives for the better
This Christmas, kids can step away from the grownups’ moronathon of unreality shows, reruns and mirthless laughter. Worzel Gummidge: Twitchers (BBC One) is a show for kids without a hint of tinsel, which defibrillates our seasonally stultified hearts and plumbs the philosophical depths.
When I was a boy, it seemed inconceivable that Jon Pertwee, a Time Lord with a cape, a velvet jacket and an enviably blow-dried bouffant, could within a few weeks in the late 70s regenerate into a carrot-crunching rustic with straw hair and the look of a man who had mistaken cowpats for powder puffs. And yet it came to pass.
This year’s Worzel is stranger yet. Mackenzie Crook, who writes, directs and stars as the titular tatterdemalion, has chosen to hide under rubber one of the most recognisable and scarecrowy phizogs in Equity’s talent roster the better to play a man of straw and sticks. Only Charlie Cooper (Kurtan from This Country) would have been serious competition for the role.
Maybe, and this is just a theory, Crook’s idea is to conceal his delectable bone structure to make us focus for once on his expressive eyes. Brown and soulful, Mackenzie’s swivel in their latex holes as he mumble-grumbles natural lore to captivated kids. Nonetheless, one thing that weirds me out is his beard: it is as if the special effects team had tried for sea lion’s whiskers, but settled for jellyfish’s undercarriage.
We first see Worzel revelling in a rainstorm, asking God if that is the best he can do. There is, as the outdoorsman Alfred Wainwright realised, no such thing as the wrong weather, just the wrong clothes. And, as Worzel – a natural stoic – suggests, the wrong attitude.
In this episode, Worzel explains that choughs are birds that belong to the crow family, after one of the charming siblings in his entourage – which also includes a variety of scarecrow pals – spots some choughs at a nearby farm. The red-legged interlopers have been blown inland by an idiot wind and the pressing matter now is how Worzel can add to the list of crows he has scared by terrifying these birds back to their natural habitat. It is a conundrum made more complicated by the fact that he needs to charm them to his own field before scaring them out of it.
How do you charm a chattering of choughs? By first luring a squirm of worms to your field so that hungry choughs will be drawn to follow. But then how do scarecrows charm worms? Through the medium of nocturnal dance, Worzel explains. Well, obviously.
The following morning, the worms are in position and, as day follows night, choughs have followed them. So, too, have adults – specifically, gangs of lens‑dangling birdwatchers and a crew from the local TV station. Nonetheless, Worzel and co begin the real business of crow scaring.
One problem, though. Worzel’s dancing is insufficiently scary. So, he enlists his scarecrow chums, who emerge from hedgerows in various masks. What is the collective noun for mask-wearing scarecrows? An uncanniness. With psychological acuity singular in someone with straw for brains, Worzel realises that to scare choughs you must instil a sense of foreboding. So, he, the kids and the scarecrows simulate a storm by whooping, hollering and shaking metal sheets. Soon the choughs are heading off to Cornwall.
This lovely episode reinforces the lesson that supposed lower life forms such as children and non-humans are the real grownups. Adults are so rancorous, dull-witted and perverted by the competitive spirit engendered by late capitalism that they are scarcely capable of thinking outside the box. When the TV news reporter invites one of the birdwatchers to appreciate the beauty of an eagle on the wing, he replies that he has already ticked it off in his book. For us adults, nature is to be pinned and mounted, not to be savoured. That is no way to live.
Worzel Gummidge, rightly understood, invites spirit-crushed grownups to change. Detectorists, Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing and now a paradoxical scarecrow have expressed in their very rustic longueurs our yearning to be more than homo economicus. We yearn to do what we mostly don’t: to run our fingers through grass and sit in trees; to look on nature without covetous eye; to re-enchant the world rather than exploit it to death. Dare we change our lives? Now would be a good time to start.