With the BBC currently filming a new version of Worzel Gummidge, starring Mackenzie Crook as the beloved scarecrow character from the classic series of children’s books written by Barbara Euphan Todd, there are inevitable comparisons with the fondly remembered early-80s Southern Television series featuring the wonderful Jon Pertwee. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that Jon Pertwee was not the first actor to play Worzel Gummidge on television; although it’s now largely forgotten, there was a 1953 serial on the BBC called Worzel Gummidge Turns Detective.
Barbara Euphan Todd wrote 10 novels about the adventures of Worzel Gummidge, the mischievous scarecrow of Scatterbrook Farm, between 1936 and 1963. They were immensely popular with children. In the early 1950s, the BBC produced a radio series of Worzel Gummidge and this quickly moved on to a production on the BBC Television service, still in its relative infancy. Although BBC Television had always had a remit to produce some programming for children since its inception in 1936, the dedicated Children’s Department was not formed until 1950, with Freda Lingstrom appointed as head of department. Adaptations of children’s novels were popular from the start and Worzel Gummidge, a success on radio’s Children’s Hour, seemed like a natural choice.
Broadcast live on BBC Television between 10th February and 3rd March 1953, the four 22-minute episodes were titled as follows: Enter Two Scarecrows, Aunt Sally, Gummidge the Sweep and Gummidge Disappears. Starring as Worzel Gummidge was Frank Atkinson, one of the many British film actors of the 1930s who made the move to the fledgling medium of television. His tall, skinny physique made him perfect casting for the part of a scarecrow and his costume roughly approximates that of Jon Pertwee many years later. Although one of the episodes is named after her, it’s worth noting that Aunt Sally is not the prominent character in Barbara Euphan Todd’s books that she is in the 1980s TV series and the same goes for Worzel Gummidge Turns Detective. She does appear in this serial, played by Totti Truman Taylor, a regular of Hancock’s Half Hour, but the principal romantic interest for Worzel – his wife in fact – is Earthy Mangold.
Earthy Mangold was played by actress and writer Mabel Constanduros and this was not her first association with Worzel Gummidge. Mabel and her nephew Denis Constanduros had collaborated with Barbara Euphan Todd on the writing of Worzel Gummidge radio serial for Children’s Hour, in which she had also played Earthy Mangold alongside Philip Wade as Worzel. Earthy Mangold is a female scarecrow who first appears in The Scarecrow of Scatterbrook (aka Worzel Gummidge), by the end of which, Worzel has married her. For the other nine books, Earthy is Worzel’s wife, which must have caused much confusion when the books were reissued to coincide with the 1980s TV series. Aunt Sally is Worzel’s actual aunt and appears only briefly in the novels as a nagging, chiding presence.
Like much television of this period, Worzel Gummidge Turns Detective is presumed lost forever. It was performed live and there is no record of it having been telecined for a repeat broadcast. The script has never been refilmed, although Barbara Euphan Todd used elements of it for her final novel in the series Detective Worzel Gummidge in 1963. All that seems to remain of Worzel Gummidge Turns Detective is a single grainy photograph, which is a real shame because, as beloved as Jon Pertwee’s 1980s iteration of the character is, it would be nice to be able to look back at this lovely example of early children’s television and say, “That’s Frank Atkinson – he was the first TV Worzel Gummidge!”