Worzel Gummidge Christmas Special 2020: Saucy Nancy
I love Worzel Gummidge. I loved the old TV show and I loved the books as a kid. I enjoyed both while it was clear they were very different from each other. This new version from Makenzie Crook (the creative force behind Detectorists) which premiered last Christmas, is yet another interpretation of the character – though arguably much closer to the original books.
In this one off episode, Worzel helps Saucy Nancy, played wonderfully by the always eccentric Shirley Henderson, find her way back to the ocean.
When Worzel, seemingly by chance, finds a twenty pound note, it sets in motion an adventure that sees Worzel and his two friends Susan and John, leave the familiar surroundings of Scatterbrook farm and head for the seaside. What is lovely about this adventure is that the stakes are very low and there is no real peril. The only obstacle is making the journey with a lazy scarecrow and ships figurehead with no legs. The distance from the farm to the seaside is only a few miles, an easy walk for a couple of healthy teenagers but constant complications along the way are treated as frustrating rather than problematic.
Shirley Henderson is great as Saucy Nancy, her creepy but charming performance fits very nicely with this show’s aesthetic. If I was going to criticise anything in her performance, it would be that at times her quirky, raspy voiced performance almost becomes a little unhinged; she skirts close to becoming too much. But it’s kept just under the line thanks to the nature of the character. One of Nancy’s characteristics is that she constantly swears like a sailor. With Scarecrows being fairly innocent and child like, their idea of swearing is far different to ours (or Susan and John’s) but still, some of Nancy’s silly innuendoes are pretty close to the knuckle with several quite clearly meaning boobs and balls! There is something fun for kids watching to hear what sound like rude words, especially if their parents start giggling at slightly more cheeky phrases like dirty duck flaps…
On one part of their journey, Worzel bumps into anther scarecrow played by Brain Blessed. This cameo is fantastic, as the scarecrow in question is a two foot high, sunshine faced garden ornament with spatulas for arms in a pub beer garden, little more than a garden gnome. Reference is made to the fact the scarecrow has had a new body, new head and new legs, meaning he’s no longer a giant but he’s retained his giant voice. It’s a great gag utilising Blessed’s booming voice and demeanour and highlights the kind of surreal silliness this show does very well.
The turn around, in terms of production, was quick, made during the back end of the summer, between lockdowns as it were; its tempting to try and look for indicators of what may or may not have been effected by the ongoing pandemic. A scene on a bus, for example: apart from the conductor and driver, the bus is entirely empty. Maybe that was an artistic choice, maybe its because extras are expensive or maybe it was to keep down the numbers of people onset? Knowing the current situation, you could easily point to certain scenes and note the lack of background extras or that actors were maybe keeping their distance from each other a little more but really, that could all be coincidence and had there been no pandemic this episode would look no different to the previous couple made. There are no awkward, glaringly obvious covid-compromises and the episode fits nicely in with the previous offerings.
Crook has a lovely lightness of touch to his directing. He unpretentiously showcases the beauty of the English countryside and everything is heartfelt and earnest without ever feeling forced or schmaltzy. The cast are excellent; Crook in the title role of Worzel brings a lovable, caring and slightly concerned air to the character while maintaining an edge of childlike pride and show-offy-ness. The child actors, India Brown and Thierry Wickens as Susan and John, are excellent, especially Brown who has brilliant comic timing. Steve Pemberton and Rosie Cavaliero as Mrs and Mrs Braithwaite, the farmers who foster the children, provide excellent support and their parental concern and tenderness is genuine and warm. Spencer Jones gives a funny but not over powering turn as the bric-a-brac salesman who gives the kids Saucy Nancy in return for a half days work and even the one line bit players frequenting the pub (including Youssef Kerkour as an apologetic farmer) are witty and at home in this world.
Once at the seaside, Worzel and friends find Peg (Vanessa Redgrave) an old lady living on the beach in a old shack made from the bow of Nancy’s ship. This, we saw at the start of the episode, is where Worzel’s found twenty pond note came from and in a casual act of kindness he unknowingly returns it to her. A nice touch is The Unthanks, a folk group who provide much of the wistful and evocative music for the series, featuring as an in-universe folk group performing in the closing scenes. The episode ends with Nancy being set atop a beachside pub so she can watch over the oceans and the white cliffs for ever more an it’s a beautiful and touching end to the episode which brings an unexpected tear to the eye.
When held against the previous two episodes, this is probably the least strong of the three, but only in as much as the other two episodes felt a little fuller and the magic a little more magical. Viewed on its own, this is a fantastic hour of family friendly TV for the festive period. The whole episode is sweet and funny and exactly what we need right now. There are reports of a full series being produced next year, which would be very welcome!