Get yourself a slice o’ cake and a cup o’ tea, and settle down to Worzel Gummidge The Musical. The stage show came at the height of the programme’s popularity on television. Former Doctor Who star Jon Pertwee traded his velvet smoking jacket and frilly shirts for a hair full of straw as the dandy Time Lord regenerated into a scarecrow. Keith Waterhouse (the boozy wit behind Billy Liar) teamed up Willis Hall to write the book, and the duo collaborated with musician Denis King to knock out some joyously entertaining tunes. Worzel Gummidge The Musical was born.
If you think Jon Pertwee cuts an unlikely figure as a musical theatre actor, it’s worth remembering that he played Fagin in a West End production of Oliver! Sure, he can’t sing like Julie Andrews, but Pertwee was a magnificent voice actor, and where he speak-sings in character as the loveable scarecrow, he’s wonderfully warm and very distinctive.
The musical starts with the origins of Worzel Gummidge, as the Crowman (Geoffrey Bayldon) brings to life his latest creation in the aptly-titled Scarecrow Hymn. It’s part-religious ceremony, part Victor Frankenstein in the laboratory. Worzel Gummidge always had sinister overtones, especially where the Crowman was concerned, and childhood nightmares may be safely revisited here. (You also find out Worzel’s middle name during the song.)
The mood lightens with In the Country, an infectiously catchy and chirpy number that will rattle around in your head for days afterwards when you least expect it. After meeting two children, who gently mock him for his inability to count (One ‘Ead An’ An ‘Ead), Worzel is reunited with Aunt Sally, a fairground doll, with whom he falls in love. The rest of the plot revolves around Worzel ineffectually wooing Aunt Sally, and getting into scrapes with the authorities. Worzel Gummidge The Musical has the heart and spirit of the television series.
The same elements make this musical appealing that lay behind the success of the television show: the performances. Jon Pertwee demonstrates his great comic skills dropping expressions like, “Well, I’ll be bum-swizzled”, and even in the exaggerated pathos in which he delivers the lament Why Should She Choose a Scarecrow. Una Stubbs is equally delightful as the pretentious Aunt Sally, who considers herself a cut above everybody else and far too good for a scarecrow. Despite her character’s ludicrous delusions, Stubbs keeps our sympathy with a streak of vulnerability. Geoffrey Bayldon, best known to children as Catweazle, redeems his early creepiness with the song Make Yourself A Friend.
Amongst the guest actors is Bill Pertwee (Jon’s cousin) as Sergeant Beetroot, the po-faced policeman that Worzel runs up against. Best-known for his part as the irate and long-suffering Warden Hodges in Dad’s Army, Bill Pertwee tackles Beetroot in much the same way.
One issue, common to many musicals, is that it’s not always possible to divine the story from the songs alone. However, this isn’t a serious impediment to enjoying the recording since the plot isn’t difficult to grasp, and there is a synopsis in the booklet. The sound quality is excellent, as you would expect for a recording made at the Abbey Road studios, with the cast performing it in the weeks before the show opened at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in late 1980.
If the debut on CD of the Worzel Gummidge musical itself isn’t enough, the disc also contains four bonus tracks recorded a year earlier, which made up the Worzel Gummidge Christmas Maxi Single. The winter holidays are the perfect time to celebrate with sentimental novelty songs, and there’s a song apiece for the three principals here. What’s slightly surprising is that Christmas Isn’t Christmas (sung by Pertwee) and Aunt Sally’s Song are both quite melancholy, and Bayldon’s ‘carol’ would become the foundation of the ominous Scarecrow Hymn. Levity is found with the final track, the jolly A Slice O’ Cake An’ A Cup O’ Tea, which features the affable Bill Maynard (Heartbeat) with the rest of the company. It really should be the Christmas number one this year. It’s way better than anything the X-Factor has to offer. The campaign starts here!
If you loved the TV series, you’ll love finding the familiar characters in musical form too. Worzel Gummidge The Musical is a great slice of nostalgia, and a very good family-friendly musical in its own right.