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The best childrens books set in the countryside can hint at something deeper and, perhaps, darker at the edges of the narrative. Just around the bend in the path through the woods, or behind the hedgerow on the other side of the field, is something... other, something a little sinister.
An obvious example is Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. Mole and Ratty live a sunny life on the river bank, and in the surrounding fields and lanes, but the Wild Wood is silently and ominously waiting to ensnare the unwary. Alison Utterly paints a perfect picture of four pigs living with Brock the Badger in her series of children's books, but I always worried that if Sam Pig let his guard down Mr Fox was going to eat him. A E Kennedy's marvellous illustrations also added to my childhood unease. Perfectly innocent, there was something very slightly off which enhanced the delicious thrill of reading.
I never read Barbara Euphan Todd's Worzel Gummidge though. I was, of course, familiar with Jon Pertwee's 1979 television portrayal, but as I was in my early twenties at the time I can honestly say it passed me by. So it was that with an open mind I watched the first episode of Mackenzie Crook's version of Worzel. It was love at first sight. Two foster children (Susan and John) sent to spend summer at Scatterbrook Farm meet the rouguish scarecrow and the fun commences. Mackenzie Crook gives Worzel just the right amound of mischief and humour and still leaves that slightly dark shadow just out of sight. Who is the mysterious Green Man? What must it be like standing in the middle of a field in all weathers? And is the farmer a force for good or not?
The first question is anwered in the second episode. Michael Palin plays a pitch perfect Green Man, part Gandalf, part (dare I say it) Jesus, and part hedge layer. He made Worzel, and wields power over him in a benevolent way. Worzel is the naughty schoolboy to Green Man's stern but kindly teacher.
Equal star billing goes to the gentle English countryside of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire where filming took place. The locations are stunning, but in that beautiful, understated English way. Think of long gone childhoods, endless summers, golden fields and impossibly green trees.
A final thought: Susan and John are very much of the twenty first century. Smart and streetwise, armed with mobile phones (a "musical box" according to Worzel), they are no mere stooges for Worzel and his chums.
Worzel Gummidge is a delight. You should watch it.