Originally transmitted during Christmas 1980, this 52-minute episode called ‘A Cup o’ Tea and a Slice o’ Cake’ was made as a festive family treat. It exudes charm, warmth and wit. Worzel Gummidge harks back to a more innocent era, when children could be entertained by top character actors, as well as introduced to the long tradition of music hall and vaudeville that this delightful show borrows from. The songs, written by Denis King, provide a musical theatre component that children in 1980 would have known from pantomimes. Worzel singing about his life whilst propped up in the field as the winter snow falls is both funny and poignant.
Watching this sort of thing in the current climate of sanitised entertainment simultaneously floods viewers of a certain age with the warm thrill of nostalgia, whilst also reminding them that this title is effectively an archeological relic. All of the components that passed for enjoyable children’s viewing in 1980 have now been stripped away. What a shame for children!
In keeping with the variety performance feel of the show, there isn’t much of a plot. The action takes place on Christmas Eve which coincides with the Scarecrows’ Ball. Worzel Gummidge (Jon Pertwee) is charged with staying in Ten Acre Field by the Crowman (Geoffrey Bayldon), but, lured by the promise of tea and cake, and the thought of Aunt Sally accompanying him to the ball, Worzel thinks he’ll get away with a little adventure before he is missed. During his travels he meets a Scottish scarecrow escaping Christmas (Billy Connolly), a ship’s figurehead Saucy Nancy on her way to take part in a pantomime (Barbara Windsor), the refined and genteel but down-on-her-luck Aunt Sally (Una Stubbs) and a truculent lorry driver (Bill Pertwee), to name a few highlights.
Jon Pertwee excels in the title part that is a million miles from his other major TV success in Doctor Who. His mannerisms, voice, facial tics and even gait combine to create a truly unforgettable character. But he brings the best out of other actors too, and Billy Connolly, leading a gang of bagpipe-wielding Scottish scarecrows, makes a strong impression in a cameo role. Even actors of the calibre of Bill Maynard were happy to accept a small part just to be in the ensemble.
There are plenty of moments to spook younger viewers, not least the jaunty Scottish scarecrows. Geoffrey Bayldon, so warm as Catweazle, was always sinister as the Crowman, and never more so than in this episode when he is assembling his scarecrows for the ball. Several times heads are taken off and swapped, and a few scarecrows wander around headless – something that always scared me as a child and remains distinctly sinister!
The wistful story encompasses a wonderful idea about scarecrows pointing Father Christmas (not Santa, mark you) to the North Pole. The carols the children sing are distinctly Christian, celebrating the true meaning of the season. It’s impossible to even imagine the BBC allowing something like the Worzel Gummidge Christmas Special to air now. No doubt the modern remake will be adapted to fit into the stringent demands of gender and identity politics, but for a taste of festive fun from a bygone era, you can’t go wrong with Worzel Gummidge and ‘A Cup o’ Tea and a Slice o’ Cake’. It’s full of heart, Yuletide goodness and high entertainment value.
Cast: Jon Pertwee, Barbara Windsor, Billy Connolly, Bill Maynard, Geoffrey Bayldon, Una Stubbs, Bill Pertwee, Charlotte Coleman Writer: Willis Hall & Keith Waterhouse Director: James Hill Music: Denis King Certificate: U Released by: Fabulous Films Ltd Running time: 52 mins Release date: 28th October 2019 Buy now