Worzel Gummidge's Mackenzie Crook 'Really Sad' Barbara Windsor Won't See Her Character Reborn In Reboot

The late EastEnders star appeared as Saucy Nancy in the late 1970s and early 80s TV series, a character who has been reimagined by Mackenzie.
Worzel Gummidge's Saucy Nancy airs on Christmas Eve
Worzel Gummidge's Saucy Nancy airs on Christmas Eve

Mackenzie Crook is about to take another turn as classic character Worzel Gummidge in his self-written and self-directed reboot, but there will be one person on his mind when the tale of Saucy Nancy airs on Christmas Eve – the late Dame Barbara Windsor.

The former EastEnders and Carry On star, who died at the age of 83 earlier this month after six years of living with Alzheimer’s Disease, was also beloved for her turn as the foul-mouthed figurehead of a ruined ship in the late 1970s and early 80s TV series.

With the character now being brought to life by Shirley Henderson in Mackenzie’s reimagining, the former star of The Office tells HuffPost UK that the timing of Barbara’s passing feels sobering.

“It’s really sad that she died so close to it,” says Mackenzie. “I never met Barbara and I didn’t know her, but she’s remembered quite fondly for that role, I didn’t realise. When I saw the obituaries it was quite often mentioned, it was quite high up the list.”

Would he have been in touch with Dame Barbara and her family when the show aired? “Yeah, quite possibly,” he says.

Jon Pertwee as Worzel Gummidge with Barbara Windsor as Saucy Nancy in October 1980
Jon Pertwee as Worzel Gummidge with Barbara Windsor as Saucy Nancy in October 1980
Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Mackenzie, who most famously starred as Gareth in The Office and Ragetti in Pirates of the Caribbean, received five-star reviews when he brought the original Barbara Euphan Todd novels from the 1930s into the modern day with two new episodes last year.

At its heart, Worzel Gummidge – about a scarecrow that comes to life – is a study in friendship. Shot on location around Britain, it’s also a gorgeous celebration of nature. “I’ve become really fond of him, I think he’s a nicer character even than Barbara wrote back in the thirties,” Mackenzie says.

“It’s a strange tone in the books and he’s quite a mean character to the kids and lets them get in trouble and take the blame – whereas my Worzel is kinder. It’s a very simple tale of misplaced kids who find a secret magical friend that leads them on adventures.”

Mackenzie Crook in full prosthetics as Worzel Gummidge
Mackenzie Crook in full prosthetics as Worzel Gummidge

Last year’s initial episodes attracted Michael Palin and Zoë Wanamaker to star in lead roles, with Michael later describing the series is “an oasis of calm” in an interview with the Press Association, and “different in tone from an awful lot that is on television.”

This year the show has attracted an even bigger ensemble of acting talent: Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Blessed and the aforementioned Shirley Henderson all appear alongside Mackenzie as the central character.

Was it easy to get acting royalty Vanessa, four-times Oscar-nominated for Best Actress and twice for Best Supporting Actress (she won Best Supporting for Julia in 1978) to film on a blustery beach somewhere near Eastbourne? “Embarrassingly it was,” says Mackenzie.

“It was lovely that Michael Palin agreed to the first episode,” Mackenzie adds.

“Perhaps that made it easier to approach people like Shirley Henderson and Vanessa Redgrave and for them to take it seriously. I was proud to get those actors. Surprised and astounded that Vanessa would even read my script or know who I was you know – I still find that crazy.”

Vanessa plays Peg in the episode, an older seawoman who inhabits a shipwreck washed up on the beach that’s central to the plot line.

Shirley Henderson, left, as Saucy Nancy and Vanessa Redgrave, right, as a seawoman in Worzel Gummidge
Shirley Henderson, left, as Saucy Nancy and Vanessa Redgrave, right, as a seawoman in Worzel Gummidge

Mackenzie remembers bemoaning the terrible British weather the day they filmed. “I was annoyed about the changing weather and she told me to embrace the weather - we were on the south coast that’s what the weather’s like so just accept it,” says Mackenzie. “She’s absolutely right, I think it does look beautiful, that change in the weather as we get to the coast.”

He adds: “She was so complimentary, it blew me away, but it was the writing, it comes down to the writing a lot of the time with actors. If you don’t like the writing you don’t do the job so I sent her the script, she read the script and she liked it.”

Vanessa’s turn feels folklorean, but Brian Blessed is there (as he often is) to provide the show’s biggest laughs with his booming voice. “Certainly with Brian, that was the gag. I was upfront with him about that,” reflects Mackenzie.

“It is a very diminutive scarecrow that used to be a giant and so we were looking for someone with a big voice and we went to the biggest voice. He said yes so that was great.”

Brian and Vanessa have history – they starred together in a film called The Trojan Women in 1971 but they didn’t cross paths on Worzel because “obviously they weren’t allowed to,” says Mackenzie of filming during a global pandemic.

“She said, ’send him my love because we did a movie years ago,’ and so I mentioned that to Brian and he launched into an anecdote about that movie which turned into another anecdote and another. It’s just rolling anecdotes, one after the other, it’s amazing - and they’re all fascinating, all incredible, but you have to in the end say, ‘Brian, Brian, we have to get some work done.’”

But it’s Harry Potter and Bridget Jones star Shirley Henderson’s appearance as Saucy Nancy that’ll be the source of the most conversation when the show airs.

The cast of Worzel Gummidge in a scene filmed on location near to Eastbourne
The cast of Worzel Gummidge in a scene filmed on location near to Eastbourne

Potty-mouthed and a visual feat of both CGI and incredible make-up design, Nancy is a former ship’s figurehead. She buddies up with Worzel and the two young human lead characters Susan, played by India Brown, and John, played by Thierry Wickens, to go on an adventure to the coast.

“The swearing, the swear words, hopefully they’ll be amusing to adults and to kids,” laughs Mackenzie, who adds that the faux bad language “just sounds like funny things to say, to adults it’ll be funny they sound so close to recognisable swear words but they’re not, it’s gobbledygook.

“That was a fun process, everyone should try writing a list of fake swear words, it’s a good afternoon’s work.”

Mackenzie now has his sight on another three Worzel specials, but there’s no-one on his wish list yet for Christmas 2021, when he’s hopeful the show will return.

I suggest the show is becoming something of an annual event for Christmas TV. “If it became some mini tradition that would be lovely,” admits Mackenzie.

“The fact that it’s summery and outdoorsy doesn’t really sound very Christmassy, but for some reason it fits nicely in the Christmas schedule. Perhaps it reminds people of the longer summer days or perhaps the magical realism in it lends itself to Christmas.”

Worzel Gummidge airs at 5.55pm on Christmas Eve on BBC One.


What's Hot