For a man who grew up in ‘the cul-de-sacs of suburbia’, and found fame in the concrete jungle of the Slough Trading Estate, Mackenzie Crook might seem an unlikely champion of the English countryside. But with Detectorists, his sublime comedy about middle-aged hobbyists searching for treasure in the fields and furrows of Essex, the actor, writer and director demonstrated such an affinity for this green and pleasant land, he’s been dubbed ‘the Thomas Hardy of sitcom writers’.
All of which makes him the perfect choice to bring that irascible scarecrow Worzel Gummidge back to life in two delightful new BBC films to be shown over Christmas.
‘It does feel like an evolution from Detectorists,’ agrees Crook, who once again combines scripting, directing and leading man duties. ‘It’s still very much connected to the landscape and the myth of rural England.’
As a child growing up in Dartford, he never saw the classic 70s TV adaptation of Barbara Euphan Todd’s children’s books, starring the late Jon Pertwee. ‘That’s one of the reasons I took it on,’ he says. ‘Because I hadn’t watched it, I felt I could come up with a new interpretation. So I avoided it until I’d written mine, but I’ve since gone back and watched it, and I was amazed, actually, at how good it was.
'You met Jon Pertwee, didn't you? As Worzel Gummidge?' he adds.
Er, yes, mutters a slightly taken aback Weekend (who did indeed meet him, at a garden centre in Leeds in 1984).
'Sorry, I did a creepy Google on you before I came here,' says Crook.
In contrast to Pertwee’s petulant straw man (catchphrase: ‘I’ll be bum-swizzled!’) the new Worzel is a gentler soul – albeit one still prone to epics sulks – who takes his visual cue from the books’ depiction of a turnip-headed stick figure. ‘I knew almost immediately how I wanted him to look,’ says Crook, on whose sketches the character is based. ‘It was a gruelling, three-hour make-up job, but it’s a process of getting into character as well – those three hours are like a slow, self-hypnotising thing.’
Crook has brought the same painterly eye to these funny, poignant tales of Ten Acre Field that he showcased on Detectorists: this is a world in which bees and insects buzz drowsily in the cowslip and foxglove, while English folk group The Unthanks have recorded the haunting, pastoral soundtrack. Worzel himself, meanwhile, is cast as a guardian of the land, ever watchful for changes in the soil and the seasons.
‘That was one of the initial thoughts I had, that this is a perfect vehicle for an environmental message,’ says Crook. ‘But it had to be subtle – it can’t be preachy or boring. It’s more a gentle, “Do your bit to look after the natural world” message.’
The 48-year-old has been busy doing just that, having bought eight acres of woodland in Essex, which doubles as a wildlife conservation area and somewhere for he and his wife Lindsay to take their kids, Jude and Scout, on camping trips.
‘It’s always been a passion of mine, the natural world,’ he says. ‘Weirdly, I’ve never lived in the countryside. I grew up in suburbia, and I live in London now. So it’s been a great joy to discover the countryside through my work.’
The first Worzel film opens with siblings Susan and John (India Brown and Thierry Wickens), arriving at Scatterbrook Farm to spend the summer with foster carers Mr and Mrs Braithwaite, played by Steve Pemberton and Rosie Cavaliero. City kids who are initially welded to their phones, they’re soon forced to adapt to a simpler way of life. ‘I wanted to show these phones, to acknowledge that this is set in the present day, and then do away with them,’ says Crook, admitting to a nostalgic fondness for the 70s summers of his childhood that ‘seemed to last forever’.
Weekend suggests that, with its story of children befriending an inanimate figure that secretly comes to life, Worzel Gummidge is not unlike that perennial festive favourite The Snowman. ‘That’s lovely, thank you,’ says Crook – who, in person, is diffident and self-effacing to the point of shyness. ‘I guess that’s what I’ve been hoping for, without actually realising it. Hopefully it will be a nice midwinter reminder of warm, sunny days.’
The star-studded cast also includes Zoe Wannamaker, Vicki Pepperdine (as Aunt Sally – who, true to the original books, is our hero’s actual aunt, not his love interest) and a certain Michael Palin as Worzel’s creator, The Green Man. What was it like directing an actual national treasure?
‘Nerve-wracking, actually,’ laughs Crook, who was often giving direction to his cast and crew while in full Worzel get-up. ‘No, not nerve-wracking, but… To have someone of that stature – a legend – like him on set was wonderful. As soon as I thought of him, I could just see him in the role.’
Crook enjoyed a happy childhood (‘My father worked for British Airways so even though we weren’t wealthy, we got to go overseas on all our holidays’), but felt like a bit of a misfit at his all boys’ school. ‘You’re thrown together with all these people, and you’re lucky if you find a couple that share the same sense of humour. Then I started going to the local youth theatre, and suddenly there were all these kids that were there because they wanted to be in plays. Five or six people I met at that youth theatre are still my best buddies.’
Rather than go to drama school, though, he spent 10 years ‘slogging away’ on the stand-up comedy circuit, before catching his big break as Gareth Keenan, the deluded assistant manager – sorry, assistant **to** the regional manager – in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s seminal mockumentary The Office. ‘If that hadn’t come along at that point, I don’t know how much longer I’d have carried on [with the comedy career],’ he admits. ‘Would I have struggled on? I don’t know.
‘I couldn’t have foreseen how big it would become,’ he adds, ‘but I knew at the time it was something really clever and really different. I was excited.’
A surprising number of the show’s stars ended up making the journey from Slough to Hollywood: in Crook’s case, that included a recurring role in The Pirates of the Caribbean mega-franchise. But he’s in no hurry to get back to Tinseltown.
‘I haven’t been any offered any Hollywood films for a while,’ he says. ‘With big films, you’re in front of a camera for a matter of minutes, and then in your trailer for hours. With Detectorists, and now this, I’m involved in the creation of it all, which feels a lot more satisfying.’
Still, the likes of Spielberg and Pacino and Depp must be pretty good names to drop…
‘Oh yeah, I’ve got some good anecdotes.’
‘Probably not,’ he chuckles.
(We’ll draw a discreet veil over Sex lives of the Potato Men, the 2004 Brit comedy regularly cited as one of the worst films ever made. ‘Though if cab drivers are to be believed,’ notes Crook, ‘it’s a brilliant movie. It’s incredible the amount of times it’s mentioned to me in black cabs.’)
Detectorists, he says, was ‘a deliberate attempt to do a comedy that wasn’t cruel and cynical. I was harking back to those Esmonde and Larbey comedies, like The Good Life and Ever Decreasing Circles. It’s sort of a reaction against the comedy of embarrassment, which I’m not a fan of.’
A reaction against The Office, perhaps? ‘Maybe,’ he says. ‘Not specifically The Office, no. But from the comedy of cruelty, I suppose.’
It was only after he’d written Detectorists that he realised it was partly a love letter to his dad. ‘He’s the ultimate hobbyist,’ he says. ‘And he’s passed that all on to me.’ Indeed, Crook is a bit of a detectorist himself, on the sly, with a growing haul of treasure – though he gave his most valuable find, a 400-year-old coin from the reign of James I, to the farmer on whose land he unearthed it. (‘It was a little bit heartbreaking,’ he admits.)
He still sometimes gets paid to speak other people’s lines, too, most recently appearing under more layers of latex as the terrifying, skull-headed shaman Veran in Sky Atlantic’s trippy roman invasion TV drama Britannia. It’s not his first collaboration with writer Jez Butterworth: in 2011, Mackenzie was Tony nominated for the Broadway production of Butterworth’s much-feted play Jerusalem.
‘That was incredible,’ he recalls. ‘To be living in New York, and walking up Broadway as a Tony nominee. I was on cloud nine.’
Despite such compelling evidence to the contrary, though, he’s still not entirely convinced of his own skills as an actor. ‘I think to claim imposter syndrome would be a bit dishonest,’ he says. ‘But I feel… I don’t know if anyone will ever convince me I’m a good actor. But I’m confident with the writing. I feel like I’ve found my thing.’
As to what he’ll do next with that thing… ‘I’m just hoping to be a scarecrow for the foreseeable future,’ he says.
On the evidence so far, we’ll be bum-swizzled if he doesn’t get his wish.
You can read my Worzel Gummidge review for Radio Times here.
An edited version of article was published in Waitrose Weekend, 19 December, 2019
(c) Waitrose Weekend