In many of our lives there comes a time when once we have a little more money than we expected, a little more than we actually need. It is like a gift from God: money you will spend in search of pure joy. The decisions we make at such a time define who we are.
It was 2008, and with three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Mackenzie Crook put his heart into a vintage Ferrari. Why not? Now it was definitely in the Ferrari class – and here it was just a car. “And then I had a discovery,” he says. “I realized that Ferrari was the last thing I wanted to buy. Instead, I bought eight acres of ancient forest and it’s the best purchase I’ve ever made. “
Crook returned to BBC One this Christmas with a third outing as Worzel Gummidge. To say that he “plays” Worzel would underestimate the connection between the character and the actor; inhabits the world of scarecrows as a writer, director and orchestrator reviving a character in the country.
As portrayed by his BBC Four comedy Detectorists, Crook is a passionate man of the project, and Worzel a first-rate passion. The scarecrow of the Scatterbrook farm sees him as a rude guardian of the village: a nature champion with a red nest in his pocket.
“Nature was everything I thought about as a child,” he says. “I was obsessed.”
When Sir David Attenborough asks how he gained his love of nature, he generally replies, “How did you ever lose yours?” It’s something we’ve all been born with: but it helps if you have someone who encourages you.
“It was my father’s fault,” Crook says. “I grew up in Kent on the outskirts of a dead end. But it was a short jump to the village and my father and I would ride a bike all the time. He would tell me the names of birds and flowers and trees, everything we saw. “
But it wasn’t nostalgia that made Crook buy his share of the woods, it was lasting love. “It was a way to give my family the nature they deserve,” he says. The tree lies in Essex and is dominated by hornbeam stumps. For the uninitiated, issuance is a way of managing trees so that they produce multiple trunks, although, as he notes, “Here the trees have not been touched for 100 years.”
I recognize the delight in his voice; I own a few acres of Norfolk wetland that I manage for wildlife, so this was like you love me. Naturally, I wanted details. For starters, what birds do you have in the woods? “All three British woodpecker species,” he says, with justified pride, because that trio includes an elusive less spotted woodpecker. There is also a settlement for badgers
“The tree is marked on 400-year-old maps,” he says. So is this place spring covered with wooden anemones? These lovely white flowers are strong indicators of antiquity. “That’s right!” He says. “Then there’s less celandine, and in May there’s a lot of bells.”
He took his children, son Jude and daughter Scout, camping, although they go less often now they are both teenagers. Crook goes upstairs when he can, and unwinds and does some maintenance; slowly replacing the boundary fence with dry hedges, made of fallen branches and other suitable organic matter.
“I wonder how I would pull out a few trees to open the canopy and let in some light,” he says. It might seem counterintuitive, but sometimes felling trees is a good protection, which greatly increases the biodiversity of the forest, most spectacular for butterflies. “I like the idea of doing it with an ax – but it’s in the future.”
An intimate connection to a place like this affects you even when you are away from it. Perhaps it’s not just the tree, but that sense of commitment that began in childhood, triggers his reworking of the scarecrow story.
In his first Worzel film, the scarecrow and the children realize that the seasons are “all locked up”. Together they bring a cheerful miracle that releases the seasons again.
“It seemed obvious to me that there should be an environmental message,” Crook says. “But I soon realized that children don’t need that message to be written – they are already completely in it. It’s my generation that needs a kick. But I had a father to teach me names. I would love to see children being educated in British nature so I can understand the diversity of our amazing wildlife. “
Maybe Worzel will help them. “He’s a great guy, I love him. He’s kind, childish, reliable, a little tense … I’ve never been great at improvising, but when I do Worzel, I can improvise like never before. There was a time when we were filming near the school, and I was surrounded by five-year-olds. I was Worzel right now and I made them all laugh. Nature is a thread that runs through the whole of Worzel. Watch it, love it, see every sunrise, see every sunset, notice everything. That’s his job. “
It’s fair to say that Worzel would never put his heart on a Ferrari, probably because that red nest is closest to him. For him, it would be a forest every time. Wouldn’t the world be a little better if we all felt that way?
This interview originally appeared in Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV lists, subscribe to the Radio Times and never miss a single copy.
Worzel Gummidge: Classy Nancy was broadcast tonight on BBC One. If you are looking for more to watch, check out our TV guide.