#BlastfromthePast: The Worst Witch (1986)

Welcome to a suitably spooky DeLorean ride for Halloween on this week’s #BlastfromthePast. This week, we hop on our broomsticks to 1986, when the then 11 year old Fairuza Balk (Return to Oz, The Craft) took up the role of one of Britain’s best loved witches.

Originally airing on ITV in October of that year, The Worst Witch had started life some ten years before as the first in a series of bestselling novels by popular children’s author Jill Murphy. This feature length adaptation of the first book in the series was to be the first of three TV adaptations – including a long running series in 1998, and now a new version of the show on CBBC and Netflix in 2017 – but arguably, in my view, one of its best.

For those unfamiliar with the series, The Worst Witch follows the misadventures of Mildred Hubble, a witch-in-training at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches (St Michael’s College in Tenbury doubling up as the academy for this adaptation) who means well but frequently gets everything wrong, leading to her being dubbed the worst witch in the entire academy.

Her best friend Maud Warlock is often along for her misadventures, but matters aren’t usually helped by the fact that her frosty form mistress, Miss Hardbroom, is always on her case, as is teacher’s pet and vindictive goody goody, Ethel Hallow. The events of the first book and the 1986 film chronicle Mildred’s first term at the academy, with laughter potions going wrong, pupils being turned into pigs, a broomstick formation display at the Halloween ceremony going spectacularly tits up, and Miss Cackle’s wicked twin sister Agatha, and her coven of cronies, plotting to take over the entire school and turn everyone into toads.

The 1986 version finds Balk in the role of Mildred Hubble, with The Avengers star Diana Rigg in the role of a dramatic and comically camp Miss Hardbroom, whilst Charlotte Rae takes on both Miss Cackle and Agatha, and the Sweet Transvestite himself, Tim Curry, plays the Grand Wizard. 

This adaptation wasn’t met in high regard by Jill Murphy herself, but so many elements to this film make this entertaining and compulsive viewing for me every Halloween, including, but not limited to:

  • The dodgy 80s early CGI/green screen. There’s plenty of it abounding in this version but the flight sequences of the Grand Wizard in particular make him look, as me and my sisters observed, like a sock has been cut and pasted into the scenery.
  • The songs by Don Black and Charles Strouse. Only three of them, admittedly, but the title song, sung with total theatrical abandon by a young Bonnie Langford, and the songs by both Agatha and the Covens’ ‘Queen Aggie’s School’ and the Grand Wizard’s song at the Halloween ceremony are OTT spectacles of the best kind. Especially lyrics in the latter along the lines of ‘Anything can happen on Halloween, your dentist could turn into the Queen’. Quite.
  • The fact it sticks to the plot line of the book. More so than other adaptations, the 1998 series in particular, it doesn’t deviate by having Ethel turned into a pig then a duck before she becomes herself again, or by Mildred getting Maud to help her fight Agatha and her coven.
  • It’s really funny in places. Charlotte Rae’s portrayal of Agatha, and her pairing with bumbling sidekick Delilah (played by Su Elliott) is a hoot. Similarly, Miss Cackle’s niece, the straight talking, trashy but flashy Donna (played by Kate Buckley), looking every inch like she has stepped out of CBGBs, is a hoot and greatly underused. 

But more than anything, I greatly identified with the character of Mildred Hubble. Growing up, as the title song says, isn’t easy, and everyone can identify, through the medium of a fantasy, magical witches’ academy, the themes of being bullied, not being great academically, and just generally trying to find your place in the world with the best of intentions.

The full 1986 film is on YouTube thankfully, and is well worth a watch after a round of trick or treating this weekend. Charmingly shoddy and retro, but bewitching all the same. 

What are your memories of this week’s #BlastfromthePast? Tweet me now @ThePensmith10 using the hashtag #BlastfromthePast and I may feature some of your Tweets in next week’s blog!


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#CrazyStupidPlaylist: 80’s Number Ones

80snumberones

Last Sunday saw the airing of a countdown of The Nation’s Favourite 80’s Number Ones, hosted by Zoe Ball, which revealed that the UK’s best loved chart topper from the decade that bought us legwarmers, shoulder-pads and tight perms was ‘Every Breath You Take’ by Sting and the Police. A good choice, but not necessarily the one we would have picked. And this is coming from a writer who was born during the dying months of the decade.

So I’ve taken it upon myself to curate my own Spotify playlist of the decade’s finest number ones – some of which were in the countdown of the show itself and some which I felt were cruelly overlooked – so sit back, stick your headphones on and listen along as you read my thoughts on each of my choices…

1. PET SHOP BOYS – ‘West End Girls’

(#1 for two weeks in January 1986)

When Neil Tennant, the then editor of the most important music magazine of the decade ‘Smash Hits’ and keyboard and programming whizkid Chris Lowe formed Pet Shop Boys in 1984, few could have imagined they’d go onto become one of the most successful duos ever in UK chart history. 40m records sold worldwide later, and that’s exactly what they became, and this moody, part rapped T.S Eliot-esque debut was the first of four chart toppers they’d accrue in the 80s.

2. EURYTHMICS – ‘There Must Be an Angel (Playing with my Heart)’

(#1 for a week in July 1985)

The band that introduced the world to the soaring, soulful tones of Annie Lennox, the Scots songstress and her collaborative partner Dave Stewart owned the 80s with such delights as ‘Sweet Dreams are Made of This’ and ‘Here Comes the Rain Again’ to name but two. But the top spot seemed to elude them – that is until on their 13th attempt, when this appropriately named, heavenly feel good track (with a harmonica solo from one Mr Stevie Wonder, no less) finally sent them to number one.

3. THE HUMAN LEAGUE – ‘Don’t You Want Me?’

(#1 for five weeks in December 1981)

With the launch of MTV, the 80s ushered in the concept of the music video as an essential tool in the marketing mix of any self respecting pop act. The Human League were no different, and with ‘Don’t You Want Me’, the third single from their fourth album ‘Dare’, this brooding, synth laden call and response mourn to a lost love between Phil Oakey and Susan Ann Sulley was backed by an elaborate and iconic ‘video within a video’ visual that ensured it spent just over a month atop the charts.

4. RICK ASTLEY – ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’

(#1 for five weeks in September 1987)

It’s fair to say that the legendary team of Stock, Aitken & Waterman, with their hi-NRG, soulful dance pop productions were to the 80s what Brian Higgins and Xenomania were to the 00s. Their work for Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and Bananarama soared to the top of the charts worldwide as well as in the UK, and Rick Astley, Pete Waterman’s former tea boy at the studios soon found himself at number one too with 1987’s biggest seller of the year – this remains a veritable pop classic with a chorus to die for.

5. THE BANGLES – ‘Eternal Flame’

(#1 for four weeks in April 1989)

Fronted by the glamorous Susanna Hoffs, US all girl guitar pop rockers The Bangles bought some serious sass to the charts with hits like ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ and ‘Manic Monday’ (the latter written by another 80s legend in the shape of Prince, no less) – but also more than proved their sensitive side with this stirring, heartbreaking power ballad, and were duly rewarded with a chart topper on both sides of the Atlantic.