#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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