The Magic of Catweazle
Television in the 1960s and 70s was the internet of its day. Everyone was hooked. A relatively new invention, it brought people together across Britain in ways that only the ‘wireless’ radio had managed to do in the preceding few decades. Unlike radio, which you could listen to while doing something else, though, TV meant that, to really appreciate it, you had to stop whatever else you were doing and watch.
And watch we did, in our house: from about 6:00 until bed-time, every night, plus during the day on holidays. I once listed the shows I could remember watching as a child, and it came to hundreds. Most of them were not particularly worth mentioning, though they succeeded in entertaining their audience (including me) at the time. Two stand out: one, Doctor Who, earned a special place in my heart; the other was the first series of a short-lived show called Catweazle.
There were a number of things which made Catweazle different: it was filmed on location at Home Farm, East Clandon, near Guildford in Surrey, England in 1969 on 16 mm film, which gave it a ‘realistic’ feel throughout; it was superbly acted, attracting guest stars like Aubrey Morris as a camp shopkeeper and Hattie Jacques as a fortune teller. But more importantly, though it was comedic in its principle idea - a struggling wizard from the 11th century finds himself suddenly transported to the 20th - it maintained a strong grip on its characters and their potential for pathos as well as laughs. What that added up to was a series the viewer could not only chuckle at throughout with its close observation of human nature, but also believe in.
It was created by actor and writer Richard Carpenter, who had appeared in occasional films and episodes of British TV shows in the 1960s like Z Cars. Catweazle changed his fortunes, earning him international recognition and a Writers Guild award for creating the children's TV series which gained cult status. Carpenter went on to be the writer behind the famous HTV production Robin of Sherwood, which ran for three series.
Catweazle is endearing as a character from the start: hating the ‘Norman invaders’, he attempts to escape from them by invoking a flying spell, but this misfires and he ends up travelling through time instead of space and appearing in a pond at Hexwood Farm in 1969. His encounter with tractors, electric lights, aeroplanes, telephones and so forth is expertly played by Geoffrey Bayldon (who had been considered for the part of the Doctor in Doctor Who). His acting and the superb directing of Quentin Lawrence captures some of the awe that was still around in the 60s about such things. In 1969, air travel was relatively rare, electricity was still not universally available, and not many people had a telephone, though the optimism of the age suggested that all these things would be widespread soon enough. Thus the wizard’s interpretation of ‘eleck trickery’, the ‘telling bone’ and the roaring monster of the tractor had and can still have a certain metaphoric resonance.
Rapidly, a bond develops between the old man and the boy, Carrot (beautifully portrayed by Robin Davies), who lives with his widowed father at Hexwood Farm. Carrot’s predicament as a young teenager trying to find some measure of independence in a household where the lack of a mother is evident in his father’s short-tempered impatience and pre-occupations with work, is both eased and exacerbated by Catweazle, who introduces him to a completely new world but also makes his life much more complex with constant efforts to hide him from the ‘grown-ups’ or to rescue him from ridiculous dilemmas.
There are so many golden moments: some of my favourites revolve around Sam Woodyard, played by Neil McCarthy. Catweazle is occasionally self-possessed enough to be able to hypnotise anyone who encounters him so that they don’t recall it, thus preserving his anonymity - he even hypnotises Carrot so that the boy can’t speak about him to others - but with Sam the old wizard is too flustered and the down-to-earth farm worker not only sees him but pursues him through the woods, determined to prove to himself and others that he is not hallucinating. Carrot manages to conceal the old man in an abandoned and derelict house. Sam finds the house and even explores it, but fails to discover the old man. The audience see Catweazle through the gap in the ceiling as Sam says ‘It’s all a bit over my ‘ead.’
The first series (the second series, exploiting the farcical elements and without the same warmth, isn’t anywhere near as good) was full of tiny moments of wit like that. In the episode in which Catweazle encounters a telephone for the first time, he initially finds himself atop a church steeple, precariously calling for help. An old verger, Wilkins, offers his opinion: ‘It’s a publicity stunt, if you ask me. Next thing one of these heely-coppeteers will come over and start chuckin’ down packets of cornflakes.’
While the show initially seems to be about Carrot humouring the wizard and trying to hide him from the outside world - and to some extent protect the world from the wizard’s occasionally successful spells - it’s really about kindness and a friendship that bridges realities. And it goes on to be about even more. The boy and the wizard become ‘brothers in magic’, with Catweazle continually refreshing Carrot’s view of modern life. Together, they find hide-outs, practise a form of voodoo, dabble in clairvoyance, and fall into all kinds of ridiculous and comic situations. There’s a kind of innocent joy about it, which becomes autumnal as we the viewers share in knowledge that Catweazle struggles to grasp, such as the fact that Carrot has to return to school as the holidays draw to a close, and the inevitability that his time with the wizard must come to an end.
Carpenter kept portions of most episodes free from dialogue to allow Bayldon to portray his part purely physically. Bayldon responded in abundance, with twitches, jerks and hisses which make the character quite different to anything else on television.
Over the course of the series, our viewpoint is shifted by a different sort of enchantment: at first, we smile knowingly as Catweazle is comically confused and overwhelmed by the ‘magic’ of the twentieth century (as Arthur C. Clarke said, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’) but as we progress, we begin to get another perspective. Catweazle’s unreliable and mysterious sorcery opens our eyes to a reality larger than Carrot’s and larger than our own: the material wonders of the modern world are gradually revealed to be part of a wider and more wonderful universe. Catweazle eventually finds a way to return to the 11th century, and begins to fade before Carrot’s eyes in the moving final scene, which is worth looking at in detail.
The wizard has realised that his way back lies in submerging himself completely in water. Carrot finds him walking into a lake:
Carrot: Are you fishing or something?
Catweazle: Nip-bone! I go to my cave in the great forest.
Carrot: Don’t be silly. Come on out. You’re mad.
Catweazle: I am not mad.
Carrot: Yes you are, completely potty. The whole thing’s a delusion. Like thinking you’re Napoleon.
Catweazle: I am Catweazle.
Carrot: You’ll get pneumonia.
Catweazle (wading deeper): Thou shalt see.
Carrot (getting a little anxious): Don’t be daft. Come on out!
Catweazle (waving his lantern in a spell): Sator, Arepo, Tenet, Opera, Rotas!
Carrot: It can’t work, Catweazle. Stop making a fool of yourself.
Carrot: All right then. Go on, disappear!
Catweazle: Salmay Dalmay Adonay.
(Catweazle is disappointed to find himself still there.)
Carrot (laughing): You’ll have to do better than that.
Catweazle: O Spirits of the earth, air, fire and thou, O my magic spirit of water. I call on thee! Sunandum! Hurandos! Salmay Dalmay Adonay!
(Catweazle waves the lantern so wildly that he drops it in the water and has to dive under the surface to retrieve it. He re-surfaces, drenched. Carrot laughs, but then suddenly stops as the wizard’s form becomes transparent.)
Catweazle: Ay, boy?
Carrot: Something’s happening to you. You’re…you’re melting!
Catweazle: Then ’tis beginning.
Carrot: But you can’t! Nobody can! It’s impossible!
Catweazle: A foolish word.
Carrot: You’re going all misty!
Catweazle: Nay, ’tis thou. Thou art like smoke.
Carrot: But Catweazle…(Catweazle fades almost completely.) Then it’s true. Everything.
Catweazle: Ay, thou doubter! Ay, thou disbelieving dreg!
Carrot: Don’t go yet!
Catweazle: Too late, nettle-face!
Carrot: Please, Catweazle!
Catweazle: Nay, Carrot. Nine hundred years are waiting. Fare thee well.
(Catweazle turns and disappears under the water.)
Carrot: Will you come back one day?