Friday, October 24, 2014

The Worst Witch: Season 1 (1998-1999)

At this point, many people in America are familiar with the Worst Witch TV movie, and some have even taken it to their hearts as a Halloween tradition. As far as I know, quite a few such people (specifically Americans) may be surprised to know that there's a complete Worst Witch TV series, that lasted for 40 episodes! Or 79, depending on your point of view (there were two sequel shows). It holds a special place in my heart, and is extremely nostalgic for me, as I watched it all the time when I was a kid!

...Of course, I never, ever admitted to liking it, not even to myself, because I was a stupid kid back then, thinking it would be 'uncool' and 'wimpy' to watch a 'girly' show. Despite vehemently thinking that, I still somehow never missed a single episode of The New Worst Witch.

The Worst Witch centres on Mildred Hubble, a somewhat klutzy and absentminded young girl, in her first year at Cackle's Academy, a school for witches. She quickly makes many friends, but also a bitter enemy-Ethel Hallow. Throughout the year, Mildred gets caught up in numerous fixes, from earning the ire of strict teacher Miss Hardbroom, to turning Ethel into a pig, nearly getting expelled, and saving the school from nefarious witches, proving that "Even the worst witch in the entire school can be the best"...

The Worst Witch is adapted from the first two entries in the book series by Jill Murphy, and it surpasses them amazingly! The Worst Witch books are very compressed, with more being told to us than actually happening, or being said, and it barely reaches 100 pages, even with its huge children's book font size, and multiple large illustrations. The series does a great job at taking this barebones book and filling it out over multiple episodes. It never feels like it's a novel that's been interminably stretched out

This is a frequently hilarious show, and it's always well-written! Even the one episode I didn't like as much as the rest still wasn't bad. The characters are believable, likeable, and always entertaining to watch, even the antagonistic ones such as Miss Hardbroom, and Ethel Hallow.

The acting in The Worst Witch is always great. The star, Georgina Sherrington, is perfect! She's my favourite actress! Sure, she hasn't fought undead Hitler twice like my former No. 1 favourite actress Carla Balenda, but she's a great actress, always a joy to watch, and the works she's appeared in are significantly easier to find than that of Golden Age of Film actress Balenda.

Kate Duchene plays the stern Miss Hardbroom, and she's fantastic, delivering a perfect amount of meanness in the role. Clare Coulter is great as the more jovial and easygoing Miss Cackle, while Una Stubbs is hilariously demented as the kooky Miss Bat. Claire Porter plays Miss Drill, the most normal of the teachers, and she does very well.

The rest of the actresses, from those playing Mildred's friends (such as Emma Brown, Jessica Fox, Joanna Dyce, Harshna Brahmbhatt, Poppy Gaye, and Julia Malewski), to those playing her enemies (Felicity Jones, and Holly Rivers) are always great.

A really neat aspect about this series is simultaneously a pretty small, yet pretty major point-The classes at Cackle's Academy are practical ones as well as magic-based! Too often in fantasy school settings do the kids learn nothing but spells, and never any other subjects that'd get them through life. Thankfully The Worst Witch bucks that annoying trend.

One of my favourite things about the Worst Witch franchise as a whole is its continuity. Each episode nicely follows one another in many ways, rather than being random events in a dateless void, the series remembers names, which comes into good importance for later entries in the franchise's (for example, in Weirdsister College, the titular university didn't come out of nowhere, but was in fact mentioned a few times in the original series), and every entry remembers which spells are which, getting the words right! That last one may sound like small potatoes, but it's a level of detail I really appreciate!

There's only one thing about this franchise that's unclear-Does the outside world know about magic? There are many aspects of the show that suggest that it does (such as non-witch families being able to enroll or work at witch schools, there being witch radio shows, or the fact that witches and wizards have names like Nightshade, Cackle, Hardbroom, Moonshine, Merlin, Grailsquest, Dragonsbane, etc.), but others that do the opposite, especially the first sequel series Weirdsister College, which confirms the latter outright. It gets really frustrating when episodes keep near-contradicting each-other on this point!

Finally, the soundtrack of this show is always great! The main theme is nice, and the rest of the score throughout the series is always highly enjoyable, and never feels repetitive, even if you marathon all three seasons in as many days!

Now, onto reviewing the episodes proper!...

The Battle of the Broomsticks

It's the first day of the school year at Cackle's Academy for Young Witches, and Mildred Hubble hasn't made a good first impression, having crashed into the school dustbins as she arrived. Despite the setback], she quickly makes friends, but that may not matter soon enough, as if Mildred doesn't succeed in the broomstick flying aptitude test, she won't be a part of Cackle's any longer, as failure means instant expulsion...

This is a great opener to The Worst Witch, with many funny moments, and a well-written story. Mildred is a very likeable protagonist, and it's nice seeing her conquer her fears of heights and the dark.

Quite a few of the show's supporting cast (mainly Mildred's friends) don't really have introductions, and moreso just appear. This is pretty noticeable, but it's not too big of a problem, and Millie's friends are still likeable, despite the lack of much character at this point.

Miss Hardbroom is one of the most entertaining characters at this point, thanks to the writing, and Kate Duchene's excellent comedically ruthless performance.

The effects here, mostly broom flying, vary. Sometimes there's obvious green screen use, sometimes it looks decent, and other times it looks really good!

When We Feast At the Midnight Hour

The new pupils of Cackle's Academy are dissatisfied with the constantly bleak meals they're served, and strive to do something about it, to the chagrin of Miss Hardbroom. In an attempt at solidarity, Miss Cackle decides to make an effort to not eat any of her usual diet (mainly comprised of delicious pastries and cakes) for an entire week, and eat only the same dishes as the students...

To me, this is the funniest episodes of Worst Witch's first season, with numerous great moments, from Miss Hardbroom making the students use particular positive keywords in their letters home, to Miss Cackle's craving fantasy during teaching, her quote of "Not many witches believe in ghosts. Mind you, I don't think many ghosts believe in witches", and the hilarious final minutes!

The green screen work here for the enlarged animals is pretty bad, as expected, but it's no huge issue.

A Pig in a Poke

The girls of Cackle's have just gotten their cats, and they're all excited, however, after Ethel insults Mildred and her cat Tabby, Millie impulsively turns her into a pig. Unfortunately Ethel runs off and is found by Miss Hardbroom before Mildred can retrieve her. Hardbroom assumes that Ethel is a pig that's escaped from the nearby farm, and instructs the school caretaker Mr. Blossom to send her back. Now, with the help of Blossom's visiting nephew Charlie, Mildred must save Ethel before she's taken to the pig farm and sold in the upcoming weekend markets...

If you ever wanted to see the mean bully Ethel Hallow get her comeuppance, this is the episode for you! A Pig in a Poke is very funny, and has a well written plot with a hilarious idea behind it!

The usual characters are great, and Charlie is a likeable new character, who never feels forced or railroaded into the plot, and contributes nicely.

Unlike what a show nowadays would probably do (watch Death in Paradise if you don't believe me), this episode actually uses a real pig for the transformed Ethel, rather than CGI, which is much appreciated! Yeah, I'm that jaded to modern TV that the presence of a real animal in a show is worth mentioning!

A Mean Hallowe'en/Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

It's the Halloween season, and Cackle's is being visited by the Grand Wizard Hellibore for the occasion. A tableau is set up for the special night, and Mildred ends up winning the main part. As this will involve serious broomstick skills, the concerned Miss Hardbroom takes special care to try and instill good flying skills onto Millie. Unfortunately, a trick of Ethel's ruins everything-And, as the majority of the academy sleeps through the following night, a trio of evil witches, led by Miss Cackle's mean-spirited twin sister Agatha, secretly break into the school, with intent to take it over...

This two-part episode, adapting the final parts to the first Worst Witch book (but is not the series finale, as you might think if you were watching this on TV, like I did once), is very good! It's got great character moments, mainly from poor ostracized Mildred, and is all-round hilarious, from the magically high-pitched Millie (so adorable!), to the tableau, and its rehearsals, and many other scenes. Miss Hardbroom is especially funny here, such as when she gets the students to pull numbered paper sheets from a cauldron to determine who'll fly in the tableau, and Mildred gets the winning one-HB's reaction is "This is what comes of trying to be fair."

Claire Coulter is amusing enough as Miss Cackle, but she really shines with her double role! She's deliciously villainous as Agatha Cackle!

Some effects here are pretty laughable, while others are decent. Overall, this two-parter is great fun, whether it's a season finale or not.

Monkey Business

It's a new term at Cackle's Academy, and there's a new student-Enid Nightshade. In an effort to try and improve Mildred's clumsy attitude, Miss Cackle and Miss Hardbroom decide to have her supervise Enid. Unfortunately for Millie, Enid is a total troublemaker, and is constantly getting her into trouble...

Monkey Business is the first episode to feature new main character Enid Nightshade, and she's definitely a worthwhile addition to the show! She's unique to the rest of the cast-Devious, and a playful troublemaker, but still likeable.

The dialogue is Monkey Business' best aspect! There are quite a few hilarious lines! And finally, the ending is a highly amusing cliffhanger of sorts...

Miss Cackle's Birthday Surprise

When Enid accidentally gets Mildred into serious trouble when trying to magic up a shortcut through an arduous cross country run, Miss Cackle is not impressed. If Mildred steps one more toe out of line in-between now and the half-term holiday trip, she'll be barred from going...

Just as I like The Worst Witch's continuity, I also like how the reset button isn't pulled every episode for Mildred, and her frequent 'troublesome' actions do have consequences over time, even to the usually kind and understanding Miss Cackle. Though of course, things don't go badly for Millie in the end, as you'd expect.

This episode progresses nicely, and culminates in a very good climax, where things fit together perfectly for our loveable heroine.

The Great Outdoors

For the half-term break, the students of Cackle's are going on outdoors expeditions. While some are with Miss Bat on a birdwatching exercise, Mildred and others are with Miss Drill and Miss Hardbroom on a camping trip. Once the girls reach their campsite, the teachers set up a treasure hunt. To try and win, Ethel cheats by magically manipulating the weather, and when Millie and co. react in kind, a magical phenomenon known as the Foster's Effect starts, and will go on doubling up the bad weather forever unless it can be stopped...

The Great Outdoors is an entertaining sojourn episode, and also establishes an interesting aspect about the laws of magic, which comes up a few more times, from episode to episode.

The episode has a bigger-than-normal secondary cast, with the band of boy scouts that the Cackles girls/staff bump into at their camping site. Thankfully, they all do a decent job.

The blizzard effects here are pretty well done, and are created practically, rather than with CGI.

The Heat is On

Back from their half-term break, everyone at Cackle's Academy is enjoying the lovely hot weather. Ethel and Drusilla, however, are very angry with Mildred, to the point where Drusilla attacks Millie. This nearly gets them into trouble, but instead incenses Miss Cackle to try lightening the tension by setting up a competition for the girls to try and recreate a magically created soft drink without the aid of any magic. Mildred and her friends set out upon a lengthy search to find the right ingredients, but all their efforts may be all for naught if the spiteful Ethel succeeds in sabotaging their project...

My second favourite episode of the season, The Heat is On has many great qualities, from the humour, the acting, to the funniest of Ms. Bat in the entire show! It showcases all of her various foibles and eccentricities all so awesomely!

One particular highlight of the episode is an unintentionally funny one at the climax, with some hilariously bad effects!

Sorcery and Chips

Mildred is borrowing a toy robot dog of her friend Ruby's, but accidentally 'kills' it when she forgets to feed it on time, and trips down the staircase in a rush to get to class, spraining her ankle in the process. Mildred tries to fix the battered machine by dipping it in a restoring elixir during potions class, but she fumbles, and her mishap causes the lab to be overrun by the desks turning into rapidly growing trees. For once, Miss Hardbroom doesn't blame Mildred for the disaster, but instead on the class' mini-cauldrons, which she feels are are old and has-been, and would have failed sooner or later no matter how klutzy or careful the user would be. Ethel's father, the new chair of school governors, has the potions lab replaced, filling it with state-of-the-art computers, something that bothers the heavily traditionalist Miss Hardbroom. Unfortunately, the restoration potion worked on the robot dog, and it's brought it back unhinged, and it sees a perfect target for conquest in the potion lab's new computers...

This is my least favourite episode of Series 1 of The Worst Witch. It's still entertaining and humorous, but not as much as the other episodes, I feel. Also, the resolution to the climax is kinda confusing, as well as unfulfilling and abrupt.

The effects here are decent, especially with the 'game' at the end, which looks pretty nifty, but is very underused.

Let Them Eat Cake

Mildred and her friends are out walking, and are tricked into going to nearby bakery Cosie's by Ethel and Drusilla. The bakery is out-of-bounds, and Ethel plans to send Miss Hardbroom there to catch Millie and co. red handed. This  ends up being the least of the girls' worries when they realize a real estate scam going on at Cosie's...

Let Them Eat Cake is another funny sojourn type of episode, with an entertaining plot, and various parties all converging on the same spot in an amusing way.

The supporting cast perform very well too, from Sheena Larkin as the fragile Miss Cosie, to Harry Hill as the hilariously nefarious antagonist.

Sweet Talking Boys

Grand Wizard Hellibore has come to Cackle's Academy to give a lecture, bringing three students along with him, two of them scheming bullies, while the third is a timid kid under their thumb. They play several nasty tricks on the witches of Cackle's, getting away with them scot-free, and it's up to Millie to help save the day before the boys' cheating bests the competition Cackle's is now in against Hellibore's wizarding school...

Sweet Talking Boys sees the return of Grand Wizard Hellibore, and the introduction of some new characters. Bullies Baz and Gaz are entertaining jerks who you love to hate, while Loppy (aka Merlin) is a bit boring here. His character is better in future appearances, thankfully.

The episode is well-written, with a highly amusing conflict! You'll want to beat these sexist wizards upside the head!

By far the best thing about this episode is Georgina Sherrington, who gives her best performance of Series 1 in the climax!

A Bolt from the Blue

It's the final days of Mildred's first year at Cackle's Academy, and she's only barely passed. She may not make it through to next year, however, as Miss Cackle is suddenly displaying an uncharacteristically hostile attitude...

Seeing the return of an old foe, A Bolt from the Blue is a great season finale

The acting's all great, especially from Claire Coulter, and Kate Duchene. It's hilarious seeing the usually toughly composed Miss Hardbroom flustered and at a loss for words in the presence of people equally or more hardass than she is!

There's only one problem I have with this series finale, and that's the contribution of Ethel Hallow. It's not that she willingly helps Mildred and co. out in solving the mystery of Miss Cackle's new attitude, but that there's no transition to her doing so. At first I didn't even notice that it was Ethel, and assumed it was one of Mille's friends.

The Worst Witch is a great show, and I highly recommend you check it out, especially if you're a fan of the '86 movie! Unlike the last British paranormal show I reviewed-Powers-and one yet to come, The Worst Witch actually has a DVD release! I'm not sure if it's still in print though, as the DVD's can go for pretty high prices online. All the episodes are on Youtube, but if you can find the DVD's for a non-ridiculous price, then go for it!...

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