As a list of magical ingredients, it’s hard to beat. Manchester Town Hall on a Sunday afternoon in the run-up to Christmas with the festive German Market in full swing outside, playing host to several hundred excited children who have come to take part in a range of bespoke themed activities, all culminating in a gala preview screening of the first episode of a new CBBC adaptation of a modern classic.
The Worst Witch first appeared in 1974 as a book by author and illustrator Jill Murphy. It centres on Cackle’s Academy for Witches and, in particular, the adventures of new pupil Mildred Hubble. As the title suggests, Mildred is a bit hopeless, but her heart is always in the right place. Light, funny and engaging, the original book is now established as one of Puffin‘s perennial bestsellers and, over the decades, Murphy has penned a few additional volumes of the series.
Unsurprisingly given its success, this isn’t the first time that The Worst Witch has been adapted for television. There was a glitzy 1986 TV movie version starring Tim Curry and Diana Rigg. It also spawned an ITV series which featured a young Felicity Jones. It says a lot for the books’ continued staying power that yet another version is about to arrive – though, as we’ll see, there may be certain reasons for this.
Inside Manchester Town Hall, which is decked up for the occasion with props from the new show, young visitors are faced with a lavish assortment of magic-themed craft activities across different rooms. They create pretend potions, learn spells and decorate goblets. There’s also the chance to try the Worst Witch online game which is about to be unleashed on the CBBC website. It’s all tremendous fun, and each activity has been given an appropriate name. ‘Flying Lessons’ is a photo booth where youngsters can pose against a backdrop with a broom and a pointy hat. ‘School Dinners’ turns out to be a free buffet with witchcraft-themed finger food, up to and including pumpkin pasties and gravestone cakes.
Thoroughly entertained and fully fed, the guests are ushered into the Great Hall for the screening itself. This first episode of the new series is extremely appealing and sets out its stall nicely. It doesn’t deviate too much from Murphy’s original book, but it doesn’t follow the same plot and makes a few key tweaks. Here, Mildred appears to be part of a single-parent family living on a housing estate, but that’s not laboured too much. The setting contrasts starkly with the old-world sprawl of Miss Cackle’s school, scenes for which were filmed on location at Peckforton Castle and Ashley Hall in Cheshire. There are moments of slapstick fun and some exciting set pieces complete with decent special effects.
The series is a co-production between the BBC and ZDF in Germany, and will be available to stream via Netflix. Clearly a fair bit of money has been spent on the show, and it does look fairly lavish when compared to the majority of today’s (sadly cash-strapped) children’s TV programmes.
In the lead role, Bella Ramsey manages to make Mildred fallible and hugely likeable, without any of the usual excesses of child acting. As a whole it’s a very able cast, including Wendy Craig as a dotty chanting teacher and Nicola Stephenson as Mildred’s astonished mother. As Miss Cackle and Miss Hardbroom, Clare Higgins and Raquel Cassidy make for a solid nice headmaster/nasty deputy double act, though it’s not hard to detect shades of a certain other popular book series.
You see, there’s an elephant in the room here and, if you can imagine such a thing, it’s an elephant with the face of Daniel Radcliffe.
Doubtless one of the main reasons for The Worst Witch‘s latest reincarnation is the ongoing success of the Harry Potter books. The programme makers would be quite within their rights to point to the beloved status of Murphy’s creation, and also – whisper it – that she beat JK Rowling to it. But the fact remains that Hogwarts is now the most well-known fictional wizarding school of the day. Anything that echoes it can draw on a ready-made audience but also risks coming off a poor second, never mind who got there first.
At times the parallels are exceedingly strong indeed. With its age-old secret magic schools, wand duels, embryonic young friendships and disastrous potions classes, on one level this is Harry Potter with rooms full of kittens instead of a mounting body count. There’s plenty of skill and potential on show but, as the series goes on, it would do well to it make a special effort to try and forge its own distinct identity.
After the screening, there’s a jolly, enthusiastic Q&A with the cast and crew at which every child present wants to ask how the spells were done. All in all, the afternoon launches The Worst Witch in style. It’s notable this is a children’s show without a single male character, and happily Northern Soul‘s 7-year-old boy companion couldn’t give a jot. He’s as keen as mustard to see where Mildred’s adventures go. Miss Cackle and co, don’t let him down.
By Andy Murray
The first episode of The Worst Witch is broadcast on CBBC on January 11, 2017