Only a few actors have the power to create an indelible moment on television, one where their voice becomes an essential aspect of a childhood memory that abides for years. There is Brian Cant announcing the roll call for the Trumpton Fire Brigade, Eric Thompson and Fenella Fielding in Dougal and the Blue Cat, and Geoffrey Bayldon on two occasions. His first came with The Trickery Lantern episode of Catweazle, when the eponymous wizard finally succeeds in returning home.
Richard Carpenter, the programme’s creator, thought ‘the heroic figure is the man who takes on the world alone’, and perhaps that lesson has been passed to Carrot (Robin Davies). But for now, summer and his childhood seem to be fading. The cantankerous figure so confused by the 20th century was his guide into the uncertainty of adolescence and even adulthood. Bayldon later reflected that the final moments were when Carrot finally understands that Catweazle ‘was real. I was wrong”.
Such is Bayldon’s performance, constantly fulminating about ‘the tellingbone’ and ‘electrickery’ that it is near impossible to believe he was aged just 45 when London Weekend began filming Catweazle. He was born on the 7th January 1924 and after war service in the RAF, trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Bayldon often appeared as characters far older than his years, and in 1949 a review of The Clandestine Marriage in The Stage praised how ‘Chief satisfaction was derived from Geoffrey Bayldon’s vastly amusing portrayal of senile vanity as Lord Ogleby’.
Bayldon’s screen characters often seemed to have overtones of The White Knight – a part he played in the BBC’s The Adventures of Alice in 1960 – and the actor seemed ideal to portray a certain adventurer in space and time. However, he spurned the chance to become the First Doctor on the grounds he did not wish to play another ‘old man’, a decision Bayldon subsequently regretted. The actor also specialised in depicting patrician coldness; Q in the 1967 Casino Royale, Weston, the disillusioned teacher in To Sir, with Love, or the courteous but dismissive Industrial Psychologist cross-examining Joe Lampton in Life at the Top.
Bayldon died on 10th May 2017, his stage, film and TV career spanning six decades. Thousands will forever remember him as Catweazle, and thousands more will always regard him as The Crowman – wise, apparently all-seeing, and with the power to have recalcitrant scarecrows thrown on the compost heap. Few could ever forget the conclusion to The Return of Dolly Clothes Peg, where The Crowman dispatches the shop mannequin and Aunt Sally in opposite directions. Worzel Gummidge must exercise his free will and choose between ‘happiness’ and ‘total misery’.
And so Worzel inevitably totters after the latter, so, wordlessly, The Crowman expresses his pain and frustration that he has gifted his charges the power to make the wrong decisions. Some programmes are forgotten despite running for several years – but with an actor such as Geoffrey Bayldon, a few minutes on screen last forever.
Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA
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