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- British actor, director, comedian and writer
Mackenzie Crook has a confession: “As a kid, I had hobbies and collections, and that’s all I have now – except somehow I’ve monetised it, which is amazing, because I’ve got no skills.”
Hang on, Mackenzie. No skills? What about writing, directing and acting in Worzel Gummidge, now in its third run on the BBC, and Detectorists, your comedy about a pair of metal-detecting friends, with its BAFTA? What about the Olivier and Tony Award nominations for the stage hit Jerusalem? What about The Office?
The list is astounding, but none of it was part of the plan. Mackenzie had aimed for art school. Failing to get in, he ended up working at Pizza Hut. The head of his local youth theatre then suggested acting. Eight years in stand-up followed before The Office. “I didn’t think I wanted to do this until quite late,” he shrugs.
One man and his shed
Tucked away in his shed, in a khaki shirt and baseball cap, Mackenzie is at ease. As we talk, he feeds the stickleback in the fish tank on his desk. Behind him, on the wall, hang hammers and screwdrivers, rolls of tape and boxes of nails. At the other end of the shed is a keyboard. The Crook family have just bought a piano for the house and Mackenzie is practising here “in secret” so that he will be really good on the proper one.
The shed is where magic happens: where Mackenzie turns into Mozart, and where he writes and edits. “When I’m working, I like to have the whole day before me,” he says, stretching out his lanky arms, a new tattoo visible on his wrist (he now has a swallow, a house martin, a cicada and a fish). “My mind flits about. I potter around for a couple of hours, then do a 15-minute blast of writing, then fix or make something, and swap between the two. When I write, I pace around, saying things out loud. It’s embarrassing if someone stumbles in on me.”
Since Detectorists, which first aired in 2014, Mackenzie has seen himself as a writer and director as much as an actor: “The writing and the editing, the processes on either side of filming, I love those most.” Being on set can be fraught: “The filming, although it’s exciting, I find it so stressful: so many things could go wrong, so many people to rely on… I find that all a bit terrifying.” The weather is a worry, even though rain has to be "horrendous” to stop a shoot. “You get to set and it rains for nine days… Ah, man! It can be fixed afterwards, but at the time…”
Ready, set, GO
Acting is still a thrill, especially when Mackenzie gets into a character. One day on a shoot for Worzel, where he plays the eponymous scarecrow, he ran into a gaggle of primary school children. Three hours of clay make-up coated his nose and brow for that gnarled look, roots sprouting from his chin: “I thought it would be creepy to look like that and speak as Mackenzie. It would be easier to stay as Worzel… We had a real laugh.”
Mackenzie was surprised because he’s not an improviser: “I’ve never been the funniest guy down the pub and I wasn’t the funniest kid in class.” He has always loved making people laugh, though – a trait inherited from his dad, who introduced him to The Goon Show and Monty Python – but he likes to plan his words (even his stand-up was scripted). Worzel was different. “I’m really fond of the character. I really love him. Maybe that’s why I can do it.”
Notes on a Scarecrow
Mackenzie’s Worzel – inspired by the books by Barbara Euphan Todd – is compassionate, trusting and trustworthy. His world, appearing in two more episodes over Christmas, is also steeped in nature – a passion for Mackenzie – as the scarecrow protects Scatterbrook Farm.
The new episodes feature wide, dreamy shots of the countryside, taking in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and the Chilterns. Toby Jones, also in Detectorists, stars in one. Bill Bailey, a birder like Mackenzie, in another. “The environmental message in Worzel was a no-brainer because it’s in the countryside,” Mackenzie says. “You can point stuff out without having to crowbar it in. Kids are all over that stuff… It’s grown-ups that need reminding.”
He’s passionate about the environment, but is in no way, he says, an activist. “My gentle way is pointing things out in my scripts and doing a bit of domestic stuff.” He recycles. He eats less meat than he once did. Where possible, animals – rather than their CGI counterparts – make an appearance in his Worzel episodes.
‘Twitchers’ centres on a flock of choughs that Worzel must scare away. The birds are real, although, like Mackenzie, they were also in the make-up department before the cameras could roll. “We couldn’t find enough choughs, so we got jackdaws and painted their legs red.” (It all came off in the wash and they were none the worse for it.)
Growing up, Mackenzie wasn’t aware of the books or the Jon Pertwee TV version of the late 1970s, but he fell for the project as soon as he was asked: “I immediately saw what Worzel would look like. I heard his voice very early on.”
As Worzel, he wears an old military redcoat and carries a robin in his breast pocket where his heart would be. The robin is inspired by Winter George, a bird in his garden. “He’s usually here when I take Zoom calls,” says Mackenzie, patting a stack of books. “He’s not been around for a couple of days… He’s been chased off by one of his own offspring.”
During the nine-week shoot, Mackenzie was up at 4.30am most days for make-up: “It was a slow transformation, but it was strangely meditative. By the time it was over, I’d become Worzel.” The hardest shoots were at night: “I hate night shoots and I hate getting wet, but I wrote this scene when Worzel’s out in this raging thunderstorm in the middle of the night… So I found myself cold and drenched to the bone in the dark. That was silly of me…”
Grows up near Dartford, Kent, maintaining a Gerald Durrell fantasy by keeping animals in tanks and cages
Tours the comedy circuit, after failing to get into art school
Gets his big break as geeky salesman Gareth in The Office
Features in three of the Pirates of the Caribbean films as Ragetti, a pirate with a poorly fitted wooden eye
Stars in Jerusalem at the Royal Court, in the West End and then on Broadway. Nominated for an Olivier in 2010 and a Tony in 2011
Writes and illustrates two children’s books: The Windvale Sprites, shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2012, and The Lost Journals of Benjamin Tooth
Writes, directs and stars in Detectorists, a humorous BBC TV series about metal-detecting enthusiasts, winning BAFTA awards in 2015 for Best Writing in a Comedy Series and Best Situation Comedy. A Writers’ Guild Award for Best TV Situation Comedy follows in 2019
Writes, directs and stars in a reboot of Worzel Gummidge, reuniting this year with Toby Jones, his fellow metal detectorist
Reprises his role in Jerusalem for a revival in the West End from April to August, before searching for treasure in another series of Detectorists
My Family and Other Animals
Mackenzie has cultivated a love of the outdoors since he was a child. As a boy, growing up near Dartford in Kent, he kept all sorts of animals at home in tanks and cages. “I guess I had a Gerald Durrell My Family and Other Animals fantasy going on.” Today, he breeds tortoises and keeps a crested gecko.
Mackenzie’s dad, who worked for British Airways, taught him the names of wild flowers and birds as they explored the nearby countryside or went fishing in the river – knowledge Mackenzie has since built on. “I’ve always found names important: knowing which bird is flying across my path. If I don’t know what it is, it really infuriates me.”
Mackenzie lives with his wife, Lindsay, and children, Jude, 19, and Scout, 14, in north London, but he also owns eight acres of ancient woodland, an hour away in Essex, and gets out to the countryside whenever he can. He bought the woodland in 2008, after a near miss with a Ferrari: “As a child of the 1980s, I’d grown up loving Ferraris. I did a lucrative job and thought I’d buy one. I suddenly realised it wasn’t me, so I went for the opposite: a woodland.”
The Crooks might go as a family or Mackenzie might go alone to think. He’s now really into woodland management, using skills he learnt as a teenager, when he belonged to The Conservation Volunteers. His big project is replacing a wire fence around the outside with dead hedging. He’s also thinking about coppicing: “I’ve got this romantic idea that I’m going to do it myself… Can I chop down trees with an axe? I don’t know. It’s hard work to chop down a hornbeam tree.”
When Mackenzie’s not imagining himself as a lumberjack, he might be metal detecting, which he’s taken up off-screen, or thinking about fishing. He particularly likes Suffolk, where much of Detectorists was filmed: “I always take a fishing rod when we go on holiday, even though I never go. My wife calls it my imaginary hobby.”
He loves the outdoors, as long as he has an aim: “The idea of just walking in the countryside has never appealed. Hiking… I don’t understand what hiking’s about.” His hobbies are different: “The lure of fishing is the same as metal detecting. It’s a day out in the countryside with the promise of treasure. It doesn’t matter if you don’t catch fish or you don’t find treasure. It’s being out in the countryside with a purpose: that’s what I enjoy.”
This spring, Mackenzie will get a further countryside fix when he reprises his role in Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth’s hit play lamenting a lost England, first staged in 2009: “I can trace everything I’m doing now to Jerusalem. The idea for Detectorists came out of this study we did for it. And Worzel seems like an evolution of Detectorists… being in the countryside with the lore and the landscape.”
After another Detectorists, Mackenzie will flit onto the next project. “I get obsessed by something for a brief period, then I move onto the next obsession,” he says. “I’m looking forward to seeing what else I have in my notebooks.” The promise of treasure awaits.
This feature is from Country Living magazine – SUBSCRIBE HERE
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