Before Harry Potter there was Mildred Hubble, hapless spell-casting heroine of the popular children’s books by writer and illustrator Jill Murphy. In the late nineties, Murphy’s books were adapted into a long-running TV series, but first reached the screen in this campy mid-eighties one-off Halloween special. Poor little Mildred (Fairuza Balk - fresh off her cult classic Return to Oz (1985)) isn’t much good at casting spells or flying her broomstick and subsequently, is having a difficult first year at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Young Witches. Confusing a laughter potion with an invisibility one, Mildred and best friend Maud Warlock earn the enmity of strict schoolmistress Mrs. Hardbroom (Diana Rigg), but while kindly Miss Cackle (sitcom regular Charlotte Rae) keeps giving her another chance, the worst witch can’t seem to get anything right.
The whole school is abuzz that the Grand Wizard (Tim Curry) will attend their forthcoming Halloween festivities. Mildred miraculously wins a place on the school’s flying formation team, but nasty know-it-all Ethel Hallow (Anna Kipling) sabotages her broomstick. Meanwhile, Mrs. Cackle’s evil twin Agatha (Rae again, sporting a hideous pink wig and inexplicable Alabama accent) and her coven of wicked witches are lurking in the woods, plotting to take over the school.
Bonnie Langford sings the theme song, written by Charles Strouse and Don Black, because they passed a law in mid-seventies Britain stating that all children’s television for the next ten years must involve her in some way. The rest of the synthesizer led songs composed by Dennis King are cheesier than a platter of gorgonzola, particularly the clunky pop number Tim Curry croons before some sub-MTV video backgrounds. “Anything can happen on Halloween! Your dentist could turn into a queen!” Come again, Tim?
This wears the tacky, shot-on-video look of Eighties’ children’s TV that somehow seems less vibrant than anything from the Sixties and Seventies. Nevertheless, The Worst Witch depicts school bullying and ritual humiliation far more effectively than Harry Potter. While Harry is a dab hand at wizardry and has virtually the whole Hogwarts’ staff kissing his ass, clumsy, well-intentioned Mildred fails at almost everything she tries, as classmates and teachers prove more hindrance than help. Yet she always picks herself up and tries again, ennobled by a hugely endearing performance from Fairuza Balk.
Robert Young went on to Brit comedies like Splitting Heirs (1992) and Fierce Creatures (1996), but earlier helmed offbeat Hammer horror Vampire Circus (1971). Which might explain why Curry’s slightly seedy sorcerer recalls that film’s creepy Count Mitterhouse whenever he leers at the young witches. Remember when Tim Curry was a heartthrob? No, neither do I, but every little girl here inexplicably fancies the Grand Wizard. Well, as curious crushes go, it’s better than lusting after Simon Le Bon, although Curry does play him like an Eighties rock star. A handful of set-pieces foreshadow the Harry Potter films, with the video generated flying effects inevitably dated, but acceptable on the small screen. Youngsters will probably lament the absence of spell fights or monster action, but this passes the time amiably. The subsequent television series was far more popular, by which time sweet Fairuza Balk had morphed into scary Fairuza Balk, playing a very different witch in The Craft (1996). Strangely, you still found yourself rooting for her.