09 February 2011

9 February - The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh

Tonight, in 1964, the first episode of The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh played on Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.

On the southern coast of England,
There's a legend people tell
Of days long ago, when the great Scarecrow
Would ride from the jaws of hell,
And laugh with a fiendish yell.

And that eldritch laugh haunted 9-year-old me for many moons.  It was only in the opening and closing songs - the Scarecrow's laugh in the film is much less frightening - and I knew by the second episode when to cover my ears.

But once past the opening theme, what a world of adventure!  The weirdly-dressed Scarecrow and his lieutenants, Hellspite and Curlew, lead a gang of smugglers - the Gentlemen of the Marsh - in their illegal activities.  They outrun and outwit the forces of the Law at every turn, from leading Excise-men on a wild-goose-chase across country and away from the night's 'run', to rescuing prisoners from King George's general, Pugh.

And then, very early on, we discovered that the nefarious Scarecrow is the 'mild and gentle as a dove' Vicar of Dymchurch, Dr. Syn (played by Patrick McGoohan), while Hellspite is his sexton, Mipps (George Cole), and Curlew is John Banks (Sean Scully), the young son of the local squire.

Even a 9-year-old can laugh at the idea of the pompous General Pugh telling the secrets of his campaign against the Scarecrow to the Scarecrow himself - if he only knew!

The original character of Dr. Syn was created by Russell Thorndike, who recounted the arch-smuggler's adventures first in a novel of that name published in 1915, and later in a series of 6 books that expanded on the original tale.  Mr. Disney adapted his version from a retelling of Thorndike's book The Further Adventures of Dr. Syn, written by William Buchanan and titled Christopher Syn.

After watching The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, I looked for (and found) that book in the local library.  Oh joy!  Oh rapture!  Contra Mr. Disney, Curlew, in the book, was a girl.  Not John Banks, but Jennifer Banks.  The fun of outriding Excise-men and outwitting General Pugh was not reserved to the male of the species.  My dreams suddenly got far more adventuresome.

(Yes, there were bits of romance in the book.  I ignored them.)

You can find out about Dr. Syn, the books, comic books, movies, et al, at DrSyn.com, which, since Tom Hering took down his excellent website "The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh", is the best site for information.

Meanwhile, raise a glass of (smuggled) brandy to the Scarecrow!

So the king told all his soldiers,
"Hang him high or hang him low!
But never return 'till the day I learn
He's gone in flames below,
Or you'll hang with the great Scarecrow!"