The Worst Witch

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The first time I saw The Worst Witch (1986) was in the first grade. At my elementary school on Halloween classes ended at mid-day for a costume parade followed by a brief party. After everyone was in a sugar coma the teacher would put on a movie. In first and second grade that movie was The Worst Witch.

This musical, made for television adaptation of Jill Murphy’s 1974 children’s novel made a significant impression on me. The Worst Witch instilled in me a deep love for the “spooky” that I have carried for the rest of my life. When Harry Potter took the world by storm I was constantly wondering why no one else seemed to care that Potter was ripping off Mildred Hubble.

It’s pretty obvious to anyone who has seen or read both that the Harry Potter books and films borrow more than a little from The Worst Witch. For whatever reason The Worst Witch never became the international phenomenon that Harry Potter did. The shoddy special effects, crappy songs and campy acting in this British television classic turned out to be the best that Jill Murphy could hope for.

Strangely, the lo-fi ingenuity of The Worst Witch is part of its charm and entertainment value. Fairuza Balk, Diana Rigg, Tim Curry and Charlotte Rae are all deliriously over the top and carry the film from one silly spectacle to the next. The Worst Witch sets out to do little more than to allow its child viewers to feel represented and delighted. Of course it only helps that every witch has a cute little kitten to ride her broom.

This unpretentious slice of 80s kitch, when viewed as an adult, feels far more relevant than Warner Bros. Harry Potter franchise. As a grown-up one notices details like the David Bowie portrait in Balk’s dormitory for the first time. There’s also a deeper appreciation for the female camaraderie and community in The Worst Witch. When these components are taken together the world of Miss Cackle’s Academy appears as a safe haven for the “outsider” in which to forge an identity and build a surrogate family.

If I had to choose between Harry Potter or Hocus Pocus (1993) or The Worst Witch, I would choose the latter every time. That isn’t to say that, on a technical level, that The Worst Witch is a superior film. It’s that, unlike most children’s fair, The Worst Witch is bonkers enough and positive enough in its messaging to mean more to a child.