The Worst Witch books and TV shows
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The Worst Witch is back – and it’s as subtly feminist as ever

The Worst Witch is, essentially, a story aimed at bookish young women that deals with imposter syndrome.

If you’re a woman under 50, the name Mildred Hubble probably means something to you. Jill Murphy wrote her first book, The Worst Witch, when she was just 18. First published in 1974, it captivated audiences with its story of a bumbling young girl trying to scrape through her magical education. Perhaps your imagination was first caught by the books, with their descriptions of Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches, which “stood at the top of a high mountain surrounded by a pine forest” and “looked more like a prison than a school, with its gloomy grey walls and turrets,” and the students themselves “dressed in black gymslips, black stockings, black hobnailed boots, grey shirts and black-and-grey ties”.

Or perhaps it was the Nineties TV show that you really remember, starring Georgina Sherrington as Mildred, practically falling over her incredibly long plaits, and Felicity Jones as a deliciously posh and evil Ethel, Mildred’s long-standing nemesis.

However you fell in love with Mildred, Maud, Miss Cackle and Miss Hardbroom, there’s good news. The Worst Witch returns today on CBBC (4.30pm), with a cast borrowed from Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey, updated special effects, and a more modern take on a magical boarding school. The series will also be available globally on Netflix later this year.

Mildred Hubble is played by 13-year-old Bella Ramsey, a talented actress who frequently stole the show in several recent episodes of Game of Thrones: no easy feat in a programme overrun with known scene-thieves. But unlike Mildred Hubbles of yore, this character is not from a family of witches – she’s just a normal girl from a council estate.

Like Hermione or Harry in Harry Potter, she has no idea magic even exists until she makes her way to school. In fact, here the script seems to borrow directly from Harry Potter: Maud’s question, “Didn’t anything ever happen to you that you couldn’t explain?” is reminiscent of Hagrid’s “Not a wizard, eh? Never made things happen when you was scared or angry?”

Dowton Abbey’s Raquel Cassidy makes for a particularly sarcastic Mistress Hardbroom, with other teachers played by Kacey Ainsworth, Clare Higgins and Amanda Holden.

There are lines about allergies and preferring “Ms” over “Mistress”, and even references to online magazines for witches. But while there are plenty of superficial updates, this new series doesn’t need to stray too far from the timeless source material. It's full of brilliant women – students and teachers alike. Just look at these badass bitches:


But The Worst Witch is, essentially, a story aimed at bookish young women that deals with imposter syndrome. Mildred finds herself at a competitive school, in intimidating surroundings, with a demanding and complex set of rules and requirements. Murphy writes, “There were so many rules that you couldn’t do anything without being told off, and there seemed to be tests and exams every week.” She constantly feels like an outsider – she even has the wrong cat. But despite constantly doubting her own ability and even her own identity as a “witch”, she frequently surprises herself (and others) with great achievements.

The new series runs with this theme – Mildred stumbles across the school by chance, and knows nothing at all about witch society. She fumbles over the appropriate way to address people, she gets motion sickness when magically transported (which other students find “pathetic”), she tells herself she cannot do potions or exams.

But when it comes down to it, Mildred’s fears about herself are misplaced. Friends and teachers are able to sense her talent, even as she makes mistakes. This is a show that also shows how constant comparisons with peers can only lead to more insecurity – brainbox Ethel is unreasonably hard on herself for missing the 100 per cent mark.

This is a delightful adaptation with a cast full of personality and an empowering message for CBBC audiences, which tells us you can save the world, even if you trip over your shoelaces while doing it. What could be more faithful to Murphy’s original books?

The Worst Witch, a CBBC production in collaboration with ZDF, ZDF Enterprises and Netflix, airs on CBBC today at 4.30pm.

***

Now listen to a discussion of The Worst Witch on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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