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The Worst Witch posterIn the (ongoing) 2017 CBBC series The Worst Witch, Mildred Hubble is the only girl at the prestigious Cackle’s Academy who hails from a non-witching family. She squeaked in to the school, and due to her unusual background she struggles to catch up with classmates whose lives have been inundated with magic since their births. Mildred is sweet and far from stupid, but she’s also a tiny disaster-magnet who stumbles from one catastrophe to the next. Her best friends, Maud Spellbody and Enid Nightshade, help see her through, while causing a few problems of their own. Mildred adores Cackle’s and the general camaraderie of the girls, which even her on-going feud with a classmate, the insecure and thus obnoxious Ethel Hallow, can't spoil for her. The members of the teaching staff have their own dramas, and all the characters get caught up in the seemingly perpetual struggle to defend the school against forces that would repossess it, outright destroy it, or subject it to a much-needed magical Ofsted inspection.

Over the years, The Worst Witch book series (1974-2013) has been made into a 1986 television film, a 1998-2001 TV series with two subsequent spin-offs (2001 and 2005—essentially a Saved by the Bell: The College Years and a Degrassi: The Next Generation), and now this CBBC reboot. I have to admit I've not read the books or seen much of the other adaptations (I’ve dipped into the 1998 version, which seems very much the current incarnation’s spiritual predecessor). I haven’t found much material on the different versions to refer you to (perhaps someone can help in the comments?); I regret that I can’t offer you that context, and that a discussion of the tradition(s) of school stories and magical versions thereof, from Diana Wynne Jones's Witch Week to Rowling, is somewhat outside the scope of this piece (though again, comments please!).

In a way, The Worst Witch is almost as much a family saga as it is a school story. Everyone's relationships with their parents are important to them, and while all are different, most are strong and positive. Mr Nightshade is his daughter's supportive partner in crime, while his wife is a more grounded disciplinarian. The Spellbodies are wildly proud if Maud so much as breathes. Janice Hubble is a steady nurse who raises her daughter on her own in an ex-council flat, and the two treat one another a little like loving and respectful friends. The only parents to really pressure their children are the appearance-obsessed Hallows. Ethel Hallow isn't pointlessly nasty to Mildred, she's from a posh magical family that alternates between enormously pressuring her and ignoring her, comparing her unfavourably to her older sister, the universally-admired head girl Esmerelda. Esmerelda is chagrined by their parents’ attention, and rather than feeling competitive, she mostly just hopes Ethel does well and learns to chill out. Esmerelda Hallow's compassion, brilliance and strong morality are unfortunately also what enable the tragic loss of her powers, a poignant development the family spends the second season reckoning with. Ethel takes out her unhappiness on their younger sister Sybil, a timid girl who only seems at all relaxed and happy in the company of her idol Esmerelda, her own two best friends Clarice Twigg and Beatrice Bunch (who form a new, secondary core trio in the second season), and Mildred, who's been kind to Sybil and earned her jumpy trust.

The title may suggest that the series is Mildred Hubble’s bildungsroman, but The Worst Witch really shines as an ensemble piece. The show excels at giving us a firm sense of the different personalities of a whole host of girls, and manages to check back in with eight of them regularly. The narrative is to be commended for almost always finding something for them all to do. First-season Maud especially is glorious. I love that a chubby girl with little tolerance for bullshit who always has a clap-back at the ready is head of year and a main character, and that the show never once mocks her appearance (the actress changes, from Meibh Campbell to Megan Hughes, between the two years, though this is fairly elegantly explained away). Mildred's actress is the versatile Bella Ramsey, made famous by playing Lyanna Mormont in season six of Game of Thrones. Mildred is certainly more timid than Lyanna—a little hapless, a little short tempered and a lot winning. The sly, winking and down-to-earth Enid Nightshade (Tamara Smart), a born troublemaker with famous parents, rounds out the core trio.

Your Dumbledore will be played today by Ada Cackle, who gives good eye-twinkle. All the teachers are fun (especially Algernon, who Mildred found in the pond after he’d been maliciously transformed into a frog—and who sometimes returns to the pond to see the tadpoles hatch out of nostalgia); but the highlight is femme-Snape-with-femme-Kerr-Avon-energy, Hecate Hardbroom. Leaving aside for a moment the strong genderqueer vibes of that name (difficult, I know!), here we have an actress who's been licensed to play it Extra. Hardbroom brings camp, OTT, Classic-Master-from-Doctor-Who watchability to the series. Her performance makes you realise that, by script and direction, most female characters aren't permitted to be this fun. But Miss Hardbroom also works as a character. She’s uptight, repressed, and screamingly flamboyant; obsessed with discipline, able to appreciate a joke, and deeply loyal; intensely compassionate towards Esmerelda Hallow and Ada Cackle; and short-tempered and awful when stressed, capable of deep insecurity, and a fantastic source of plot energies and humour. A lot of people cite Servalan from Blakes 7 as the source of their Sexual Awakening; similarly, in about ten years, a lot of girls are absolutely going to say Miss Hardbroom was their Root.

No one comes centre stage to announce they’re gay in The Worst Witch (well, unless you count the young wizard who cross-dresses to get into the school and then gives a chanting performance in front of his hyper-traditional grandfather to demonstrate that gender-segregated magic training is sexist, and to prove himself to the chanting mistress he admires and wishes to be trained by—he definitely had a Moment), but honestly I don’t need them to. I’m very down with women interacting with women in ways that may be platonic or romantic, in a text that doesn’t rush to shut down queer interpretive potentialities. Some of the key adult interactions might be read either way: great. To me, stories that support such readings are actually more important than stories that are preoccupied with announcing demographics affiliations they may not, and often don’t, do well by. We have every indication that witches, who practice distinct types of magic, go to school with each other as girls, work as adults in female covens, and seem to trace descent matrilineally, have a non-standard attitude towards sexuality that doesn’t necessarily prioritise and prestige heterosexual relationships. It’d be nice to see a set of parents who were both witches (or wizards), but then this text makes such arrangements seem not just possible but probable.

Simply having an all-female cast (with the exception of Algernon, the staff’s Token Bloke) allows the show to have so many kinds of women interacting with one another in fun ways, having conflicts that are about them and their aims. It’s hard to think of a moment that doesn’t pass the Bechdel, with the welcome exception of the episode where Mildred accidentally curses all the female teachers to love Algernon, “the first wizard they see,” and Algernon to love himself by the same logic. (Under the influence of love potion, Miss Hardbroom hisses at Algernon that “allllll men are fools but youuuuu are their kinnnng,” which is probably the closest this Platinum Star can come.) Beatrice Bunch and Enid Nightshade (et famille)'s being black does similar work: there's no one way to be an engaging, well-realised black girl. Physical education teacher Dimity Drill and season two’s art teacher, Miss Marigold Mould, are also women of colour. Taken together, these characters give the school story welcome diversity. This approach modernises and broadens a genre that’s often very white. For more good work along these lines, see the excellent Golden Age girl detective school story series, Murder Most Unladylike.

This isn’t the show’s only thoughtful development of the form. Beatrice Bunch’s best friend Clarice Twigg seems to be on the autism spectrum. Clarice overcomes occasional communication difficulties by making efforts to understand her friends and treat them well, and by those friends meeting her with acceptance and willingness to work through conflicts. This is interesting and important because female autism is often rendered invisible in the real world, and representation thereof is almost non-existent. Clarice doesn’t announce her DSM V identifiers, but she does more: she meets the challenges such issues can give rise to. Clarice’s friends and the show itself seem to appreciate her as an individual and for the perspective and skills she brings, and Clarice lives a rewarding life.

With bouncy dialogue and comedy-gold plotting (this show never met a trope it didn’t like), The Worst Witch is always a pleasure. It strongly reminds me of Harry Potter, sure, but even more strongly of The Sarah Jane Adventures, which was some of the best children’s television of the last couple decades. It has that show’s heart, its sense of character comedy, and Miss Mould is even played by the same actress as Gita Chandra, the wonderfully exasperating mother of SJA’s Rani (not to be confused with the definite article Rani). Gita was always on the verge of informing us that Netherfield Park was let at last.

Judging by its strengths and how I’d sell it to someone, it's possible that The Worst Witch may work better as a comedy or a school story than as a fantasy. Magic often serves as an enabling mechanism for scrapes and interactions. The show’s witchcraft hangs together rather loosely as a system, and the magical society makes limited sense. As far as accuracy goes, Dr Francis Young is “intensely irritated by fiction [such as this] that uses ‘wizard’ and ‘witch’ as masculine and feminine terms for the same thing”. He recommends Owen Davies’s Popular Magic (2003) or the introduction to his own interesting Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England (2017) to those who’d like to know about the historical distinction. You could certainly do worse: historical magical practice is a fascinating subject. I’ve written extensively about how domestic charms were employed over the centuries myself. But while I wish more media was heavily interested in witchcraft itself, and/or in fantasy qua fantasy, I think good media that uses magic to a variety of ends comprises a healthy part of a well-developed SFFnal media landscape.

In terms of things that don’t really work, Cackle’s continual failure to deal with Mildred’s lack of a magical background annoys me. I suppose the show could be said to hold up a mirror to how frustratingly awful the UK education system is at responding to disability (it makes America look good, which is saying something). But I doubt the parallels are intentional, so much as a product of a strange logical gap common to many children’s stories. We hear nothing about whether there’s ever been a witch from a seemingly completely non-magical family before Mildred. The adults don’t seem sufficiently surprised or concerned that the way they believe magic works may have been proven incorrect. No one seems to understand or have any sensible response to Mildred’s need for remedial education (which surely must arise sometimes, even if a girl has a traditional background?). There’s no literature on adjusting to the magical world—say, for non-magical people who marry witches or wizards. Or does that never happen either? The “can’t trust adults” kidlit/YA trope is entangled with queer lacunae in the patterns of causality. It’s like a literalisation of a child’s-eye view that doesn’t account for adults’ interiority and broader social responses (significantly, the writer of the original books began them while still in school herself). We’re supposed to take emotional reactions and this world quite seriously in one scene, and then to read the whole text as farce in the next. Viewers see adults alone, talking to one another, but still can’t know much about how adults think.

Likewise, if you’re keenly aware of and bothered by lax treatments of consent, several elements of the show may discomfort you. The show’s semi-farce structure employs temporary love potions, personality-altering potions that take months to wear off, and forgetting powder that never does. I’m sure most of this comes from the source material, but as the team’s made major changes to that material elsewhere, they’ve actively chosen to preserve these elements. The show could clearly retain its comedy while being more cautious about navigating questions of bodily autonomy in a show aimed at young women. It slightly reminds me of Nanette’s meditations on the scope and purposes of humour.

I’m torn on this, because while The Worst Witch could stand to go a little more carefully here, I have to acknowledge that I also enjoy a lot of period fiction that doesn’t feature our contemporary perspective on non-sexual questions of knowledge and agency. The current popular consensus doggedly insists that full disclosure and personal independence are always more important even than net good. Yet that is a time-specific (and slightly Randian) framing: in fact there have been and are many ways to weigh outcomes. If The Worst Witch started being cautious here it would seem to alter the rules of the universe, and thus to make the earlier incidents more serious. I wonder if issues of consent in these stories don’t strike the writers as particularly serious because almost all the characters are female? The fact remains: if consent is a sensitive subject for you, you might not enjoy some of these episodes.

In the same vein, the school is so consistently under threat from recurring enemies that it quickly becomes strange and ludicrous that the government hasn’t provided Cackle’s with substantial support in dealing with its problems. Witches seem to operate in an almost anarcho-libertarian context at times, settling disputes through duels and personal magical potency. Property law almost over-rides an obviously sensible decision about who should run the school: its respected long-time headmistress, or her violent sister. One sometimes winces through the umpteenth restoration of Ada Cackle’s wise and just rule, because she seems to deal with challenges to it so terribly. I know it’s the mechanisms of story at work, churning out regular conflict and serving it up at a good scale, but the overall plot groans a little under those demands. We might get more out of interrogating what is, after all, more a convention of post-Buffy television screenwriting than anything else. And when, for Plot Reasons, Miss Cackle denied the desperate, depressed, now-powerless former head girl Esmerelda Hallow a position working for the school, I was deeply unimpressed.

In a way, thinking about what “doesn’t work” in The Worst Witch reminds me of Diana Wynne Jones’ point in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996). The societies of SFF aren’t anthropological artefacts, but literary ones. They exist primarily to enable a given story. Trying to analyse them like you’re the CIA World Factbook can be a bit off-base, not to mention pedantic. We’ve collectively devoted so much energy and attention to pointing out, again and again, like we’re aurigae whispering “memento homo” to Roman duces—aurigae who’ve been hideously crossbred with TV Tropes at that, that literature is fiction, as though the ultimate aim of literature was not to be. Even stating that the duty of fiction is to be “true to life” is a very limiting, historically- and movement-situated argument, as is supposing that media ought to be “flawless” in any sense. What doesn’t work is only interesting in terms of why it doesn’t, and what those omissions and “failures” do. It has never been as relevant as what does. When I think about a show it’d be a joy to write for, The Worst Witch is definitely up there.

Anyway, it’s on Netflix. Try it, Miss Hardbroom is a big lesbian, enjoy.

Erin Horáková is a southern American writer who lives in London. She's working towards her literature PhD, which focuses on how charm evolves over time.
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27 Nov 2023

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