February 9, 1964 – Part One of “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh” Airs on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color
“Syn? That’s a strange name for a vicar, Mother.”
On February 9, 1964, the first of the three-part serial “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh” aired on the Disney anthology, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. The serial was based on Christopher Syn by Russell Thorndike and William Buchanan, and was filmed on location in Romney Marsh and Dymchurch, England. The vicar’s church in the serial is an actual church known as St Clement’s Church in Old Romney, and Disney paid for the restoration of the entire building to make it usable for the filming. Although released in the United States as a series, it was filmed to be a full-length feature that was released as a film in Europe. The teleplay was written by Robert Westerby, and directed by James Neilson. It stars Patrick McGoohan as Dr. Syn/The Scarecrow, George Cole as Mr. Mipps, Tony Britton as Simon Bates, Michael Hordern as Thomas Bates, Geoffrey Keen as General Pugh, Kay Walsh as Mrs. Waggett, and Sean Scully as John Bates.
The episode opens with Walt Disney giving the introduction, explaining that Christopher Syn was “a real life Jekyll and Hyde,” as he says. Walt explains that Syn was a respected vicar by day, but fought for justice at night, helping provide for the poor and needy. At night, Syn would disguise himself, earning the nickname “The Scarecrow,” with only his two accomplices ever knowing who he really was.
The serial begins late at night, with Syn’s smugglers quickly loading up the carts under the command of the Scarecrow. A scout stationed in a nearby castle gives the warning that a patrol is moving toward the smugglers on the beach. Confronted, the Scarecrow laughs in the patrol’s faces, and escapes them after a long chase. The Scarecrow and his men enter a barn to hide, and when the patrol arrives, intent on catching them, they find no trace of the smugglers, who have carefully concealed themselves. The three men remove their disguises and make their way back to their respective homes.
The next scene shows a bishop is heading into town with General Pugh, another soldier named Brackenbury, and a weary traveler to whom the bishop has offered a ride. The General warns the bishop about the Scarecrow and his men, and the fact that the town protects them, thanks to their actions. As the bishop’s carriage passes through the town, a cane carved with a secret code is dropped as a sign for the men, to let them know when the next job will be. One of the men is rather frustrated that the Scarecrow is the only one allowed to be armed on these missions, and thinks because the rest of the men don’t know his identity, the Scarecrow doesn’t trust them. The innkeeper, Mother Hathaway, reminds him that without the Scarecrow’s generosity, they would still be as poor as mice. The men agree, and then disperse for the evening.
The bishop’s carriage is stopped by a small group of the King’s soldiers, who tell the passengers that they’re looking for an American prisoner who preached treason and was to be hanged in Dover, but escaped. The man the bishop gave a ride to is, in fact, the prisoner, who makes a run for it after stealing General Pugh’s plans to destroy the smugglers. The King’s soldiers give chase, shooting the man in the shoulder, but he hides in the bushes and eludes them. The prisoner makes his way to Mother Hathaway’s inn, and she helps by sending him to someone who can help him: the vicar of Dymchurch, Dr. Syn. She sings Syn’s praises to convince him to go, and the prisoner heads on his way.
Dr. Syn sits in his office with his assistant, Mr. Mipps, who questions Syn’s motives, claiming that since the town doesn’t know he’s the Scarecrow, they don’t thank him for it. Syn is just content that the people can live and support their families with what he can provide, thanks to his smuggling. Suddenly there’s a knock at his door – the prisoner has arrived, telling Syn that Mother Hathaway sent him. The prisoner introduces himself as Simon Bates, explains that he’s been sentenced to death for preaching sedition, and asks for sanctuary. Syn wants to help, but knows that they’ll both be in danger if Bates stays, so he has Mipps take Bates to Mrs. Waggett’s inn. Before he leaves, Bates hands over General Pugh’s papers to Syn, saying that he’s heard about the Scarecrow, and that the papers concern him. Syn takes the papers, and finds that troops are to be dispatched to his area to hunt the Scarecrow through any means necessary.
The next day, General Pugh meets with wealthy landowner Thomas Banks and Dr. Syn, with Pugh furious that these crimes keep happening in Dymchurch where Banks is the Justice of the Peace. Banks and Pugh do not get along, and Pugh declares that he will use any means necessary to eradicate the Scarecrow. Just then John Banks, Thomas’s son and Syn’s secret accomplice, appears, asking just what means Pugh intends to use. Pugh then claims that he may even target the women of the town, as the “women will talk when they start to lose their menfolk.” When Pugh mentions that the men of the town will be press-ganged into the armed forces, particularly the Navy, Thomas Banks storms out of the room; John then informs Pugh that his brother was press-ganged into the Navy.
As the press gang marches into town, the leader remarks that although Dymchurch is known as good farming country, no man is seen working on his land, even though it’s a Wednesday, a normal workday. They head to the church, where everyone is town is gathered. Mr. Mipps, who has been on the lookout, runs down the watchtower and slips the news to Syn under the pretense of singing the hymn. Syn then begins his sermon, telling the congregation that this mid-week sermon marks the two-day public holiday granted by Banks in honor of the King’s birthday. Just then, one of the Scarecrow’s accomplices runs into the church and throws a note wrapped around a knife at the psalm board. Syn reads the note that has been sent by the Scarecrow, ordering every able-bodied man to leave town immediately and hide in the marshes as the naval press-gang is on its way to take every man they can find. The moment he finishes reading, all of the men flee from the church and run into hiding. When the press gang arrives at the church, they are confused about why there are only women, children, and the elderly in the pews. They harass the members of the church, and when Banks demands that they stop, the leader informs him that they have a free hand with this charge, with orders from Pugh himself, then demands information about the Scarecrow. When Syn reveals that he knows who the leader is – Petty Officer Stubbard – Stubbard smugly informs Syn that he’ll be “dropping anchor” in the town for a while. Syn then sends Mipps to follow the men and keep his eyes on them.
The press gang decides to stay in an inn known as The Silent Woman, run by Mrs. Waggett, who is less than thrilled about their antics. When Stubbard gets fresh with her, she threatens him with a cleaver, and the gang then leaves her alone. As a disguised Mipps drops in and tells Stubbard that there are no able-bodied men in Dymchruch, a young man bursts in frantically, asking Waggett for help as his wife has just gone into labor. The press gang decides to capture the young man and take him. Mrs. Waggett is horrified, but Mipps tells her quietly to leave it to him and to go to the young man’s wife. Mipps pretends that he wants to help the press gang catch the Scarecrow, and lets them know where the Scarecrow will be Thursday. Syn is not thrilled when he finds out about Mipps’ plan to ambush the soldiers, but they still plan to meet Thursday evening, with Syn quickly forming a new plan.
When Thursday night comes, the press gang lies in wait and is surprised and captured by the Scarecrow and his men. The Scarecrow orders the gang blindfolded, and they are taken to a nearby barn, where a young boy is set free to send a letter to General Pugh, while the other men are held captive. Pugh reads the letter and is furious, claiming that if any of the men from the press gang are killed, he’ll hang triple the number of Dymchurch men. Suddenly, Pugh agrees to make an exchange, but has a plan to catch the Scarecrow. As Scarecrow prepares for the exchange, Mipps appears with Simon Bates, who offered his help after he overheard Mipps’ conversation at the inn. Although initially angry, the Scarecrow decides to accept Bates’ help. As Pugh waits with his men on Smuggler’s Beach, the soldier Brackenbury doesn’t react well to Pugh’s unnecessary violence, ordering that the prisoner be untied. The Scarecrow arrives, with the young man let go, and Pugh’s men ready to attack. Pugh doesn’t know that the Scarecrow’s men are ready to retaliate with smoke bombs, rendering Pugh’s men helpless. When Pugh’s men bring aboard the supposed contraband the Scarecrow was after, they are surprised to see that it is actually the press gang, tied up and placed in barrels. They hear the Scarecrow’s cackle before he rides away.