User login

Red Shift

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
John Mackenzie
Stephen Petcher
Lesley Dunlop
Bernard Gallagher
Stella Tanner
Charles Bolton
Bottom Line: 

 ‘Our emotions are as violent as the stars and won’t be denied – no matter how hard  we try' -  Alan Garner

Broadcast in mid-January, 1978, as part of the BBC’s highly acclaimed “Play for Today” anthology strand, “Red Shift” was an evocative film-length version of author Alan Garner’s densely woven tale of adolescent love pains reflected back through the mirror of time in a fragmented mosaic of Cheshire history and folklore-inflected earth mysteries. It was first published as a 1973 novel of the same name, while its filmed play incarnation was directed by the late John Mackenzie (“The Long Good Friday”) from a screenplay adaptation by Garner himself,  shot on 16mm in and around the Peak District, North Yorkshire and Birmingham, and produced at the BBC by its Birmingham-based regional drama department in the summer of 1977 by David Rose, one of the most important figures in TV of the 1970s who helped establish writers such as Alan Plater, Alan Bleasdale and Mike Leigh in the medium, as well as overseeing “Play for Today” during one of its most sustained runs of quality drama.

The play Introduces itself as ‘a film by Alan Garner and John Mackenzie’, with each one of these two singular artists contributing his own unique perspective to what ends up being a quite uncategorisable piece of work: part historical drama, part New Age mystery and part sci-fi. It’s a rich, complex tapestry that evokes the power of myth rooted in an enduring sense of place that is timeless. The film’s allusive yet unanswered mysteries nevertheless become reified in the concrete reality of the landscape and the violence of the area’s history, with its standing monuments and the aura of their  environment captured superbly by film cameraman Michael Williams, all the textures of the three time periods – Roman Britain, the English Civil War era and contemporary 1970s -- resonating and communicating with us in forms mediated down the ages by both academic learning (represented by education and archaeological knowledge) and a cultural intuition governed by the vagaries of human emotion.

Garner’s career as a published writer began in 1960 with the instant success of his first fantasy novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, a tale ostensibly for children about wizards and magic amulets, set in the Cheshire woodlands around the village of Alderly Edge where Garner himself grew up. This is a region steeped in folklore and myth and also layers of pre-history, with evidence of having been occupied since the Mesolithic period. Drawing on the oral traditions of legends told by generations of his rural working class family (who’d continued to live in the same area since at least the 16th century), about the wooded region of Alderly known as The Edge, Garner began to craft his mythic universe for a general reading audience, rooting it firmly in the real-life Cheshire place names remembered from his youth (and to which he’d returned to live in adulthood), thus beginning the life-long association Garner’s literature has forged ever since between myth, legend and the reality of the places steeped in time that inspires them.

His real breakthrough came with the 1967 publication of his novel “The Owl Service”, which was then turned into an ambitious eight-part television series for children in 1969 by Granada TV. In it, Garner found a way to bring complex contemporary psychological realism into his fiction while continuing to draw on the beguiling power of legend and ancient mythology, using them as devices which also provide him with the literary means to explore class, nationhood and adolescent sexual awakening amid the mysterious isolated valleys of modern-day North Wales. The book and the later series feature a trio of young characters who unwittingly find themselves somehow compelled to re-enact the events of an ancient Welsh legend, resulting in a strange, ambiguous sort-of-ghost-story that transcends its status as children’s drama in both written and televised forms.

“The Owl Service” was Garner finding his unique voice as an artist, and it paved the way for the following novel “Red Shift” – an even more refined expression of Garner’s evocation of the mystical interconnectedness of everything that occurs in time and place, invoking the suggestion of dark fates controlled by child-bearing Goddess forces woven into the fabric of the Cheshire landscapes of Garner’s youth -- as well as his own experiences, this time inspired as much by the poetry contained within the terminology used in cosmology and modern science as that of the mythology of ancient legend. In helping to find a language to express visually what the novel uses dialogue and word play to accomplish -- with its repeated phrasings, suggestive descriptions, and double meanings that create resonances echoing through all three of the story’s time-frames -- director John Mackenzie manages to make the filmed version as unique an experience as the novel, emphasising the parallel nature of events taking place in different eras on the same land, with an editing style that sees him cutting and weaving the separate segments together in a virtuoso manner that makes sense of the novel’s underlying themes cinematically but departs from the novel’s structure. ‘It’s my story but it’s your film,’ Garner is quoted by film editor Oliver White as saying to Mackenzie when the novel’s author saw what Mackenzie had managed to achieve with the material. 

The story contrasts the fates of a trio of young men who live in very different circumstance, in three separate time periods, in the regions of Cheshire which include the areas of Rudheath, the rocky hill fort of Mow Cop, and the rural village of Barthomley. In the 1970s, Tom (Stephen Petcher) is obsessed with literature, astronomy and cosmology, and lives with his parents in the cramped quarters of a mobile home in a caravan park near a motorway on the edge of Rudheath. His relationship with his girlfriend Jan (Leslie Dunlop, “The Elephant Man”, “The Monster Club”) is threatened by her parents’ decision to move to London, where Jan will also be studying as a student nurse; and also by the disapproval of Tom’s interfering mother (Stella Tanner), who dislikes Jan, and wrongly believes the two youngsters have already embarked upon a physical relationship, when in fact Tom had been staying over at Jan’s house merely to study.

The couple vow to keep in touch by letter and meet regularly at Crewe railway station to spend days in nearby parts of the Cheshire/Shropshire border’s countryside that soon come to play a resonate role in the couple’s long-range relationship. Near an old 18th century folly ruin called Mow Cop Castle, built on the summit of a region historically associated with quarried stonework and mining, they discover a Neolithic axe-head embedded in the chimney of a ruined house. It becomes a symbol of the endurance of their love despite separation by distance and friction caused by Tom’s parents – Jan calls it their ‘bunty’ or ‘real thing’.

Meanwhile, in Roman occupied Britain, a ragtag band of soldiers who’ve deserted their Legion find themselves fighting off Northern tribes in the hostile woodland countryside of Rudheath. Led by Logan (Ken Hutchison, “Straw Dogs”), the small group manages to battle its way up to Mow Cop lookout summit, in large part thanks to violent epileptic trance states experienced by young warrior Macey (Andrew Byatt), which allow the boy to fight with the ability of ten men using a weapon constructed from the ancient stone head of an prehistoric axe, earlier found buried in the earth. The soldiers take a girl (Veronica Quilligan) from one of the tribal communities they’ve pillaged as their slave, and set up permanent encampment in the caves on the sacred tribal site that is Mow Cop.  She falls pregnant by one of them and comes to be seen as a sort of Delphic earth goddess by Macey – who, deeply affected by the prophetic pronouncements of this nameless pregnant slave girl, continues to be tormented by visions he cannot comprehend and can barely put into words.

His strange epileptic seizures and their accompanying visions are echoed by those experienced over a thousand years later by the young Thomas Rowley (Charles Bolton), in the 17th century village of Barhomley, close to the border of Staffordshire, during the chaotic end days of the English Civil War which has divided the country -- and whole families -- along Royalist and Parliamentarian lines. Here, the local rector’s son John Fowler (James Hazeldine, “The Omega Factor”), a scholar with parliamentarian sympathies, has turned his father’s local church into a stockade against Royalist forces now scouring the area in search of him, with the entire local community barricaded inside. Rowley and his wife Madge (Myra Frances) discover an ancient axe-head that must have been buried in an earth-mound centuries earlier (put there, we discover later, by Macey and the slave girl after the violent deaths of the rest of Macey’s Roman comrades) and take it back to the church. The couple are connected to Fowler through the absent figure of Thomas Venables (Michael Elphick - “The Elephant Man”, “The Element of Crime”, “Boon”) – who was a former lover of Mage’s and is now Fowler’s mortal enemy among the Royalist forces determined to bring him to justice. Fowler is also intrigued by Rowley’s fits and visions, believing them to have predictive significance, although he cannot fathom the meaning of the young man’s gnomic utterances due to their incomplete and fragmented nature. The viewer, though, gradually gleans a connection between all three time periods: the visions of Macey and Rowley involve the repetition of the same phrases, which appear to allude to events in Tom’s time that have extreme emotional significance to Tom and Jan’s relationship.     

The two historical time periods featured in the play were inspired by real events that nevertheless retain their cocoon of intangible legend bound tightly about them. The Civil War episode, for example, is a fictionalised reconstruction of one of the most notorious outrages of the period (serious enough to be mentioned in Charles I’s indictment for treason), which actually did take place in the village of Barthomley in 1643, when the inhabitants of St Bertoline’s Church were massacred by Royalist troops who set fire to the building to smoke out those hiding in the tower, and then slaughtered everyone as they fled during what became a horrific anticipation of Cromwell’s methods during the conquest of Ireland and the siege of Drogheda. However, consistent accounts of the event are thin on the ground, with different accounts given by supporters on each side of the divide, and there is no real historical consensus about exactly what happened or why. As historian Diane Purkiss makes clear in her account of the atrocity for her book “The English Civil War: A People’s History” – ‘we know enough to be certain that we cannot be certain’ …

Even more tantalising is the mystery Garner is referencing during the scenes which involve the deserter soldiers in Roman occupied Britain, which seem to refer to the disappearance from the historical record of a Roman Legion, once known as the Ninth Spanish Legion, about a century or so after it was first re-stationed in Britain following the Roman Invasion of the country in 43 AD. The lack of documentation about exactly what happened to it after the middle of the 2nd century has resulted in an industry of speculation, making the subject the ideal site for where history does indeed meet legend, and therefore the perfect subject for exploration through imaginative fictional sources. The main consensus today is that the Ninth was simply re-located to another part of the Empire, but when Garner was writing, a popular theory then doing the rounds (and brought to prominence by Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 novel “The Eagle of the Ninth”), was that the disappearance related to unrest among Northern tribes which resulted in the Legion being destroyed after it marched on Scotland in order to put down an uprising among Caledonian peoples. “Red Shift” imagines survivors from the expedition attempting to escape a harsh militaristic existence and found their own settlement in hostile territory dominated by the strange pagan rites of a mysterious people that only the visionary psyche of Macey is capable of communicating with through his relationship with the kidnapped pagan girl -- a ‘corn goddess’ impregnated by fellow soldiers whose attempt to dominate the environment through violence and force results only in their own destruction.

The film looks at how the violence and the divisions between regional peoples result from a splitting and fragmentation of ideological borders as well as those of the environment --captured through time in the moulding of landscape and imagined being reflected back in the instability and shifting circumstances of the individual young psyches inhabiting such contested regions during any one period in time. Garner’s best fiction suggests the idea of the numinous being a part of the very landscape -- connecting everything and everyone that appears only transiently a feature of it to an eternal timelessness that it is impossible for any single psyche to grasp in its entirety. The supernatural or mystical, then, become part of the very structure providing a means of telling such inherently abstract stories about the ambiguous nature of love and belonging; but its presence, nevertheless, remains rooted in the day-to-day problems of adjustment and emotional upheaval encountered by young people on the cusp of adolescence and young adulthood. There is a sense in which one can locate the appeal that much of Garner’s fiction holds for its younger readership, in its tendency to suggest that the particular troubles of young adolescents quite literally are the most important thing in the universe -- or at least in the environment his characters are placed within, and in which their experience of life takes place: such is the case in “Red Shift”, where Tom’s relationship problems seem to be at the core of every crucial event in every one of the time frames we encounter.

Mackenzie emphasises this directorially with the opening images of the film, immediately setting up a position that suggests what the novel only gradually unfurls for its readers, by picturing the faces of the three male leads from each time frame in British history, superimposed in turn upon an interstellar starscape which fades into images of mobile lights of traffic moving along a motorway at night. It is also subliminally implied that Tom’s story in the 1970s takes immediate precedence, since Tom Ryan’s incidental music provides a contemporary soft-rock/pop context for the story with its effects-treated rhythm guitar lines and melodic synth textures.

Symbolically, though, the Neolithic axe-head plays a crucial role in the story by connecting Tom, Rowley and Macey non-linearly through time: this artefact, already an ancient votive receptacle of myth and mystery in Roman Britain, gets imbued with different kinds of significances, determined by the beliefs and shibboleths current to the era of whoever has custody of it. Its re-discovery by the time-separated protagonists in their various historical periods becomes dependent in a circuitous way on the actions of each of the others, but it is Tom’s experiences in a caravan park in Rudheath which appear to be the main catalyst for the series of life-changing events depicted as taking place during key points in the history of the Cheshire regions that Tom and Jan’s troubled relationship then takes as a backdrop. Namely, Tom’s violent emotional reaction towards his mother’s hostility to Jan, whose accusations about the alleged inappropriateness of some of his and Jan’s behaviour leads to an injury to Tom’s hands being sustained when he smashes the window of his parents’ caravan in frustration at their unreasonableness and petty, small-minded prejudice, and accidentally cuts himself in the process.

 Jumbled fragmented images from this occurrence in 1970s’ Cheshire seem to occur during Macey’s murderous trance states, when he uses the axe-head to vanquish the Roman deserters’ tribal aggressors, and during Thomas Rowley’s epileptic seizures -- one of which provokes the Royalist attack on the Barthomley church after Rowley accidentally discharges his rifle in the throes of a seizure that comes on when he spots Royalist troops approaching during lookout duty in the church tower, killing one of them by accident (this also provides a rationale for some of the  anti-Puritan pamphlets’ justifications of the real-life massacre at the time). Both Macey and Rowley use the same phrases to describe what they see during these altered state experiences -- which appear to relate, in a splintered, half-formed way, a description of Tom’s hands thrusting through the pane of glass. The emotion in this otherwise small-scale event, brought about by a petty domestic argument in a mobile home, seems to be a fault line and a border that joins each one of the time periods in a connected causal web, revealing their parallel nature and, ultimately, the illusory nature of sequential time itself.

Rather than use mystical ‘holistic’ New Age terms or frames of reference to represent these ideas, Garner makes Tom’s obsession with the sciences of cosmology and astrophysics the other metaphorical cornerstone besides legend, history and myth, on which the play’s exploration of the relationship between the sexes in approaching adulthood depends. The title of the play and the novel is of course a term used in cosmology, that describes how shorter more energetic ‘blue’ frequencies are lost as a light source moves away from an observer or as the universe itself expands, shifting the spectrum of observable light towards the lower-frequency red end of the scale. Visually, the Cheshire setting allows John Mackenzie the ideal means of illustrating Garner’s interest in bringing together these notions derived from modern science with the various means one can use when seeking an understanding of the past through the discipline of archaeology or the imprecise intuitions recorded by folk history, in the form of a visual juxtaposition of local ‘70s era  landmarks such as Jodrell Bank Observatory radio telescope and the historical monuments and ancient burial mounds which constitute the areas in which the film’s depicted events take place in their various time periods, and, in a way, are still taking place once one factors in the relativistic conceptualisation of space-time that we arrive at when thinking in terms of special relativity. Tom’s astronomical observations – for instance that we see some of the constellations that can be observed in the night skies as they would have actually been in Roman times, because their light has taken hundreds of years to reach us -- have obvious relevance to a story which connects events that, from the point of view of a sequentially ordered human form of consciousness, are separated by vast tracts of time, and attempts to depict them from a more simultaneous perspective.

In the novel, the term red shift takes on all sorts of extra significance as a result of the ulterior meanings that it can be made to acquire through a play on words, and refers to subjects and re-occurring objects scattered throughout the text in all of the three eras of history that the story portrays. But in the film, its meaning revolves almost entirely around metaphors derived from its astronomical usage. From a perspective of character development, Tom’s academic mind-set could be contrasted with Jan’s more emotionally warm sensibility. Tom has a tendency to ‘red shift’ his emotions in order to understand them from a cooler distance, while the rawness of immediate experience causes him confusion and mental anxiety that form junction points with Macey and Rowley and their respective eras. This parallels the process by which time pacifies experience and turns the violence of real events into a neutral form of history, hearsay or legend that’s merely read about in books or experienced through the lingering traces left preserved by the landscape in the form of picturesque ruins or landmarks.

The cracks in Tom and Jan’s relationship are visible from the start, discernible in details such as Tom’s efforts to censure Jan’s habit of swearing, which he sees as something that should be thought of as unworthy of her (and it’s a trait of hers that is also singled out for condemnation by Tom’s mother). With Jan away in London, the distance that’s put between the couple means the relationship comes to be idealised in the form of daily love letters (which Tom at first doesn’t receive because his Mother intercepts them) and snatched meetings in the countryside around Crewe railway station, when the two meet to take bicycling rides and day trips to sites at Mow Cop Hill and Barthomley church. Again, the long-distance nature their relationship has now acquired parallels with how the horror and violence and blood once spilled in the locations they visit on these idyllic trips has become ‘red shifted’ into heritage history and commemorative plaques, etc.

The axe-head the couple found together is immediately characterised by Jan as a symbolic talisman of their love that transcends the need for physical contact, but Tom is sent into a mental tailspin by the discovery -- in the folly ruin at Mow Cop -- that Jan is indeed sexually experienced (as his Mother suspected) and has previously had a physical relationship with an older man while working as an au pair the previous summer in Germany. Even though this experience actually confirmed the specialness of her relationship with Tom and is now over, his already confused mental state starts to unravel from the shock of the discovery, jealously fixating on the fact that he still has not consummated his own relationship with Jan. The couple are no longer able to communicate their true feelings to one another; Tom’s hurt reaction is to take a passive-aggressive form of revenge by selling the axe-head to a museum (after having previously assiduously protected it from being thrown away in the rubbish by his Mother), an act that in a stroke removes the symbolic personal meaning it once held for the couple’s relationship, turning it into a catalogued exhibit in a public collection of stone-age artefacts that are valued in monetary terms as much as for their educational function …

This BFI DVD release features a new digital transfer, created from the original 16 mm print rather than the now significantly damaged 2” broadcast tape used at the time. Repaired, restored and digitally graded to compensate for the faded colours of the original 37-year-old celluloid, this version aims to replicate as fairly as possible the original intentions of the director and film editor, and presents a remarkable-looking translation of the film, echoing as closely as possible that which would have been seen in its video transferred incarnation by TV audiences in 1978 -- free from the worst of the blemishes accumulated over three decades or more but still feeling like an authentic representation of the film that was broadcast at the time.

The BFI have lavished a great deal of care on the extras and packaging of this disc, as you might have come to expect. The most significant  – one might even say vital – of the extras is the inclusion of a documentary self-portrait broadcast by the BBC in 1973 as part of the series “One Pair of Eyes” – a documentary series designed as a platform for individuals to talk about whatever issues were closest to their hearts. Alan Garner wrote and presented this particular film in the strand, titled “All Systems Go”, around the time he was finishing up the writing of the novel version of “Red Shift” and the whole film can be seen as a sort of key to unlocking the kinds of personal preoccupations that underpin the story as a whole. Garner’s interest in archaeology, his family history and its connection to the Cheshire landscape, and how the area’s local legends and myths enchanted him in childhood are lingered on extensively, but a momentous moment for Garner was becoming the first member of his family to get to Oxford. After revisiting Magdalen College for the documentary in the company of actor Robert Powell (who was there during the same period), Garner talks about returning to the Cheshire landscape of his childhood, now bringing with him a knowledge and learning that seemed at first to undermine the powers of myth that once animated a world that had seemed to him immutable and imperishable. His attempt to combine both forms of understanding seems to be fundamental to what’s really going on in “Red Shift”. The modern-day relationship between Tom and Jan seems also to have been based on some of Garner’s own painful experiences, judging from his reaction to a scenario (clearly modelled on the opening scene of the then-as-yet unfinished novel) that he gets two young actors improvise for him at one point. The drives that bring man and woman together and which also separate them, and the importance of the past in informing identity and belonging in the present (in good and bad forms) reveals its importance to Garner when he visits his childhood home in Congleton and finds the original thatched cottage he was born in is now being modernised by developers! Also included on the disc are short but valuable interviews with 1st assistant director Bob Jacobs and film editor Oliver White, who each relate their memories of working with director John Mackenzie.

 Lastly, still of great interest and relevance, is a gorgeous little travelogue film made by the British Tourist Board in 1980 to show off the Cheshire district. Michael Horden plays the voice of a classic era Silver Ghost Rolls Royce, who takes us on a ride across the whole of the Cheshire regions, starting at the Rolls Royce factory and taking in stately homes and historical landmarks across the region, including a demonstration of the making of Cheshire cheese. Beautifully shot and edited, “Spirit of Cheshire” makes an ideal 20 minute companion to Garner’s more lyrical approach to history and place.

The disc contents are nicely supplemented by a BFI booklet that includes an informative essay by University of Stirling film lecturer David Rolinson; a biography of Alan Garner by writer and DVD content producer Michael Brooke, and a biography of John Mackenzie by film and TV writer Sergio Angelini; plus there’s a short article on “Red Shift” by Alan Garner himself. Credits and notes on the extra features round off an essential piece of TV history brought back from the dead with the BFI’s usual thoroughness and care.


Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!

Your rating: None