This fascinating ‘folk horror’ precursor to Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Man” was originally broadcast by the BBC in December 1970 as part of its flagship “Play for Today” drama platform, but after being repeated only once a mere two months later (for the benefit of those who’d missed the eerie climactic final act of the original broadcast because of a three-day-week-inspired power cut), there was every possibility that writer John Bowen’s dark, mischievous tale of town versus country in a modern Britain dabbling in a reconstructed past, would simply disappear into the ether like so much of the BBC’s rich heritage of drama production from the 1960s and 70s, to be semi-preserved only in the collective myth-clouded memories of those few viewers who’d witnessed the original, blackout-beset TV screenings at the time. Indeed, in line with what was then common policy regarding archived material, the BBC’s original colour broadcast tape reels of “Robin Redbreast” were wiped clean for future reuse on other taped productions, and only recently was this faded black-and-white 16mm telerecording -- originally made for the purposes of overseas sales -- unexpectedly unearthed (like one of the vestigial ‘sherds’ the play’s sinister amateur archaeologist and village folklorist Mr Fisher seeks to liberate from their bucolic resting places amidst the Vale of Evesham’s most verdant countryside), thus allowing an atmospheric gem to wend its way back into public consciousness after forty-three years -- just as the British horror genre begins once more to take an interest in and to celebrate its relationship with this unique strain of a precious cinematic past.
Perhaps this new appreciation of the pastoral delights of the folk traditions essential to a certain strain of British horror film from the 60s and 70s is a reaction to increasingly changeable and unpredictable times: for here, ‘the old ways’ are intangibly but indelibly always present, a comfort of sorts even in the midst of a culture of disposability which pits the urban attractions of secular modernity (the hard-won emancipation of feminine sexuality in particular) against the keepers of a more traditional set of values for whom rural fertility rites, dormant superstitions and fragments of half-forgotten ancient ritual are seen as pivotal to the preservation of a spiritual relationship with the landscape of old Albion, and to the maintenance of its very identity.
In many of these works there’s often a tension, though, between the intrusive demands and claims on the soul made by those who would seek to preserve the traditions of the past, and the freedoms and benefits we value as the legacy of their gradual but steady eradication -- even though, it is often suggested, we, as a consequence, face being left with nothing but a hollowed out post-modern core of self-reflexive irony as a result, and a culture made up almost exclusively of cynically rendered trivialities.
John Bowen’s TV play was written and presciently broadcast just as such concerns were beginning to seem particularly ‘of the moment’. The start of the 1970s saw the post-sixties comedown really setting in, with the previous decade’s cultural exuberance and the permissiveness that went along with it giving way to increasing pessimism and economic malaise. A faddish fetishisation of the exotic (which included the faux reconstruction of druidicreligious practices of the past) saw a revival of interest in all things to do with witchcraft, the occult and Wicca gaining ground as a reaction to both the conservative mainstream religious establishment and what, to some, had become the empty, hedonistic modernity of the popular culture which had helped destabilised it. This is the background against which “Robin Redbreast” appeared -- with the ambivalence and contradictions inherent in all such concerns about how the past is interpreted and accommodated in a rapidly changing world, much to the fore.
The similarities the play shares with the granddaddy of British folk horror narratives, “The Wicker Man”, can be attributed to them both finding partial inspiration in the same real-life unsolvedWarwickshire murder case, known as the Lower Quinton Murder: a 74 year-old farm labourer was found dead, brutally slain with his own pitchfork on St Valentine’s Day 1945, in the picturesque little village of Lower Quinton. It was claimed there was evidence of the murder having been motivated by still lingering occult-pagan beliefs among the local population, and rumours of a community-wide cover-up. Both works were also influenced by James Frazer’s comparative study of religion “The Golden Bough”, in which all of the world’s belief systems were examined from the perspective of the idea that they shared a universal concern with rituals of death and rebirth in relation to fertility rites that involve the changing of the seasons being marked out and celebrated as a key element. Sacrifice often played an essential role in these rites, and by interpreting the Christian religion and its rituals (such as the Harvest Festival and Easter) in the same context, Frazer’s work paved the way for fictional characters such as Lord Summerisle in “The Wicker Man” and Mr Fisher in “Robin Redbreast” to make the same connection and adapt ancient ‘tradition’ as they say fit.
Bowen was no stranger to tales of the supernatural or the uncanny: he’d already been involved in writing for ITV’s “Mystery and Imagination” strand in the 1960s, and “Robin Redbreast” was originally intended for a similar suspense drama anthology series before being later picked up as a Play for Today by James MacTaggart -- the innovative director-producer who oversaw The Wednesday Play for the BBC during one of its most creative periods, and who had been renowned for employing some of the most ground-breaking writers and directors of the day -- such as Dennis Potter and Ken Loach -- for his television productions. Bowen later continued periodically to mine the supernatural for material, writing an episode of the BBC anthology series “Dead of Night” and adapting MR James’s “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” for Lawrence Gordon Clark’s annual “A Ghost Story for Christmas” drama. He also wrote an original story, “The Ice House”, for the latter series, which was broadcast in 1978 and became the very last film to be aired in a seven year run. Clearly “Robin Redbreast” shares thematic and narrative elements with 1973’s more famous “The Wicker Man”: both works are centred on an outsider who becomes trapped amongst the inhabitants of an isolated rural community, in a remote village where ancient country nostrums and the old ways are still practised, nurtured and encouraged by an educated village elder who may also have some sinister role in store for the unsuspecting protagonist to play in the community’s elaborate annual ritualistic procedures.
But this summery conceals other equally important influences that play just as much of a role in establishing the play’s precedent. “Rosemary’s Baby” and Hitchcock’s “The Birds” must also loom large over any consideration of this production, their influences melding together with those of “The Wicker Man” in a nexus of themes that pit the rhythms of nature against the artifice of urban living, and the concept of maternal instinct against the self-sufficiency and independence of the educated modern woman. Anna Cropper plays tough-minded but emotionally brittle Oxford educated TV script editor Norah Palmer -- whose unmarried relationship of eight years ends suddenly and badly, leaving her unsure of her place in a world where relations between men and women have recently been transformed by a sexual revolution. Norah and her sophisticated metropolitan friends may joke about easy sex and causal relationships, but as a 35-year-old woman seeking to conduct herself, like Melanie Daniels in “The Birds”, as an attractive independent professional, she also feels a mounting pressure of expectation in her romantic dealings with men, leading her to abandon the city and venture forth into the countryside to ‘find herself’. The opportunity for such a venture is provided through her being lumbered with the upkeep of a country cottage on the outskirts of Evesham – a traditional residence with stone-clad inglenook and a vast fireplace, originally bought and renovated with the intention of it becoming a weekend retreat for Norah and her former partner -- but which neither she nor he now really want.
Norah arrives in her sleek ‘60s sports car to find her new neighbours are full of offbeat rustic charm and eccentricity: housekeeper Mrs Vigo (Freda Bamford) soon ‘knows everything about everything’ concerning Norah’s business, and has plenty of tersely delivered village wisdom to impart while decapitating chickens in the sink or frogmarching Norah to church to attend the Harvest Festival celebrations; meanwhile, council worker, folklorist and self-styled ‘lay reader’ Mr Fisher (Bernard Hepton) seems unnaturally well-versed in the history of this area going back to Anglo Saxon times, including his knowledge of the meaning of the actual name of Norah’s cottage, which is called Flaneathan Farm – and stands for ‘Place of Birds’. When Norah discovers field mice have invaded the house, producing scurrying noises in the eaves, she is encouraged by both Fisher and Mrs Vigo to take a trip into the woods and ‘up the bridal path’ to the home of the local gamekeeper -- an guileless orphan, raised since the age of six by Mrs Vigo herself, and now known in young adulthood to the community-at-large as Rob (Andy Bradford), despite this not being his birth name. Rob turns out to be physically very handsome but a loner who practises body-building and karate in the woods, and collects Nazi memorabilia as a hobby -- the history of the Waffen-SS (which he mispronounces because he’s never actually heard the word spoken) being practically his only topic of conversation!
Nevertheless, a sexual relationship does develop almost by accident between the two, despite Norah’s rapidly escalating irritation with Rob’s gauche manner and his relentless Nazi-related chat. However, after finding out she has carelessly become pregnant with Rob’s baby, the residents of the village appear to start conspiring to make sure Norah is never able to leave when she returns to the cottage for the purposes of pondering her situation and deciding whether or not to have an abortion. Pretty soon her car stops working and a spare part supposedly ordered by the local garage appear to be taking rather longer than usual to arrive. Also her phone becomes faulty for no reason, so she can’t reach her friends in London; the only bus out of the village refuses to stop whenever she tries to catch it; and her letters are not being sent where they should, but are instead being ‘kept safe’ at the local post office on the recommendation of Mr Fisher. After noting a series of coincidences to do with her pregnancy, including the unexplained disappearance of her contraceptive cap on what turns out to be the night she and Rob eventually had sex (and the item’s equally mysterious reappearance the next day when the exterior drain pipe is also discovered to have come loose from the wall overnight), Norah becomes convinced that Fisher and the rest of his coterie of oddball village acolytes want both her and her baby as sacrifices in some sort of ritual they’re planning for the coming Easter celebrations!
The positioning of Norah as a modern woman is crucial to the play’s exploration of sexual politics and female identity, which are considered here alongside, and in relation to, a lack of natural empathy for the commonplaces of country life; Norah not realising, for instance, that leaving food on the table at night will tempt in ‘vermin’, and being surprised at the number of insects that have to be dealt with on a day to day basis when living in the county. Notably, her fragile emotional state is explained with recourse to imagery that calls upon nature as its model before she even reaches her rustic retreat: the breakup of a long-term relationship has left Norah feeling exposed, just like – as one of her London friends puts it -- ‘an unshelled crab,’ ripe for the picking in this age of sexual permissiveness. This simile is called vividly to mind later, after her occupancy of the cottage has been established, when the aptly named Mr Fisher, in talking about his instinctive skill as an archaeologist, compares himself to a fisherman who can spot clams by the tiny blow holes they leave behind in the sand; although he is ostensibly talking about his knack for rooting out ancient artefacts from the earth, his manner seems to have a predatory undercurrent to it, suggesting another more sinister meaning. When he explains the Anglo Saxon term used in the cottage’s name, and relates how ‘women have always lived here, but not for some time,’ his explanation for why all the window panes of the cottage had been smashed in – birds fly down the vast chimney stack and get themselves trapped, thudding against the windows from inside the house until they die or the windows shatter – seems to play on a double meaning of the word ‘bird’ to suggest a chilling metaphorical relevancy to its current female occupant: ‘They should have known they had a way out but, being birds, … they didn’t!’
Birds, and the sounds they make, in fact become central to the insidious atmosphere of quiet menace which slowly builds during the course of the play, cast over the conifer-planted woodlands and the narrow dirt road leading to Norah’s cottage: the cawing crows on the soundtrack are gradually associated with the semi-articulate rural villagers in the fields, and particularly with their leader, Mr Fisher, who is a sort of lower-middle-class version of Lord Summerisle: a council worker, replacement lay reader in the church and village elder, brilliantly played by Bernard Hepton as a sort of Edwardian throwback to the sorts of characters who’re usually found populating the stories of MR James, and whose reading of James Frazer’s works informs his interpretation of the meaning of the harvest-related rituals of the old religion -- in which a ‘Young King’ must be selected in preparation for copulation with the Earth Goddess. Also, a bird finding its way into Norah’s cottage via the chimney in the middle of the night becomes a catalyst for her sexual union with Rob after the eerie rustling of feathered wings awakes her in her bed, and her terrified screams draw the young man back to her door, despite Norah earlier having turfed him out, having realised that they had nothing in common and that, despite the physical attraction, she was bored rigid by his lack of social skills and inability to talk about anything but his single topic of interest.
The next morning their lovemaking is accompanied by the rising chirruping of the dawn chorus, although Norah’s response – ‘bloody birds!’ -- betrays her unsympathetic urbanite proclivities. The taciturn hints of Fisher and the other locals regarding Norah’s role in their proposed rites; their intrusive and conspiratorial machinations in order to ensure her eventual impregnation by Rob; and these deceitful villagers’ subsequent efforts to isolate her from her friends and trap her in their rural wilderness -- all whilst maintaining a false air of affability and friendliness -- ensure “Robin Redbreast” earns its folk horror merit badge with ease. But even those who think they know where this is all heading may be surprised by the turn events take in the final act, when it emerges that it is Norah’s very disinclination to marry even though she maintains a healthy interest in sex, which has attracted Fisher and his followers to her in the first place; as well as their assumption that an independent modern woman won’t be particularly interested in giving up her lifestyle in order to bring up a baby on her own. The nature of the sacrifice required here in order to ensure the healthiness of next year’s crop casts a certain ambiguity over the wider role being played in the scheme of things by the young man Rob, whose been raised by his AuntyVigo for a specific task that turns him into just as much of a victim of the community as the interloper Norah, if not more so; in fact the drama culminates with a paranoid Norah confronting Rob with a sharp kitchen knife inside her cottage while the villagers lay siege outside. The power of “Robin Redbreast” lies in what it suggests rather than what it shows: there is no powerful finish of the sort which continues to cause “The Wicker Man” to resonate with audiences (although the site of the woodsman squeezing himself down the cottage chimney to land in Norah's fireplace with an axe leaves a lasting image!), but the sly suggestion that modern sexualpractices are ideally suited to the maintenance of the sort of traditional fertility rites felt necessary by Fisher and his fellow townspeople takes things in a strange new direction that induces a subtle chill by the end of this odd but intelligently written and smartly acted vintage play, rather than the awe inspiring horror of its more famous, slightly younger folk cousin.
“Robin Redbreast” comes to DVD courtesy of the BFI on licence from the BBC, who made available the only known existent version of this 77 minute play -- which is the recently found 16mm, black-and-white telerecording. It is accompanied by an informative 11 minute interview with the writer John Bowen, who, fascinatingly, reveals that many of the incidents given a sinister edge within the context of the story, actually happened to him in real life, and that the cottage used for exteriors, and whose interiors were reproduced on a BBC soundstage, was his own -- recently bought at the time and still lived in by him to this day. Also included on the disc is a pertinent documentary short from 1937, “Around the Village Green”, in which contemporary life in an English village is recorded in-and-around its old guild hall, the post office and the village shops surrounding the square. The scenes documented here portray a way of life long since vanished; but already the old ways were starting to be replaced and to be missed even back then, as we soon realise when some septuagenarians are interviewed about the changes they’ve seen in the village during their lives and since their own boyhoods.
Also included on the disc is the BBC’s colour calibration Test Card F, which will be a more than familiar sight to anyone who grew up in the UK during the 1970s. It was designed by BBC engineer George Hersee and portrayed the Mona Lisa smile of his little girl Carole, and her unsettling toy companion Bubbles the Clown. It was first broadcast on the 2nd of July 1967 and was regularly broadcast in the daytime so that the owners of the brand new colour TVs then being made available to buy, might calibrate the grey scale and colour information of their sets more easily. But it is more commonly remembered for providing one of the most indelibly creepy images of a 1970s childhood. Lastly the disc comes with a booklet of short essays, biographies and writings by BFI National Archive curators Vic Pratt and Michael Fowler, web producer Alex Davidson, broadcast historian Oliver Wake and Sight & Sound contributor Michael Brooke, which together provide excellent background on and analysis of the play.
“Robin Redbreast” is a cult curiosity that really gets under the skin in the best tradition of the BBC’s most revered classic supernatural drama from the 1970s. The grainy black and white print turns out not to detract from the experience at all and, if anything, only adds to its unsettling atmosphere of mischievous malevolence in the rural wilds of England. This is a fascinating curio every Brit horror fan will be anxious to seek out.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!