This articles contains minor spoilers.
Holding the record at the time for being the only play in the BBC Play For Today series to be repeated, James MacTaggart’s Robin Redbreast has an aptly cult aura surrounding it. First broadcast in the “spooky” slot (a December time tradition since Dickens’ era) in 1970, it manages to foreshadow a number of interesting movements in film and television almost uniquely before many of these movements were defined more actively in popular avenues. It can even lay claim to being a chief influence on the definitive folk horror, The Wicker Man (1973), though whether they share similar interests or whether Robin Hardy actually saw the play is entirely debatable. The play follows an upper-middle class TV scriptwriter, Norah (Anna Cropper), as she retreats from the stresses of city life to a recently purchased house in a quaint English village. She has broken up from a long-term relationship and is emotionally, as well as mentally, fragile. Her place in this village is at first normal, with the village-folk appearing to be overtly traditional and perhaps even a little eccentric but not malevolent. She meets a good-looking younger man in the form of Edgar who, for some unknown reason, the villagers call Robin (Andrew Bradford).
A number of strange occurrences begin to befall the unlucky writer as her house appears to be uncharacteristically falling apart, prone to gutters coming off the walls on perfectly clear nights, mice running around the floors in spite of poison being laid, and a bird improbably coming down the chimney. The wind carries voices as it travels down the bumpy road to her house, rolling through the nearby forest and trees. A local man, Fisher (Bernard Hepton), who is the village equivalent of an intellectual and also rather sinister, wants to dig around her garden for something ancient which he calls “sherds”. All of the norms of folk horror are here; traditional rituals manifesting in modern day Britain due to rural and social isolation.
Norah becomes pregnant after a one night stand with Robin though not before his odd character, the mysterious disappearance of her contraceptive cap and his obsession with Nazis puts her off him completely. Her cleaning lady, Mrs Vigo (Freda Bamford), and other local people seem to be hiding something from her, turning from helpful neighbours to guard-like warders as she is stopped from leaving the village or even contacting the outside world by phone or letter. Their worries are that her “modern thinking” may lead her to have an abortion; gradually forcing her to conclude that she is part of some magical ritual or something worse.
Poor Robin is at the centre of the mystery and the gradual unravelling of the true ceremony of events is easily as startling as Hardy’s film. Everything from the strange, half cut marbles that have appeared on the window sill to the increasingly prominent shots of the country around the house are all tied in to the ritual apparently taking place. Whereas Hardy leaves no allusions as to what happens to Sgt. Howie in The Wicker Man, the fate of both Robin and Norah does seem ambiguous. With Fisher at the head of the vague danger, he drops hints as to Robin’s Frazerian fate after a night of chaos and siege on the cottage. His beliefs are remarkably similar to Lord Summerisle’s though Fisher is a far more subtle and coldly calculating character. With one final look back at the cottage as she is allowed to escape now that the ritual has apparently been performed. She appears to hallucinate the four main villagers wearing pagan clothing. Though there have been elements of black magic and witchcraft hinted at throughout the play, little can account for this ambiguous shot, implying either that Norah was hallucinating or that the villagers somehow allowed their true colours to come through in a literal time-slip. Either way it is a startling ending to a refreshing and enigmatic piece of television.
On the release is a video interview with the play’s writer, John Bowen. Robin Redbreast seems to have paved the way for work in similar areas for Bowen, most notably on two of the BBC Ghost Stories (The Treasure of Abbot Thomas and The Ice House) as well as the Dead of Night series. In contrast, this play stands out far ahead of his other work, with only M.R James pushing his ghost story adaptation slightly ahead. The sacrificial nature of the play is heavily dosed in the modern Gothic so it’s unsurprising to find his first work outside of children’s television to be a number of stories for Mystery and Imagination (1966) – no doubt laying the groundwork for Robin Redbreast.
In another piece of craftily subversive film curating, the release also has a short information film by Marion Grierson and Evelyn Spice. Around the Village (1937) is an evocative little documentary looking at the changes to the idyllic country life in the English village and how new opportunities are available for its younger generation. With a score by Benjamin Britten and a brisk commentary by John Watt, it shares more than a fleeting resemblance to the propaganda work of Humphrey Jennings (especially The Dim Little Island (1948)). Its inclusion imbues the film with far more menace than originally intended and, coming after the rural blood sacrifice of Robin Redbreast, it takes on an entirely subversive new light.
Robin Redbreast is released by the BFI on DVD on the 28th of October.
Further reading on folk horror: