When her long-term relationship comes to an end, Norah (Anna Cropper), a television script editor, takes a break by moving to a remote village. At first the locals seem charmingly eccentric, but all is not what it seems, and Norah soon realises that forces are conspiring against her...
In the 1960s, BBC1 broadcast The Wednesday Play but when the day of broadcast was no longer fixed on that day, it became in 1970 Play for Today, and that strand continued until 1984. You could watch a new single play each time, often feature-length. There are certainly arguments for television being primarily a writers' medium then, and more of that later. (The BFI's cover for this DVD auteurishly calls Robin Redbreast “a film by James MacTaggart”, but the feature itself has “by John Bowen” after the opening title, with MacTaggart's name at the end of the final credits.) Nowadays single plays on television are much more rare – the cool kids all want to write serial drama, whether they be the next The Wire, or the next The Killing and no doubt now the next Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones - and newer writers cut their teeth on continuing drama series or soaps. But Play for Today, like The Wednesday Play before it, gave opportunities for new writers. And yes, directors too: with the downturn of the British film industry in the 1970s, many directors with cinema feature credits to their name, sustained their careers in television until big-screen opportunities arose again the next decade – directors like Stephen Frears, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh all made Plays for Today, Leigh six of them. In the fourteen years of the strand's existence, 304 Plays for Today were made. However, the inevitable problem arises with archive television: the BBC's – and not just their - wiping of the original broadcast tapes, up to the mid-1970s. Thirty are missing altogether as I write this, sections exist of another two, and eight more exist as black and white 16mm film telerecordings (of plays made and broadcast in colour), including the one at hand. It was originally broadcast on 10 December 1970, the ninth of the first season of Play for Today. A power cut in parts of the country prevented many from watching the ending, so it was repeated on 25 February 1971, making it the first Play for Today to be given a second showing.
John Bowen (born 1924) is a novelist and playwright, with his first television credit for ITV in 1960. He was especially active in the medium in the 1970s and 1980s, with three Plays for Today to his name. Adept at both originals and adaptations, with a distinct leaning towards the macabre, he's turned up before in my reviews for this site, writing two entries for the BBC's Ghosts Stories for Christmas in the 1970s: adapting M.R. James's The Treasure of Abbot Thomas in 1974 and writing an original script for the last of the 70s run, The Ice House in 1978. Norah was a character in Bowen's 1962 The Birdcage who he parsimoniously reused as the lead role in Robin Redbreast. It's difficult to discuss the story further, or even to mention the works it's reminiscent of, so here be spoilers from now on. If you wish to avoid them, go straight to “The DVD” below.
Robin Redhreast is one of a number of dark tales that draw on rural folklore and traditions, and woe betide the outsider – often an urban type – who stumbles unwarily upon them. Think especially of The Wicker Man, released three years later, both with roots in James George Frazer's The Golden Bough, a study of mythology and religion first published in 1890. See also Blood on Satan's Claw from the same year as Robin Redbreast and Straw Dogs the following year. In Robin Redbreast, ancient rituals of fertility and sacrifice are re-enacted. However, like all works Robin Redbreast is not timeless: it reflects the time and place of its making and there are plenty of subtexts if you wish to look for them. One of those is the position and role of women in society, feminism beginning to have an effect on popular media in 1970. At the beginning of the play, Norah is very much a modern woman, in a well-paid job, childless by choice. How happy she is, is open to question, but there would be no play if she was, as she wouldn't have decamped into the countryside. Her way of life is immediately a poor fit in the village, especially for the fact that she had a live-in boyfriend for several years without marrying him: evidence if you needed it that the Sixties did not swing everywhere in the country. Initially, Anna Cropper has short hair and is always seen in trousers. Half an hour in, when Rob comes to dinner, she's seen in a dress for the first time. One “the bull has been brought to the cow”, as she puts it late on, Bowen and MacTaggart make her much more feminised: her hair grows out, though is never especially long, and she's seen as often in dresses and skirts from that point, in conjunction with the distinctly female thing that is happening inside her. Cropper gives an intentionally abrasive performance, making Norah a character not as softened inside as she may be outside, and the rest of the cast are fine.
I mentioned above that television then was a writer's medium, more akin to the theatre than the cinema – something that has changed since then. Exterior scenes were shot on 16mm film (by a distinguished DP of the future, Brian Tufano) and interiors were recorded in the studio on multiple video cameras, presumably “as live” as much as possible, like much television drama of its day. There's a somewhat theatrical air to Bowen's dialogue (see also the very stylised The Ice House), something he shares with many TV writers of the time (Dennis Potter, David Mercer, Robin Chapman, others), and its no surprise to learn that Robin Redbreast was later adapted for the stage. Robin Redbreast has lingered in the mind of those who saw it back in 1970 or 1971, but it's not been easy to track down since, so that makes this DVD, one of several archive-television releases releases the BFI are putting out under a “Gothic” banner, very welcome.
Robin Redbreast is released by the BFI on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only.
The DVD transfer is in the intended ratio of 1.33:1. As mentioned above, Robin Redbreast was shot on video in the studio, except for exterior scenes which were shot on location on 16mm film and telecined in during the studio recording. It would have been broadcast from videotape, but that master tape was wiped sometime in the 1970s, usually as contracts at the time normally specified only one repeat showing within two years of initial broadcast: many productions were junked when the two years were up, as they were were assumed to be of no further value. The BBC established an archiving policy later in the decade, but by then much damage was done and there have been searches for lost television programmes ever since. However, Robin Redbreast did have at least one 16mm black and white telerecording made for possible overseas sales, and that is how the play survives today. (Very few countries in 1970 were then broadcasting in colour, and in fact colour television sets were in the minority at the time in the UK. Most of the viewers of Robin Redbreast for both showings would have watched it on black and white sets.)
There have been advances in transferring 16mm telerecordings of video productions to DVD over the last ten years or so, one of them being VidFIRE, as used on many Doctor Who DVD releases by 2 Entertain, which takes the grainy film recording and restores a “video look” (to the parts of it shot on video), to an approximation of what it would have looked like on its original broadcast. (Another is Chroma Dot Recovery, a process of restoring colour to productions which only survive as black and white telerecordings. I do not know if the telerecording of Robin Redbreast contains any chroma dots, though.) Nine years ago, the BFI released a DVD of The Year of the Sex Olympics, also a colour video production only surviving as a 16mm black and white telerecording. That DVD (now deleted and changing hands for more than it cost at the time) had no video look at all: the telerecording grain was certainly present. (It also had a muffled soundtrack with no hard of hearing subtitles, so this person with normal hearing found it hard to follow,.) Robin Redbreast has some grain, though it's much smoother in the video-shot interiors than the film-originated exteriors, and there's minor damage which isn't distracting. This is a pleasing transfer given the inevitable limitations of its source. Short of being recoloured (doubtless too expensive to consider) this is probably as good as this could be, short of time travel back to 1970 and being in the minority then and owning a colour television set.
The soundtrack is the original mono, a little hissy but with dialogue and sound effects well balanced. There are optional hard-of-hearing subtitles.
There are two extras on the disc. The first is an interview with the now eighty-eight-year-old John Bowen (11:25). He begins that saying that there is a lot of him in Anna. Robin Redbreast was filmed at his house in Banbury, and the studio interiors recreated the layout of the house as well. He talks about his inspiration for the story, which was a real-life village murder seemingly done as a fertility ritual. The play was almost rejected – the on-screen sight of a contraceptive cap was a particular objection – but was made at the insistence of director James MacTaggart. Bowen also recommended Anna Cropper for the role of Norah, as she was starring at the time in a play of his. This item contains plot spoilers for Robin Redbreast so watch it after you have seen the play.
Also on the disc is “Around the Village Green” (11:15), a short film directed by Marion Grierson (sister of the great documentary filmmaker John) and Evelyn Spice. The music score is by Benjamin Britten. This is a celebration of traditional village life and its festivals and meeting-places, such as the church and the pub, where two of the oldest inhabitants (in their seventies) spend the afternoon.. But even then there were changes, as progress marched on and vehicles, both private and public, and modern communications make the village part of the outside world.
Finally, you will find lurking in the setup menu the iconic (for those of a certain age) Test Card F.
The BFI's eighteen-page booklet begins with “Hunting for Sherds: Robin Redbreast” by Vic Pratt and “Robin Redbreast and John Bowen” by William Fowler, the former (spoiler warning) concentrating on the play itself, the latter setting in the context of the writer's work. Also in the booklet are biographies of John Bowen (by Alex Davidson) and the late James MacTaggart (by Oliver Wake) and notes on “Around the Village Green” by Michael Brooke, along with film and disc credits.