ROBIN REDBREAST - Play for Today / DVD Review

John Bowen's Robin Redbreast (BBC1, TX: 10/12/1970) a television play transmitted within the Play for Today strand, gets a very welcome release on DVD this week. It's among a raft of releases, of television and cinema, to accompany the BFI's 'Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film' season.
At the age of four and a half the play's author John Bowen was sent home, from his birthplace of Calcutta, back to England and reluctantly was placed in the care of his aunts. After serving in the Indian Army from 1943-47, he read Modern History at Oxford and then spent a year as a Fulbright Scholar in the USA. During the 1950s he was variously assistant editor of The Sketch, copywriter at J Walter Thompson and head of the copy department at S.T. Garland Advertising before embarking on a career as a novelist.

In the late 1950s through to the mid-1960s he produced a series of novels which crystalised many of the themes and ideas which then carried through into his success as a playwright and a television writer. Bowen summarised his work thus: 'My plays, like my novels, are distinguished by a general preoccupation with myth, and mainly with one particular myth, the Bacchae, which in my reading represents the conflict between the Apollonian and Dionysiac ways of living more than the mere tearing to pieces of a Sacred King. This theme, the fight in every human being and between beings themselves, rationality against instinct, is to be found somewhere in almost everything I've written.' (1)

His novel Storyboard, published in 1960, was clearly inspired by his time working in journalism and advertising and exposed the power of corporations to corrupt those leading them. 1962's The Birdcage tells of the collapse of the relationship between a successful couple Peter Ash and Norah Palmer. Peter is the host of an arts series and Norah is the Script Editor for the Drama Department of a commercial television company.

The Birdcage's depiction of the media socialite milieu would find itself mirrored some ten years later in his television play Robin Redbreast in which the character of Norah Palmer returns and is seen first in context with her London friends and then isolated in a rural community. As John Williams notes in his article on Robin Redbreast about Norah's relationship with her London friends: 'Bowen portrays these characters with a cool eye, and indeed in The Birdcage and others, seems to be mocking the characters’ pretensions to living a life that is free of emotional turbulence'. (2)
'There is a constant war between reasonable man and instinctive man' 
Williams also sees parallels between certain characters and themes in After the Rain, Bowen's novel published in 1958. The book chronicles the survival efforts of a group of people after a second Flood. The survivors are enmeshed in a situation where 'the mythological merges with the futuristic and a primitive theocracy is generated by necessity'. (3) Their leader Arthur Renshaw is elevated to godhood and manipulates the others with his brand of religion which ultimately leads to his downfall after he demands the sacrifice of the first baby born. 

After the Rain specifically has its characters consider the value of myth - the death of the god and the rebirth of society - and Bowen's work has 'a concern with archetypical patterns of behaviour (therefore with myth). There is a constant war between reasonable man and instinctive man. There is the pessimistic discovery that Bloomsbury values don't work, but that there seem to be no others worth holding.' (4)

The conflict between rationality and instinct and the myth of the Bacchae also figured significantly in his play The Disorderly Women (1969) which transposed the narrative of Euripedes' play to present day and 'showed the Dionysiac out-of-mind and out-of body experiences of the characters as being drug induced' (5) as an analogue to the period's many varieties of modern ecstatic cult including drug culture, rock music, sex and violence.

Writing about The Disorderly Women, Bowen said: 'I have attempted to make explicit what may be implicit in Euripides' play, that the myth of the Bacchae is primarily about the fight between Apollo and Dionysus, in which Dionysus wins. Put this to someone born after 1945, and he may tell you, 'Quite right. Dionysus ought to win. Instinctive behaviour is what life is for'. If my 1969 self were to return to 1945, it could only say 'I have seen the future and it doesn’t work'. The Disorderly Women is, then, a work of pessimism'. (6) Robin Redbreast can also be seen as a fight between the rationalist Norah Palmer character, who betrays a conflicted, alarming sense of self-delusion and an instinctual urge to survive, and the subversive, non-rationalist behaviour of the villagers.

Invited by the BBC to create a children's series ('a thinking lad's Biggles' is how he later described it) Garry Halliday (BBC, 1959-1962) in collaboration with Jeremy Bullimore, Bowen's attentions turned toward television plays, series and serials. He became a script consultant at Associated Television between 1958 and 1960 and undertook several commissions, with The Holiday Abroad and The Essay Prize (both ATV, 1960), The Candidate and The Jackpot Question (both ATV, 1961) all exploring themes of disillusionment and self-deception which would permeate much of his later television work, including Robin Redbreast.

He contributed six instalments to ITV Play of the Week (1955-67) including an adaptation of Dumas' 'The Corsican Brothers', wrote episodes of The Power Game (ATV, 1965-1969), and an adaptation of J Sheridan Le Fanu's short story 'The Room in the Dragon Volant' for Mystery and Imagination (ABC, 1966-1970). His telefantasy credentials were further enhanced with seven episodes of Wilfred Greatorex's near-future dystopian British political thriller The Guardians (LWT, 1971), his adaptation of M.R. James' 'The Treasure of Abbot Thomas' for A Ghost Story at Christmas (BBC, 1972), 'A Woman Sobbing' for Innes Lloyd's celebrated supernatural anthology series Dead of Night (BBC, 1973) and another slice of the supernatural for Christmas, The Ice House (BBC, 1978). In the same year he would also write the first serial 'Rachel in Danger' for ITV's Armchair Thriller (1978-1980). 

Two further entries for Play for Today included 'The Emergency Channel' (BBC, 1973) and the intriguing 'A Photograph' in 1977. The latter sees a suave Radio 3 radio presenter (John Stride) plunged into a mystery after being sent a photograph of two young women in front of a gypsy caravan. The suggestion that he has had an affair with these women sends his wife spiraling into a depression driven by an obsession to solve the puzzle of the anonymous photograph. Its continuity with Robin Redbreast is underlined by the presence of sinister matriarchal figure Mrs Vigo, once again played by Freda Bamford.

Robin Redbreast was written specifically with actress Anna Cropper in mind after she had worked in several of Bowen's plays - Little Boxes at the Hampstead Theatre in 1968 and Waiting Room at the Soho Theatre in 1970. Director James MacTaggart and producer Graeme MacDonald were asked to see Waiting Room at Bowen's suggestion during the casting of the television play and Cropper was then offered the role of Norah Palmer.

Bowen's purchase of a dilapidated farmhouse, sat on a hill between Banbury and Stratford-on-Avon and where he still lives, not only provided the play's location filming but actual incidents from Bowen's early residence there, including an encounter with a schoolmaster looking for 'sherds' in his garden, finding a half marble and observing a local gamekeeper practising his karate.

Many elements in Robin Redbreast were also influenced by the reporting of a murder in Lower Quinton in Warwickshire. In February 1945, 74-year old farm labourer Charles Walton was discovered in a field with (allegedly) a cross carved onto his chest. The autopsy revealed his trachea had been cut with a slash hook, his body impaled into the soil by his own pitchfork and he had been clubbed over the head with his walking stick. He was apparently a 'friendly man, who could reputedly charm animals with his voice and knew many old rural ways and tales.' (7)

The case gained considerable notoriety because rumours circulated that he had been killed in a pagan blood sacrifice or as part of a witchcraft ceremony. Chief Inspector Robert Fabian (whose memoirs inspired the BBC's Fabian of the Yard series) never solved the case and in his reports at the time made no mention of paganism or witchcraft. Yet, 25 years later in his book The Anatomy of Crime he did offer: 'I advise anybody who is tempted at any time to venture into Black Magic, witchcraft, Shamanism – call it what you will – to remember Charles Walton and to think of his death, which was clearly the ghastly climax of a pagan rite.' (8)

Originally submitted for a suspense anthology series, Robin Redbreast was initially rejected, according to Bowen in the interview on this disc, because Andrew Osborn, Head of Series and Serials at the BBC, felt that Norah's sexual independence, symbolised in the contraceptive cap she uses, was not a subject suitable for a television play. He claims director MacTaggart, who then read the play after a discussion with Osborn about why he was rejecting it, took it to Graeme MacDonald, producer of Play for Today. (9)

Several different versions of this story have been recorded elsewhere and John Williams notes Bowen's own introduction to the publication of Robin Redbreast in The Television Dramatist which suggested the play's rejection was because 'the "close inter-relation between the fertility rite and the church festivals" would be too much…for the ‘Powers-That-Be' and it was MacDonald who ultimately came to the rescue. Another variation claims the story editor of the series Bowen was commissioned for feared it would be rejected by the head of the department and he or she subsequently brought it to the attention of the editor of Play for Today. (10)

Bowen's interest in the mythical in Robin Redbreast certainly casts the play in the 'folk horror' mode. It was a genre piece transmitted in a strand which was then seen as the home of contemporary, social realist drama. But it is also a story concerned with the moralities, beliefs and behaviours of two very distinct classes, of two different ways of life. The rural is contrasted with the metropolitan, the 'old ways' of a community set against Norah's modern independence.

This is established immediately in the opening titles. A picture of an isolated, slightly ramshackle cottage is discussed in voice over by Norah Palmer (Anna Cropper) and her middle class friends Madge (Amanda Walker) and Jake (Julian Holloway, sporting a fine set of whiskers). As they talk, a howling wind can be heard on the soundtrack. It's a sound effect, one among many, that the play uses constantly to mark out the strange, anti-urban, rural atmosphere Norah will be caught within.

This elemental force is felt as they sit in her London flat and chat about the cottage. The picture is denoted as 'before' - presumably the state the building was in when first acquired by Norah's ex-husband - and her friend enquires 'And the after?' She has not experienced the 'after' yet and the play proposes a dramatic 'before' and 'after' change of state for Norah herself. Cropper's excellent performance charts this change of state, her independence curtailed not by modern social mores but by primordial revelations and ancient truths.
'keep it warm. Them like jewels. They like the body warmth.' 
She is a successful script editor, once again single, declaring 'an unattached woman of 35 is fair game' now she is seen as sexually available. But she is also vulnerable and emotional after her husband decided to cut his losses and leave her and she sees the cottage as a perfect place to adjust to living alone again. It represents an escape to a much slower pace of life than one lived in the city. Again, the contrast between an alienating urban environment and the natural life of the country is underlined, reflecting a 1970s 'escape from the rat race' attitude, a nostalgia for simpler, back to the land village life. Norah hopes to strengthen her self sufficiency and independence, separate from her bourgeois friends whom she has grown to dislike.

Yet this is self sufficiency with a waste disposal unit in a renovated cottage with all the mod cons. The outside world encroaches in the form of mice, 'insects, everything' she tells Madge via a series of letters narrated in voice over. Director James MacTaggart uses this device several times to cross cut between the isolated Norah and her friends Madge and Jake and to poke some ironic fun, in a typical slice of Bowen black comedy, at middle class mores. 'I hope she's not going to start drinking,' suggests Madge, reading about Norah's retreat as her husband hands her a very large sherry.

The scratching of mice is, like the scratching of the rats in Nigel Kneale's 'During Barty's Party' instalment of Beasts (ATV, 1976), another sound effect that non-diagetically gnaws way at our subconscious, a general reminder of the animalistic world and, later, a signifier of the plan the villagers have set in motion to trap her. The greatest imposition is Mrs Vigo (an effective Freda Bamford), a housekeeper whose demeanour and speech connotes the rural as raw and uncomplicated, rooted in the community where signs, symbols and language are differentiated from those of urban life.

This sense of 'other' is heightened by the presence of the dumb, axe wielding Peter and most significantly Fisher (Bernard Hepton), a bespectacled local man of 'learning' who appears in Norah's garden in search of 'sherds'. His use of the word tells us that the community reflects back to Old English and Norse origins, the etymology for broken pieces of pottery. He also connects the cottage with birds, again underlined by the cawing of crows on the soundtrack, and how they become trapped in the house. As trapped as 'the women [who] have always lived here' he intimates, offering the symbol of the bird as a portent of the rituals to come. Like Mrs Vigo, he represents the 'old ways', informing her that in 'the old tongue' the cottage's name Flaneathan means 'place of birds'.

The discovery of such a sherd, a marble sliced in half Norah finds on her windowsill and brings into the house to the rising accompaniment of the howling wind on the soundtrack, prompts Mrs Vigo to advise her to 'keep it warm. Them like jewels. They like the body warmth.' Fisher agrees that it 'has to be brought inside' and he suggests it resembles an eye. Connected with the figure of Hecate, it could be read as a representation of the wheel that symbolises the mother, the maiden and the crone and associated with 'between' states, the liminal creature of the threshold, the guardian of doors and portals, watching over entrances.

The marble always seems to draw Norah back to the village and rather like the runic note planted on the victim in M.R. James's Casting of the Runes, the marble confirms Norah as a chosen, marked woman and the cottage as locus of the propitiatory rituals of the village. Bowen uses this to misdirect the audience throughout much of the play. Only when the audience reaches the final act does the real implication of the villagers' treatment of Norah become evident but until then both Bowen and director James MacTaggart set up her escalating unease with a mix of understatement and tried and tested horror cliche.

We're again reminded of the gulf between the old ways and the new with Fisher's observation about modern forestry techniques and the cutting down of ancient oaks and their replacement with conifers: 'Go a long way in them woods before you come across an oak nowadays.' The topography of folk horror is gradually evoked and startlingly realised in a scene where, upon Fisher's advice, Norah walks in the woods. We hear guttural shouts on the soundtrack as Norah walks in the distance. The shouts get louder, Norah looks up. MacTaggart cuts in a shot of the swaying tree canopy, matching the shouting with the treetops, to suggest something wild and primordial embedded in the landscape.

She meets Rob (Andrew Bradford, who suffuses the role with a strange innocence), almost naked, practising karate and later learns he works for the estate office and she should talk to about dealing with the mice. 'One can hardly walk straight up to a naked man and say please get rid of my mice,' offers Norah but she is persuaded to meet him and discovers he is one of the few people to have left the village, 'the first in eight years' to undertake a grammar school education and studies at an agricultural college. He has set himself apart from the 'inbreeding and inter-marriage' of the village but has returned, taken a job and is saving to leave for Canada.

An orphan, his real name is Edgar and only the villagers refer to him as 'Rob' after he was adopted by Mrs Vigo. This again suggests the separation between the rational and the instinctive, one is his proper name and the other is perhaps a divine name, an attribute of the village, and this naming parallels Norah's desire to separate herself from London life. Both, it seems, have failed at what they have set out to do and are in retreat, somewhat vulnerable and impressionable.

Rob of course is the diminutive for Robin, the 'Robin Redbreast' of the title and a nod back to the figure of Robin Hood, wherein one myth has him bleeding to death as a reflection of the ritual slaying of the king of the wood. As Mrs Vigo tells Norah, 'There's always one young man answers to the name Rob in these parts. 'As to be.'

A number of incidents begin to accumulate after their first meeting. She finds Rob deeply attractive and is encouraged by Jake to follow up on her desires but she rejects this idea simply because she feels the countryside is not private, not anonymous. MacTaggart briefly dissolves from the discussion between Norah, Jake and Madge to a shot of slowly swaying trees to emphasise the feeling Norah has of being watched by 'people... in the woods.' Jake backs this up with his observations about the wind that blows down 'that nasty little private road of yours' and the voices it purportedly carries but it is something of a ruse to prise Norah from her rural retreat and encourage her return to London.  

Jake's teasing triggers a strange dream. We see Rob, semi-naked, in a strange ritual dance brandishing a knife and Mr Fisher turn towards the camera as one of the thick lenses in his glasses falls out, a lens that bears a similarity to the constantly present half marble. It is a prophetic vision, foreshadowing the consequences of Norah's dinner with Rob that leads to their sexual tryst.

All around Norah preparations are being made, practically and symbolically. Much of this is a diversionary tactic on the part of Bowen who lulls the audience into believing that it is Norah who will eventually be sacrificed. The chicken Mrs Vigo prepares for the dinner offers a moment of black humour as she describes the bird as if she was describing Norah: 'She'm broody. No use for laying. Ring 'er neck, slit 'er throat, hang 'er up. That's all she'm good for.'

A bird trapped in the cottage chimney provides some disorientating point of view camera shots when, after Rob's failure to charm Norah with his thorough knowledge of the SS, Norah is frightened and Rob returns to comfort her. Both of them are now 'trapped' within the internecine machinations of the villagers, have become lambs to slaughter in one way or another, birds caught inside the house. Even their morning lovemaking and conversation is serenaded by a dawn chorus, not only a signifier of fecundity and regeneration but also of the cycle of the ritual.

That cycle is again represented by the images of the harvest festival to which Mrs Vigo drags Norah because she must 'admire the decorations'. MacTaggart stylistically evokes this through a series of still images of farm produce, first closing in on images of eggs as a voice over of the pastor's sermon mentions 'guarding and holding our precious seed even in the dark days of winter to bring it forth in the Spring', and then offering a series of images of dead hares and chickens.

Norah becomes pregnant, her missing contraceptive cap a clue to how this was planned without her permission, but she seems to ignore the evidence around her - the bird, the broken drainpipe, Rob being attacked by a poacher outside her house - and the coincidences take on a ridiculous air when she relates all this to Madge and Jake and she concludes, 'It's mad, the whole thing.'
'What good would a woman's blood be for the land?' 
When she returns to the village, having decided not to get an abortion and making it plain to Rob that the child is solely her business, Norah finds matters are out of her control. Mrs Vigo states categorically to her, 'But now, come Easter, 'ere am your place, miss' when she intimates a brief weekend stay and no intention to return soon. She is then confined at the cottage, by a suddenly malfunctioning car, a disconnected telephone and a bus that refuses to stop for her, in the two weeks leading up to Easter. This is itself a time of death and resurrection in the Christian calendar and one underlined by the themes discussed in television programmes Norah is left to watch on her own in the cottage.

She pleads to Madge and Jake in a letter that she is afraid and asks them, 'please don't be rational about it. Make allowances and come and get me as soon as you can.' She is begging them to operate on instinct. We see the letter to them on a post office counter and then hear Mr Fisher's ominous voice over asking the post mistress to keep the letter back 'just so it doesn't get lost in the post.'

The play culminates in a terrifying scene where the ritual preparations are completed and audience expectations are confounded. Norah understands that her night of sex with Rob was arranged, 'the bull was brought to the cow. It happens in the country' she accuses and, brandishing a knife, suggests the whole arrangement is some form of 'devil worship' and connects with 'stories of blood, blood... always rather vague.'

Incidentally at this point, as Edward Heath's government of 1970 began its slide into chaos, an electricians strike blacked out millions of homes in London and the Midlands on the December evening of Robin Redbreast's transmission. Viewers were certainly left 'rather vague', literally in the dark, as to what happened after Norah threatened Rob with a knife. Their complaints secured Robin Redbreast a rare and welcome repeat the following February.

Like the bird coming down the chimney so appears the axe-wielding Peter and, when Norah passes out, we see him and the butcher Mr. Wellbeloved (played by Robin Wentworth who would later appear as Professor Horner in the occult themed 1971 Doctor Who story 'The Daemons') lead Rob out to the slaughter. It is devastatingly conveyed with only a close up shot of the unconscious Norah and Rob's chilling, blood curdling scream on the soundtrack. In that instant, the play completely reorientates around the pagan English ritual of killing a king or an appropriate surrogate, one planned and supervised by close associates, and where the spilling of blood on the ground was designed to ensure the fertility of the land and the prosperity of the people.

The final scenes see Norah, confused, confront Mrs Vigo who explains Rob's fate and her survival: 'What good would a woman's blood be for the land? We bear, my dear. We give birth. That am our work. Takes a man for the other.' Thus the cycle of death and rebirth is confirmed and Fisher and Mrs Vigo are simply the conduits for the rituals and cycles of fertility, tranmogrified into the Hecate and Herne of legend, while Norah Palmer is the goddess of fertility herself as Fisher explains: 'not a married lady but nevertheless, if you'll excuse the freedom, not a virgin either.' 

The play ends on an equally enigmatic note. Bowen's exploration of myth, instinct and rationality is synthesised in the chilling final shot as Norah drives away in her car, determined to bring the baby up on her own and perhaps hoping to prevent the ritual cycle from claiming the 'new Rob' as Fisher suggests, and she glances back to see Fisher - the leader of this particular hunt - and Mrs Vigo momentarily altered into the figures of Hecate and Herne.

They are a representation of the myths touched upon in Fisher's final speech about the legends of blood sacrifice, Robin Hood and Frazer's The Golden Bough. Like his nearest equivalent Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1973), Fisher manipulates myth to deceive and mislead but only towards what he sees as a moral project, toward a good end. Bowen's play, William Fowler notes, also seems to quantify how After the Rain's narrator reflected upon the 'long view' of myth: 'there are no beginnings in history, history is too big for beginnings that we can apprehend but men are not too big. Men are small.' (11)

(1) John Bowen commentary in Howard MacNaughton, 'John Bowen' profile in Contemporary British Dramatists
(2) John Williams, 'Robin Redbreast' article at British Television Drama, 4th November 2010.
(3) Howard MacNaughton, 'John Bowen' profile in Contemporary British Dramatists
(4) Ibid
(5)  Dr Ruth Hazel, notes on 'Performing the Bacchae', Classical Receptions in Drama and Poetry in English from c.1970 to the Present, The Open University.
(6) John Bowen quoted in Dr Ruth Hazel, notes on 'Performing the Bacchae'
(7) William Fowler, 'Robin Redbreast and John Bowen' viewing notes, Robin Redbreast DVD, BFI
(8) Robert Fabian, The Anatomy of Crime
(9) 'Interview with John Bowen', Robin Redbreast DVD, BFI
(10) John Williams, 'Robin Redbreast' article at British Television Drama, 4th November 2010.
(11) William Fowler, 'Robin Redbreast and John Bowen' viewing notes, Robin Redbreast DVD, BFI
Special Features
Interview with John Bowen (11:25)
Short but informative chat that covers the return of the Norah Palmer character, the development of the play from incidents in his own life and the murder in Lower Quinton and the problems with the original submission. He also refers to its repeat after the December 1970 power cuts. 
Around the Village Green (11:16)
Evelyn Spice and Marion Grierson's short film from 1937 offering insight into the changing economic and social history of village life which acts as an acute counterpoint to the themes in Robin Redbreast.
Illustrated booklet 
Featuring essays and biographies by Vic Pratt, William Fowler, Oliver Wake and Alex Davidson. 

Play for Today: Robin Redbreast 
BBC 1970
Transmitted 10 December 1970 / Repeated 25 February 1971
BFI / Released 28 October 2013 / BFIVD997 / Cert 12 / Black and white*/ English language with optional hard of hearing subtitles / 77 mins / DVD9 / PAL / Original aspect ratio 1.33:1 / Dolby Digital mono audio (320 kbps)

*Although originally a colour programme all that remains is a 16mm black and white telerecording

3 Responses to “ROBIN REDBREAST - Play for Today / DVD Review”
  1. Presumably colour recovery wasn't possible on this one... a pity, as I'm sure the colour scheme would have been thought through given the rural setting and the climactic bloodletting.

  2. Matthew, considering the amount of chroma dot information I could see I was surprised they hadn't attempted it.

    Presumably it was beyond the budget of this release?

  3. That's disappointing news. Presumably it was, as you say, beyond the release's budget.

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