Friday, 11 October 2013

DVD Review: Robin Redbreast

Directed by James MacTaggart, Robin Redbreast was originally broadcast by the BBC on 10th December 1970 as part of their 'Play For Today' strand. Inspired by the murder of a farm labourer as a blood sacrifice in 1945, John Bowen's script takes a city girl - Norah Palmer, played by Anna Cropper - and deposits her deep in the country where superstition and the old ways hang heavy in the air. Norah has just come out of an eight year relationship and is hurting badly, so a break from her life as a television editor appears to be a sensible move to make.
Upon arrival at her dream cottage - Flanethan Farm (The Place Of Birds) - Norah encounters a sinister gum-chewing individual who introduces himself as Fisher, and begs permission to look in the garden for Sherds (fragments of prehistoric history). Fisher is just the first in a succession of strange characters whose dependency on the success of the crops drive them to do unspeakable things.
Prior to leaving London, Norah confessed to feeling randy, and her state of arousal eventually propels her into the arms of the local gamekeeper who becomes smitten with this attractive stranger.
Before long, Norah falls head first into a crazy world where a marble split in half sits on her windowsill, a contraceptive cap disappears and then re-appears before and after her night with the gamekeeper, and her escape routes to the relative sanity of London are cut off at every turn.

During Robin Redbreast's debut screening, a series of powercuts meant parts of the UK audience were denied the chance to see its conclusion. After a barrage of complaints, the BBC were compelled to add a second screening to their schedule, and it's easy to see why folks were so enraged at being denied to see how this riveting drama ended.
MacTaggart's film is hugely important - not least in historical terms - with its central theme surely inspiring The Wicker Man which was still three years away. In fact, Robin Redbreast stands proudly with Hardy's film at the pinnacle of 'Folk Horror', along with Blood On Satan's Claw and Eye Of The Devil, and its various religious motifs make for a rich story indeed. With a beautifully tuned-in performance from Cropper (an inspired suggestion by John Bowen) and the overpowering presence of past rites reaching into the present, Robin Redbreast fully justifies its presence amongst the BFI's 'Gothic The Dark Heart Of Film' line-up.

The DVD features a monochrome presentation of what was originally a colour production, and is taken from a 16mm telerecording. As a result, picture quality does suffer but at no point took me out of the film. The BFI have included a valuable 12 minute interview with John Bowen who reveals his script included some of the characters he'd met at the house (his own home served as Flanethan Farm, and recalls the uproar that surrounded certain aspects of his script, together with memories of his work for the BBC.
There's also an 11 minute short film titled 'Around The Village Green' that examines the changing face of village life with regard to agriculture, social activity and education. Fittingly, there's also mention of the Harvest Festival. The BFI have also included their customary informative booklet featuring an essay on the film and an overview of John Bowen's work.

So, the film that built up a strong cult following is now available for the first time on home video, and packs a considerable punch as a potent, highly disturbing essay on what can happen when an outsider breaches the walls of past tradition. With a strong replay value, Robin Redbreast should prove to be a highlight amongst a BFI series of releases that celebrate a golden age of television classics.
Robin Redbreast will be released on BFI DVD on 28th October.

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