There are certain things Horror related that make me happy, very happy. Those horror-related predelictions will often include such terms as: classic, British, rare, long-forgotten and legendary (there are other terms, such as Maddie Smith, Ingrid Pitt and Barbara Steele - but that's a whole different level of happy).
If the terms classic, British and Gothic are mentioned all in the same sentence then I'm as happy as a pig in the proverbial you-know-what. It's been a source of joy to know that since beginning the scribblings on this blog a year ago that I'm not alone in my classic Gothic horror obsessions. Indeed, a happy by-product of starting my blog has also been the opportunity provided to write for other websites such as the excellent UKHorrorScene. It's been a pleasure to find that there is a whole legion of fellow British horror enthusiasts and supporters out there who not only love the more established horror fare, but who also share the desire to keep in the wider public consciousness the lesser known, under-rated and sometimes criminally forgotten gems of British horror production.
Take the British Film Institute (BFI) for example. When the BFI announced earlier this year its most substantial project to date for the Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film four month-long event, the reaction of many of us was of deliciously delirious anticipation. The ambitious programme was to include the release of 150 titles and around 1,000 screenings across the UK from August 2013 to January 2014 - and every single one of them was to be Gothic related. Not only was the size of the programme seductively enticing, so was the range of the titles that were going to be made available. So apart from the expected and more established offerings going to be made such as the world premiere of the digital re-mastering of Night Of The Demon (1957) and iconic Gothic releases such as Hammer Horror’s Dracula (1958) starring a certain Christopher Lee - In addition there would be cinematic and DVD releases of rare and long forgotten Gothic related productions. Many of these releases were not only being re-mastered, but there would be some titles that would not have seen the light of day in some cases since their original showing in the cinema or transmission on television.
It was quite simply, the most exciting announcement of the year - well that is if you don't count the news of the new supermarket opening on the edge of the nearest town a few miles away (I live in the sticks, you see), and THAT was big news!
As part of the BFI's Gothic:The Dark Art of Film, the 28th October sees the release of a number of rare and long-thought lost examples of British Gothic televisual splendour. Two long-unseen archive TV titles, both of which are guaranteed to scare and delight in equal measure are the 1970 Play for Today entry Robin Redbreast and the few surviving, terrifying episodes of 1972’s Dead of Night television series.
In addition to those two offerings there is also a release of M R James’ Classic Ghost Stories (1986), narrated by Robert Powell, which include The Mezzotint, The Ash-Tree, Wailing Well, The Rose Garden and O, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.
If that wasn't enough to wet the Gothic juices any any self-respecting British horror buff then there is also a highly anticipated release of the BBC TV adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Schalcken the Painter (1979).
Now, like many people, I'm a very busy person with annoyances such as a day-time job, family matters and various other factors that life can invariably throw at me. Thereby impacting on what I love to do most of all i.e. immerse myself in a world of sci-fi, fantasy and horror. So when I received not one, not two, not three, but in fact all four of the preview discs (together with a veritable wealth of accompanying materials) for the titles that I've just mentioned previously, I was in a quandary of sorts. My options were two-fold: Firstly, I could say that I wouldn't have time to watch them all and subsequently review each title to my usual high standard of Pseudo - P.G.Wodehouse levels of genius. Secondly, I could forego such luxuries as sleep and bugger the consequences, thereby immersing myself in a genuine wealth of British televisual Gothic delight.
Of course, there was never a real consideration of the first option.
Robin Redbreast (1970)
It was the spring of 1984, me and my girlfriend of the time were travelling through an area of the New Forest in Dorset. It was an especially warm afternoon and feeling in need of some liquid refreshment we decided to stop off at the first cafe (or preferably) pub that we came across. After a short while we chanced upon a village, it was pretty, quiet and unremarkable in any way. In fact It was your perfectly normal Southern English country village - except for two things. Firstly, we tried two places to find something to eat and drink, a quiet little pub and a (very) small post office/cafe type of establishment. In both cases we both walked in and immediately the talking or whatever had been going on inside, stopped. The people turned to us and stared…….there was no malice or threat, they just silently stared. One shambolic attempt at small talk as we ordered our drink later resulted in a rather quick consumption of said beverage and we high-tailed it out of there. The Post office experience was also identical, having not learnt our lesson the task to get a postcard for our family met with the same silent (almost suspicious) response.
The second thing that happened was our subsequent attempt to get out of the village. It may be the hot sunny day, the all too quickly downed beer or a combination of both - but we couldn't find our way out of the village. There were roadworks and diversions everywhere it seemed, and for every road we travelled down there was a dead end, or another diversion. For 20 minutes we wandered around and around, until we finally found a way back onto the main A-road and for every one of those 20 minutes, each person we passed simply stride at us as if were something from another planet. I don't recall us ever being worried, though I do remember my ill-considered attempts at humour with my girlfriend, likening our experience to something from The Village of The Damned. or The Wicker Man. She failed to see the funny side - which I could tell from the silent reaction from her to me for the next 30 miles or so.
The experience I had (albeit rather tame) of the rather eccentric reactions from a remote country village to outsiders had a somewhat interesting effect on me. The experience that we had in the village (that may have been more in our heads at the time than anything) that could be examples of more extreme cases of a community separated both geographically and socially (and spiritually) has stayed with me for many years. I'm not the only one to have pondered on what consequences could take place when the old world of tradition and folklore collides with the new modern world and it's fancy ideas, as the aforementioned classics of horror will testify.
Consequently, I could barely contain my joy when the BFI let it be known that a television drama that not only dealt with those very issues, but had itself long since become part of entertainment folklore of mythic proportions, was going to be released. Robin Redbreast originally aired part as BBC's long-running Play for today series on 10th December 1970 and originally gained fame, not just for it's electrifying content, but for being the first of the series ever to be repeated on television a year later on 25th February 1971.
Ever since then, the television broadcast has never been seen - and I mean never. The aura that surrounds this sublime piece of folk-horror and the critical and audience reception it received at the time, together with it's possible thematic influence on The Wicker Man means that perhaps of all the re-released classics this is the one that many of us Gothicheads have been anticipating the most.
The plot of Robin Redbreast was inspired in part by a real case of a 1945 murder of a farmer in Warwickshire, who was discovered in a field with a cross carved onto his face and his body impaled into the soil by his pitchfork. Norah Palmer (Anna Cropper) is a successful television script editor who temporarily runs away to the perceived sanctuary of a remote English country village. The outwardly confident and liberated woman is actually rather vulnerable and emotionally drained as she attempts to rebuild her life after breaking up from her long-term boyfriend. At first, she finds that the villagers are friendly and plainly traditional in their beliefs, if a little eccentric. Soon after arriving in the community Norah strikes up a friendship of sorts with the good-looking young farmer, Edgar, who far some unknown reason, the villages call Rob. When she becomes pregnant to the handsome (but very naive and rather boring) Rob, she begins to suspect the locals of conspiring against her - particularly the strange self-taught village intellectual man called Fisher. Something, or someone in the village is attempting to stop her from leaving the community for her home in London - but what do they want with her?
One cannot escape the comparisons and possible influence on Robin Hardy's truly sublime The Wicker Man which came three years after this production. I really don't know whether Robin Redbreast directly influenced the story of the doomed Sgt Howie on the Hebridean island of Summerisle, so I don't wish to assume either way. However the influence in some form, direct or indirect, is plain to see.
In both Robin Redbreast and The Wicker Man we witness, a true outsider travelling to remote community where life revolves around the all important bountiful crops and harvest that are seemingly essential for the community's survival. While both characters are similar in some ways - both Norah and Sgt Howie are resolute in their beliefs (she is a liberated & modern woman, he a highly strung Christian ), both characters make the fundamental error of underestimating the locals and failing to see that actually us is not they are in control of their own destiny, until it proves too late. In addition, there is the presence in each community of a key figure who seem to be moving proceedings along, much to the incomprehension of the outsiders. Fisher and Lord Summerisle may be very different personalities - Bernard Hepton may lack the genuine charisma of Christopher Lee but he more than makes up with his cunning and distinctly cold demeanour. Both leaders are at the very centre of the whole proceedings, carefully manoeuvring the outsiders around like human chess pieces.
The writing and acting is without doubt of the class that you would associate with a BBC production from 'the golden age of television'. John Bowen's script is has some delicious passages of word play - particularly from the always excellent Bernard Hepton who is mesmerising and simply steals each scene he is in. Anna Cropper as Norah is a worthy lead who more than holds her own in a part especially written for her by Bowen. Her performance builds upon the powerfully written character with subtle shifts in emotion ranging from the outward strength of a modern woman from the city to a vulnerable and confused outsider in the village.
In addition, Andrew Bradford provides in incredible performance of the naive and perplexing Rob who (despite of his disastrous attempts at what he naively regards as intelligent conversation) chases and entices Norah.
Robin Redbreast, with its emphasis on clever and subtle dialogue expertly brought to life by the cream of acting talent is a triumph of Folk-Horror. It simply has to be watched more than once to appreciate the layer upon layer of building tension.
For any of you who may be put-off by the nature of the production - the format of a wordy play taking place predominately in an interior setting - well don't be. There me be little physical action taking pace on screen, but this is intelligent, thought provoking Gothic drama that is both skilfully written and acted. The clever build up of Psychological tension keeps you guessing until the final and somewhat unexpected climax of the story. The final moments of Robin Redbreast are simply stunning. There is no other adjective that I could use.
DVD information and Special Features
- The production is presented in its original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The original broadcast was in colour, however thanks to the cost of new recording tape hundreds upon hundreds of productions between the 1950's and 1980's were lost forever after the original broadcast reels were wiped in order for them to be re-used. Consequently, all that remains of this production is the black and white 16mm telerecording which was made available especially to the BFI by the BBC. Despite the obvious effect is has on the production, it does little to detract from the experience of watching and enjoying such a legendary piece of work as this.
- Interview with John Bowen (2013) - The writer talks about the origins and production of the piece and gives a brief insight into his varied career.
- Short film about village life - Around the Village Green (1937, Evelyn Spice and Marion Grierson). When first seeing the title and basic description of this 11 minute film it seemed nothing more than a quaint, nostalgic piece of what to many is a traditional evocation of traditional English village life. Great pains are made in the film to get across the message that even in fast changing technological and industrial Britain of the early twentieth centre, some traditions remain regardless. On it's own Around the Village Green may serve perfectly as a vehicle to produce a nostalgic picture of a traditional small community existence bravely holding out against the fast encroaching influence of the outside world. However, included in this collection alongside Robin Redbreast it also serves to take on a whole new ominous and seditious undertone in it's message.
- Booklet with new essays, biographies and credits.
Coming up in part 2 of Gothic: The Dark Heart Of Film
Dead of Night (1972)
Classic Ghost Stories by M R James (1986)