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Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Red Shift (1978) - part of the BFI's Sci-Fi: Days of Fear & Wonder season.

The 13th October 2014 sees the next instalment of DVD releases as part of the BFI's Sci-Fi: Days of Fear & Wonder season. Once again the release is yet another cracker, one I've been wanting to see for some considerable time after missing out on the original broadcast which first appeared when I was a mere slip of a boy.

The film in question is the long renowned Red Shift, a film by Alan Garner and John Mackenzie, which was a BBC Play for Today, first broadcast in those now far off days in 1978.

If this current season from the BFI, as well as last years wonderful Gothic: The Dark heart of Film, has taught us anything at all, is the colossal amount of quality television output that encapsulates the 1970's - it truly was a golden period of quality TV and film output.
I'm no television industry expert but looking in from the outside it really does seem that the freedom to be daring and creative, not just in producing mainstream fare, but also producing innovative science fiction and horror is something that's been somewhat lost in the intervening years. Of course we have some stunning examples of excellent  SciFi output these days, but they are in the main the domain of the non-terrestrial channels. The 'traditional' channels are far more content nowadays to pander to the 'Reality TV' masses than produce something akin to the perfect example of creative freedom that is Red Shift.

So for your perusal and delectation, a synopsis, courtesy of the wonderful people at the BFI;

"Red Shift takes the viewer on a beguiling voyage through English history, spanning three distinct time periods: Roman Britain, the English Civil War and 1970s modern day. Garner’s story follows three troubled young men, Tom, Thomas and Macey, who occupy these different eras and are haunted by shared visions. They are also linked by a common location (Mow Cop in south Cheshire) and by the discovery of a mystical talisman: an ancient axe-head.
Exploring themes of mysticism, folklore and geography that are common in Alan Garner’s fantasy novels, Red Shift is a uniquely compelling Play for Today from the golden age of BBC drama."

Let's be clear from the start, for those who like their SciFi and fantasy to be of 'a battling in the stars with Close Encounters of every kind using lightsabres and warp speed', this is a rather different kind of science fiction story - but that doesn't mean that it lacks quality and excitement because of it. Quite the contrary in fact.

Red Shift is based upon the 1973 novel of the same name by Alan Garner which tells of three intertwining stories in Southern Cheshire that take place over a time span of a thousand years. I must admit to never having read the book myself, however it is now on my ever increasing to-do list of 'must read & must watch' after seeing this TV adaptation and reading a good deal of research background on the book and the themes within it. At this stage I can only imagine the problem that the makers of the Play for Today were faced with regarding the complexities of the multi-strand stories that were featured in the book. After all, literary works by their very nature find it much easier to weave complex themes into the narrative, something which for filmed dramatisations can lead to a myriad of obvious problems.

If that wasn't enough, the style of the writing is awash in the rich description of the history and landscape of the writer's native area very near to where the narrative intertwines in a complex tapestry of ancient myth, fantasy, folklore and factual history. Another challenge for any prospective filmmaker.

It is debatable that in this modern age of pandering to the lowest denominator of public taste as to whether any contemporary television filmmaker would have the time afforded by the channels in order to explore the various aspects of the source material. However, as I have previously alluded to, things were a little different back in the heady days of BBC 1970's. It is a decade that is often rightly ridiculed in terms of the social unrest, political landscape, fashion and at times truly awful music (yes Disco Duck, The Smurfs et al, I'm talking about you!). Yet it was also a time, particularly in terms of television and cinema, when innovative ideas were often given the green light without feeling the need for introducing focus groups or some random realty TV related nuance.

The Play for Today series belied it's rather mundane sounding name to become a true benchmark in quality television production for nearly 15 years until it finally disappeared from the schedules in 1984. Not only did it deal with social realist dramas and historical pieces, but it was also responsible for some exceptional elections of science fiction, fantasy and horror. Therefore it is no surprise that the complex landscapes and themes contained within Red Shift were supremely conveyed by director John Mackenzie when it was adapted in 1978 to great acclaim.

This adaptation perfectly conveys the story's engagement with mythology, fantasy and time as it tracks three different men during own distinct their time lines in and around the events and landscapes of Mow Cop, in Cheshire. The challenges of recounting these interconnecting tales of the three men, each with their own complex relationships with a woman and the role that an enigmatic axe-head with other worldly abilities plays are expertly conveyed in a tale that continually hints at ancient mythical influences. 

If Red Shift occasionally travels at a sedate pace, particularly during some of the quieter (though equally important) conversation exchanges in the modern day time line of Tom and Jan, there are nonetheless some authentically horrific scenes. One of these takes place in my favourite of the three time lines, during the English civil war period which, like many aspects of the story, is based on an actual historical event. In 1643 a troop of Royalists attacked the nearby village to Mow Cop, Barthomley, trapping much of the surviving population of men, women and children who were taking refuge in the church. In order to make a public example of the rebelling populace threatening the power of the king, they were all cruelly put to the sword after being publicly stripped naked.

The scenes in the film where this act took place are wonderfully staged, particularly effective is the scene of almost casual cruelty in which one of the captive men is nonchalantly shot in the face with a musket. It is a truly chilling part of the story.

It is not just the interconnecting characters and plot lines that work well here, but also the film's location - which thanks to the restoration by high definition transfer of the original print looks stunning. I will admit to being unfamiliar with this area of England but via Mackenzie's excitingly visual direction, I feel that I know the timeless everlasting landscape of Cheshire.

Red Shift is not only a testament to the qualities of television production of days gone by, it is also a fine example of intelligent and creative treatment of pure fantasy. Highly recommended.

If you require further enticement to buy the DVD of Red Shift, the BFI have produced a brand new short trailer which you can view by clicking on the link below.

DVD Special features

·         Brand new High Definition transfer
·         One Pair of Eyes: Alan Garner – All Systems Go (Lawrence Moore, 1972,
40 mins): an experimental, autobiographical documentary presented by Alan Garner
·         Interview with 1st Assistant Director Bob Jacobs and Film Editor Oliver White (2013, 5 mins)
·         Spirit of Cheshire (Kevin Marsland, 1980, 20 mins): Michael Hordern voices a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost on a journey to several Cheshire landmarks and tourist attractions
·         Illustrated booklet with extensive credits and newly commissioned essays from David Rolinson, Alan Garner, Michael Brooke, Paul Vanezis and Sergio Angelini

Product details

RRP: £19.99 / cat. no. BFIV2007 / Cert 12
UK / 1978 / colour / English language, with optional hard-of-hearing subtitles / 84 mins /
Original aspect ratio 1.33:1 / DVD9 / Dolby Digital 1.0 mono audio (192 kbps)

SCI-FI: DAYS OF FEAR AND WONDER will be the BFI’s biggest season to date, with over 1000 screenings of classic films and television programmes at over 200 locations across the UK.  It includes a three-month programme at BFI Southbank, from 20 October until 31 December 2014, with special events, guests and screenings right across the UK. With outdoor events at iconic British sites, classic Sci-Fi titles released into UK cinemas and on DVD and Blu-ray, 50+ films available online through BFI Player, a BFI Sci-Fi Compendium and much more, SCI-FI: DAYS OF FEAR AND WONDER, presented together with 02, will celebrate cinema’s most spectacular and visionary genre, exploring how the fear and wonder at its heart continues to inspire and enthral in one of the largest and most ambitious Sci-Fi projects ever created.

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