The BBC for many years had a fairly impressive record when it came to horror based drama. Most notably classic series such as the annual Ghost Stories for Christmas (this has recently been re-released for the digital age thanks to the BFI). The BBC pushed the bar when it came to rendering their brand of creepy tales or horror on screen. It seems almost impossible to believe in this day and age with it’s over reliance on reality TV and soap operas that this was once the case. However not so long ago the BBC’s genre output was influential in building many young Brit’s love of horror. Speaking from a personal point of view my own love was crafted from my exposure to old Hammer classics, 50’s camp sci-fi, and the numerous plays and dramas, which were broadcast on the BBC as I was growing up.
Growing up in the late seventies- early eighties in Britain, television was not the cornerstone of home entertainment it is today. With a paltry four- three prior to the inception of Channel 4 in 1982- channels to flick through, channels that did not run 24/7, television was much more of an occasion than it has become in recent times. With such a short programming schedule and no competition, channels could be more selective in their output, and it could be argued the quality was far superior as a result. Which brings us to today’s topic Robin Redbreast which was originally aired in 1971 as part of the BBC Play for Today season. This once lost classic has thankfully been restored by the BFI; prior to this it just floated around in internet movie limbo on a badly copied VHS transfer complete with an ugly time code stuck in the corner for the duration.
Robin Redbreast concerns itself with the horror to be found in the old ways of the countryside; witchcraft, paganism, and small village life, become the focus of this creepy tale. In fact, this could almost be considered a forerunner to Robin Hardy’s seminal The Wicker Man (1973), with a few common threads running through the two productions. City professional Norah arrives at her recently purchased cottage in a small West Country village, in an attempt to rebuild her life after her relationship with her former partner has failed. Norah initially finds country life to be a much-needed recharge, happy that the pace is more relaxed than her life in London. However, when she employs the strange Mrs. Vigo as her housekeeper soon trouble starts to brew- and the new house attracts rodents and errant birds that fly down the chimney. Then when ominous neighbour Fisher keeps creeping around the property, it is not long before the Honeymoon period with country life comes to an abrupt end. Far from the peaceful retreat Norah had hoped it would seem everyone in the locality knows her business- an aspect she finds suffocating. When Norah finds herself set up on a ‘date’ with local lad Robin things take a turn into insanity. As our lead loses control of her life, and the locals will only communicate in riddles when she attempts to solve the mystery at hand, she decides it’s time to leave; that is if she can, the villagers seem to have other plans for her.
The play has a limited but strong cast. Being theatrical in nature there is a lot of emphasis on dialogue and heavy character development. The strong claustrophobic atmosphere is crafted ever so subtly through the conversations between the main protagonists. Robin Redbreast becomes an exercise in scares through what you don’t see, rather than anything explicit on the screen. On this level, it may lack the necessary thrills associated with normal genre affairs to satisfy all tastes. That is not to say the play is not without its moments; one such highlight comes in the form of a nightmarish dreamscape and its associated sinister imagery.
The central cast are all impeccable in their roles. Anna Cropper as the lead comes across as an initially self-assured, independent and worldly-wise woman who is unshakable; this leading to her downfall as she initially dismisses the villager’s odd behaviour. Her arrival at the village is documented by her interactions with the locals, and through a voice over narration recounting the letters she prepares for her friends back in the city telling them all about her new life. This approach gives viewers the benefit of not only listening to Norah’s conversations, but inviting them to be privy to her inner most thoughts and fears. Supporting players come in the form of Freda Bamford and Bernard Hepton as the weird old housekeeper who knows too much Mrs. Vigo and odd neighbour Fisher. Both characters are brilliantly crafted, right down to their lush country accents- there is always an air of the claw behind the glove when either appears on screen. As a result, these two key players lend the piece a very eccentric quality that makes it highly entertaining; especially in the way they evade Norah’s questions and present bizarre notions and country lore as if it is perfectly reasonable to behave in such a way. Andy Bradford steps in as Robin, the bewildered young boy who might know more than he lets on. Bradford’s character bringing a further air of mystery to the proceedings, while the dynamic between the young Robin and our heroine make for some comical moments.
Despite some of the more campy elements contained herein, fear and mystery remain very much at the heart of Robin Redbreast. The story is cleverly crafted, so it does not give too much too soon and ebbs along the lines of Norah’s very real world terrors- such as being alone at the age of 35, losing control, losing independence- and setting them parallel to aspects that may or may not be supernatural. Slow burning and totally gripping, the nihilistic edge, and strong British feel make this an outstanding piece of British TV history. Thankfully restored by the BFI this little gem might have been lost forever, but now it is available for all those who wish to view, on a DVD edition. Absorbing and enchanting stuff for those who love a slow burn in their horror, for lovers of British folk horrors, and fans of The Wicker Man, they certainly do not make them like this anymore that’s for sure.