Review: Robin Redbreast / Cert: 12 / Director: James MacTaggart / Screenplay: John Bowen / Starring: Anna Cropper, Bernard Hepton, Julian Holloway, Andy Bradford / Release Date: October 28th
As any Doctor Who fan will tell you, it’s a great shame that thousands of hours of television are now lost, due in part to the habit of wiping and recording over tapes that was predominant amongst British broadcasters prior to the mid 1970s (we can only continue to pray that the 2,854 missing episodes of Crossroads will turn up one day). So the efforts of the British Film Institute (amongst others) in unearthing and preserving some of the forgotten and little-seen gems of that era are to be welcomed and Robin Redbreast (1970), written by John Bowen, is one such title.
An episode of the BBC’s once essential flagship drama series, Play for Today, it tells the story of Norah Palmer (Cropper), a script editor who moves into a cottage in the countryside following the breakdown of a relationship. She meets and is attracted to Rob (Bradford), the local gamekeeper, a meeting that acts as a catalyst for a series of events that gradually convince her that the locals mean to harm her and have no intention of letting her leave.
Ahead of its release much has been made of the influence Robin Redbreast may have had on Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man (1973). However, fans of the latter would be best advised to tread carefully before shelling out their hard-earned on this basis as, although similar themes and plot devices are present in both, Robin Redbreast has neither the horrific ingenuity of Hardy's film nor does it pack the visceral punch of The Wicker Man’s cruel and devastating conclusion.
What it does have are some fine performances, particularly from Bernard Hepton as the disconcerting village leader Fisher. It also has James MacTaggart, a director who largely succeeds in creating 77 minutes of television that is atmospheric and sometimes eerily surreal, even if it does portray most of the country folk as clichéd simpletons, easily influenced by the charismatic Fisher because he happens to read books.
One of the play’s most intriguing but ultimately disappointing aspects is the way in which it sets up the possibility that Norah’s fate is inescapably bound up in her nature. This is summed up most neatly in Fisher’s talk of pigeons getting trapped in the cottage after flying down the chimney: “They should have known that they had a way out, but being mere birds, didn’t.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite come off, as the villager’s scheme relies to some extent on happenstance and unfortunately this robs the play of some of its power.
However, dated in execution though it might be, the play's themes are still highly relevant and even if it promises more than it actually delivers, it is an interesting exploration of our fear of and fascination with the irrational as well as the tyranny of tradition. Like The Wicker Man and Shirley Jackson’s equally powerful short story The Lottery, this can be most disturbing when it is hidden in plain sight amongst that which seems safe and mundane. When it then emerges to challenge the rationalist view of the world that many of us like to think we subscribe to, it’s disturbing to be faced (like Nora) with the realisation that few of us actually do.
Extras: An interview with writer John Bowen (12 minutes) / A short film looking at changing aspects of village life (11 minutes) /A booklet of essays and biographies /Also an Easter Egg of sorts in the form of the 1967 test card (the slightly creepy one of the little girl and her clown doll)