DVD REVIEW: RED SHIFT / CERT: PG / DIRECTED: JOHN MACKENZIE / SCREENPLAY: ALAN GARNER / STARRING: STEPHEN PETCHER, LESLEY DUNLOP, MYRA FRANCES, JAMES HAZELDINE, MICHAEL ELPHICK / RELEASE DATE: OCTOBER 13TH
Based on Cheshire-born author Alan Garner’s 1973 children’s novel, 1978’s television adaptation of Red Shift was one of the rare forays into ‘fantasy’ from the BBC’s single drama Play For Today strand which ran from 1970 to 1984. It’s a story which takes place across three different time periods and its three male protagonists are all troubled young men whose fates and destinies seem to be entwined with the fate of an old axe-head which has survived across the centuries and been inadvertently passed down between them. But there’s no outlandish time travel here, no meeting of minds across the centuries - just an irresistible sense of history repeating itself in the lives of three men separated by the ages.
Tom (Petcher) and Jan (Dunlop) are two contemporary youngsters being pulled in opposite directions. Tom is a romantic dreamer; Jan is ambitious and about to head off to University. Macey (Andrew Byatt) and his fellow Roman soldiers are disorientated deserters and they slaughter the inhabitants of a stockaded village and capture, imprison and abuse a young girl. In the time of the English Civil War, Thomas Rowley (Charles Bolton) and his wife are living quietly when their village is besieged by royalist soldiers in search of traitorous village leader John Fowler (Hazeldine). The thread that binds the stories of the three men is Macey’s buried axe-head, exhumed by Fowley and dubbed a “thunderstone” and later found by Tom and Jan home where Fowley had secreted it centuries before.
By 1978 BBC standards Red Shift is a sprawling, ambitious production. It may seem stilted and dated to modern eyes - ironically it’s the 1978 sequences, with Tom and Jan and their terribly pretentious relationship and Tom’s stuffy, repressed parents, which look more antiquated than the Roman and Civil War recreations. The latter are surprisingly vivid and realistic, studded with sharp and brutal violence and with a real sense of short lives lived violently. The three central characters share a dreamy wistfulness which subtly suggests their unspoken connection across the years, brought together by the axe-head and their proximity to the location of the village of Mow Cop and its overlooking ruined 18th century castle. Macey, Thomas and Tom are bound as much by where they lived their lives as the way they lived them and the axe-head which passes into and through the lives ties them together without any of them ever knowing that the others have existed or will exist.
Red Shift is a compelling and contemplative drama, typical of Garner’s tradition of light fantasy tales derived from and permeated with the traditions and values of classic British folk lore. His stories are about places and history as much as people - his best-known work is probably the disturbing Owl Service, which became a memorable 1969 children’s series on ITV. Red Shift is oddly haunting and a little disquieting and this beautiful new transfer from the BFI more than does justice to a film which, like much of Garner’s output, is utterly distinctive and original.
Extras: Souvenir booklet, 1972 Alan Garner documentary, 20-minute Cheshire travelogue, interviews