Robin Redbreast (1970)
Long dormant in the vaults of the BBC, Robin Redbreast is another welcome re-release from the British Film Institute. Originally broadcast in 1970, Robin Redbreast tells the story of Norah Palmer (Anna Cropper), a television script editor, who following a romantic break-up is left with a run down cottage in a remote country village.
Taking up residence, it isn’t long before she runs into the neighbours and let’s face it if they weren’t a weird bunch, I’d have nothing to write about. Mrs Vigo (Freda Bamford), the home help, has a habit of muttering about local ways while eviscerating chickens, Fisher (Bernard Hepton) the local historian knows a bit too much about ancient religious practices and then there is pest controller Edgar (Andrew Bradford) known to all the villagers as Robin. Norah first casts an admiring eye over the buff Edgar as he practices his Karate stripped down to his underpants.
Initially attracted to Edgar, Norah invites him to dinner, only to discover just how boring he can be when he gets on to his specialist subject of the Waffen SS. However, the villagers have contrived the means of putting the frighteners on Norah and they end up sharing a bed. Since Norah’s Dutch cap had mysteriously disappeared the day before, she ends up pregnant.
At the approach of Easter, the heavily pregnant Norah finds herself trapped in the village by the increasingly strange villagers; her car is sabotaged, the phone cut off, the local bus won’t stop for her and her letters to the outside world are held up by the subpostmaster. Yep, Anna is at the nexus of something ominous just as the new growing season is about to begin!
This is creepy stuff indeed and the linking of pagan practices to church festivals very nearly ensured that Robin Redbreast didn’t get beyond John Bowen’s script. Given that the Witchcraft Act of 1735 had only been repealed in 1951 and that the established church still had a lot of political clout back in the early 70s the BBC as a national institution was treading on risky ground. Equally controversial was Norah’s search for her missing Dutch cap, back in 1970 the very notion of a woman in charge of her own fertility was enough to send the powers that be at Broadcasting House into meltdown.
As for the production, as with much TV drama from the 60s and 70s it does creak a bit here and there, particularly the scenes with Norah’s friends in London. Anna Cropper is great as the confident career woman who finds herself entrapped in the village’s ways, while the villagers are convincingly weird without slipping into parody. Hepton is disturbingly creepy as Fisher. The basic premise of Robin Redbreast shares a lot of ground with The Wicker Man (1973), however it’s just a touch more scary because all this stuff is happening in a claustrophobic English village, right under our noses, rather than an isolated Scottish island.
I give it a 444.
First broadcast in colour, the transfer on the DVD is in monochrome as the BBC wiped the original video master tape and only a black and white 16mm print survived.
An interview with playwright John Bowen about the play, where we discover that the cottage used for location shooting on Robin Redbreast was his own.
Around the Village Green (1937), a short documentary film by Evelyn Spice and Marion Grierson taking a look at village life in the UK with a musical score by Benjamin Britten.
An illustrated booklet with essays by: Vic Pratt, William, Fowler, Oliver Wake and Alex Davidson.
BFI DVDs are available from retailers or by mail order from the BFI shop.
English village life seems particularly prone to a touch of black magic;
The Witches (1966): Teacher Gwen Mayfield flees Africa after a run in with the local witch doctor. She thinks she has landed on her feet with a cushy job at a private school in the village of Haddaby. I think you can see where this going. The Witches has recently been remastered for Blu-Ray release.
The Witches (1990): Ok I know it’s a kids’ film, but Anjelica Houston is just darkly fabulous as Miss Eva Ernst the Grand High Witch in Nick Roeg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story.
Night of the Eagle (1962)
Witchfinder General (1968)
The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Cry of the Banshee (1970)
Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)
The Wicker Man (1973)
A Field in England (2013)
Review by Simon Ball
Connect with Simon: @RealShipsCook or here.