Released for the first time on DVD, the BBC's 1970 drama is a disturbing film concerning the grim underbelly of sinister rural rituals, and those that adhere to them.
The subject matter of James MacTaggart’s terrific black-and-white drama Robin Redbreast, first broadcast in 1970 as part of the much-missed BBC Play for Today strand, represents two specific subgenres of fictional horror: the first, typified best by excellent films such as Deliverance (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Calvaire (2004), focuses on the rural threat posed to trusting outsiders, those unversed in the apocryphal “country ways” and oblivious to the terrible, secret violence committed by remote, self-governing communities that remain untouched by mainstream rules and order. In these cinematic realms, the distant wilderness often affords the perpetrators of such misdeeds a chilling anonymity, too.
The second is more rarefied and uniquely English, and concerns itself with Paganism, folksy rural tradition and the ominous and eccentric insularity of England’s countryside inhabitants. Certainly, it would be incomprehensible to think that Robin Redbreast didn’t provide a strong influence for Robin Hardy’s genre-defining British "folk horror" film The Wicker Man, for example, which arrived three years later and is similarly preoccupied with rural superstitions, ancient fertility rights and the danger both of them pose to unheeding city dwellers who pooh-pooh such beliefs as medieval, unenlightened mumbo-jumbo.
Robin Redbreast stars the brilliant Anna Cropper (also seen in “The Exorcism”, an episode of the recent BFI anthology release Dead of Night) as Norah Palmer, a plummy, urbane and straight-talking television script editor. Newly single after the breakdown of a long-term relationship, Norah temporarily relocates from London to a desolate cottage deep in the English countryside. However, the fresh start she pines for turns into a great challenge after it becomes clear that she must constantly negotiate her fraught relationship with the strange inhabitants of the local village, many of whom speak in semi-riddles, some of which take on a rather sinister tone.
Veteran genre specialist John Bowen provides a clever script full of metaphor and analogy, perfectly pitched between ambiguity and outright spookiness. For example, an early scene features the creepy villager and softly-spoken know-it-all Mr Fisher (Bernard Hepton, also seen in the fabulous 1989 TV adaptation of The Woman in Black), who invites himself into Norah’s garden to search for archaeological relics, only to slowly circle her like predator and prey, his quiet and seemingly innocuous dialogue littered with oblique references to country living, yet all seemingly pregnant with double meaning: his talk of “birds trapped in the house” and “fishermen hunting for clams, that give their whereabouts away by making blowholes in the sand” can certainly be construed as veiled threats. It’s a terrific and unnerving sequence, beautifully performed by Hepton and Cropper, and greatly exacerbating the feelings of vulnerability that Norah is already struggling with. (A later scene featuring Fisher has Norah discovering half a coloured marble on the exterior windowsill of her kitchen, obviously placed there deliberately. “Looks just like an eye”, remarks Fisher with a hint of malice, alluding to Norah being watched).
Despite not being an overt horror film, Robin Redbreast is nevertheless full of unsettling moments such as these. Another features Jake (Julian Holloway), one of Norah’s close friends in London. Jake views Norah’s new country life as boring and unsuitable for her, so he embarks on a selfish campaign to unsettle her so much that she’ll consider moving back to the city; his plan reaches its apotheosis when he corners Norah and talks gently and ominously of the rural wind, of the noise it makes as it blows through the trees at night, sounding like “voices, like frightened women, a child”. It’s a great monologue, performed very effectively by Holloway.
Still, Norah would have done well to have listened to Jake’s advice, because as the film progresses it becomes clear that bit-by-bit her access to, and contact with, the outside world is being purposely hindered, until it finally dawns on her that she may indeed be trapped. If so, for what nefarious reason?
The journey to this point has been slow and insidious. Initially, Norah’s car is rendered suspiciously immobile, and her efforts to commission a repair are deflected by the townsfolk with endless excuses regarding the unavailability of spare parts; then, attempts to call for help on the telephone are thwarted too, as Norah can only be connected to an outside line via the village operator, who simply cuts her off each time, without a word. The postmaster also joins in with the subterfuge, holding back a personal letter Norah drops off at the post office, and even a last ditch dash to catch an infrequent bus out of the village fails after the vehicle inexplicably deviates from its usual route, deliberately bypassing the scheduled stop that Norah waits at. Paranoia fast becomes the order of the day, and with good reason.
With every avenue of escape exhausted, Norah’s predicament now seems unequivocally the result of a subtle, sinister and collective conspiracy to keep her in the village. What makes this chilling realisation all the more potent is the fact that Norah is initially portrayed as a strong, intelligent and independent female character, so her subjugation at the hands of the weird locals seeming particularly powerful and unsettling. (That said, in a rare moment of humour, Norah reclaims some of her feminist chutzpah when she threatens Rob, the village’s creepy, virile young buck, pointing a kitchen knife at his groin and commenting: “I don’t know much about killing people, but I do know where the most delicate, hurtful parts are”).
However, one spark of quasi-comedic brevity can’t combat the pervasive bleakness of the film. Robin Redbreast dates from a period when quality programming was commonplace on mainstream British television, and like many other supernatural and gothic-themed films held in the BBC’s archives, this example is typically intelligent, disturbing, full of great performances and very highly recommended indeed.
As with nearly all BFI releases, the disc’s extras are very good. They include an interview with the film’s scriptwriter Bowen, Around the Village Green, an interesting 1937 short film about economic and social life in an English village, and also a comprehensive illustrated booklet featuring various essays, biographies and credits.