Friday 11 November 2016

We Don't Go Back #11: Robin Redbreast (1970)

First things first. Most of the pertinent thoughts I had about Robin Redbreast depend on how it ends.

I've not been shy about sharing the endings of films, and when I get to The Wicker Man the whole piece is basically going to be about how it ends and everyone who's likely to read that post knows how The Wicker Man ends anyway. But Robin Redbreast is several degrees more obscure, so the second part of my analysis, the part that deals with the play's ending, is going to be on a different page.
It is obscure. It is. I'm only watching it myself because of a recommendation from my friend Jon Dear (and thanks to Jon for that; this is an excellent film). And part of Robin Redbreast's obscurity is that it's an example of a uniquely British archaeology.

It was broadcast as part of the BBC's Play for Today strand (which would later include Penda's Fen) in 1970. Although it was shown in colour, the BBC, being a state broadcaster in a time of austerity, did not keep an archive (it wasn't just the BBC; the ITV channels did it too). Video tape was, proportionately, very expensive and the BBC, to keep costs down, had a policy of junking old broadcasts and reusing the tape. This was long before home video became a thing; often, programmes might be repeated once and if you missed them, you missed them.

Television drama was seen as being a lot like theatre. You made an appointment to catch it. Certainly, few people thought that anyone might want to see these things again once they'd been broadcast. This seems short sighted now, since it means that a whole lot of fondly remembered TV from the 50s through to the 70s was lost.

Sometimes, if a programme was thought worth selling on to a foreign broadcaster, they'd make some black and white film copies – literally made by pointing a camera at a screen – and over the years archivists and dedicated enthusiasts have found these copies, and returned them to the archives, where many of them have been restored and, eventually, offered for domestic release.

These recovered remnant copies are in a very solid sense ghosts. The ghosts of old television.1

The most famous example of this is of course Doctor Who,  of which 97 episodes are still missing, but beloved shows like Dad's Army and Adam Adamant Lives! and Out of the Unknown and Steptoe and Son remain incomplete, and often more incomplete, since they don't have organised fanbases hunting missing episodes down.

So here we have the ghost of a television play, the grey-shrouded remnant of a form that no longer exists.
It's just a marble, cut in half. 
It's 1970, after the sexual revolution has entered its peak, some time before AIDS ended it. Norah works in television. She's a script editor. She's 35, urbane and smart and a tiny bit cynical. A relationship of eight years has ended with her alone and empty, rudderless, directionless. Her friends, who, as she says herself later on, she doesn't even like all that much, find it all faintly amusing. It's clear they don't care about her beyond someone to shoot the breeze with.

She buys a cottage out in the country. There she meets a succession of local characters. Mrs Vigo, who comes to clean and knows everything that happens in these parts. Mr Fisher the lay reader, an amateur archaeologist who comes to root around in Norah's garden for potsherds and who tells her a curiously unsettling story without an obvious point about how her house has always housed single women and trapped birds.

Norah finds half of a large glass marble, a cat-eye, on her windowsill. She takes it inside, to the approval of Mrs Vigo and Mr Fisher.

She has mice. Mrs Vigo tells her to go find Rob, the gamekeeper.

She turns up as he's doing exercises. He's nearly naked, and he's in beautiful condition. She watches him, appraising, before he realises she's there and, embarrassed, she retreats.

And this is at the heart of the story. John Bowen's2 script continually engages with the question of Norah's agency. She is independent, strong and all of those other attributes which mean something else when attached to a man.

She invites Rob to dinner. He's got nothing in common with her – his hobbies, things like armchair history and mail-order Kung-fu, are the province of boys. He bores her. But circumstances remind her that she's lonely and horny, and she sleeps with him anyway.

He admits he's never had a girlfriend, and although he's been with girls, he's always felt that he's been "collected", and of course he has been again.
She gets pregnant. She plans on getting an abortion, vacillates, doesn't follow through and then it's too late.

And then she finds herself stuck in the village.

Her phone cuts off (and anyway she doesn't have anyone other than her worthless friends, and they don't care). Her car breaks down and the new distributor cap takes forever to arrive. The bus stops wherever she's not standing.
A sexually charged dream.
It dawns on her far, far too late that something is terribly wrong.

The big question that Robin Redbreast asks is how independent and free Norah is. It's her gaze that initiates the plot; it's her singleness that brought her here in the first place. To look into that further though, I'll have to spoil the ending.

(Here is the discussion of the play's end.)
Robin Redbreast starts out as a pretty standard drama of its day. It even looks a tiny bit shoddy. But as it progresses, it grows more and more eerie, more and more sinister. As a story it's absolutely satisfying. Everything fits together, everything leads to an end that... I can't say.

It's unsettling and strange, and all the more so for how matter-of-fact it is. I can't imagine what it must have been like to tune in, expecting perhaps a comic drama about a city woman and country people... and then, this appeared, a blindside. It ticks all the folk horror boxes, and its oddness lingers, all the more so because of its "found" status, its place as one of television's ghosts.

1For months now I've been knocking around the idea of writing a ghost story centred around the finding of a lost piece of television, actually. You'll see it when I get there. (back)

2John Bowen also wrote The Ice House, which I wrote about before. Having seen Robin Redbreast, I'm more inclined than ever to look upon The Ice House's eerie, stilted quality as deliberate. (back)