This Play for Today is brought to DVD on 28 October for the first time as part of the BFI’s Gothic season. Written by veteran TV writer and playwright John Bowen and directed by John Mc Taggart, comes three years before cult film The Wicker Man and is said to be a key inspiration for the film, as well as sharing similarities with 1971’s Straw Dogs. Including as it does mysterious and dark pagan rituals, strange local villagers and the clash of modernity, represented by an outsider from the city, with traditional village life. A village life that as Vic Pratt explains in her insightful introduction- ‘Hunting for Sherds’ included in the DVD booklet, was increasingly under threat from encroaching suburban development, and which fiercely battled to keep local pagan rituals alive. And which also tied in with the steady growth of Wicca and pagan groups provoking fear and fascination.
In Robin Redbreast the outsider who poses a disruption to rural life is a 35 year-old sophisticated urbanite and TV script editor Norah Palmer, played with fierce intelligence and sensitivity by Anna Cropper (why she never got more central roles is a wonder). We first meet her after she has just gotten out of an exploitative eight year relationship, and is discussing with friends her plans to leave the city and escape to the country. Immediately Bowen and Mc Taggart lets us into Norah’s modern milieu surrounded by modern furnishings, with her fashionably dressed modern cynical and rather uncaring ‘friends’ Madge (Amanda Walker) and Jake (Julian Holloway). The dialogue also suggests how frank Nora and her friends are about talking about sex and the single life, as Norah notes she will “expected to be randy” now that she is a single middle-aged woman. And Jake later sardonically jokes about her getting sexually involved with a village local, experiencing the “rough touch of earth on her backside”. We also see that Norah is very unhappy having ‘wasted’ eight years of her life, and is desperately trying to find some meaning and purpose to her life.
When we cut to Norah in the village and at her cottage she almost immediately encounters people with a definite sense of purpose and meaning. A strange, learned and presumptuous local called Fisher (played with just the right amount of arrogant indifference by Bernard Hepton) asks to look for ‘sherds’ in her garden (as Bowen reveals in an interview on the DVD based on a personal incident), and then proceeds to look without the bewildered Norah’s permission. As Pratt also notes a sherd is a shard of ancient pottery which is appropriate as Fisher is a man who turns out to be dangerously committed to keeping the past alive, and his hunting for sherds is the first deceptively benign sign we get. Even his tweed suit and cap seem to belong to another era of country life. Norah’s idea of escaping to tranquillity is interrupted not only by this strange encounter, but also by the mice that infest her cottage which we see beforehand, alerting us that things are not quite so cosy in this village.
Fisher is not the only one who is presumptuous and a bit sinister, there’s Norah’s s disdainful housekeeper Mrs Vigo (A fine steely performance from Freda Bamford) who strongly and abruptly insists on taking the agnostic Norah to church for the traditional Harvest Festival, despite Norah’s protests, and disapproves of Norah’s ‘modern thinking’. She also seems to know far too much about Norah than normal, later arousing Norah’s suspicion that she’s interfering in her life. She also encounters Rob (Andrew Bradford) the athletic gamekeeper, who we first see indecently dressed in his pants practicing karate on a wooden post, a symbol of virile masculinity. Rob is a rather dim man who thinks that specialising in the subject of SS officers will make him appear intelligent to people and women like Norah, who soon goes off him after briefly flirting with him.
He reappears in her life when she is frightened by a dead bird that comes through the chimney, something that Fisher tellingly warns about (her fear and the strangeness of her surroundings represented by a blurring zooming in and out camera). He rushes into comfort her and soon they are hopping into bed, only she can’t mysteriously find her diaphragm cap (a very risqué thing to show and mention at the time, not to mention Norah’s desire just to sleep with Rob rather than also be in a relationship with him, which meant this episode also didn’t get made) and she falls pregnant. The scene in which Rob comes down to London to plead with her not to have an abortion is particularly touching and also again quite risqué in its feminist themes (she is even shown later smoking while pregnant), as she assertively puts it: “Seed is just seed Rob is doesn’t give you any rights!” But you also see again how vulnerable she is “mixed up” in her feelings about the unborn child and seeing this as perhaps her last chance to be a mother.
Back in the country side the heavily pregnant Norah is shown as increasingly vulnerable, stalked by a desperate Rob outside her house demanding to come in. She is also trapped there when her car mysteriously breaks down and no-one can help her, her phone-line goes dead (her uncaring friends presuming that she’s alright, while Madge remarks in a very caustic remark that the phone-line going dead means they won’t be ‘bothered’ by her anymore, increasing the sense of danger we feel Norah is in), her panicked letter asking her friends to rescue her goes undelivered and the bus won’t pick her up. And when the seemingly aggressive Rob busts into her house he is just as frightened as she is when they both realise there are more trying to enter the house, all of which leads to a dark dénouement (based on an actual reported incident, so chillingly not that far-fetched) which I won’t spoil here.
The episode gradually builds up the sense of fear and strangeness in the village well, subverting Norah’s and the urbanite’s view of it as relaxing and homely, while also showing how indifferent and cruel ‘civilised’ city life can be. It also serves as a nice introduction to the Play for Today series, historically valuable when considering that much of that series has sadly been lost (the original colour version of Robin is for instance lost, this black and white telerecording being a lucky salvage); and shows just how much the BBC was willing to take risks at the time. It also showcases the great acting talents of underrated British actors like Cropper and Hepton who were never famous on the big screen, but shine here on the small screen. Well worth a watch.