GEEK VAULT: Robin Redbreast (1970)

Robin Redbreast is a slightly more esoteric TV play than our last Geek Vault subject The Stone Tape. It didn’t really influence anything, and its only claim to fame is that it was the only Play for Today to be repeated – though that was due to industrial action during it’s original transmission in 1970, rather than any critical acclaim. It is however an unsettling slice of British TV drama, one that deals with the rise of modernity and the reaction of the old ways in the face of creeping culture clash. With the recent release of The Witch and last year’s The Falling, folk-horror is having a minor renaissance, so it is well worth having another look at an interesting take on the genre from the Seventies.

It starts with Norah, a TV script editor, in the throes of a very modern break-up with her long term lover (this was the 1970s and lover was a less cringe inducing term). In the settlement she gets an old cottage and decides to take a break from her career and stay in the cottage for a while. There she meets Mrs Vigo, the housekeeper (who in a weirdly Shining-esque way appears to have always been the housekeeper and always will be) who speaks in non-sequiturs and oddly opaque phrases.

She also meets Fisher, a local amateur archaeologist who asks permission to search for “sherds” (pieces of pot) in the cottage garden. He also has that strange over-familiar yet slightly intimidating nature familiar to anyone who has seen The Wickerman. Of him, Mrs Vigo says “Oh, he am a learned fellow, Fisher. You can’t tell what he means.” This is one of the neatest tricks that the writer John Griffith Bowen plays with the viewer. Mrs Vigo and Fisher say a lot of things that don’t make a lot of sense but which turn out to be completely true. Later when a bird gets into Norah’s chimney, Fisher points out the broken drain pipe and that it looks like someone has been on the roof. “Careless,” is all Mrs Vigo can say, an odd phrase but also an out and out admission that they know full well someone put the bird there and that it was careless of them to leave a trace. At no point do Mrs Vigo and Fisher hide what they are doing and fully give the impression that if Norah would only ask them, they would tell her. But she doesn’t, because she’s urban and clever and superior, and then later scared and grateful.

Robin Redbreast - Robin and Norah

Robin Redbreast – Robin and Norah

Soon she meets Rob (Robin) a handsome young man first seen practicing karate in the woods (this scene is actually pretty unintentionally funny for modern audiences. I’m guessing the karate proactive would have marked Rob out as exotic to a viewer in 1970 but not so much these days). She learns from Mrs Vigo (who it later turns out fostered the young orphan whose real name is Edgar but everyone calls Robin for dark reasons) that he works for the Forestry Commission (there is a small subplot about the Forestry Commission mishandling Britain’s historic woodlands) and lives in the woods. He is much younger than Norah and much duller – his sole topic of conversation is the Third Reich, though sweetly this is because he heard that the best way to be an interesting conversationalist is to know a lot about one thing – but Norah is a modern woman and a creepy night with the aforementioned bird in the chimney throws them together. Norah of course can’t find her contraception (Mrs Vigo!) and so falls pregnant.

She returns to London pursued by Rob who proposes but is rejected. He reveals that he has been offered passage to Canada (by Fisher) and will go there if he is not wanted.  They say goodbye and Norah tries to avoid him when, heavily pregnant, she returns to the cottage to put her affairs in order before returning to London for good. But it seems she can’t leave. Her car is broken and won’t be fixed until after Easter. Busses won’t stop for her. Her phone stops working. She gets more and more paranoid until one night when Rob is there to talk one last time they realise the cottage is surrounded. Noises in the night keep them trapped, all the while Norah knows they are coming for her and her baby. Villagers eventually break in, armed and Norah faints.

When she comes round she find Fisher and Mrs Vigo there. They explain that there was an incident in the night but everything is fine now. Rob has gone, left for Canada. They laugh at the idea that they were after her, “What good would a woman’s blood be to the soil? It needs a man,” says Mrs Vigo ominously. They talk and Fisher shows his learning, expounding on The Golden Bough, that great anthropological survey of sacrifice and ritual. He talks about Robins in British folklore and the need to renew the soil with blood. He offers to find a home for her baby if she doesn’t want it, maybe with Mrs Vigo, maybe they’ll call it Robin.

In the final scene as Norah is driven away, back to London, she turns and looks back at the cottage and see’s Mrs Vigo, Fisher and two villagers transformed into medieval garb, Fisher sporting the horns of Herne the Hunter, or the Horned God. The old ways prevail.

Robin Redbreast is big on a sense of unease rather than out and out horror. It plays with British folklore and rural traditions and the seeming non-sensical becomes haunting. In one scene Norah finds a marble in the garden which she brings into her kitchen. Mrs Vigo seems to imply that outside things should not be brought inside and that this has broken some sort of natural law, a feeling that grows when the marble turns up as Fisher’s glasses in a dream Norah has.

The play also makes great work of the ideas of modernity versus tradition, the new versus the old, money versus fertility. Norah is wealthy, successful, intelligent but it doesn’t seem to matter much when coming up against the ritualistic, rural world of Fisher. It’s not so much that he’s one move ahead more that he’s playing a much older version of the game, one whose simplicity and brutal logic trumps the new rules. Norah is their patsy and the writing isn’t 100% sure whether she’s a victim or she deserves it.

This isn’t to say the play is somehow critical of modern women. All of Norah’s “set” back in London are vapid and shallow. The play is more critical of metropolitan elites, those who have become alienated from the source of their food, the materials that build their houses, the rural backbone of the country. Norah embodies this but also begins to learn. As the story develops she becomes more estranged from her London friends, fascinated by the workings of her new community in spite of her old friends’ scorn. At times she is like a grateful lamb walking towards her fate, holding Mrs Vigo’s hand because this new life is so much more real than the one she left behind in London.

Robin Redbreast remains an interesting curio. A minor folk-horror classic and an example of the kind of mainstream television programming that was the norm in the late-1960s and early-1970s it is well worth a watch and is now available from the BFI on DVD.

GS Blogger: Bobby Diabolus

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