Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Red Shift (1978)

God love the BFI. Another near forgotten treasure is released from the vaults this month; Red Shift is an adaptation of The Owl Service author Alan Garner's sci fi fantasy children's novel (and let's use the term children loosely) that appeared in the acclaimed Play For Today strand in 1978. It's a mark of the quality and distinction TV had at the time that the two plays that sandwiched Red Shift were David Hare's Licking Hitler and Jim Allen's The Spongers. Remember when the BBC gave a toss about intelligent drama and showcasing a variety of voices? This was then.

Time figures much in Red Shift. The story is set in South Cheshire and the slip roads leading to the M33 (the 'red shift' of the title; its triangular formation allegedly being something seen by the naked eye from space to have a red glow) and beyond, the hills of Mow Cop (the subject of today's Wordless Wednesday). But, whilst the setting may remain static, it literally shifts across three time periods; a heartfelt but strained romance in the 70s is our introduction and meat of the piece, before we flit back to a beleaguered militia coming into contact with a pagan goddess in Roman times and a bloodthirsty massacre during the English Civil War. 

In each segment the narrative focuses on a disturbed and troubled youth, Tom, Macy and Thomas, each linked by his location, the discovery of an axehead and 'visions' that appear like fits when words can no longer be summoned up. As you can see from such a description, it's a deeply elliptical and disturbing piece that neatly fits the burgeoning 70s preoccupation with folklore, the ancient characterisation of women having the ability to heal or hurt man, specifically when they are fated to hurt already, and paganism - an echo of which Garner appealingly suggests runs through the arteries of the modern day motorways that course through our ancient countryside. It commences like the standard fare one perhaps stereotypically expects from a Play For Today, depicting the 70s setting as little more than a tale of small town frustration featuring a verbose and intelligent yet clearly pained young man trapped by his overbearing yet well meaning parents as his modern thinking girlfriend looks set to move on thanks to a career opportunity in London. One can only imagine what the unexpecting viewers at the time thought with the sudden shift to a different timezone.

Directed beautifully by Long Good Friday director John Mackenzie and starring some truly excellent television actors including Lesley Dunlop, Bernard Gallagher, Ken Hutchison, James Hazeldine and Michael Elphick, BFI have restored the original print in crisp HD, present this beguiling headscratcher to a new generation.

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