Robin Redbreast gained the accolade of being the first Play For Today to get a repeat, just months after its initial broadcast. It's second and last screening on TV occurred in the February of 1971, yet it's deeply surreal and eerie narrative had firmly ingrained itself on many a TV lover's conscious and it's impact can still be clearly felt on many of a certain generation, either in idle chat down the pub - 'Anyone remember Robin Redbreast?', 'Yeah, what the bloody hell was that about?' - or in the works of that delightfully devilish quartet, The League of Gentlemen. It's writer, John Bowen, can take pride in creating a uniquely singular and disturbing TV event that is hard to shake off.
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Anna Cropper stars as Norah Palmer (a character who had previously appeared in Bowen's novel The Birdcage) a 35 year old distinctly middle class television script editor who has recently broke up with her lover. In an attempt to rebuild her life, she opts for that then modern fad for 'getting your shit together in the country', and takes up residence in an old cottage.
The village is typical in its folk horror tropes and the full array of odd and sinister locals are on display, including the learned, bespectacled and much admired Fisher (Bernard Hepton) the stout housekeeper Mrs Vigo (Freda Bamford) and Rob (Andrew Bradford) also known as Robin, whose attractiveness and half naked karate practice immediately catches Norah's eye.
She arranges a dinner date at her cottage with home one evening, but is dismayed to find he is dull and has poor social skills as befits his far from worldly character. Seduction is most definitely off the menu until she is frightened by a screaming bird in the chimney (just one of the many unwanted animal intruders the cottage is beset with) Comfort from Rob turns to sex, and Norah - whose dutch chap mysteriously vanishes for the night - falls pregnant. She begins to suspect that the villagers have arranged for this to happen, fearing she is their broodmare she returns to London, and her fey, urbane friends (Julian Holloway and Amanda Walker - playing the kind of characters still likely to appear in LoG alumni Shearsmith and Pemberton Inside Number 9) intent on having an abortion, but ultimately finds she cannot go through with it.
When she returns to the cottage, she is prevented by the locals from leaving before Easter Sunday, which they consider crucially important. Her car is sabotaged and her phone disconnected and she becomes convinced that she is going to be sacrificed in some Pagan ritual on that date. But the twist is that a woman's blood is no good for the land and the villagers plan is to sacrifice Rob. Indeed they have nurtured him, treated him like a king and pampered him all his life precisely for this fate, dismembered by axe, his blood used to enrich the soil and the next harvest - as in the Pagan legends of John Barleycorn, Robin of the Dale, Robin Hood and The Golden Bow. The villagers go on to explain to Norah that they want her child to be the 'new' Robin. She refuses and is finally allowed to leave the village, because no one would ever believe her tale. When she glances back, she sees that the locals have all been transformed into their pagan equivalents with Fisher resplendent in antlers as Herne the Hunter.
Fans of folk horror will love Bowen's tale, which treads a similar path to the more well known and celebrated productions like The Wicker Man. But Robin Redbreast stands apart from that illustrious contemporary in some clever and satisfying variations on the genre's themes. Take for example how open and blase the villagers are with Norah about what is going on; when she notices that a drainpipe has been pulled away from her house Fisher clearly and matter of factly states “I should say it was somebody on your roof”. He even goes on to more or less admit that her car has been deliberately sabotaged when he says “One would be bound to notice. To crack the rotor from the outside, as it were. With scissors, say.” This is not your typical villager conspiracy thriller, they're actively challenging Norah to join the dots at each turn, but Norah proves unable to do so for whatever reason and remains struck with fear at the red herrings instead, unable to see the bigger picture.
Sight too is a big metaphor within Bowen's tale and director James MacTaggart delights in some atmospheric visual motifs playing upon such a theme; be it a marble stone Norah finds and likens to an eye, Hepton's round spectacles, the eyes of dead animals or the truth of the conspiracy Norah cannot 'see' until that final moment even though they are in plain sight all around her.
Robin Redbreast has been released on the BFI label to DVD but many other classic Play For Today's remain languishing in the BBC vaults.
To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic plays please sign the petition I started here