By night, car taillights recede into the distance, a pattern of shifting red. By day, Tom and Jan sit by the M6, the camera shifting towards them as the vehicles race past. Tom has the answers to where he is and can describe the movement, cars travelling south on a continental shelf slowly drifting across the surface of a planet rotating as it orbits a star trapped in a galaxy itself rotating as it falls towards distant Andromeda, but his clever connection of the motorway to the M31 galaxy will soon mean nothing.
Jan has been trying to hint towards it, trying to prepare him for what she has to tell him, but Tom is refusing to initiate the conversation, leaving her know choice. Aware that she will soon be studying nursing in London, what Tom doesn’t want to know is that she won’t be coming home at weekends; instead, her whole family is moving again, and he will be without her.
For Tom, this is not just a sundering of his relationship with his girlfriend, it is taking away the safety net which keeps him sane, the only respite from which he can escape the caravan he shares with his parents where his privacy is nothing more than a curtain drawn across the alcove he calls his bedroom.
With his father, the sergeant-major wrapped around her finger, Tom’s mother is a nosey prude, jealous of his education and his opportunity, waiting for an opportunity to drive a wedge between him and Jan which she now delights in taking.
When the seafood Tom’s father has prepared disagrees with Jan, it is the excuse she has been looking for to accuse: “You’ve not done anything to bring shame on us, have you?” No, they haven’t, and in the argument that follows Jan vents her own anger defending Tom, but he is unable to, accustomed to suppressing a rage that echoes back and forth through time.
It was in 1973 that Alan Garner published Red Shift, his fifth novel and the first to consciously refuse the label of an author of books for children he had carried since his fantasy The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was published in 1960 to huge critical and commercial success.
Adapted by the BBC as a Play for Today originally broadcast on Tuesday 17th January 1978 and now released on DVD by the BFI, the accompanying special features to Red Shift include a 1972 documentary on Garner, One Pair of Eyes: All Systems Go, which explains “Now he writes for anyone, child or adult, who cares to read him and has the imagination to cope.”
Closely following 1967’s The Owl Service, adapted over eight episodes almost a decade before by ITV, Garner explores modern adolescent relationships through the past, there with the medieval Welsh folklore of the Mabinogion, here through historical events both recorded and speculative, the massacre of St Bertoline’s Church, Barthomley, on Christmas Eve 1643 during the English civil war and the possible fate of the survivors of the legendary “lost” Ninth Legion of the Roman army, the latter also forming the basis for Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth, itself adapted by the BBC in 1977 and filmed as The Eagle in 2011 with Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell.
Scripted by Garner himself and directed by the distinguished John Mackenzie whose work for the BBC included The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil before he moved to feature films such as The Long Good Friday and The Fourth Protocol, the adaptation is substantially faithful and maintains the structure of the book, a fractured timeline jumping through the three periods though each progresses chronologically within itself, but necessarily loses some scenes and much of the detail and background.
Given the limitations of the format, a complex novel where much remains unspoken and implied compacted into a single eighty four minute production, the characters and relationships are not as nuanced as in the novel, their situations not so clear, and ultimately it is neither as involving, moving nor as satisfying as the novel, the recreation of Roman times particularly flat and unconvincing.
The transitions much more announced than in the book where, with no chapter breaks, every scene follows the preceding in the same manner regardless of whether chronologically congruent or displaced, the visual presentation does allow for echoing of the action across time, such as when Jan and Tom arrive for the first time at Barthomley while simultaneously hundreds of years before the villagers look down from the tower, watching for the approach of enemy forces.
In each of the time periods, the men feel rejected, outsiders in their community or family: Tom (Stephen Petcher) fighting to educate himself with headphones clapped over his ears to block out his parents, Thomas Rowley (Charles Bolton) who is given to fits and visions and so considered weak by the other men, and Macey (Andrew Byatt) who also has visions he cannot explain, who loses himself to berserker rages when he is taken over by the forces channelled through his stone axehead which will centuries later fall into the hands of first Thomas, then Tom.
In each of the time frames there is a pairing where the woman has previously been taken by another man; the girl in the cave (Veronica Quilligan) in Roman times by the other men of Macey’s legion and likely many more besides, in 1643 Madge (Myra Frances, Lady Adrasta of Doctor Who‘s Creature from the Pit) is married to Thomas Rowley but was previously promised to Thomas Venables (Michael Elphick) whilst in the present day of 1978 Tom will find that Jan (Lesley Dunlop of Doctor Who‘s Frontios and The Happiness Patrol) offered her virginity to the father of the German family she au paired for rather than him.
Equally in all three periods, the women are unrepentant; Jan would rather be barred from Tom’s parent’s caravan than apologise to his mother, and like her, Madge has a tongue on her, refusing to let her husband be slurred by the ostensible leaders of the village John Fowler (James Hazeldine of The Omega Factor and Chocky) or the Rector (Robert Brown who later played M in Octopussy, A View to a Kill and The Living Daylights).
Each story tied to Mow Cop and the castle built upon it, in the accompanying documentary Garner speaks of the importance of place in his works. “I grew up in a part of England strong in magic. It’s now called a beauty spot.”
Beneath the unchanging skies, he talks of the desert sandstone that drifted over eons from the equator where it was formed to Cheshire where his grandfather carved his initials in it, of fragments of clay pots buried in earth and uncovered generations later, of being sent away from his family to school, an education which made him who he is but which also made him deeply unhappy.
“Trees and rocks didn’t change. Dead relatives were safe in parish records. They stayed put, they didn’t demand… Space and time were relative. The hills had no permanence, and I had changed, even though the dead hadn’t.”
With the documentary filmed concurrent with the writing of the novel rather than the television production, though it does feature test footage of two young actors improvising a scene as Tom and Jan which is very similar to the final version, communication is very much Garner’s concern, though the narrative is more of failure to communicate.
“Violence when it’s good we call creation, and when it’s bad we call destruction.”
Shown learning sign language while his friend and former schoolmate Robert Powell (Doomwatch) expresses frustration at how slow the process is, unaccustomed to spelling out words with his hands, this is paralleled in how Tom and his parents express themselves in figures of speech rather than saying what they mean– “right as rain,” “cant’ win ‘em all” – avoiding saying anything real, while in the past neither Macey nor Thomas can describe their visions or conceptualise their meanings.
Astronomy is another recurring theme in the works of Garner, whose family home is within a stone’s throw of where the Jodrell Bank Experimental Station was constructed while he was growing up, home to the seventy six metre Lovell Telescope.
Here Tom is an amateur astronomer, he and Jan agreeing to look at Orion’s belt at the same time every night when they are apart (the constellation is also referred to in the other two time periods in the novel but not in the adaptation), while lunar cycles played a part in The Moon of Gomrath (1963) and much later the protagonist of Boneland (2012), young Colin of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, now works at Jodrell Bank.
The title referring in part to the expansion of the universe, the red shifted light of distant galaxies receding into the night, Tom says “the further they go, the faster they leave,” but the same is true of his relationship with Jan.
Having moved to London they meet halfway in Crewe on arranged dates, but the distance between them remains; one weekend he hitch-hikes down to London to intercept her at the station before she leaves, hoping to surprise her, but it is he who is shocked to find her with an older man: he has already lost her.