With over three hundred editions produced during the fourteen year run from 1970 to 1984, BBC’s Play for Today strand was conceived as immediate and contemporary, offering political and social commentary of those turbulent times, yet conversely that instilled a perhaps unconscious bias that the works were not meant to be lasting, often with only a single broadcast.
Successor to The Wednesday Play of the sixties, writers who contributed included Alan Clarke, Alan Garner, Mike Leigh (his Abigail’s Party having debuted on the stage several months prior to its November 1977 transmission and since having passed into repertory stock), Dennis Potter and Peter McDougall (whose Elephant’s Graveyard gave comedian Billy Connolly an early and critically acclaimed dramatic role), yet few have been released on DVD and many no longer exist in the archives.
One such production where the original colour videotape master was wiped was novelist and playwright John Bowen’s Robin Redbreast, originally broadcast 10th December 1970 where due to the rolling powercuts affecting the country during the “three day week” crisis many regions lost the final scenes, resulting in a rebroadcast on 25th February 1971.
Fortunately, although the original has been lost there remains within the BBC a black and white telerecording which has now been released by the BFI, remastered and with viewing notes and a recent short interview with Bowen discussing the production and his wider work and the background of Robin Redbreast which was inspired by the unsolved murder of Charles Walton in the Warwickshire village of Lower Quinton.
Beaten then killed with a slash hook and pinned to the ground with a pitchfork on the afternoon of 14th February 1945, the body was discovered by his niece, Edith. Investigated by Chief Inspector Robert Fabian, later a crime writer whose Fabian of the Yard was adapted by the BBC in the mid-fifties as an early example of the police procedural genre, rumours circulated that Walton had been a witch and that the murder was in fact a ritual sacrifice to replenish the fertility of the area following the failed harvest of the previous year.
Though Fabian’s contemporary case reports made no links with witchcraft, in his 1970 book The Anatomy of Crime he wrote that Walton’s death “was clearly the ghastly climax of a pagan rite,” and it is clear these tales were uppermost in Bowen’s mind when he wrote Robin Redbreast, and aspects can also be traced to Anthony Shaffer’s script for The Wicker Man, filmed in 1973 by Robin Hardy, though parallels can also be attributed to both Bowen and Shaffer citing the same resource in their research, James Frazer’s comparative study of mythology and religion The Golden Bough.
Though their execution could not be more different, superficially, Robin Redbreast and The Wicker Man share similar plotlines with each telling the story of an outsider in an isolated rural community having to deal with “country living” and finding themselves deliberately isolated from all they know, held against their will as the locals conspire against them, a common theme of folk horror knowingly satirised a generation later by The League of Gentlemen and their “local shop for local people” of Royston Vasey.
Unlike Edward Woodward’s Sergeant Howie of the Highland Constabulary, fiercely resisting the temptation of the landlord’s daughter Willow MacGregor (Britt Ekland) as she beats against his wall, Miss Norah Palmer (Anna Cropper) is neither prudish nor bound by the parochial inherited morality of the patriarchal society she was brought up in. A liberated, independent and unsentimental woman, she is recently out of a ten year relationship (made specifically clear not to have been marriage) and has inherited the remote Flaneathan (“place of birds”) Farm cottage in the dissolution.
A script editor, her work doesn’t require her to work from a set location so she intends to enjoy a change of pace in new scenery to clear her mind, but when a bit of local interest comes her way in the form of Rob (Andy Bradford), a gamekeeper several years her junior whom she first encountered scantily clad in the woods as he practiced his karate moves, her initial resistance is to his painfully inarticulate conversation rather than his toned body.
But circumstantial evidence begins to accumulate that Norah’s assignation with Rob was not happenstance but was in fact manipulated, though not by Rob himself, who she doesn’t credit with the intelligence to arrange it. Instead, suspicion falls on her intimidating and judgemental gossip of a housekeeper Mrs Vigo (Frida Bamford), guardian of the orphaned Rob, and the amateur archaeologist and self-regarding learned man Mr Fisher who has developed all too keen an interest in Norah’s life and the property in which she is staying.
Astonishing in its forthright attitudes for a 1970 BBC production and contrasting the puritanical Sergeant Howie’s horror at the libidinous natives of Summerisle, Norah casually discusses contraception (the one time Mrs Vigo, aghast, is lost for words) and the possibility of abortion when she finds herself, through a combination of her own momentary bad judgement and the manipulations of the villagers, pregnant.
Also paralleling The Wicker Man is the focus on the harvest festival and that the intended target of the villagers – or, at least, the immediate intended target – is not who the protagonist, nor the audience, have come to believe.
Creepy and sinister and driven by the strong performances, the production is so effective in black and white it is difficult to conceive how it would work in colour; if anything, the monochrome vision of the tree branches swaying in the howling wind, echoing to the sounds of birdsong, ties it to another era, a divide from modernity as sharp as Norah’s self-proclaimed agnosticism among the beliefs of the villagers.
Dominating the screen as Norah is the late Anna Cropper whose prolific career spanned four decades; though her only other roles approaching genre were single episodes of the anthology series Dead of Night and Worlds Beyond, she was married to Coronation Street actor William Roache, and their son Linus Roache appeared as the Purifier in Chronicles of Riddick and as Thomas Wayne in Batman Begins.
Best known of the supporting cast is the distinguished Bernard Hepton as Mr Fisher with appearances in Colditz, the BBC adaptations of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and its sequel Smiley’s People and in three seasons of Secret Army, while Freda Bamford reprised the role of Mrs Vigo for another Play for Today scripted by Bowen, The Photograph, broadcast in March 1977.
Norah’s two London confidantes, Jake and Madge (Julian Holloway and Amanda Walker) have scored numerous genre appearances, he as Sergeant Patterson in Survival, the final serial broadcast in the original run of Doctor Who, as well as voices for Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, she with supporting roles in 28 Weeks Later, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Captain America: The First Avenger and Cloud Atlas.
The handsome but naive and uncomplicated Rob, Andy Bradford’s many credits include minor roles in Survivors, The New Avengers, Star Wars, Flash Gordon, Hawk the Slayer, For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, Krull and Never Say Never Again but it is as a stunt co-ordinator he has made his greatest contribution, with over two hundred credits including Blake’s 7, Elidor, Gormenghast, Being Human and Primeval.
Directed by James MacTaggart who championed the script when the BBC developed cold feet over the subject, his radical contributions to televised drama which included moves to “destroy naturalism,” and telling stories “in visual terms” are perhaps subdued here but over forty years later it remains an important work. MacTaggart died in May 1974 at the age of forty six having just completed work on Robinson Crusoe, but his legacy is remembered in the annual MacTaggart lecture delivered at the Edinburgh International Television Festival.