sat 28/03/2020

DVD: Robin Redbreast | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Robin Redbreast

DVD: Robin Redbreast

John Bowen's masterful folkloric frightener from 1970 paved the way for 'The Wicker Man'

A strange find: Anna Cropper (l), Freda Bamford, and Bernard Hepton in 'Robin Redbreast'BFI

The revitalisation of interest in films and TV dramas immersed in British folklore has seen the BFI issue Here's a Health to the Barley Mow, which is a 2011 DVD compilation of poetic documentaries going back a century, and last year's discs of the classic 1970s BBC ghost stories.

The revitalisation of interest in films and TV dramas immersed in British folklore has seen the BFI issue Here's a Health to the Barley Mow, which is a 2011 DVD compilation of poetic documentaries going back a century, and last year's discs of the classic 1970s BBC ghost stories. This year's cinema releases of A Field in England and the restored The Wicker Man are now followed by the BFI DVD Robin Redbreast (1970), written by John Bowen and directed by James McTaggart for the BBC anthology series "Play for Today".

It strongly anticipates The Wicker Man in its story of an outsider trapped by a closed community that perpetuates Druidic ritual sacrifice to replenish the land. A character who first appeared in Bowen's 1962 novel The Birdcage, Norah Palmer (Anna Cropper) has been burned by her lover's decison to end their long relationship, rendering it meaningless. She quits her job as a TV script editor and moves to her converted farm cottage in the rural Midlands.

Norah's hubristic ideas about female sexual empowerment land her in hot water

Urban sophisticate Norah finds the locals strange – among them a self-educated antiquarian (Bernard Hepton) who collects "sherds" (fragments of ancient pottery) and whose name, Fisher, suggest the Fisher King of Grail mythology; her earthy but cryptic housekeeper (Freda Bamford); and the young rodent catcher and bodybuilder Rob (Andrew Bradford), a naif who bores her by chattering about the Nazi SS. Encouraged by the louche London couple who are her only friends, Norah nonetheless sleeps with Rob. She then finds herself pregnant, trapped in the village, and fearing for her life.

McTaggart's direction and Bowen's script are sublime, so, too, Cropper's portrayal of a modern career woman whose hubristic ideas about female sexual empowerment land her in hot water. Paradoxically, they suit Fisher's sinister fertility scheme, which he derived from James George Frazer's The Golden Bough. The denouement, in which Fisher invokes Robin Hood, is deliberately explicated; the final seconds are chilling. Bowen's triumph was showing how ancient myths persist, reverberate, and conflict with the glib rationalisations and liberalisms of modern times. The extras are a filmed interview with Bowen (89 last week), who explains why Robin Redbreast was a personal project with a factual origin, and the Benjamin Britten-scored 1937 documentary short, Around the Village Green.

Bowen's triumph was showing how ancient myths persist and reverberate

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