mon 24/06/2024

DVD: Red Shift | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Red Shift

DVD: Red Shift

A cult classic from the golden age of British TV drama

The English Civil War episode of Alan Garner's Play for Today, Red ShiftBFI

Red Shift is a fascinating, if flawed, gem of ambitious and disturbing 1970s TV drama. It was adapted by Alan Garner (The Owl Service) from his own novel, and set in the south Cheshire landscape he grew up and lived in. Its director, John Mackenzie, also helmed Play for Today dramas by Dennis Potter (Double Dare) and Peter McDougall, and would go on to make Bob Hoskins a star in The Long Good Friday.

We begin in present time – the late 1970s – and the teenage travails of clever, wound-up Tom (Stephen Petcher) and calm, preternaturally knowing Jan (Lesley Dunlop), who’s about to leave for college. This is awkward love and existentialist angst before the age of social media; a black-and-white portable TV blaring light entertainment; the roar of traffic on the motorway - the setting's very ordinariness is emphasised to accentuate its strangeness and sense of pent-up violence lurking beneath; while the drama’s framing is cosmic more than local, big enough to accommodate the abrupt time shifts that cut in to Tom’s story. They take us by turns to second-century Roman Britain and a band of garrison deserters hunkering down with a captive Celtic priestess or goddess under Mow Cop, the hilly outcrop that is the main character of this drama, and always ready for its close-up.

The second time stream is the English Civil War, 1643, a siege, a parley, and atrocity upon the townsfolk of Barthomley, on the top of Mow Cop; rape and slaughter despatched as dispassionately as household refuse.

What connects these three periods? Echoes and patterns, passions and stresses that find sympathetic points of contact. There's no direct sense of the supernatural, but you sense the shades and ghosts of each story overlaid on the others.

The 'red shift' of the title may be rage, passion, fear, epilepsy, God or the basic astronomical measure of our ever-expanding universe. The brute, perfunctory violence of the Civil War story feels more naked and shocking than much of the ultra-violence of contemporary TV drama. Why is that? Because it lacks the psychological filler and the information age’s compulsion to explain rather than set things up and see how far they go in the unknown, as Red Shift does. It may warp here and there but the expanding universe of Red Shift is a compelling journey through time in one unique and resonant place. 

Tasty extras include a fascinating 1972 profile of Garner from the One Pair of Eyes documentary strand, and an oddly charming travelogue voiced by Michael Horden and starring a Rolls-Royce, Spirit of Cheshire. 

The violence of the Civil War story feels more naked and shocking than much of the ultra-violence of contemporary TV drama


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Explore topics

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters