sovay: (Haruspex: Autumn War)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2017-08-25 05:44 am
Entry tags:

I said it was a place of birds

If John Bowen's Robin Redbreast (1970) is not the missing link between A Canterbury Tale (1944) and The Wicker Man (1973), I will buy a new hat expressly so that I can put it between two slices of bread and eat it.

I am being unfair to my future hat. A Canterbury Tale was not encouragingly reviewed or widely seen on its initial release; it was re-edited for the American market in 1945 and not restored until the late 1970's, meaning that as much as I feel that I can see its fossil traces in the field of British folk horror, I'm not sure how many people of the relevant generation could actually have watched it for themselves. In the same way, despite the vividly shared theme of outsiders drawn into the ancient ritual patterns of isolated rural communities, I have no proof that Robin Hardy or Anthony Shaffer ever saw Robin Redbreast, which thanks to the far-sighted offices of the BBC survives only in the lightly fuzzed monochrome of a 16 mm telerecording, the original color elements having been junked. Teasing out the phylogenetics of this period is beginning to interest me, but I'd rather not end up with a wall of conspiracy theory. Sometimes there's a pattern under the plough, sometimes it's just frost cracks. I just look at the character played in Robin Redbreast by Bernard Hepton, an amateur archaeologist and figure of local authority with an unsettling affinity for comparative religion and Frazer in particular, and I did not expect to find the Venn diagram of Thomas Colpeper and Lord Summerisle wearing Coke-bottle glasses and that particularly dorky tweed hat.

I had never heard of Robin Redbreast until the beginning of this week, when I kept finding it mentioned in conjunction with Penda's Fen (1974); it was another Play for Today (1970–84), partly adapted by Bowen from his novel The Birdcage (1962) and directed by James MacTaggart. In plot and atmosphere, it really does play like a genderflipped anticipation of The Wicker Man, which in turn looks an awful lot like the pagan version of Rosemary's Baby (1968). Following the wreck of an eight-year relationship, London-based script editor Norah Palmer (Anna Cropper) moves impulsively to the fixer-upper cottage in the Vale of Evesham where she and her partner always planned to make time together and never, like so many other things in their life, got around to. She needs the time alone; her friends in the city don't seem to understand, in their almost satirically sophisticated comfort with casual affairs and passes and one-night stands, how "soft and exposed" she feels, newly single in her mid-thirties and out of practice at being "fair game." But from the moment she moves into Flaneathan Farm, Norah can hardly get a breath to herself; even when the locals aren't stopping by to say hello, they always seem to have heard where she is, how she's doing, whether she needs a hand around the house . . . They are not unfriendly, which gives her limited grounds for demurral; she wonders early on whether elderly, obsessively wood-chopping handyman Peter (Cyril Cross) is "mental," but she can hardly say the same of the apparently well-named Mr. Wellbeloved (Robin Wentworth), the village's combination butcher and mechanic. Few things trap a woman more seamlessly than the expectation of politeness, especially when she's new in a place, especially when she's alone. Brisk Mrs. Vigo (Freda Bamford) behaves toward Norah more like a nurse than a housekeeper, chivvying her to church, permitting no secrets, never quite openly disapproving of the younger woman's decisions, but it's amazing how fast her homely patter darkens when she hears something she doesn't like. Most unsettling of all is the enigmatic Fisher (Hepton), who introduces himself from out of shot with the courtly, oddly personal question, "I wonder if I might hunt for sherds in your garden?" With his Norfolk jacket, his ashplant, and his battered walking hat, he looks like the kind of rustic anorak who can lecture on local history until his audience chews its arm off, and he is, but Norah is still thrown off her stride when he begins to discourse obliquely on the etymologies of the "old tongue," the habits of birds when frightened, and the techniques of traditional clam fishing, the latter of which he likens to his own dowser's sense for "old things generally . . . Roman pottery, coins, sherds of all sorts—I have that instinct." The viewer cannot totally blame her for asking, not altogether joking, "Is he off his head?" Mrs. Vigo is shocked: "No, he works for council over to Evesham!"

At night she listens to the wind, the birds in the trees. She finds the sliced half of a marble winking on her windowsill like an eye, takes it indoors in a bemused but not displeased way, as if her new home has given her a present. She even makes what looks like a spontaneous, if somewhat self-conscious connection with the fair-haired gamekeeper (Andy Bradford) whom the villagers call Rob or Robin, though his given name is the much less pastoral Edgar. "There's always one young man answers to the name of Robin in these parts," Mrs. Vigo remarks in her declarative yet maddeningly vague fashion. "Has to be." He's young and fit and duly appreciated by Norah when she discovers him practicing karate nearly naked in the woods, but in person he doesn't seem quite all there—proud and earnest, curiously sheltered. An orphan never officially adopted but raised by "Auntie Vigo," he was the first boy sent to the local grammar school in eight years and still resents the agricultural college for failing him in his final exams, thwarting his plans of emigrating to Canada. His job is practically a sinecure. He's not a virgin, but sheepishly describes his previous experiences as "like being collected." Invited for drinks, he babbles nervously about Nazis until Norah in an agony of boredom puts him out like a cat only to find him charging heroically back into the cottage at her scream—a bird got down the chimney and banged panickedly off the walls exactly as Fisher had warned her they did, but something in its blind, thumping flight is so strangely horrible to her that she collapses weeping into Rob's arms and presently, hungrily, takes him upstairs to bed. She can't find her diaphragm, but it's all right. Who gets one-shot pregnant, anyway?

That is not a question to ask when myth is in the air. Seven months later, Norah is pregnant, sequestered, and paranoid, convinced that she is being deliberately manipulated, detained in the village for some purpose so terrible, she is afraid to name it even to herself. Coincidences of car trouble, bus schedules, unanswered letters, staticky phones all seem to form a pattern that fell into place long before she let herself see it. She had a nightmare in the fall, even before she slept with her pretty ploughing boy, a compressed, disturbing shuffle of images: Peter chopping wood by night, muttering excitedly as the axe thunks again into the well-worn stump; Rob with a knife in his hand, making karate passes through her darkened yard; Fisher with his hand on the gate, turning to her with half-marbles for the lenses of his glasses, blind and all-seeing. She woke when one fell, as suddenly as a scale from his eye. "It's mad, the whole thing," she protests, but mad is not the same as not happening. "Here am your place, miss," Mrs. Vigo says firmly, as if coaxing a disobedient child. "Come the winter, the dark days, you'll go where you will and then no objection, no effort made to keep you, but now, come Easter, here am your place." Norah saw the church at harvest time, the bounty of the season laid out on its altar—not just corn sheaves and "pumpkins big as your arse," but the bloodier offerings of dead pheasants and rabbits. She watched Mrs. Vigo butcher a chicken, her farmer's pragmatism suddenly full of ominous parallels: "Ah, she'm broody. No use for laying. Wring her neck, slit her throat, hang her up, that's all she'm good for." Her cottage is Flaneathan, the Place of Birds. Women have always lived there, Fisher told her on their first meeting. Birds have always blundered down the chimney. His non sequiturs have a habit of sounding like parables or warnings or private jokes: "They should have known they had a way out, but being birds, they didn't."

There are two twists at the climax of Robin Redbreast and they are both beautifully done. Readers of Greer Gilman's Moonwise (1991) and Cloud & Ashes: Three Winter's Tales (2009) may twig to the first before the script reveals it: the real pattern behind the coupling of Norah and Edgar who is the village's Robin is not just the cyclical sacrifice of year-kings, but the breeding of them. "What good would a woman's blood be for the land?" Mrs. Vigo reassures Norah as she takes in her charge's shocky state on Easter morning. "We bear, my dear. We'm give birth. That'm our work. Takes a man for the other." His cult title was so often shortened to Rob, the audience could forget it was a bird's name, its breast folklorically blood-dyed. Tweedy, bespectacled, relentless, Fisher elaborates:

"The goddess of fertility in the old legends was in some ways like yourself, Miss Palmer. Not a married lady, but nevertheless, if you'll excuse the freedom, not a virgin, either. In the autumn she would couple with the young king . . . Robin Hood. Robin of the Dale. Even Robin Redbreast, one of the very birds in your garden. The male robin only lives a year, you know. The female has many partners. Always Robin. Such bounty there was, such fruitfulness, Miss Palmer, from the blood that drained from Robin Hood, so the old stories say."

Like Sergeant Howie after her, Norah was mazed and snared into her mythic role but all the same, at the last, she is offered a choice. Her liberated sexual mores are eerily in tune with the needs of the land. She wanted sex with the young man, but not a relationship; when she chose to keep the pregnancy, she did so with no intention of having a co-parent and even odds on raising the child herself; it is only Fisher's talk of "very good friends . . . at a local orphanage," in fact, that decides her mind on this last point. Even as she breathes the question, she knows the answer: "And in twenty years?" Firmly, Fisher replies, "It would not concern you." Hence the second twist, as Norah—still not quite believing she'll be allowed to refuse godhood and leave—turns around in the driver's seat of her repaired Triumph for one last Lot's-wife look at the cottage where her life went so suddenly Cambridge Ritualist and sees her former captors transfigured. Their clothes have become medieval; Mr. Wellbeloved's hands are bloodied and Peter carries the double-headed axe. Loosed from its housekeeper's bun, Mrs. Vigo's greying hair blows witch-wild from the hood of her dark cloak. Fisher would look peculiar enough without his glasses, but the disappearance of his characteristic hat reveals the antlers of a stag that rise branching from his head. They look back at her as expressionlessly as a tableau, old weirdness in its true ornament. Norah guns the accelerator and the car snarls up the gravelly lane, away. A pastoral silence falls: wind, credits. Birdsong.

Robin Redbreast grew on me steadily throughout its runtime, but the final image sealed the deal. Until the last minute, we are led to believe that part of the story's horror is its resolutely unsupernatural explanation, the notion that the old sexual man-murdering rites can not only survive into the modern era but can be practiced and perpetuated as mundanely and routinely as the villagers attend church for the harvest festival or Easter, fussing about properly decorated hats and their bicycling parson who isn't as clever as Mr. Fisher. "I don't know what's in your mind exactly," Nora says trembling, holding an equally terrified Rob at knifepoint on the night of the sacrifice whose existence she has correctly deduced and whose nature she has misunderstood entirely. "I've heard of things. Every now and then there's a song and dance about it in the Sunday papers—devil worship, graves dug up, churches desecrated. Blood. Stories of blood. Always rather vague. I never believed it happened seriously!" She could be speaking of Rosemary's Baby or its predecessor in New York Satanism, Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim (1943), with its chilling awareness that the Devil doesn't need to exist in order for his worship to do harm in the world. It's the same with continuity of tradition—the village religion looks older than dirt, but so does Gardnerian Wicca. It might have been revived in Norah's lifetime. Perhaps it was even invented by Fisher out of all those books he reads, abetted by Mrs. Vigo with her sturdy faith in the separate work of women and men. If their magic is only human belief and contrivance, then Nora and her unborn child have a chance. But if silly, sinister Fisher really is an avatar of the horned god, if grandmotherly Auntie Vigo really is the crone with the cauldron and the shears, if the men who hacked poor bewildered Rob-Edgar to pieces have been doing it in this village since time out of mind, then there may be no escape for this next generation's Robin, not in twenty years, not in forty, not in four hundred. He'll be drawn back with the same inexorable coincidence that brought his mother there to conceive him, to set the next great cycle of sex and blood and fruitfulness in motion. Who knows, it might still be going on. Any gentle readers from Evesham here tonight?

My affection for Bernard Hepton is all out of proportion to my experience of his work. I've seen him most as the definitive Toby Esterhaze in the BBC's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) and Smiley's People (1982) and after that in a random assortment of film and television, such as Get Carter (1971), I, Claudius (1976), and Bleak House (1985), where I believe he spontaneously combusted. He played the same part as [personal profile] spatch in a 1987 TV version of The Lady's Not for Burning and I admit that I would like sometime to see him wishing to be alone with his convictions. He's tremendous as Fisher. As with that other antiquarian, there is an absurd quality to the character's amateurism and the seriousness with which he undertakes his mission as well as the power that comes from holding the line to the past; he's respected as a lay reader and a man of many interests, but he's not handy with modernity—he can't drive a car—and Mrs. Vigo somewhat deflatingly sums him up when she observes, "He'm a learned fellow, Fisher. You can't tell what he means." It does nothing to defuse the faint sense of the uncanny which attends him from his first appearance and only strengthens as the plot thickens and the pattern builds, even when for 76 out of the play's 77 minutes he does nothing technically stranger than walk uninvited into Norah's kitchen and announce that there's nothing in her garden "earlier than seventeenth century—Civil War trash." His gravity is double-edged; it's easy to tease him, but difficult to tell if he's laughing at you. After a while, all of his dialogue sounds like double-speaking. "Must have been a very large bird, Miss Palmer, to have dislodged your drainpipe." Considering the historical orchards of the Vale of Evesham, I am almost surprised he never holds forth about apples.

In a genre that is all about the haunting persistence of the past into the present, I suppose it's appropriate to have a program survive only as a black-and-white phantom of itself, but I would like to have seen Robin Redbreast in color: I suspect it would have been used thematically and also that it would have been a lot easier to tell what time of year any of the scenes were supposed to be taking place. I should find out if Shaffer and Hardy knew about it, or if they and Bowen—and David Pinner, whose novel Ritual (1967) is the credited inspiration for The Wicker Man—were just drawing on similar folk material. I feel I will never able to prove the Archers, but I keep seeing the same themes with the emotions just a little tilted, whether the unending echo of history in time should be treasured or terrifying. I guess I should hold off on buying that hat. Incidentally, I don't know what it is about Worcestershire that attracts the Dionysian, but if you want sparagmos on film, as far as I can tell it's either this teleplay or Pasolini's Medea (1969). This rite brought to you by my learned backers at Patreon.

strange_complex: (Willow pump)

[personal profile] strange_complex 2017-08-25 10:35 am (UTC)(link)
Well, I definitely need to see A Canterbury Tale now! I wasn't aware of that one. Another you might like if you enjoyed Robin Redbreast is Murrain. They're often mentioned in the same breath, but Murrain is filmed in a more naturalistic style, which I think I enjoyed more.
cmcmck: (Default)

[personal profile] cmcmck 2017-08-25 11:51 am (UTC)(link)
I lived for a while in the village of Littlebourne, next along from Wickhambreaux where all those farm scenes were shot and where the 'squire's' house still stands.
cmcmck: (Default)

[personal profile] cmcmck 2017-08-26 08:49 am (UTC)(link)
If you make it, pop into the Rose inn. :o)

The village hall scenes were shot in Fordwich and that's actually accessible.

I've a feeling that the old organist is in the authentic organ loft however- I was up there years ago- I was lucky to be acquainted with the cathedral precentor for a time and saw some corners the tourists don't get to see.
Edited 2017-08-26 08:50 (UTC)
asakiyume: (Hades)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2017-08-25 01:32 pm (UTC)(link)
Ooh, maybe I'll get wakanomori to watch this one with me.

Few things trap a woman more seamlessly than the expectation of politeness, --SO TRUE

Your remark about sparagmos suddenly opens up a connection between this genealogy of films and--well, I don't know if it's a whole genre, but the fear-of-rustics/the country theme that's represented by Deliverance. The Deliverance lens strips off any sense of the sacred and leaves you just with savagery--it's the fear urban people have had of the "uncultured" since there were cities (which is to say, a thousands-of-years-old fear). The urban eye looks at rural life and sees Other, sometimes something to long after, sometimes something to shudder over.

kore: (Default)

[personal profile] kore 2017-08-25 02:57 pm (UTC)(link)
(OMG, a Hadestown icon -- that is one of my favourite albums ever.)
kore: (Default)

[personal profile] kore 2017-08-25 03:00 pm (UTC)(link)
(AND NOW THERE'S A MUSICAL? BUT NO CAST RECORDING THO) (I have some bootlegs of the tours when various cities Sang Hadestown &c)
asakiyume: (Hades)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2017-08-25 03:03 pm (UTC)(link)
Apparently there *is* a cast recording, out in October! I'll be buying it, but nothing will replace my feelings for that first Hadestown album.
Edited 2017-08-25 15:04 (UTC)
kore: (Orpheus & Eurydice)

[personal profile] kore 2017-08-25 03:25 pm (UTC)(link)
OCTOBER? //cries

nothing will replace my feelings for that first Hadestown album

It was so amazing. I hear there are demos when just Anais was singing the songs, too -- there are some examples of that on UTU.

Our Lady of the Underground -

Why We Build the Wall -

Hey Little Songbird -

Wedding Song -

Wedding Song, beautiful version by NYC Sings - -- if I could have a high quality album of this performance I would JUST DIE.

Why We Build the Wall, NYC Sings -

She is so amazing. "Why We Build the Wall" could have been written yesterday.
asakiyume: (Hades)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2017-08-25 03:32 pm (UTC)(link)
She really is amazing! I love her Young Man in America album, too, especially the titular song, and her renditions of folksongs. She feels like she IS what she sings.
kore: (Default)

[personal profile] kore 2017-08-25 03:34 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh man, I loved the Young Man album, but the Child Ballads one really knocked me out.
asakiyume: created by the ninja girl (Default)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2017-08-25 03:42 pm (UTC)(link)
I know! Her Tam Lin...

I have a whole Anais Mitchell tag; she just knocks my socks off.

She grew on me: I always loved her lyrics and her melodies but didn't initially love her voice that much, but now that's something I treasure, too.
kore: (Default)

[personal profile] kore 2017-08-25 03:55 pm (UTC)(link)
LOL I played some of the songs for T adn he was like "....she sounds like Cindy Lauper!" and I was all OH MY GOD HOW DARE YOU. But she does a little. It's kind of more a "character actor" voice, but I love it. I really love seeing her play live -- even with a guitar she kind of bounces and dances and jigs all over the place, like she's embodying the music.
alexxkay: (Default)

[personal profile] alexxkay 2017-08-26 03:03 pm (UTC)(link)
I just got an email announcing that the album is available for pre-order, and if you do, you can instantly stream the first track.
asakiyume: (Hades)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2017-08-28 11:54 am (UTC)(link)
asakiyume: (black crow on a red ground)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2017-08-25 03:01 pm (UTC)(link)
Also your music is perfect for this post. I don't know whether it entered my head because I read your music line without noticing or whether it sprang to mind because it's just so fitting for the topic, but yeah, it was in my head too.
asakiyume: (birds to watch over you)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2017-08-25 04:27 pm (UTC)(link)
Agreed on Moana's soundtrack!
gwynnega: (Leslie Howard mswyrr)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2017-08-25 09:10 pm (UTC)(link)
I definitely want to watch this.

Bernard Hepton is great. I think I first saw him as Thomas Cranmer in The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R.
gwynnega: (Basil Rathbone)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2017-08-25 10:03 pm (UTC)(link)
I haven't seen either of those!

I think they're superb, though I did imprint upon them at an early age. Glenda Jackson will forever be my Elizabeth I.
alexxkay: (Default)

[personal profile] alexxkay 2017-08-26 02:39 pm (UTC)(link)
She will always be my favorite Muppet Show guest :-)
alexxkay: (Default)

[personal profile] alexxkay 2017-08-27 10:55 pm (UTC)(link)
Early in the ep, she declares herself to be Black Jackson, pirate captain. She takes command of the Muppet Theatre and sails it out to sea. Kermit, foolishly, declares that this is impossible. Then they raise the backdrop, and instead of the usual brick wall, there's a bowsprit and waves. The backstage sets remain the same, but rock gently back and forth with the waves.

Jackson remains in pirate character for the entire remainder of the show. Even for the Muppets, it was a high bar in surrealism and commitment to a bit.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)

[personal profile] rushthatspeaks 2017-08-26 01:34 am (UTC)(link)
I bounced off The Green Man eventually because even though the text is extremely aware that the narrator/protagonist is a horrible little man making obvious mistakes through a veil of toxic masculinity and booze, the self-awareness still does not mean I wish to spend any time with him; but yes, it is indeed folk horror. The god/monster of the title is the relict of a sorcerer, who while dead is of course still hanging about. The threat is aimed at young girls and is sexual as well as physical. The protagonist is so toxic that not even his wife leaving him for his mistress could allow me to get through.

I note, however, that the book was filmed for television starring Albert Finney, which might, through charisma and acting chops, be tolerable. No notion of the availability of that version, but it's probably a better idea than reading the damn thing.
moon_custafer: (Default)

[personal profile] moon_custafer 2017-08-25 11:36 pm (UTC)(link)
Two books which might fit into the family tree are Margery Allingham's Sweet Danger (the subplot), and Love On a Branch Line, though that one's over at the benign Ealing-comedy end of the trope.
thistleingrey: (Default)

[personal profile] thistleingrey 2017-08-26 01:00 am (UTC)(link)
what it is about Worcestershire that attracts the Dionysian

The imagined wilds of border territory?
thistleingrey: (Default)

[personal profile] thistleingrey 2017-08-26 02:25 pm (UTC)(link)
heh, I'd totally read that.
ashlyme: (Default)

[personal profile] ashlyme 2017-08-29 02:08 pm (UTC)(link)
*The Maenads of the Malverns." Paging ashlyme?*

You called? Lemme have a ponder, then a bash at this one...
thawrecka: (Default)

[personal profile] thawrecka 2017-08-26 05:34 am (UTC)(link)
This sounds like a really interesting film.
radiantfracture: (Default)

[personal profile] radiantfracture 2017-08-28 12:45 am (UTC)(link)
it really does play like a genderflipped anticipation of The Wicker Man, which in turn looks an awful lot like the pagan version of Rosemary's Baby (1968).

This is a rather thrilling genealogy. I'd love to read a more detailed study of these connections, if you were writing / had written one.
radiantfracture: (Default)

[personal profile] radiantfracture 2017-08-30 06:56 pm (UTC)(link)
That would be aces.
brigdh: (Default)

[personal profile] brigdh 2017-09-03 12:58 am (UTC)(link)
This is an absolutely fantastic post. The movie sounds great as well – I think I'll have to put it on my list for Halloween watching!