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


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