❉ Looking back on John Bowen’s seminal folk horror drama.
Robin Redbreast originally appeared in the Play for Today slot in 1970 and was a play I read before I saw. Buying a yellow-backed collection of BBC plays in a second hand bookshop in the ‘90s (a book that also included Dennis Potter’s Follow the Yellow Brick Road and Peter Nicholls’s The Gorge), I had missed the Play for Today retrospective in the ‘90s and thought the play had disappeared into the ether. When I finally saw it however it was an experience that stayed with me for a long time.
John Bowen sets his story in Worcestershire near Evesham in a desolate village with strange villagers who celebrate Harvest festival and Easter but do not celebrate Christmas! The pagan themes and what we would now call folk horror are subtle and are introduced from the beginning. Nora played by Anne Cropper is a mid-thirties Oxbridge educated script editor from London who buys a house in this village after a failed marriage. She encounters the housekeeper for the cottage Mrs Vigo and the sinister Fisher (played by a thick lens spectacle wearing Bernard Hepton). Reporting to Fisher of the noise of trapped birds in the house Fisher says cryptically that it is a “Place of Birds”.
Whilst walking through a wood at the suggestion of Mrs Vigo Nora meets Edgar, the “Robin” of the title, practicing karate naked alone in the wood. Edgar in a series of scenes at the house explains to Nora that he is an orphan and a loner in the village and bores her with his interest in German Second World War military memorabilia. Due to the orchestrations of the villagers Nora and Edgar end up in bed and Nora becomes pregnant with Edgar’s child after her birth control suddenly goes missing. It is only later when we hear the terrifying off-screen sacrifice of Edgar that we realise the villagers have organised a pagan fertility rite. Edgar has been set up from the beginning of his life to fulfil a pagan tradition.
The contrast between the mannered but rational “chat” with Nora’s emotionless middle-class professional friends in London and the riddling talk of Mrs Vigo and Fisher is well written. Nora looks to be imprisoned as the villagers offer to look after the unwanted unborn child and it seems like this will happen therefore continuing the Robin Redbreast tradition. However, Nora does “escape”. Driving off in her car she turns round and sees the watching villagers metamorphize into pagan archetypes.
In an interview John Bowen, who died last year and also wrote horror scripts for the series Dead of Night and an equally disturbing play called A Photograph said that Robin Redbreast was based on a newspaper report on an actual modern day fertility sacrifice. There are also similar themes in the Cornish-set Ritual by David Pinner; a novel that came out three years before the play and was the book Robin Hardy’s film The Wicker Man was based on. It may not have been the first of the folk horror genre but filling the Play for Today slot in 1970 it must have left an impression on people’s dreams and nightmares.
❉ ‘Robin Redbreast’ (1970) was released by the BFI on DVD in 2013 and is also available to stream on Amazon Prime. ‘A Photograph’ (Written by John Bowen | Dir. John Glenister, 1977) makes its home media debut on: Play For Today Volume One (4-Disc Blu-ray Box Set), to be released 12 October 2020.
❉ James Collingwood is based in West Yorkshire and has been writing for a number of years. He currently also writes for the Bradford Review magazine for which he has conducted more than 30 interviews and has covered music, film and theatre