The BFI has gone into overdrive this Halloween with several classic TV chillers being dusted down for the haunting season. Amongst them is Robin Redbreast (1970), an episode of the popular BBC drama series Play for Today. This story, involving pagan beliefs set in an undisclosed Home Counties village, may not be your usual blood and gore horror fair. However if your tendencies lie towards inference and suggestion in the style of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973), this unsettling tale directed by James MacTaggart and starring Anna Cropper and Andrew Bradford will more than satisfy your curiosity.
Norah (Cropper) moves into a house in a remote English village, in order to take stock of her life after a particularly painful break-up. However as she settles into her new surroundings, her treatment at the hand’s of the local villagers – initially welcoming and friendly, though a little bewildered by their new neighbour – takes a sinister turn. Why are they so interested in her garden and why do they seem intent on unsettling her with tales of local customs? Written by John Bowen (a writer responsible for many television works during the 1970s period known as the ‘golden age’ of British TV spine-tinglers), the Beeb’s superb Robin Redbreast captures perfectly the sense of unease frequently felt by outsiders – in this case, Norah’s London roots.
The result, though not exactly frightening in the traditional sense, is decidedly creepy and, like the aforementioned The Wicker Man (which it is said to have influenced) leaves the viewer in disbelief that the practices at its centre could still be taking place in modern Britain. Robin Redbreast’s overall feeling is that of a ‘filmed play’, as the series’ general title implies. However, instead of curtailing the story’s development, this gives more time to the story’s individuals, particularly those of Norah and Rob, giving the actors the chance to create characters of depth, not something there’s always opportunity to do on television.
The drama’s appearance – a black and white presentation of a colour production – as well as the slightly dilapidated country comfort of Norah’s home, simply adds to its sense of seeping disquiet. Accompanied by an enlightening interview with Bowen himself, and an enchanting public information film Around the Village Green (1937), which gives an insight into English village life, Robin Redbreast is the perfect example of how to produce real horror from the outwardly innocent.