Several classic television chillers, dusted down and rereleased by the BFI, seem tailor made for Halloween and 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. And is Rob (Bradford), the local gamekeeper, really as much of a village outcast as he would like Norah to believe?
Written by John Bowen (a writer responsible for many television works during the 1970’s period known as the golden age of British TV chillers), Robin Redbreast captures perfectly the unease frequently felt by outsiders – in this case Norah in relation to her being from London, and the attractive, reserved Rob, though the reason for his isolation from village life is for a very different reason. Though not frightening in the traditional sense, the drama is decidedly creepy and, like the aforementioned The Wicker Man (which it is said to have influenced) leaves the viewer incredulous that the practices at its centre could still take 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 Norah and Rob, allowing the actors to create characters of depth, not something there’s always opportunity to do on television. The film’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.
The BFI release includes 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. All of which perfectly compliments Robin Redbreast, an exquisite example of real horror growing from the outwardly innocent.