Re-seeing Red Shift – Still Brilliant After All These Years

Like many people of my generation, I first discovered Alan Garner through the medium of television, in this case the extraordinary eight part Granada adaptation of his fourth novel, The Owl Service, broadcast in the classic children’s Sunday tea-time slot in 1969.
From the series, I graduated to the book, and its three predecessors and, in due course, Garner’s next book, Red Shift, published in 1973 and aimed at a somewhat older audience.
Red Shift became, and remains, one of my favourite books. It’s a book in which place counts for more than time, in which three couples in three very different eras undergo a series of experiences that revolve around the village of Barthomley and the Stone Age fort/folly of Mow Cop, situated on one of Cheshire’s few elevated ridges.
The story follows Tom and Jan in the present day, Thomas and Madge in the English Civil War, and Macey and the Girl in Ancient Roman times. The stories interweave, show curious, but never exact parallels, and an ancient stone axe is present in each of the time periods.
Garner tells his stories in a stripped down manner, primarily in dialogue. He has worked so hard to remove anything unnecessary from the book, that it feels that to remove just one word from what remains would cause the entire book to collapse into incoherence. The effect is to demand so much more of the reader, who must work to supplement the sparse text, to fill in what is not written from within themselves.
It’s a superb book, and in 1977 Garner, working with Director John McKenzie, was asked to adapt Red Shift into a ninety minute film for the BBC’s prestigious Play for Today slot. Play for Today was an old, established tradition whose usual material was realistic, often socially aware: Garner’s time-crossing fantasy was something of a departure.
The play was scheduled for broadcast on Tuesday 17 January 1978, in the slot immediately after the Nine O’Clock News on BBC1. As soon as I heard about it, I was delighted – for all of a minute. Because less than twenty-four hours before learning of the broadcast, I had been on the phone with Cambridge Borough Council, organising an interview for Articles of Clerkship with them. My interview was on Tuesday 19 January 1978.
At this time, I had been in a professional limbo, having completed my Law Degree and passed all bar one of my Professional Exams, and needing only to secure two years Articles to qualify as a Solicitor. I had been waiting for Articles for almost a year. There was no decent way that I could request a change of date for the interview. But by train – three trains there, three trains back – it was impossible to come up with a permutation that got me back home any earlier than five minutes after Red Shift finished broadcasting.
On the day, I went to Cambridge: Manchester to Birmingham, Birmingham to Ely, Ely to Cambridge: Cambridge to Leicester, Leicester to Sheffield, Sheffield to Manchester. Never mind, I will catch it on the repeat, I consoled myself.
It was never repeated. I didn’t get the job either.
We flash forward thirty years or thereabouts. I am browsing eBay one day when it comes into my head to do a search against Red Shift. I occasionally do impulsive searches against rarities, having been surprised to discover that they are available too often, and once again I am not disappointed. Someone is offering a DVD of Red Shift. I immediately add it to my Watch List and, being absolutely determined not to let it slip away a second time, come up with the highest bid. At last, after all those years.
The DVD, when it arrives, is a modestly professional package that has clearly been based on a tape from the television, though it has come from a high quality original and has not suffered too badly in the copying process. It is of relatively low definition, but most of the flaws in the recording come from the tape quality of the original, a function of the recording processes of the time.
Having waited all that time to see the adaptation, an adaptation written by Garner himself, it’s strange that I never thereafter watched the DVD again. But I still took notice when, late last year, it was announced that Red Shift had been released officially by the British Film Institute, in a digitally remastered print that improved the quality beyond the original tape. It became a Xmas treat for myself, though it wasn’t until this week that I finally made time to watch it again.

Tom and Jan

Re-seeing Red Shift, I was struck by the actors I recognised. I had previously recognised one of the actors in the Civil War sequence as Michael Elphick, just a couple of years before his period of television ubiquity, but I can’t remember if I’d recognised that another of the cast from that part of the story was James Hazeldine, who would be a mainstay of London’s Burning in the latter half of the Eighties. But I had certainly not appreciated that the part of Jan was played by a very young Lesley Dunlop, who has constantly been on British television ever since.
Given how clipped and brief the book is, it seems odd that, even with ninety minutes available, Garner has to compress events for the film. He’s commented that readers of the book who take it to be about Tom and Jan, with the other eras as sub-stories are misreading the story, but the film very clearly treats the contemporary thread as its main element.
Tom and Jan are a young couple, late teens, who are in love, though only Jan is able to say so aloud. The story begins with their separation: Jan is moving to London to train in nursing whilst Tom remains in Cheshire, sharing a caravan with his parents, his father an Army Sergeant. Tom’s very intelligent and articulate, though his words fail him when his parents try to press the pair to admit that they are having sex, when this is not yet the case. The stress triggers a near epileptic fit that seems, in film and book, to act as a breakthrough into the other two centres of the story: both Macey in Roman times and Thomas in the Civil War speak of ‘seeing’ a mysterious figure that appears to be Tom (though this vision is only given to Macey in the book).
The contemporary pair conduct their relationship via a series of monthly meetings in Crewe, discovering the town (omitted from the film) and some of the surrounding countryside: Barthomley, scene of the Civil War massacre that involves Thomas and Madge, and Mow Cop, where Macey and his mates, deserting legionnaires from the missing Ninth, form a base against the tribes around them.
Both Macey and Thomas are epileptics, prone to fits that affect them in different ways. Though Macey’s story covers a minimum of six months – the unnamed girl captive is raped early on and is heavily pregnant but not ready to give birth at the end – Thomas’s tale takes place in the space of a single day. Both, on film, are treated as interleaves with Tom and Jan: several times, the film cuts to one of the other protagonists for a few, silent seconds, when they are doing nothing of significance.
So Tom and Jan become the heart of things. Tom is the hyperactive centre of their story, leading the way, creating the world around himself, in which Jan is a loyal, willing and content follower, excited by everything he offers. Even before his sobbing response to his parent’s pressure, there is a question mark as to his stability, and his unnaturally quick recovery seals our doubts into place, though it’s not until much later that we learn the source of his trauma, and his sexual hang-ups. Quite simply, Tom has spent a decade exposed to his parents’ sex-life (Saturday nights and Mess Nights), couched in his father’s pleadings and the caravan rocking. It’s distorted his view of the sexual aspect of relationships, making him more than an innocent. It’s notable that it is Jan who first raises the prospect of being ready for sex, and Tom who is quickly accepting of it still being a future, postponed, occurrence.
But as events progress, we learn that, behind his calm exterior, Jan has her own trauma. She’s the child of busy health care professionals (it’s implied that at least one is a psychiatrist), forever on the move from location to location. Jan’s peripatetic life has left her without stability, without friends, and with deeply lowered self-confidence. She’d known Tom for some time but nothing happened between them before she went away at Easter, staying with a German wine-grower. She admits to seducing/having been seduced by him, a middle-aged, married man, and sleeping with him, of taking nothing but warmth and a sense of inner identity from the encounters that changed her into the person Tom finally ‘saw’ and fell in love with.
Unfortunately, this revelation comes after Tom has hitch-hiked to London to meet Jan at Euston, only to see her escorted to the train by a smoothly dressed middle-aged man who buys her a First Class ticket.
It’s the moment that breaks everything. But Tom himself has failed in his imagination. He has been holding the stone axe, the stone axe found on Mow Cop, where it had been built into a chimney as a thunderstone by Thomas, who had found it where it had been buried by Macey. Though Jan had identified it as something previous and real, a ‘Bunty’, an object of permanence in a life of transience, Tom has sold it to a museum, where it’s forever beyond her reach.
From there, it’s a tale of deterioration. Tom and Jan have sex at last, but it’s always and only sex, nothing else, as Tom strives desperately to ‘catch-up’ on something impossible to pursue. The film leaves it plain that, where Thomas and Madge, Macey and the girl go on to lives together, Tom and Jan are broken beyond repair. Curiously, it does not sink to the utter bleakness of the book, its hollow final line (taken from a piece of graffiti seen by Garner that was one of the three spurs that led to the book) being ‘not really now not any more’.
It surprised me that this was omitted from the film, as was reference to the secret message, given on the endwrappers in a code that, when unravelled, appears to indicate that if Jan doesn’t turn up next time, Tom will return to Mow Cop alone, and there kill himself. This notion is supported by a short essay by Garner himself, written for the DVD, setting out the three disparate elements that combined to birth the story in his mind.
Nevertheless, the adaptation of Red Shift is superb, and I wish I had seen it many years ago, though it would probably have coloured my interpretation of the book. As it was, not long after missing the broadcast, I sat and read Red Shift, trying to visualise every scene as it might have been portrayed – and discovered for myself a whole, and crucial scene, hidden between two otherwise awkward lines of dialogue that I had never before suspected.
Having it finally available is a justified reward for the many talents who came together to produce the film. And I’m glad to have a near-pristine, beautifully composed and supported version of the film to go with my autographed copy of the original Armada paperback. In a way though, like the completion and release of Brian Wilson’s Smile, it’s beyond it’s time. It can’t influence now as it properly should have. Commercially, it was clearly a contemporary failure – I do not recall it even being reviewed – and the DVD release is a rescue from obscurity.
But for me, and others like me, it would have been an influence on our thoughts and emotions about the story. It comes nearly forty years too late to affect me now.


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