Alan Garner’s own adaptation of his 1973 novel as a 1977 BBC Play for Today is the one remaining ‘film’ left in this series that gives me real pause for doubt. The book has been my favourite among Garner’s works since I first read it, not long after publication, and it remains one of my favourite books of all time. That I was unable to watch the film on its original, and only, broadcast due to an interview far away from which I could not get back in time was devastating.
Since first acquiring a DVD copy, initially by purchasing a private copy obviously videoed, this is only the third time I have watched Red Shift. Partly, this is because, oddly enough, the film is too faithful to the book. By that I don’t mean that it tries to capture in film what can only successfully be rendered in words – where such sscenes exist in the book, Garner sensibly doesn’t even try to include these. But the book is ninety per cent dialogue (it’s a wholly stripped down book in all respects) and to hear this spoken verbatim, with faces and bodies and settings wrapped around it, produces a strange and not entirely welcome effect.
It’s as if the film has no real life of its own because it’s shackled to the earlier, and very complete, work.
Red Shift tells a complex story that is not anchored to a single time-frame. It’s dominated by the contemporary love story of Tom and Jan (Stephen Petcher and Lesley Dunlop), but intercuts with two other moments in time: the remnants of the lost Roman Ninth Legion attampt to survive among Cheshire tribes and during the Civil War a village is massacred by the King’s Men. Both these parallels centre upon a young couple. There is Macey, the young beserker and the unnamed priestess who his fellows hold captive, pregnant from their rapes (Andrew Byatt and Veronica Quilligan). And there is Thomas Rowley, an epileptic, and his wife Madge (Charles Bolton and Myra Frances) who survive the massacre though Madge too has been raped – and possibly made pregnant – by her former suitor Thomas Venables.
In the book, all three sequences are equals, irrespective of the different lengths given to them, but in the film we are watching Tom and Jan to whom the other pairs are but slightly outre alternatives.
The film is a love story, of sorts, linked in place rather than time, with the stories centring upon Chesire, and upon the folly-topped outcrop of Mow Cop. They are linked by a votive stone axe of incredibly preserved condition that passed from one couple to another. They are linked by almost parallels reverbrating from era to era. But it is Tom and Jan, the modern age couple of the Seventies, who receive most of our attention.
The pair are teenagers of about 18, living in Rudheath, Cheshire. Tom, the son of an Army Sergeant-Major and a possessive mother, is highly intelligent, highly articulate, studying for something that’s never defined, Jan is a bright, attractive girl, dsughter of two psychiatrists, intent on becoming a nurse, which means her moving to London for her training. Though we quickly are introduced to Tom’s latent instability, it takes the film much longer to reveal that both are the product of home environments that have affected them badly.
And it’s on the very evening that Tom learns tjat not only is Jan going to London but her parents are also moving away, have already sold their house, that his parents start asking if the two of them have yet had sex.
It’s not put so bluntly but that’s what it is: have you done anything that would cause us to be ashamed of you? As it happens, the pair haven’t. They are tactile, hand-holding, hugs and kisses, but neither of them, and especially Tom, are yet ready. not that it’s any business of his parents if they have.
But the enormity of the question, prompted by his mother through his more-easily embarrassed father, strikes through the shield of Tom’s words and breaks him. Whilst his poisonous mother (an excellent performance by Sheila Tanner, a familist character actress well-siuited to harridan-like roles) accused Jan of being the unspoken equivalent of a succubus, Tom pushes a window of their caravan home until it shatters, cutting his hands.
This scene is treated as the catalyst of Tom’s link to his equivalents of the other times.
We already understand that Tom is on an edge and his words and attitude and projected self-confidence are things to hide behind. How much Jan understands of that now we can’t tell. For the moment, they establish a routine whereby they can see each other, in Crew, once a month. Their relationship is established instantly every time. Jan tells Tom she loves him several times. We notice that he doesn’t say it back. They find their way to Barthomley Church, scene of the massacre, and to Mow Cop, where Tom finds the axe whose journey to that point we’ll learn later.
To Jan, the axe is of vital importance, a ‘Bunty’. It is a thing of beauty but most importantly it’s a thing of permanence. She, like Tom, is traumatised by her childhood, a life of never being in the same place for long, always moving, never having friends, never having anything of permanence. It is theirs, it symbolises the relationship they have, that is coming nearer it being sexual, though it’s significant that she has to ask Tom if her’s alright about that. Because Tom’s not.
On Mow Cop, Macey the kid hangs around the priestess but never touches her. He is lost in confusion since using the axe to kill, sees Macey and himself as separate, with Macey gone. once the priestess poisons his mates, Macey is free and they can leave together, the axe buried in a riverbank where Tjomas Rowley will find it.
In Barthomley, Thomas has a fit and fires a shot that brings the Army down on the villagers beseiged in the Church. In pursuit of the rebel John Fowler (James Hazeldine), son of the Rector, educated man but still inferior, the men are killed and the women are raped. But Thomas Venables (Michael Elphick) only wounds Thomas Rowley before he takes Madge, sparing him to live and care for her on Mow Cop, with the axe built into the chimney where Tom finds it in its collapsed and derelict state.
These couples escape together, though one woman, probably both, are pregnant by another. Will Tom and Jan repeat the pattern? We already know they won’t.
Tom begs a lift to London to intercept Jan. He sees her arrive in a nice dress, with a well-coiffeured and eveidently prosperous middle-aged man who sees her off in First Class with a kiss. At Crewe she is in her familiar pullover and jeans. Tom pretends not to know anything but treats her in an overbright and callous manner that signals to her instantly that something is wrong. In the keep of the folly on Mow Cop everything spills out. The man was the German wine-grower where Jan au-paired last Easter. She lost, or rather gave, her virginity to him. A lonely child, unable to commit, unable to feel valued, because her parents never gave her time to be anywhere, his warmth, his appreciation, touched her. She didn’t love him, she never revealed her real self to him, but she allowed him to ground her, to learn value in herself, he made her capable of loving Tom as she does. he was passing through London, concerned that she hadn’t answered his letters, was happy for her and Tom, treated her and them.
But the explanation doesn’t take account of Tom’s own traumas, his instability, his unwordly and unrealistic attitude to sex, brought in on him by life in a caravan that rocks and has no sound-proofing. Saturdays and Mess nights, his father begging, his mother who’s directed her possessiveness towards Tom in some inverted Oedipal manner, making his Dad beg. Tom has worn headphones to shut this out since he was eight.
Maybe a psychiatrist could straighten him out but though now Tom wants sex with Jan, it’s all he wants, out to catch up on something he can never catch up to because his own insecurities, instability, will always push his goal further away. Garner wrote book and film as an expression of the myth of Tam Lynn, with Janet required to hold on to Tam Lynn, just hold out throughout all his changes, to save him.
But Tom sold the axe, the Bunty, to a museum in which it’s forever untouchable, to pay for London. Tom’s misunderstood, has failed to understand Jan so thoroughly that, between that and his change from giver to taker, grab, grab, grab and always promising ‘next time’, not even she can hold on. Not really now not any more.
It strikes me that i’ve failed to do the film justice, that I’ve reviewed the book, not the play. That’s the peril of hewing so closely to the original. Red Shift the film falls short of Red Shift the book, no matter its qualities, because it stands so close it can’t escape the book’s shadow.
The acting is good throughout, and the cast includes a couple of actors on their way to greater recognition. everything stands and falls on Tom and Jan, and whilst Petcher, in his debut performance, does what he can with a near impossible role, Dunlop is fantastic, inhabiting Jan with a comprehensive naturalness, making every line the product of a young woman reacting to horrendous circumstances.
There is more to both book and film that I’m able to convey without going into such depth that I might as well just copy out the book. Ultimately, I’m not able to separate the two.