Film 2020: Red Shift

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.

Film 2020: Penda’s Fen

The run on Sunday morning film DVDs that I began on the first weekend in January 2018 is now very near the end. Short of any late acquisitions, Film 2020 will be coming to an end this autumn.

To help postpone the evil moment,I’ve turned to a number of TV films, though it would be more proper to call these plays.

The first of these is definitely stretching things to call it a film. A decade later, the definition might have been looser, but in 1974 Penda’s Fen was broadcast as an episode of the BBC’s Play for Today, from the era when the BBC, and ITV, still trafficked in single plays, frequently to great effect.

Penda’s Fen was not the sort of thing I would normally watch, neither in itself or in the Play for Today slot. What caught my eye was the presence of Spencer Banks in the leading role, who practically everyone of my generation will fondly recall as one of the two leads in the very successful cult classic Children’s ITV SF series Timeslip (1970-71).

There were a lot of very famous productions in Play for Today down the years, such as ‘Blue Remembered Hills’, ‘Abigail’s Party’ and the original, one-off, ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, and the series covered a wide range of subjects but was largely concerned with realistic dramas. Among such plays, Penda’s Fen is a cult story, but it is remembered to this day.

It was broadcast once when I watched it, and repeated once, when I only got to turn over to watch the rest of it when something my mother was watching finished, and I turned straight into a dream sequence emblemising one of the film’s  more over themes. In a Terrible Voice, my mother demanded to know what this was. My answer was a very red-faced admission that I’d completely forgotten that scene was even in it. Which had the merit of being completely true whilst being completely implausible. Today is the first time I have seen the film since.

Penda’s Fen was written by David Rundkin and was a far cry from his normal, realistic fare, a story with intense moral, religious, nationalistic and mystic roots that the writer himself confessed to not fully understanding, and directed by the celebrated Alan Clarke. It’s set in and around the village of Pinvin, in Worcestershire, filmed completely on location, an English pastoral location of fields and grass and gentle green country, to which the Malvern Hills and Sir Edward Elgar are an essential backdrop. We don’t know how long a period the story covers but, with the exception of a single rainstorm, it runs through a long, idyllic summer.

Banks is Stephen Franklin, the son of a slow-talking, thoughtful and philosophical C of E Parson (John Atkinson). We meet him studying music in his bedroom, listening to Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’. He’s an awkward, priggish, intelligent but wholly dogmatic boy, a gifted organist, a Corporal in his Private School’s Army Corps, ultra-Christian, small and big C-Conservative with convictions as to the pureness of Englishness and the correctly stratified society that make you instinctively loathe the idea of spending ninety minutes with him. Stephen is one of those adolescents who knows already, who you can hardly imagine needing school to teach him anything.

What follows through a series of increasingly fantastic visions, is Stephen’s unmaking.

One thing that’s as clear as the gulfstream waters from the outset but of which I was next to wholly ignorant in 1974, which says a lot about me as a sheletered and naive character even through seven years of an all-boys Grammar School, is that Stephen is a far from latent homosexual. Even though, at the beginning, he would denounce it as unnatural, and certainly against God’s wishes from which all things derive, it’s as plain as the nose on his face, and it was a dream sequence in which his hand is stroking down the chest of a naked man towards a shaded area that I unfortunately turned over to on repeat (I genuinely had forgotten that and remembered the increasingly fantastic and quasi-horrific visions, in keeping with my onrushing enthusiasm for fantasy fiction).

Though the story is handled in static manner, with plenty of long, slow conversations, the old Stephen breaks down into something more questioning, finding an old paganism, born of place, breaking through. The moment he crosses an internal line into accepting his sexual nature, everything that has matter before, his narrow-defined Englishness based on traditional authority as worshipped all around him, ceases to become important without anything but questions replacing it.

He questions the values of his School, and its Backbone of England men, his father the vicar turns out to be considerably more of a Freethinker than Stephen has been, he learns he is adopted and that his natural parents were not English.

And the visions. a devil squats on his groin in bed. An Angel is reflected in a puddle beside a cornfield. Crashing off his bike and stunned, he hallucinates a scene in an Elizabethan house garden where contemporary children and adults re having their hands chopped off, presided over by a middle-aged couple who he has already praised as the ‘mother and father of England’ for winning an injunction to ban broadcast of a TV documentary on Jesus that is ‘investigative theology’ but which he denounces as a deliberate atheist plot.

In a rainstorm, he meets the aged, wheelchair-bound Sir Edward Elgar, talking about his music and disclosing the secret of the unrevealed melody that fits the Enigma Variations, a secret to e kept between them and England. Playing ‘Dreams of Gerontius’ on the Church organ, the aisle slipts in a widening crack intent on swallowing up…

There are no answers, nor any dogma. The closest we come to a definition is in the final scene. What Rudkin is striving for, on an unconscious level, is a definition of England that extends beyond its mortal traditions, attached to the Empire, and reaches into subsconcious areas of doubt and darkness and dissension and questioning.

It carries with it a suppressed power. Pinvin is a corruption of Pendefen, Penda’s Fen, the land of the last Midland’s King, King Penda. It is where Stephen lives and behind all his simple certainties it lies, awake still, holding deeper lessons.

And in the end, Stephen sits alone on the Malverns, looking out on this world. A man and a woman approach him over the brow, the ‘mother and father of england’, the banners and stiflers of the start of the story. In a scene echoing the Temptation on the Mount, they offer Stephen his Kingdom. He is the boy Prince, the one they have been promised so long, the Second Coming, the Pure who they exalt. But Stephen isn’t pure in his own mind, he’s a mixing of all things, and he claims this for himself and runs away downhill.

The ‘mother and father’ won’t let him go. If he cannot be theirs, he cannot be the Devil’s. They take a polaroid, start to burrn it. Stephen falls, his clothes starting to burn, his burning the agony it really is, not the joy this couple have claimed for it. He cries out to Penda and the couple vanish in a burning explostion. Penda sits on his throne, anointing Steph n for the truest qualities he embodies, for what he can now be. Stephen silently accepts this kingdom and descends to rejoin his people.

I don’t pretend to understand all of this any more than Rudkin does. What astonished me was the power of its appeal. The story reflects its time, and is a window into a past in which there were good things and bad things and these were different to what is good and bad now, and were differently proportioned, but even nearer to an English nationalism that was assumed and assumed to be both right and continuous instead of the crudely contrived bullshit we have now, it reminded me of an England with which I aill always have far more sympathy than that we live in today. That England was an England to share, and enjoy, not the England I now hate and despise and would abandon if I could.

I am from the Northern parts, shaped by my heritage and my home, nor the rolling country, the softer landscapes of Worcestershire and the south west Midlands. We are of different races in that ancient England. But theirs is mine as well in what we really are, beneath all surfaces. Penda’s Fen took us through those layers, into an England I recognise as true and of which I want to be part. Whether you call it a film or not, it holds its place here as much as any cinematic triumph.

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.