It's a Play for Today. For those who don't know, this was the umbrella title for more than 300 one-off plays commissioned by the BBC between 1970 and 1984. Its predecessor in the 1960s was called The Wednesday Play and I bet you can't guess why they changed the name. Occasionally a play would go on to greater things. Rumpole of the Bailey and Boys from the Blackstuff were both spin-offs of a Play for Today, although the original of the latter wasn't broadcast under that title.
Anyway, Red Shift is one of these. It's also an adaptation by Alan Garner of his book of the same name. Garner is a British fantasy writer, but in a subtle way. He's doing realism with supernatural themes (usually set in Cheshire) rather than Tolkienesque elves and goblins. His books are:
- 1960 - The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
- 1963 - The Moon of Gomrath - sequel to the above
- 1965 - Elidor - also became a six-part BBC children's TV series
- 1967 - The Owl Service - also became an eight-part Granada children's TV series
- 1973 - Red Shift - also became this Play for Today
- 1996 - Strandloper
- 2003 - Thursbitch
I'd guess that this is the most obscure of the three Alan Garner adaptations to date, although in 1980 he also wrote a TV play called To Kill a King about a writer overcoming writer's block and depression. As for Red Shift, I believe it's not commercially available and the copy I saw looks home taped. Speaking bluntly, I can see why. You'll never get anything like this again on British TV. It reminds me very much of stage plays, a genre that these days often seems to think it a virtue to faff around and keep the audience wondering about whether you're ever going to get to the point. You need to watch it in a different way. You need patience. You need a willingness to focus on the moment rather than the story, even if the characters don't seem to be doing anything. Personally I don't see this as inherently a bad thing and I approve of stretching one's drama-appreciation muscles like this sometimes, but the results aren't for everyone. Of all the people in my family, I can only think of one person besides me who'd be able to make it through the first fifteen minutes.
The story is split into three periods: (a) Roman times, (b) the English civil war, (c) 1978. Oddly enough, it's now the 1978 bits that feel the most dated and historical. Everyone uses the same language, with no attempt at archaic grammar and vocabulary, so one's response to (a) and (b) is "they're just like us!" while one's response to (c) is "what a bunch of freaks!" Obviously this is deliberate. Garner's making a point about attitudes to sex and swearing by comparing his modern characters' lives with the rapes, murders, etc. of earlier times. Nothing obvious links any of these stories, although apparently the book contains suggestions that Thomas's epileptic fits in the 17th century may be visions of Tom in the 20th.
Instead the connections between the three plotlines are physical. They're all set in the same location, between York and Canterbury, and there's a stone axe head that we see in all three eras. Eventually we learn that it's 3,500 years old. Surprisingly this works better than you'd think, since it gives us something to latch on to when Tom enters a church where Thomas is fighting a battle, even though we know three centuries are separating them.
I was talking about the eras, though. The Roman time has a group of soldiers raping and killing at whim. This is occasionally unspeakable. After capturing and gang-raping one girl, their leader is going to have her killed until they eventually decide to hamstring her instead. This happens in the background as the other soldiers chat. The attitudes on display here are horrific and the native Britons have a few tribal superstitions, mostly about not getting blood on what I presume are sacred stones, but they're expressing them in modern English. The Vietnam war was still going when Garner's original novel came out, by the way.
The 17th century is more civilised, but in the end not by a lot. Marriage is a complication for sex and rape.
Understandably the 20th century is being portrayed with more authenticity than the other eras, but it's also an uncomfortable, slightly suffocating time with some people having attitudes that have survived intact from the 1950s. It's mentioned on television that Mary Whitehouse has written a book on sex. A young man is said to be too young to have physical relations, whereupon we cut to an even younger man in a berserker state clubbing people's brains out. The main character, Tom, is a emotional retard with well-meaning but priggish parents, none of whom like to hear Tom's girlfriend even swearing. Their way of asking if Tom's slept with his girlfriend is to inquire whether he's done anything to make them ashamed of him. The mother is a horror. If I'd had to guess the era of this story, I'd have probably gone for the sixties rather than the seventies. If you were ever wondering how to do Victorian values in a modern-day story without making your audience snort in derision, this is one possibility.
Probably unsurprisingly, the three segments turn out to be almost the same story underneath. All have a love triangle defined by sex or a lack of it, in which the woman is more worldly than her naive and unstable young man. Macey seems to be talking about his split personality (in Roman times!), Thomas has fits and visions and Tom is an intellectual show-off who can blind you with verbiage and irrelevant facts, but doesn't have a clue about handling his feelings. He's a bit of a knob, actually. He reminds me of my... um, maybe I'd better stay diplomatic here, for once. Stephen Petcher's not an actor who seems to have had a particularly extensive career, but I thought he did well here at capturing a particular kind of spiky, brittle male who's probably got some variant of autism. Some of the choices Petcher makes aren't obvious at all, but he makes them. One of the more quietly impressive things about this play is the way this young man manages to hold up the main trunk of the story without either being watered down or losing the audience. Incidentally there's a coded message at the end of the original novel that if deciphered, reveals a message from Tom that could be interpreted as meaning that he's considering suicide.
The actors aren't particularly famous, but I'd heard of Leslie Dunlop and I'll always have a soft spot for James Hazeldine from London's Burning. There's also Robert Brown, who was the replacement M in a few Bond films. I can't think how I failed to recognise Michael Elphick, though. However an irredemable Doctor Who fan might perhaps be able to have fun spotting Hinks from The Green Death, Lady Adastra from The Creature from the Pit and Nils from The Moonbase, plus of course Dunlop.
Did I like this? I'm glad I watched it, but you couldn't pretend that it's fun. Its historical stories get breathtakingly nasty at times, but for me those were its best bits. Frankly it's hard work to watch, while the first time we switched to the Roman era I was wondering if someone had changed the TV channel while the video was recording. It was only after they'd cut back and forth a bit that I decided it was probably deliberate. The play's interesting because it's Alan Garner and I remember reading his books when I was younger, but I'm also getting a nagging feeling that he might have been basically writing about his own personal problems. I've got no evidence for this theory beyond To Kill a King, mind you.