This singular, occult-themed 1971 Play For Today has experienced a long-overdue reassessment in recent years due in no small part to the BFI’s DVD release and also to growing interest in Folk Horror as a genre. Comments about the play’s supposed influence on The Wicker Man two years later are understandable, and it also shares more than a passing resemblance to David Pinner’s novel, Ritual (the ‘legitimate’ basis for Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer’s film.)
But Robin Redbreast is also unique in many ways, often doing somewhat (then-) stranger and more harrowing things than works it is regularly compared to. To begin with, protagonist Norah Palmer (played by Bowen’s first choice, Anna Cropper) is an unapologetic “modern woman”; unmarried, recently single and fiercely independent. Norah’s individuality raises eyebrows not only with the stoic traditionalism of the villagers she now lives amongst, but also her supposedly progressive-thinking London friends. Norah’s confession that the reason she took the cottage which her ex-partner and her were to buy together is because she “hates waste” is an almost mercenary outlook which neatly accompanies her philosophies of taking what she wants when she “gets randy”, as a “single, thirty-five year-old woman.”
In this capacity, Norah represents not only the modern, self-sufficient Western woman but also the modern consumer: one who chases their own wants and needs foremost. Norah inhabits a liminal zone between the urbane luxury of life in London (middle-class existence with a middle-class job as a script editor, drinking middle class gin and tonics) and the natural realities of the country. When Norah comes across Rob, practicing his martial arts in the woodlands and dressed only in the tiniest of pants, her natural instincts immediately kick-in. No matter what sort of relationship Norah intellectualises between herself and this innocent, who is magnetically drawn to be part of her life, she is also aware that she is single and alone, therefore free to do what she wants.
The language of Robin Redbreast is interesting, often destabilising the viewer’s understanding of events. Norah and Rob have very little in common intellectually, so conversation quickly dies between them. Rob is preoccupied with martial arts and Nazism – not in right-wing political beliefs, but rather the discipline of pure military outlook and peak physical health. Superficially, Rob confirms urban preconceptions regarding rural extremism and survivalism (a subculture which would in later years be revealed as a very real thing in the media and documentaries, especially in North America.) Yet Rob is an innocent, and even Norah believes there is no real ‘threat’ for him to train himself against.
The language used by Fisher, the local “man of learning”, and Mrs Vigo, Norah’s imposing housekeeper, is more oblique, almost testing Norah’s tolerance for evasiveness. When Fisher first appears at the cottage fence, he neglects to introduce himself and almost immediately goes into a monologue about “looking for sherds”, and then a TV programme he saw about clams. He then wanders into Norah’s garden unbidden, still talking, and stands inappropriately close to her. The scene is almost Pinteresque with linguistic menace. Fisher asks Norah if she speaks “the Old Tongue” (meaning Anglo-Saxon), to which Norah confesses, “not since Oxford”, with academic immodesty, which is belittled by Fisher’s cold gaze and calm, cryptic small talk.
In a later scene, Mrs Vigo is seen roughly pulling entrails from a dead chicken over Norah’s kitchen sink, whilst talking about Rob’s obsession with Nazism and how he finds souvenirs and weapons in “body magazines”, which are “full of adverts, that trash.” Vigo then goes on to proudly proclaim the bird as one of her own chickens, who was “broody” but could not longer lay eggs, so might as well be gutted and eaten as “that’s all she good for.”
This thinly veiled attack on Norah’s marital and maternal status is jarring, and the almost continuous transgression between the internal/external adds to the strangeness of Norah’s experience. Everybody knows her business it would seem, yet no one individual can be blamed for the dissemination of information. The public/private arena is deemed fluid here. This is in sharp contrast to the superficiality of Norah’s London friends, who only seem to occupy the same space inside houses: relaxed, casual in conversation, drink in hand. It’s as if they are templates of experience rather than actual experience, and as if they might not actually exist if they were to step outside.
Events take a darker turn after Norah sleeps with Rob, after what could be deemed to be an orchestrated seduction. Norah falls pregnant because the contraception she brought with her has (not particularly) mysteriously vanished. Even her London friends show disdain when she swiftly chooses to have an abortion, but then she decides against it and returns to the village. Suddenly, Norah finds herself enclosed in the village and all her avenues of freedom are closed off: the car stops working, the telephone is intermittently disconnected, just as her contraception disappears.
Aware of the accusations of modern-day Pagan practices due to the occasional “song and dance about it in the Sunday papers”, Norah puts two and two together and assumes she has been impregnated as part of some kind of May Day sacrifice. Yet even Rob – the father of what Norah assumes will become her sacrificial child – cannot fathom what is going on. Norah has dreams about Fisher wielding and axe, his glasses made of the strange marble-like artefact she finds outside her house then brings indoors to much village discussion, and Rob coming at her in the dark in a martial arts-style attack.
The media directly affects Norah’s outlook of the villagers, as well as fear for her own safety. Robin Redbreast is indeed loosely based on an actual event which occurred in Warwickshire in 1945: an elderly farm labourer was found dead in a field with what appeared to be a cross savagely carved into his chest. His tracea had been deliberately cut with a hook, and he was fixed to the ground by his own pitchfork. The media sensation at the time no doubt instigated the ensuing “song and dance” wheeled-out regularly by the newspapers Norah brings up, but the police inspector in the case even eventually opined it to be “clearly the ghastly climax of a pagan rite.”
Media expectation affects the viewer’s expectations as well, all the time waiting for Norah to suddenly be killed. So the actual ending comes as a surprise, and the ultimate subterfuge of the villagers is revealed. Norah had been guided all along not towards her death, but certainly towards her destiny. Her pregnancy from the innocent village orphan is seen as a continuation of the ancient traditions, which wait twenty years or more to patiently be re-enacted again. “What good would a woman’s blood be for the land?”
The final scene shows a now-released, but of course not at all free, Norah turning back to look at Fisher and his co-conspiritors before driving back into the familiar blandness of modernity. To Norah, they are simply archetypes of Pagan tradition; murderous figures with blood on their hands and the Old Gods in their hearts. When Norah attempted to dwell on that liminal plain between having her body in the country and her mind in the city, she eventually abandons the country altogether. The country, it would seem, will never abandon her.