Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Green and Unpleasant Land

PLAY FOR TODAY - ROBIN REDBREAST (1970)
THE SHOUT (1978)
THE MAD DEATH (1983)

Esteemed TV players Bernard Hepton and Anna Cropper's different world's collide in the rural horror ROBIN REDBREAST.

BROADCAST as part of the BBC's PLAY FOR TODAY strand, ROBIN REDBREAST is a folk horror rarity that acts as a precursor and influence to the more hard-hitting THE WICKER MAN and BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW. Written by John Bowen and directed by James MacTaggart, it is the story of Norah Palmer (Anna Cropper), a London-based TV script editor who temporarily escapes to the country in order to recuperate after a break-up. But with mice scurrying in the walls, birds coming down the chimney and local eccentrics like housekeeper Mrs Vigo (Freda Bamford) and Mr Fisher (Bernard Hepton) dispensing weird customs, Anna becomes increasingly isolated and lost within her new environment. When she falls pregnant after a one-night stand with SS-obsessed gamekeeper Rob (Andrew Bradford) - who she first encounters practising karate in the woods wearing only his underpants - Anna is embroidered in a conspiracy to prevent her leaving the village.

The class struggle theme is amplified by Anna being such a liberated, modern woman and Rob a himbo who looks to the history of the Third Reich to generate monosymbolic conversation. They have nothing in common but sleep together in the onset of fear, instincts which adhere to the programme's yearning to turn back to more straightforward times. The countryside may be full of shunned micro societies, but can the urban development of "civilised" post-war Britain - and the intrusion of the outsider - really ever erode the colour of tradition and ritual from a brutal prehistory? Talky but engrossing, ROBIN REDBREAST's slow burning dictum - and the inclusion of snobbish London friends Madge (Amanda Walker) and Jake (Julian Holloway) - makes a case that our green and unpleasant land will always govern our prudish endeavours.

The soul of a housewife is manipulated by a magical stranger in THE SHOUT; reverting to an Aboriginal state, Rachel scuttles on all fours through her cluttered kitchen.

Though THE SHOUT is connected with Aboriginal Outback culture, and was the first British film of Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, Englishness seeps through every frame. Shot in and around Braunton Burrows and Saunton Sands in North Devon - a stone's throw from this writer's home - the film shows a cricket match between the staff and inmates of an asylum. One of the patients, Charles Crossley (Alan Bates), is running the scoring hut, where he tells Robert (Tim Curry) a strange story ("every word of what I'm going to tell you is true. Although I'm telling it in a different way, it's always the same story … I vary it a little because I like to keep it alive.") Told in flashback, we see married couple Anthony (John Hurt) and Rachel (Susannah York); Anthony is a Church organist/composer, and Rachel a staid housewife. Crossley appears and announces that he has returned from eighteen years in the Australian outback, where he lived among the Aborigines and studied their magic. Even though the stranger tells the couple of him killing his own children, Crossley moves in with Anthony and Rachel permanently, establishing a spell over the household.

An ambitious but ultimately perplexing film, THE SHOUT opens with the featured couple asleep on a beach, both having the same dream of a witch doctor in a tailcoat. Crossley explains this was one of his teachers, and we learn more about the strangers powers: the ability to take another man's wife by simply keeping an item of her clothing - in this case a sandal buckle - and the secret of The Shout, a cry so despairing that it can kill. Crossley creates a disquieting, intimate awkwardness, made the more terrifying because his incantations are introduced naturally into country village life. The production's otherworldly quality is further enhanced by its use of an electronic and avant-garde score by Genesis linchpins Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford. In fact the film's haunting central theme 'From the Undertow' was the opening track on Banks' solo debut album A Curious Feeling released a year later.

The THREADS of the Rabies world, the BBC Scotland drama THE MAD DEATH was made two years before its eventual transmission date.

In this age of bird flu and ebola, it is easy to forget that in the 80's Rabies was the virulent virus. The BBC had already featured the condition in a third season episode of SURVIVORS - MAD DOG by Don Shaw, screened in 1977 - which provided the already decimated population with another catastrophe, but THE MAD DEATH tackles Rabies full-on. Based on the Nigel Slater book of the same name, writer Sean Hignett and director Robert Young examine the effects of a notional outbreak of "the mad death" on our shores. Opening with a titles sequence where a voice whispers 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' over a distorted image of a fox, the terror begins when an infected cat is smuggled by her owner from France into Scotland. When the feline is run over by a car, its body is eaten by a fox. The spread amongst the animal population goes undetected until the first human, womanising American businessman Tom Siegler (Ed Bishop), befriends the infected animal. After Siegler is confirmed with the disease in hospital, the government calls in leading Rabies specialist Michael Hilliard (Richard Heffer) and Doctor Anne Maitland (Barbara Kellerman). Maitland's jealous partner Johnny Dalry (Richard Morant) creates a tepid love triangle which fails to hold interest against a number of alarmingly brutal scenes.

By addressing humanity's fear of disease with a love of animals, THE MAD DEATH has a solid premise. While most commentators mention the shopping centre containment in episode two as the highlight, the slow-burning demise of Tom in the first part is more dramatically satisfying. Benefitting from focuses on the declining health of the businessman for a continuous large portion of running time, we follow Siegler through the various stages of the disease, starting off with headaches, disorientation, and blurred vision; and in medical care, having hallucinations of being strangled, as hydrophobia takes hold. If the story seems pedestrian after the shopping centre sequence, it only serves as a foundation to the barnstorming final act, which depicts a still difficult to watch cull and creepy scenes within the home of Miss Stonecroft (Brenda Bruce) - the obligatory demented pet-obsessed loner - which includes the capture of Maitland and Stonecroft's attempt to feed her cat food and milk. Of the performances, Bishop shines as the charismatic American, as confident and chatty as the English cast are reserved and stiff upper-lipped.