Red Shift

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Cheshire, the early 1970s. Tom (Stephen Petcher) and Jan (Lesley Dunlop) are young and in love, though his parents are not entirely approving and she is about to move away to start nurse training. Meanwhile, in Roman times in the same area, a group of Roman legionnaires go to ground. One of them is Macey (Andrew Byatt), a young man prone to fits and strange visions. Meanwhile, in the time of the English Civil War, in the nearby village of Barthomley, the villagers, Thomas Rowley (Charles Bolton) come under threat from Royalist troops.

Alan Garner was born in 1934 and published his first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen in 1960, following it with a sequel, The Moon of Gomrath and a standalone set in contemporary Manchester, Elidor. All of them were published as children’s novels, though as with many leading children’s writers Garner always had an adult following and never claimed to be writing solely for young readers, more for anyone who cared to read him. At the time, the term “young-adult” did not really exist, but there were and had always been books clearly aimed for older readers, for teenagers rather than the 8-12 range (often now referred to by the American term “middle-grade” or MG for short). One such was Garner's next novel, The Owl Service, published in 1967 and winner of both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Garner himself adapted it into an eight-part TV serial which was first broadcast in 1968, and which I reviewed on DVD here. The Owl Service was undoubtedly a book for older rather than younger children, dealing with questions of jealousy and awakening sexuality as a Welsh legend from The Mabinogion reworks itself – and pent-up energies discharge themselves - through three contemporary teenagers.

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Garner’s novels draw on folklore and legend, often inspired by the landscape of Cheshire, where he was born and has lived all his life. Red Shift, published in 1973, is no exception, shifting back and forth between alter egos in Roman times, the seventeenth century and the (then) present day, all centred on the same location, the hill of Mow Cop, and linked by a votive stone axehead which all three protagonists have in common. There's no period distancing: each timeline is "present", Tom, Thomas and Macey being in some kind of psychic contact with each other. This contact is through brief, inchoate visions: as Tom in the present day pushes his hands in anger through a glass window, Macey in Roman times "sees" hands pressing at him. The novel has no chapters, only linebreaks for each shift in time. Towards the end of the novel, even that distinction breaks down. Stylistically, Red Shift is very compressed, minimalist, much of it conveyed via sparse narrative and dialogue, of which Garner is a master. The age-old writers' mantra is "show don't tell", and Garner shows and doesn't tell more than most writers, one reason why the novel is a challenging read for any age.

Red Shift retells the legend of Tam Lin, a story retold many times before and since. (There was a 1971 film version, directed by Roddy MacDowall.) Garner’s version deviates from the others by making its protagonist male rather than female, and the fact that two out of the three iterations are called Tom is no accident. Red Shift has always been published as a “children’s” book but other than having teenaged central characters is not a children’s book in any conventional sense, and attracted some controversy about its language, though that is mild compared to what can now be uttered in a YA novel. Add to that a not-insignificant body count in the historical sections, rape (with the woman captured by the legionnaries kept as a sex slave) and a theme of impotence (including sexual impotence) leading to violence as an exorcism of rage and pain, and you can see how this television adaptation, scripted by Garner, went out post-watershed, even though it was in the usual Play for Today timeslot. This DVD release is rated 12 by the BBFC.

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Heady stuff, and qualifying as borderline SF as well as fantasy, from the use of scientific metaphor (from the title onwards) and the theme of time travel, although it's an inner and psychic form of it. Tom is very intelligent and articulate, but his verbal flourishes cover up insecurity and pain, especially concerning his relationship with Jan, who is moving away from him. "The sky is emptying," he says. "The further they [people] go, the faster they leave." As stars move away from us, their light shifts to the red end of the spectrum, hence the title.

Garner's adaptation streamlines the story, and in the editing, the three timelines were intercut more often than they are in the novel, with his approval. The result is effectively done, though I wonder how much of it would be clear to anyone unfamiliar with the book. There's a strong cast: Stephen Petcher worked mainly on TV though his last credit on the IMDB is from 1997, but he excels here in a difficult part. Lesley Dunlop acts to this day: she delivered a memorable scream at her character's and the audience's first sight of the title character in The Elephant Man. Also in that film and here is Michael Elphick, slimmer than normal and bearded, in the Civil War timeline. Other familiar faces include Bernard Gallagher as Tom's father: he was later to become a regular in the first three seasons of Casualty and more recently was Steve Coogan's father in The Trip.

The play (or rather film, as it was shot entirely on 16mm) went out in January 1978 in the Play for Today slot, to date its only television broadcast. Play for Today was a development from The Wednesday Play in the 60s. It has a reputation now for realist, issue-led drama, with directors like Ken Loach, Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh working here as the British cinema industry notably contracted. The week before Red Shift in the same slot was broadcast Licking Hitler, written and directed by David Hare, and the week after you could see The Spongers, written by Jim Allen and directed by Roland Joffé. Just look at those names, who would go on to have extensive careers in the cinema, as indeed did the present film's director John Mackenzie, best known now for The Long Good Friday. Works of SF and fantasy seem an odd fit for Play for Today, but that's misleading. Back in 1974, we had Penda's Fen, directed by Alan Clarke from a script by David Rudkin, another writer (a playwright rather than a novelist) with a strong attachment to place and an interest in the manifestations of English folklore. Two years later, the SF comedy The Flipside of Dominick Hide and its 1982 sequel Another Flip for Dominick also went out as Plays for Today, and were released on DVD by 2 Entertain in 2005.

Red Shift marked a change in Garner's work, and possibly a sense that this was as far as he could go in this particular direction. The Stone Book Quartet is a series of four short stories (originally published separately before being collected in book form) dealing with different generations of Garner's family. It is neither SF or fantasy, but deals with many of the same themes as his other work. But other than collections of retold fairy tales, Garner was silent, in part due to a diagnosis of manic depression. His 1980 TV play To Kill a King, would seem to have autobiographical resonances, in its depiction of a writer struggling with depression and writers' block. His later novels, for adults, continue the intense concentration on place, and much in-depth research, and begin with the twelve-years-in-the-making Strandloper. Thursbitch has echoes of Red Shift, particularly in the depiction of the young couple in its contemporary sections. Boneland returns to Colin, the boy protagonist of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, now an adult, his sister missing. Both this and Thursbitch use dual timelines with the past reflecting on the present and vice versa.

Turning eighty in the week of this DVD release, Garner is one of England's most distinguished living writers, not just for children but for any age. Red Shift is one of his major works, and this TV adaptation has been unavailable for much too long.

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The Disc


Red Shift is released by the BFI on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only.
The film was shot throughout in 16mm, and transferred to two-inch videotape for broadcast. That tape still exists in the archive, but this DVD release (in the correct ratio of 1.33:1) was mastered in HD from the edited film print. Some of it had faded and was colour-corrected: there's a scene fifty-nine minutes in which does seem overly red-hued.

The soundtrack is the original mono, clear and well-balanced. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing, and I didn't detect any errors in them.

One Pair of Eyes was a BBC documentary strand which ran from 1967 to 1984. Its remit the personal essay, and in 1972, it was Alan Garner's turn. The result was All Systems Go (40:11), shown once in 1973 and never repeated. The documentary was made while Garner was completing Red Shift, which by the time of broadcast had been published, as a copy is shown during an opening recap of his career. In retrospect, for those familiar with Red Shift, it's particularly fascinating: Garner discusses his local landscape, both ancient – some of the locations of the historical events in the novel – and modern, such as the Jodrell Bank radio telescope. Along with another old boy (the actor Robert Powell) he revisits his old school. Towards the end, he workshops two young actors through an improvisation which is distincly reminiscent of the opening scene of Red Shift, novel and TV adaptation.

"Spirit of Cheshire" (19:11) is a short travelogue from 1980 taking us around the sights of the county. It was sponsored by Rolls Royce, which would explain why our guide and narrator is a Silver Ghost, which speaks with Michael Hordern's voice. It's a pleasant piece, attractively photographed in 16mm by Roger Pratt, who within five years had become one of Britain's leading cinematographers.

The final extra on the disc is more directly relevant to Red Shift, interviews with, separately, first assistant director Bob Jacobs and (with somewhat echoey sound) editor Oliver White, which runs in total 4:40.

The BFI's booklet begins with "The Boundary's Undefined", an essay on the novel and the adaptation by David Rolinson. Alan Garner contributes a one-page note on the inspiration for his novel, and there are biographies on John Mackenzie and Garner by Sergio Angelini and Michael Brooke respectively, film credits and notes on the extras and the presentation.

More small-screen SF from the BFI as the 1978 version of Alan Garner's novel comes to DVD.

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