British Universities Film & Video Council

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Red Shift

2014. GB. DVD. BFI. 84 minutes (plus 65 minutes of extras). Certificate 12. Price: £19.99

About the reviewer: Dr Billy Smart currently works as Research Officer on the AHRC-funded ‘Forgotten British Television Drama, 1946-82’ at Royal Holloway, and from 2010 to 2013 worked on the ‘Spaces of Television: Production, Site and Style’ project at the University of Reading. His book (co-written with Leah Panos) Space and Place in 1970s Television Studio Drama is due to be published by Palgrave Macmillan. Work has included studies of the role of the director, representations of lesbianism in early British TV drama, the development of drama made on Outside Broadcast in the 1970s, the work of the BBC Audience Research Unit, the changing visual form of soap opera and how the theatrical conventions of Brecht, Chekhov and J.B Priestley were altered by studio practice when adapted for television.

Red-Shift_dvd_coverThis BFI release of the 1978 Play for Today, Red Shift, joins 2013’s DVD of John Bowen’s Robin Redbreast (from the same series) as an unlikely beneficiary of commercial interest in cult TV titles. Although Red Shift forms part of a raft of TV titles released to mark the BFI’s 2014 Science Fiction year, its SF credentials are pretty tenuous. Alan Garner’s play is only a distant cousin of the contemporary, socially engaged, linear, dramas that Play for Today is best remembered for, working instead through inference and associative logic.

This unorthodox storytelling is in part due to the novelist Garner’s accidental position as dramatist, the writer adapting his work with little heed to established TV forms. Garner occupies a distinct individual position within British literature, as an acclaimed children’s author who doesn’t exactly write children’s books but highly personal investigations into myth and landscape that children particularly respond to (see also Granada Television’s 1969 version of The Owl Service, his best-known work for television).

Red Shift entwines stories from three different time streams set within the same geographic place, Mow Cop in Cheshire; a troubled and intense love affair between two 1978 teenagers, Tom and Jan; a massacre during the English Civil War; and the battles between natives and colonists in Roman Britain. Linkage between the three is loose, found in the material form in the property of an ancient stone held by a young person in each period, and in recurrent ideas of violence and sexual awakening. This raises dramatic stakes considerably in present day scenes between the lovers, where what could be fairly domestic, small-scale, disputes and jealousies become shadowed with the violent impulses of the Roman and 17th century English war zone, imparting a real sense of fear and danger to the scorn and care shown by Tom to Jan (‘I know things. I feel things. The wrong way round’).

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