Cult Movie: BBC gem Robin Redbreast a pioneering example of 'folk horror'

Andrew Bradford and Anna Cooper in vintage folk horror Robin Redbreast
Ralph McLean

Robin Redbreast

BROADCAST as a Play For Today by the BBC in 1970, James MacTaggart's Robin Redbreast remains a unique proposition in British television history.

An uneasy tale of human sacrifice deep in the English countryside and an early example of what we now refer to as 'folk horror', it has retained its power to unsettle despite the passing decades.

It can even lay claim to being a prime influence on that most seminal slice of cinematic pagan horror, The Wicker Man, which arrived in all its sacrificial glory three years later – although it's hard to know if Wicker Man director Robin Hardy ever actually saw it when originally screened.

If he did, he was one of the few. Bar a rare repeat slot to make up for the fact that many people missed the end of its first outing due to a power cut, Robin Redbreast never resurfaced on our telly boxes until those good people at the BFI reissued it on DVD a few years back.

The play's reputation as a masterpiece of low budget rural horror continued to grow through the years though, and watching it today it's easy to see why. Anna Cooper is Norah, a plummy voiced middle class script editor for the BBC who escapes from the pressures of city life and a recent romantic break up by buying a cottage set deep in the darkest English countryside.

There, she hooks up with a good looking young man called Edgar, who the oddly old fashioned villagers all refer to bizarrely as Robin. Robin (Andrew Bradford) is a musclebound but empty headed simpleton who likes to practice his karate half naked in the forest and is given to rambling on endlessly about his love of the Third Reich, but Norah welcomes him into her bed all the same and swiftly falls pregnant with his baby.

Led by the supremely creepy Mr Fisher (Bernard Hepton), who considers himself "a man of learning" and spends his days hunting around the undergrowth for "sherds" – apparently some sort of prehistoric artefacts – and housekeeper Mrs Vigo (Freda Bamford) who is happiest knowing everyone's business and gutting rabbits in the kitchen sink, the weird villagers start to get heavily involved in Norah's life. She begins to believe that she's being held there against her will until the baby is born and the locals can act out their pagan sacrificial rites.

Writer John Bowen peppers his sometimes overly wordy script with endless allusions to ancient traditions and modern morality and the central performances from Cooper, Bradford and particularly Hepton are uniformly superb. The low rent black and white BBC production values don't detract from the unrelenting mood of creeping unease either.

I won't spoil things by revealing just how things work out in the end for the increasingly hysterical Norah, but there's a splendid twist to be savoured as things come to a climax and a final shot that will live long in the memory after it's faded from the screen.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access


Today's horoscope


See a different horoscope: