No attempt to plot the course of Folk Horror on film can be called complete without some consideration of two seemingly humble British TV plays. Play for Today was an anthology series that ran on the BBC from 1970 to 1984 – a time when British television was renowned for its surfeit of intelligent, high-quality drama. So much so, in fact, that the truism that British TV was “the best in the world” held fast well beyond the period when it arguably was.
The show is fondly remembered by many in the UK for generating such perceptive, literate, and quirky gems as Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May (1976) and Abigail’s Party (1977), Alan Bleasdale’s The Black Stuff (1980), Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle (1976), and countless others from the stellar likes of Ken Loach and John Osborne. However, although eclectic in their subject matters, the emphasis of the plays was generally more in the realm of social realism, and they rarely dealt with metaphysical or “horror” concerns. Making these two aberrations seem all the more like occult bolts from the blue.
When writer John Bowen initially submitted Robin Redbreast (1970) to the BBC’s Series Department it was turned down due to concerns that it would be too controversial. However, once it was read by Play for Today‘s then-producer Graeme MacDonald, he immediately accepted it for an edition of the still relatively new show. The result, directed by James MacTaggart, was transmitted just before Christmas 1970, and is thought by many to have laid the groundwork, at least indirectly, for The Wicker Man (1973).
Anna Cropper plays Norah Palmer, a TV script editor fresh from the breakup of a long-term relationship. Needing time to adjust, she quits her job and leaves her oh-so-sophisticated London friends to take up residence in a cottage that she owns in a small rural village. Before long she encounters softly spoken local “intellectual” Fisher (Bernard Hepton), who asks if he might look in her garden for “sherds”: “old things generally… Roman pottery, coins,” – and informs her that “Fishers have not been out of this village for hundreds of years.”
Another figure looming large from the outset is her formidable housekeeper, Mrs Vigo (Freda Bamford), who seems to know everything about everybody in the village. Pointing out that the cottage is infested with mice, Vigo encourages Norah to contact a young man called Rob. He solves said mouse problem, but not before revealing that he was adopted into the care of Mr Vigo and that his real name is Edgar. “There’s always one young man who answers to the name of Robin in these parts,” states Vigo. “Has to be.”
Although Rob clearly isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, loneliness and ennui (well, and probably the fact that he’s buff) conspire to make Norah invite him around for dinner, where he proceeds to bore her with his knowledge of the Nazi SS until she can take no more. However, when Norah is later terrified by a bird flying out of her chimney breast, Rob conveniently comes to the rescue and the two wind up sleeping together. But not before Norah discovers that her contraceptive cap has disappeared from her bathroom drawer. It reappears in the morning, the day of which happens to be the village’s Harvest Festival.
Norah departs for London but returns to the village several months into pregnancy. This time, it seems, she’s unable to leave. Her car won’t start and the local mechanic claims that he can’t get the parts, her phone is cut off, her letters aren’t delivered, and the bus (which only comes through the village twice a week) decides to pull up at a different stop. “Here am your place, miss,” says Mrs Vigo, ominously. “Come Easter, here am your place.”
Eventually, a siege on the cottage results in the off-camera murder of Rob. The following morning Fisher informs Norah in his usual matter-of-fact manner that Rob had been nurtured by the village for this very purpose, as the earth needs his blood to make the crops grow. He goes on to say suggestively that he has good friends at a local orphanage. “And in twenty years?” asks a horrified Norah. “It would not concern you,” is his reply.
While there is no doubt that Robin Redbreast is tame by today’s standards, it succeeds in being more subtly chilling than most of its modern counterparts. It’s the small touches that do it, from Fisher and Mrs Vigo’s amiable but sinister modes of conversation to the representation of the Harvest Festival service through still photography, lingering on shots of bird and hare corpses on the altar.
But it was one of the final shots which haunted the dreams of many viewers for years afterwards, in the days before such programmes could be easily seen again. Driving away from the village and her ordeal, Norah looks back to see Fisher and the others staring after her, all wearing what appears to be Cromwell-era pagan ceremonial garb, Fisher bearing the antlers of Herne the Hunter. In this one chilling shot, Bowen’s play suggests that the villagers, or at least versions of such, have been repeating this game for centuries. The play’s unavailability for viewing for over forty years has of course only added to its mystique, with it only becoming available to see in the last decade courtesy of a DVD release by the BFI.
Similarly imbued with a mystic aura – in fact more so – is an offering from David Rudkin from 1974. Penda’s Fen, directed by the late Alan Clarke, can almost be seen to continue the conversation initiated by Robin Redbreast and The Wicker Man – an attempt to think through what all this really means. And while less recognisably a horror or thriller narrative than its predecessors, it strikes an even deeper chord.
With nary a creepy villager in sight, Rudkin’s play tells the coming-of-age story of Stephen Franklin (Spencer Banks), an uptight and not particularly likeable upper-middle-class teenager living in the village of Pinvin. The son of the local pastor, he lives within a very narrow conservative conception of “Englishness”, obsessing over Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ (not that there’s anything wrong with that), all geared up for military service, and vehemently weighing in on a public debate with the view that a challengingly “blasphemous” TV play ought to be banned.
However, one by one these certainties begin to be shattered. He experiences a series of disturbing dreams and visions; a gargoyle-like demon sits staring at him on the end of his bed, and he dreams of a ritual wherein the celebrants cheerfully stand in line to have their hands hacked off. He hallucinates a road sign changing the name of his village from “Pinvin” to “Pinfin” to “Pendefen”, which he discovers were its names in centuries past. He starts to experience homoerotic wet dreams and finds himself attracted to the local milkman. He discovers an old manuscript written by his father that convincingly argues that the original content and meaning of the gospels have been perverted over the centuries to suppress older Pagan religions, and, on his eighteenth birthday, those who he thought to be his parents reveal that he was in fact adopted; he was never “English” at all.
Thus reduced, essentially, to a blank slate, Stephen starts to define an older, deeper identity, a true heritage tied up with the land, the countryside, the hills, nature. His journey culminates in an encounter on a hillside with a conservative and suburban-looking couple, generic parent figures. He denies their reality and their claim on him, and in response they take a Polaroid picture of him and set it alight, causing Stephen himself also to catch fire. However, his cries for help are answered by none other than King Penda, the last pagan ruler of Britain, who lived and died in the first century AD. Penda reveals to Stephen that the couple are the “true dark enemies of England, sick father and mother who would have us children forever”. “Stephen be secret, Stephen be strange,” is the ancient king’s parting advice to the boy, as he leaves the hillside to embark on a new life unfettered by puerile modern notions of “normality”.
Dense and literate, this attack on state and church, on normalising, narrow conformity, struck quite a chord with viewers of the day, and, as with Robin Redbreast, its unavailability to view again (it wasn’t repeated until 1989) helped it to become a kind of dark, occult artefact in itself. It grew and mutated in the memory in a way that may be hard for younger viewers, used to almost everything being freely available, to relate to. Writers such as Grant Morrison have spoken of its profound influence on them, and it has since been hailed as “One of the great visionary works of British film” (by Vertigo magazine) and included by Time Out in a top 100 of UK films. In the early 2000s it found its way onto YouTube and was given the Blu-ray red carpet treatment it richly deserves by the BFI in 2016.
Of course, neither of these two plays are as “shocking” as later efforts, nor quite as iconic as The Wicker Man, and their leisurely paces would likely trouble the attention spans of many modern viewers weaned on CGI explosion fests and slasher sequels. However, they remain essential to any kind of deeper understanding of the subgenre. There are other televisual offerings that can proudly stand beside these; Nigel Kneale’s chilling The Stone Tape (1972) for one. But of them all it is Penda’s Fen that remains very much a Play for Today.