"Like Birds Caught in Bushes"
K B Morris explores the conflict between fate and free will in John Bowen’s 1970 folk horror television play, Robin Redbreast…
On 14th February 1945, the lifeless body of Charles Walton, a 74-year-old farm labourer, was discovered in Meon Hill, Lower Quinton, Warwickshire. Walton’s murder became known as the ‘witchcraft murder’ because his body was pinned to the ground with a pitchfork and there is an ancient Anglo-Saxon custom of slashing or sticking spikes into a murdered witch’s skin. This form of murder is called ‘stacung’ or ‘stanging’ – ‘stang’ being a two pointed stick witches associate with the Horned God. Scotland Yard became involved but the murder was never solved and became the stuff of local legend with added embellishments, such as a large cross carved into the victim’s chest which wasn’t in the autopsy notes.
In his book Anatomy of Crime, the detective in charge of the case wrote, ‘I advise anybody who is tempted at any time to venture into Black Magic, witchcraft, Shamanism – call it what you will – to remember Charles Walton and to think of his death, which was clearly the ghastly climax of a pagan rite.’ The witchcraft murders provided inspiration for two pieces of writing that later became known as Folk Horror. The first was a teleplay by John Bowen called Robin Redbreast (1970, James MacTaggart) and the second was a book called Ritual by David Pinner, which became the 1973 film, The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy).
Bowen wrote the play for a suspense anthology series but it was rejected and ended up with Graeme MacDonald, Producer of Play for Today – a BBC1 drama series, that ran from 1970 to 1984:
‘The producer was a kind and intelligent man: he was distressed to have to reject a play he admired, but the ‘close inter-relation between the fertility rite and the church festivals’ would be too much…for the ‘Powers-That-Be’…Luckily Graeme McDonald, who produces Play for Today for the BBC Drama Department, heard of the play, read it and instantly took it on.’
The transmission of Robin Redbreast, which was broadcast on the 10th December 1970 , coincided with an electrician’s strike whereupon millions of houses in London and the Midlands missed the end. The play was eventually repeated in February 1971 but the original screening, which was in colour, was recorded over and it is now only available in a 16mm black and white telecine recording.
John Bowen (1924 – 2019) was a prolific English novelist and playwright who worked on several long running drama strands including Play for Today and ITV Play of the Week (1955-74). He also wrote two films for the BBC strand, A Ghost Story for Christmas which originally ran from 1971 to 1978 : ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas‘ (Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1974), which is an adaptation of a short story by MR James, and an original drama called ‘The Ice House‘ (Derek Lister, 1978). He wrote ‘A Woman Sobbing’ (Paul Ciappessoni, 1972) for Dead of Night, which was a 1972 BBC anthology of short supernatural films. Bowen also wrote another folk horror called ‘A Photograph’ (John Glenister, 1977) for Play for Today which can be seen as a loose follow up to Robin Redbreast.
Bowen reused characters and ideas in his novels and plays and many of his recurrent themes can be found in Robin Redbreast. One hugely influential body of work was The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1890) by Sir James George Frazer. Frazer’s central theory in The Golden Bough is that ancient religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship and sacrifice of an ancient solar deity or king. The king represents the spirit of vegetation which comes to life in Spring, reigns in Summer, ritually dies at Harvest and is reborn at the Winter Solstice in order to rule again.
The idea of being bound by fate is common in folk horror and is one of the many themes explored in Robin Redbreast. Norah Palmer (Anne Cropper) is a thoroughly modern woman of the 1970s, Oxbridge educated, with a good job as a script editor for a TV company. We first met Norah Palmer in Bowen’s novel, The Birdcage (1964), where she was living with her partner Peter Ash. A modern couple, they chose not to marry and were together for nine years before Peter ended the relationship. Robin Redbreast begins with a photograph of a cottage they bought and refurbished. Norah intends to take time off work and stay at the cottage in order to recover from the break-up.
Almost as soon as Norah enters the cottage, we experience nature trying to get in. Norah hears a scratching which her housekeeper, Mrs Vigo (Freda Bamford) informs her is mice. In letters to her urban friends, Norah describes how she keeps finding insects in the house. We see a big spider’s web, perhaps a nod to the Web of Wyrd, or Norah’s fate, which is bound up with the house.
Throughout the teleplay, we experience a conflict between fate and free will. Nora is free and independent but cannot seem to escape the web within which the villagers seek to entrap her. The villagers place half a marble on Norah’s windowsill which from then on accompanies her. The villagers may have planted the marble, but it was Norah’s choice to take it into the house. Norah is advised to, ‘keep it warm. Them like jewels. They like the body warmth.’
The marble, a seemingly innocuous object, takes on a sinister air as though it is spying on her. Norah later has a nightmare, where Fisher (Bernard Hepton) has marbles for eyes and it’s as though her unconscious is trying to tell her what she refuses to see. Fisher informs her that it ‘looks like an eye’ as though he is planting the seed in her mind. The villagers do this throughout, as though they are either challenging Norah to question their behaviour or are unconcerned about what she knows because there’s little she can do about it. Self-delusion is a common theme in Bowen’s work and Norah is a prime example of it, as she ignores sign after sign of the villager’s collusion.
Fisher, who is prowling the perimeter of her property, looking for ‘sherds’, informs her that the cottage is called Flaenthern Farm or the Place of Birds. Fisher explains that Flaenthern is an Anglo-Saxon word, now an oral language that few know. He is alerting us to the insularity of the villagers, exemplified by the fact that his name is Fisher, yet he and previous generations, have never left the village to see the sea.
Fisher also tells Norah that he is often at the house letting out birds that go down the chimney and get trapped. He informs her that single women have always lived there and again, it’s as though she is fated to be there. The idea of Norah being trapped is hinted at, ‘They should have known they had a way out, but being birds they didn’t.’ This idea is echoed throughout the play; that everything is evident should Norah chooses to see it.
Birds are a dominant motif throughout the story and birds are significant in many myths as messengers. Odin, the Norse god had two ravens who flew out into the world each day and came back with all the news which they whispered into his ears. Nora has a feeling of being watched and spied upon, and there are often birds chirping in the trees or on her window ledge as though they are watching her.
The robin redbreast is associated with Spring and symbolises the divine sacrifice. This is where we come across the real victim of the story, Robin or Edgar (Andrew Bradford), an orphan who was taken in by Mrs Vigo when he was six. Both he and Nora are outsiders and don’t really fit in. Nora doesn’t feel comfortable with her urban friends and Robin doesn’t feel as though he belongs amongst the villagers, ‘I’m not like them’ he insists. They become like Hansel and Gretel and other fairytale children, bound up in something bigger than themselves or, ‘like birds caught in bushes… held fast in sweet enclosures of their beds.’
There are many myths and superstitions around the robin and it tends to be connected with blood, sacrifice and death. Robins are associated with the death of Christ and are said to sing at burials. It is meant to be unlucky to harm a robin or its eggs. The Robin of the play is also a reference to Robin Hood or the King of the Wood which is where Nora encounters him, practising martial arts. The King of the Wood or Rex Nemorensis, is the consort of the virgin goddess of the hunt who dies only to return to greenery again the next year. In The Golden Bough, Frazer argues that Robin Hood is the manifestation of an ancient pagan archetype of the dying and resurrected vegetation god.
Frazer cites several examples of folk customs where personifications of Summer, dressed in green and Winter dressed in skins or fur, fight in a mock battle in the Spring. Scholars such as David Wiles who has studied the historical records of May Games from the 15th and 16th Century, said, ‘from a very early date, Robin Hood the outlaw became identified with the May King, the anarchic priest of the pagan summer spirit.’ As the cycle goes on year in, year out, without intervention, we learn that ‘There has always been a Robin in these parts.’ And we instinctively understand that this pattern will continue forever, despite what is going on on the outside.
Robin Redbreast was written at the tail end of the counter culture of the 1960s and Bowen is exploring the dichotomy of reason versus emotion or Apollo versus Dionysus. This conflict, which was so prevalent during that period, fascinated Bowen throughout his writing career:
‘My plays, like my novels, are distinguished by a general preoccupation with myth, and mainly with one particular myth, the Bacchae, which in my reading represents the conflict between the Apollonian and Dionysiac ways of living more than the mere tearing to pieces of a Sacred King. This theme, the fight in every human being and between beings themselves, rationality against instinct, is to be found somewhere in almost everything I’ve written.’
Norah and her urban friends are Apollonian in their cool, detached view of relationships. The villagers are the Dionysian element or the irrational and instinctual which, like the birds, will always find a way in, no matter how much you attempt to repress it. That conflict is expressed by Norah who begins with a clinical view of relationships and apologises for being emotional to her urban friends.
This conflict is again present in Norah’s irrational attraction to Robin. They are very different but she is attracted to him on a primal level, not a rational one. It seems as though the villagers instinctively know that Norah will follow her Dionysian side and entrap herself, they just need to nudge her along. As Norah says, ‘They brought the bull to the cow’ and nature took its course.
Norah is advised to find Robin because he can get rid of the mice scrambling around behind the walls. He lives in the woods which are often a metaphor for the primal or the non rational side of humans, governed by desire. As Jung said of forests, they are, ‘essentially culturally elaborated representations of the contents of the deepest recesses of the human psyche’ or ‘an expression of unconscious processes in the mind.’
As Norah pushes her way through the brambles and grass, the trees above her whisper and join branches as though they are colluding. Fisher explains that the forest was once all oak trees but they have been pulled up and replaced with conifers. The oak is considered a magical tree and oak groves were the meeting places of Druids, who considered them a doorway to other worlds. Oaks are also associated with wisdom because of their longevity and it’s as though the magic of the place has been ripped out for the sake of progress; a view that coincidences with the burgeoning ecological movement of the time.
Oaks are also associated with Herne the Hunter who has his own oak in Windsor Forest which he is said to haunt. Herne the Hunter is considered a local manifestation of an ancient Celtic forest deity called Cernunnos. Cernunnos is a protector of the forest and master of the hunt, with ties to the Green Man as a god of vegetation and trees. Other associations of Cernunnos are Pan the Greek Satyr and, because of his horns, the Christian Satan.
Another aspect of nature that becomes intrusive from the outset is the wind. At the beginning of the teleplay, as Norah holds up the photograph, an eerie wind blows as it does at each significant point in the play, for example when Norah finds the marble. It’s as though the wind is a signal that enchantment is afoot or an outside force such as Wyrd, over which Norah has no control, is in action. It seems the Spirit of the land or Genius loci, is governing the proceedings. Like the ‘sherds’ Fisher mentions at the beginning of the teleplay, the magic is in the soil itself, fed by the blood of sacrifice; the power comes from the land.
Norah first visits the cottage near the Autumn Equinox and attends a Harvest festival that has little to do with Christianity. This is underlined by Mrs Vigo’s firm assertion that the villagers don’t celebrate Christmas, ‘we don’t take much account of that.’ Instead, we are regaled with images of slaughtered hares and birds, as though they are laying out gifts to appease ancient gods.
Corn dollies are placed around the altar. Corn dollies are derived from an ancient Anglo-Saxon ritual where farmers, believing the last sheaf of corn contained its spirit, sacrificed it alongside a hare from the same field. A model of the hare was then made using corn, which evolved into the corn dollies seen today. The corn dolly is hung up until Spring and then ploughed back into the first furrow. There is also a folksong called John Barleycorn, which can be interpreted as a retelling of the sun god myth where his blood is drunk in order to absorb his power. It is said that the red ribbon often found tied around the corn dolly, is representative of the blood sacrifice.
At the service, the vicar talks of ‘holding our precious seed even in the dark days of winter to bring it forth in the Spring.’ This sermon reflects the myth of the sacrificial king where the earth is both his tomb and womb. The service is held the day after Robin and Norah have spent the night together and we later learn that Norah is pregnant. This conception has brought Robin certain death, yet his seed is also propagated which brings new life.
The next time Norah attends a festival in the village is Easter, a pagan festival celebrating the Spring Equinox. Heavily pregnant, Norah is trapped, and writes to her friends for help, telling them not to be ‘rational’ about it. Yet Norah’s friends don’t want to help and they say ‘If she wants to get away badly enough, she will.’ The idea that Norah could escape should she wish, is seen throughout the teleplay. It’s difficult to understand why she returns until we catch a glimpse of Norah’s London life when Robin visits her at Christmas. Norah’s flat seems barren and empty just like her relationships, a metaphor perhaps for urban alienation.
There is an interesting aside to the play, in that the 1967 Abortion Act had just come into effect when it was written. The new abortion law meant that for the first time women could have a legal termination. We experience Norah’s torment as she tells Robin how the decision should be easy but it’s not. We implicitly grasp the Apollonian and Dionysian conflict inherent in the decision. The cool rational side means it should be easy, it’s a small procedure but the emotional side struggles with the idea of terminating a potential life.
When Norah returns to the village, she is encumbered with pregnancy and no longer free and independent. Her inability to escape, therefore, can be read as a realisation of her life as a pregnant woman. It is only when women become mothers, that their allocated place in society becomes evident as Mrs Vigo says, ‘We bear, my dear. We give birth. That am our work.’ Perhaps Bowen is pointing out deeply embedded gender tropes, that become most apparent during motherhood. If so, this is somewhat prescient of the burgeoning women’s liberation movement.
Ancient pagan sacrifice often involved the death of an innocent or virgin as their blood is meant to be more potent. In this case, it’s Robin who is sacrificed, and he is innocent of any guile, knowing nothing of his fate. Norah believes as do we, that everything has been leading to her sacrifice. At one point, Mrs Vigo is gutting a chicken and says, ‘She’m gone broody. No use for laying. Wring her neck, slit her throat, hang her up; it’s all she’m good for.’ We of course believe that she is talking about Norah who up until then, is childless and unmarried but, the real victim is Robin, ‘What good would a woman’s blood be for the land? ‘ Asks Mrs Vigo in surprise at the suggestion. Fisher with his usual disarming honesty, explains all to Norah in the end:
‘The goddess of fertility was in the old days, somewhat like yourself Miss Palmer, not a married lady…In the Autumn she would couple with the young King…He’d be treated like a King, served. ..He would pass away…Assisted to it you might say. And from his blood, the crops would spread…Robin Hood. Robin of the Dale, even Robin Redbreast. One of the very birds in your garden. The male Robin only lives a year you know. The female has many partners…What a bounty there was, such fruitfulness Miss Palmer from the blood that drained from Robin Hood. So the old stories say.’
Fisher is describing the ancient ritual of the Corn King who was chosen by lots. The man was honoured as a King for either one or seven years and, during that time, he would be indulged in every whim and luxury. Robin had previously described to Norah how Mrs Vigo behaved almost like a servant and he wanted for nothing after adoption. Once his allotted time was up, the King was dismembered and his body dragged through the fields in order to ensure a good harvest. His blood was considered to have sacred qualities and there is some evidence to suggest that he would be eaten, so that the people could absorb his power, in a similar way to John Barleycorn.
Fisher acts as the village Hierophant, interpreting ancient lore and sacred mysteries, ‘The study of religions is one of my many interests. I am a reading man, you know.’ He is known for learning which is seen as a lofty endeavour, far removed from the everyday, ‘Oh, he’m a learned fellow, Fisher. You can’t tell what he means.’ Yet, like all cult leaders, he utilises knowledge as a tool with which to ensnare and entrap. Frazer’s Golden Bough has long been dismissed by anthropologists as limited, yet Fisher quotes it like gospel and the villagers trust him implicitly.
Book lore and knowledge of the ‘old ways’ is something Fisher uses in order to hold and retain power over others. In a search for alternative lifestyles, those involved in the counterculture of the 60s turned to pagan religions partly in order to rediscover the feminine and female empowerment, yet Fisher is using it in order to retain the power of patriarchy. Although Mrs Vigo appears alongside Fisher dressed as Hecate, it is evident throughout the teleplay that she is not his equal. This is another example of self-delusion by the villagers and Mrs Vigo.
When Norah says that she will call the police, Fisher wants to know who will believe her. He’s right because the idea of human sacrifice and pagan rituals have no place in an age of aeroplanes and skyscrapers. Norah speaks of her own disbelief up until that point, ‘Every now and again there’s a song and dance about it in the Sunday papers. Devil worship. Graves dug up, blood, stories of blood. I never really believed it.’ This is Bowen perhaps reflecting on the ‘witchcraft murder’ and the idea that in an age when some have walked on the moon, others are enacting ancient blood sacrifice rituals. That there is a dark and primitive side to human nature that has never really left, despite our seeming advanced state of development.
Bowen, John, ‘Interview’, Robin Redbreast [DVD extra], UK: BFI, 2013
Fabian, Robert, Anatomy of Crime, London: Pelham Books, 1970
Frazer, James G., The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, , New York: Macmillan, 1922
Collins, Frank, ‘Robin Redbreast—Play for Today’, Cathode Ray Tube, 27 October 2013
Robin Redbreast (1970) John Williams 1 July 2003 , British Television Drama
Robin Redbreast and the creeping horrors of the rural idyll, Pop Matters Adrian Warren, 7 January 2014
Robin Redbreast – Play for Today / DVD review, Frank Collins, 27 October 2013, Cathoderaytube