Robin Redbreast (1970)

JOHN WILLIAMS

Play for Today Writer: John Bowen; Director: James MacTaggart; Producer: Graeme McDonald

“They should have known that they had a way out, but being mere birds, didn’t.”

BTVD_Robin_2

Robin Redbreast has not been repeated since 1971, and yet is often recalled by viewers of the time, probably because of its eerie atmosphere, and particularly for its horrifying and surreal finale. Indeed, the play has had such a strong impact on those who have seen it, that it is almost seen as an “event” play – a work that came out of the blue, singular in approach and subject matter, and mysterious in genesis. It is because of this, perhaps, that the very limited amount of critical writing on the play has tended to be of the “remember that…what was all that about?” school of criticism. In fact its writer, John Bowen, has well over 50 plays, screenplays and novels to his credit, and Robin Redbreast is just one of many pieces he created that draw from his thematic interest in ancient myths and the way they live on in modern culture. Although Robin Redbreast is a good example of the thriller genre, Bowen was a very (some would say overly) serious writer, and he stressed the importance of ideas in his work: “A play is ideas expressed in incident…a play works first on emotions, but emotion unanchored by thought simply washes about the place in a thoroughly self-indulgent way…”1 The ideas in Robin Redbreast are not obvious at first, but when the play is viewed in the context of Bowen’s other work it becomes less opaque. It is also significant that the play represents the best synthesis of Bowen’s predominant ideas, and seems to have had an impact on the development of his subsequent career.

The Rank and File (1971)

JOHN WILLIAMS

Play for Today Writer: Jim Allen; Director: Kenneth Loach; Producer: Graeme McDonald

‘I go along with Trotsky, that life is beautiful, that the future generation cleanses all the oppression, violence and evil’

Most of Ken Loach’s work for television has attracted at least some critical writing because of his towering reputation in the cinema. Even so, The Rank and File has generally been overlooked in favour of the first Loach/Allen Wednesday Play collaboration The Big Flame (1969), and both writer and director seem to have mixed feelings about the piece. Allen stated that the play ‘was written in three weeks…if you get too didactic, politically or otherwise, as I probably did in The Rank and File, it can be a lantern lecture’,1 and Loach has commented that ‘the [films] we’ve done that show their age badly are the ones where you’re trying to catch the headlines and be topical…some of the films from the early seventies’.2 However Rank…, while superficially similar to The Big Flame, was written for specific reasons about a recent strike, rather than a (prophetic) vision of a political occupation. And Loach’s own reference to topicality should lead us consider that one of the strengths of the Play for Today strand lay in the ability, as in this case, to move with astonishing speed from a real-life event to a fictional representation in just under 11 months. The urgency of such a representation is not diminished just because the events that inspired Rank… have become obscure footnotes in twentieth century industrial relations, but I’d like to try and illuminate some of the historical background to the play, and also look at what it tells us about the role of politics, specifically Trotskyite politics, in the BBC Plays department at the time.