UK Teleplay Retro: Red Shift

UK Teleplay Retro: Red Shift

Director John Mackenzie might be best known for 1980’s The Long Good Friday with Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren, which is undeniably a great gangster film (a personal favorite of yours truly). While Mackenzie's work on the big screen never reached those levels again, his TV movies and teleplays are on par with the brilliance that made The Long Good Friday standout with energy and intelligence.

His teleplays Just a Boys' Game, Just Another Saturday, and the Scottish television film A Sense of Freedom (which is a spiritual companion to The Long Good Friday) deconstruct and re-examine topical social issues with unimposing vigor just as The Long Good Friday segued from a gangster film to a telling treatise regarding The Troubles throughout the United Kingdom.

1978's Red Shift, part of the Play for Today series, is something different from Mackenzie, while the immediacy of the story is compelling, it’s a dense narrative that might instill trepidations but proves to be a rewarding experience, and a rather unique one at that. Traversing three time periods with misunderstood young men as the focus of each, one a brainy college student in the throes of young love in the present day, a Roman soldier among a battalion infatuated with someone they believe to be a pagan goddess, and a revolutionary soldier in the English Civil War. The connective tissue is the location of Mow Cop in South Cheshire and an axehead that infatuates the nervy savant Tom, a college student living with his parents, whose all-consuming relationship with his girlfriend, Jan, is the primary focus of Red Shift’s three-wheeled narratives. Tom and Jan’s mercurial young love is skittering off the rails, and Tom’s strained psychosis is a challenge for his lover, as well as his caring but somewhat overbearing parents.  

In slicing up this busy, but never rushed, story we spend most of the time in the present day. The allotted time is appropriately divided between each timeline, and the proceedings can be a bit muddled. Without some prerequisite knowledge, unassuming viewers might find themselves a bit lost in the time-hopping narrative of Red Shift. However, John Mackenzie’s stalwart direction flatters the material, refraining from tactile whimsy for a more blunt sense of realism in every period.

The immensity of the emotional tension between Tom and Jan is at the crux of the story; they share something special, and like some young couples, their love looks to destroy them. Emotions run high, and their story could carry it’s own teleplay, but the hallucinatory incorporation of cross-cutting time periods, the allure of folkloric mysticism, rural horror, and heady concepts such as femininity, cosmic connections, play out with credibility. Red Shift is not consistent with the “trippy think pieces” that populate the counter-cultural tenor of the times. Historical detail and grittiness come to life; Mackenzie articulates a unique tonal balancing act that is unexpectedly thoughtful as it is imaginative.

For a teleplay, Red Shift is beyond ambitious, and I can’t say that this show ever bore signs of restriction, being a comparatively modestly budgeted teleplay.

John Mackenzie directs this unusual but feasibly conceived drama; that’s equally up to the task of exploring heady material without letting the busy script get away from him. The cas includes Ken Hutchison (Straw Dogs, Gandhi), Robert Brown (who played M in several Bond films) and James Hazeldine (Sovereign's Company, Pink Floyd's The Wall). The lovers are played by Lesley Dunlop (The Elephant Man) and Stephen Petchter. Dunlop ended up being a more viable star of film and television, while Petchter’s first leading role here lead to a subsequent career in television.

Director Mackenzie and writer Alan Garner's creation is about as ambitious as anything I’ve seen regarding the Play for Today series. Red Shift feels liberated from the studio-bound feel of other titles produced by BBC/ITV. The BFI has been turning out a plethora of diverse titles on DVD from this era of brilliant British television, so if you have a region-free DVD playerRed Shift is a fascinating tale of tales for any curious cinephile.

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