On Friday night, I finally watched John Mackenzie’s Play for Today adaptation of Alan Garner’s Red Shift (1978), released on DVD as part of the BFI’s sci-fi season last year. I remembered watching CBBC’s adaptation of Elidor as a child, a frightening and entrancing series, so I was keen to see another screen treatment of Garner’s work. It lends itself well to experimental and challenging productions, and Red Shift is no exception, a remarkable piece of work.
Dealing with shifts in time but consistency of space, the film follows three men living in different periods, as their lives and experiences echo each other – they are linked by a historical artefact (a beaker axe-head) and the ancient Cheshire landscape around them, Mow Cop in particular. Garner himself originated in Cheshire, and Red Shift gives an evocative sense of place and a vivid impression of adolescent experience, the two major thematic aspects of the film.
From first viewing, I find it hard to fault Red Shift. The only issue I had was that, having read discussions online that it was incredibly difficult to follow, I was expecting this to be the case. I spent too much time guardedly considering all possible meanings of the material before me, when reading up on the narrative afterwards only demonstrated that the clearest reading of the film would have been to take the images on-screen at face value, immersing myself in the world created.
In this regard, Red Shift had me dwelling on a statement Lindsay Anderson made on film in a 1966 interview: “I don’t think that the cinema is really a medium for the discussion of ideas, or words. For me the cinema is a poetic medium”. Red Shift discusses its author’s ideas (this is only made clearer by the accompanying 1972 documentary on the DVD, One Pair of Eyes, an equally fascinating insight into Garner’s creative process), but these are wrapped indelibly with the emotions, instincts and psychology of its characters. The most significant aspect I took from the film was its subtle, intuitive portrayal of their emotional experience, Tom’s (Stephen Petcher) especially. The viewer must trust their own instinct here – it was when I did that I identified best what was being put across, and empathised with it.
The film is vivid in its evocation of place and the psychological impressions we impose on and detect from our surroundings. Phil Ryan’s atmospheric post-punk soundtrack helps, echoing through characters’ minds across different eras and accentuating the adolescent energy integral to Tom’s mentality. There’s something thorough and self-consciously lyrical about his speeches. It isn’t necessarily naturalistic dialogue, but it is incredibly true to a teenage interior monologue. I know this myself having lived it for several years, and I also know as a result how easy it is for drama to do it badly, lazily. Garner reflects very clearly the perception that often comes with adolescence. It calls to mind Stewart Lee discussing some TV shows that Alan Garner wasn’t involved with – relevant, nonetheless.
Similarly, I wish there were more programmes like Red Shift around now. There is a degree of emotional sophistication and integrity that elevates it drastically. It’s a striking, mature, immersive and, on balance, one of the best pieces of drama I’ve had the pleasure to discover in recent years.