Red Shift DVD review

One-off dramas were a popular source of TV entertainment during the 1960s and 1970s. Arguably some were worthier than others and surprisingly there was also a large number of fantasy related subjects broadcast. Quite a few of these can be seen again as part of the British Film Institute’s Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season. 

Also released on DVD by the BFI is Red Shift, adapted from fantasy author Alan Garner’s novel of the same name and originally shown as part of the BBC’s Play for Today series in 1978. Ambitious in concept, it weaves together three distinct stories across three separate time zones, from Roman Britain, through the English Civil War, to 1970s modern day. Each tale features a young protagonist. The first is Macey (Andrew Byatt) and the hardships faced during the Roman occupation. The second is Thomas Rowley (Charles Bolton), an epileptic who witnesses one of the worst massacres of the seventeenth century when a troop of Royalists attack a village unprovoked. The last story revolves around Tom (Stephen Petcher), a troubled teenager whose relationship with his girlfriend Jan (Lesley Dunlop) is fraught with anxiety and betrayal.

The ingredient that binds them altogether is an isolated hill top location in which each story takes place and discovery of a strange talisman, in actuality an axe head, that plays an important part in the narrative throughout. As with all Garner’s stories, there’s also a mystical connection concerning colours and reincarnation. His characters are deeply disturbed, their fears are real and their relationship with each other across the barriers of time is profound.

By his own admission, Garner attributes the story to three unrelated events. 'I have no explanation.' He says. 'This is how the novels arrive. I don’t go looking for them. They come looking for me.' Meanwhile, director John Mackenzie brings to Red Shift the same documentary style that he used with the crime drama The Long Good Friday. The story is powerfully told, the settings bleak and the premise, at times, baffling. Red Shift is a rare example of Garner’s work been successfully translated to another medium.

Picture: The 1.33:1 aspect ratio, thanks to director John Mackenzie’s fluid style, captures a great deal of detail throughout. Originally shot on 16mm film, a high-definition transfer was made from the source material for this DVD release and the attention to detail in the restoration is apparent throughout. There’s excellent use of colour and sunlight in the station scenes in Chapter 7, while the grim massacre of the villagers in Chapter 9 is painted in muted browns and greys.
Picture rating: 4/5

Audio: The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack is surprisingly sharp with the Roman battle sounds in Chapter 1 resolved in a gritty and enveloping manner. The editing enhances the soundtrack with quick cuts from the rattling sound of moving trains to the cries of birds in the desolate country scenes.
Audio rating 3/5

Extras: The disc is filled with some fascinating extras including a look at Alan Garner’s work including the novel Red Shift in a very personalised 40 minute documentary from 1972 called One Pair of Eyes: All Systems Go. Legendary actor Michael Hordern provides the voice of a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud in a 20-minute tourist ride (Spirit of Cheshire) around Midland locations, including Garner’s birthplace. Rounding off the special features is a 5-minute interview with both the Ist Assistant Director Bob Jacobs and Film Editor Oliver White.
Extras rating: 4/5

We say: The clever shifting between time periods and the brilliant way that Garner’s script combines the various story threads makes for a compelling drama.

Red Shift, BFI, R2 DVD, £20 Approx