Future Interrupted: Yesterday’s Plays for Today
This month’s issue begins with an editorial by Maureen Kincaid Speller about the need for diverse books before assaying Nina Allan’s thoughts on whether the next star of Doctor Who needs to be drawn from a more diverse pool of actors. Combine the two pieces and you have the entirely reasonable suggestion that a more diverse pool of writers would inevitably result in a much-needed renewal of both character and format.
This issue’s Book Zone opens with Jack Deighton reviewing the first two volumes of Cixin Liu’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy while Ian Sales turns his mind to the recent works of David Mitchell. Also featuring are reviews by Paul Kincaid, Stephen Theaker, Ian Hunter, Andy Hedgecock, and Jim Steel but my favourite piece is Maureen Speller’s brilliantly icy review of Ian McDonald’s Luna:
We are invited to admire the staggering diversity of nationalities and beliefs which intermingle and form lunar society, not to mention the ever-so-slightly too casual presentation of same-sex relationships, as well as bisexual and gender-neutral characters, but the fact of their being so very front and centre in the novel suggests discomfort rather than casual acceptance.
Luna is a novel that performs sexuality in the way that a retired bank manager might perform Hamlet: It bellows where it should whisper, mumbles where it should declaim, and looks entirely unappetising in a pair of Marks and Spencer tights. In fairness to McDonald, this tendency to ‘do’ sex in a somewhat over-exuberant and cringe-worthy fashion is also present in his earlier books but it’s easy to ignore bad sex in a novel not overly concerned with it. By deciding to write a novel with a huge cast and attending to the sexuality of each and every character, McDonald is forcing his readers to attend to his own weaknesses.
Typically excellent are the usual columns by Nick Lowe and Tony Lee. Lowe harrumphs magnificently at Hollywood’s discovery that old school science fiction might have produced better stories than your average Hollywood hack while Lee continues to survey every last genre DVD released in the UK. Lee is the first person I ever reviewed for and I must admit that his work in Interzone and Black Static has turned him into one of my critical heroes… not only does he cover a lot of terrain, he does it with the intense focus and stylistic panache of a man forced to contain complex thoughts within a tiny word-count. I don’t think anyone does better capsule reviews than Tony Lee.
This month’s fiction contains names both familiar and not:
- “Five Conversations with my Daughter (Who Travels in Time)” by Malcolm Devlin.
- “We Might be Sims” by Rich Larson.
- “Heartsick” by Greg Kurzawa.
- “Florida Miracles” by Julie C. Day.
- “Scienceville”by Gary Gibson.
- “Laika” by Ken Altabef.
My column is entitled “Harder-Core-Than-Thou” and it’s about the term ‘Core SF’ and how the genre’s conceptions of core and periphery are shaped by market forces and the occasional need to move the field’s economic heartlands. But… you’ll have to wait six months to read that one! In the mean time, here is my column entitled “Tomorrow’s Plays for Today”. It’s about obscure pieces of British genre TV and how Alan Garner almost certainly hated sex… and women.
Between 1970 and 1984, BBC One aired over three hundred standalone dramas as part of their Play for Today anthology programme. During its fourteen year run, the series launched the directorial careers of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh as well as producing such classics of television drama as Leigh’s Nuts in May, Alan Clarke’s Scum, and Dennis Potter’s Brimstone & Treacle. However, while the strand is now best known for its contributions to the canon of British TV drama, it also produced more than its fair share of genre stories. In fact, one of its science fiction stories (Alan Gibson’s The Flipside of Dominick Hide) proved so successful that the producers commissioned not only a rather ill-received sequel but also a spin-off series entitled Play for Tomorrow.
While much of Play for Today and all of Play for Tomorrow remains locked away in the BBC vaults, searching a particular video streaming site might very well yield not only an excellent adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah but also an eerily prescient play entitled Shades in which a group of screen-addled youngsters from a distracted future happen upon the idea of researching a 1980s theme party only to find themselves being infected by such ‘old fashioned’ ideas as believing in the possibility of political change. Thankfully, the British Film Institute has been working quite hard to bring a lot of these works back into circulation meaning that a new generation of fans can now connect (or not) with one of the most under-appreciated corners of Britain’s genre heritage. For example, James MacTaggart’s Robin Redbreast and John Mackenzie’s Red Shift shine an interesting light on evolving attitudes towards the sexual liberation of women and while one work was made much later than the other, it is actually the older of the two plays that contains the more progressive set of attitudes.
Often seen as being part of the same short-lived ‘Folk Horror’ movement as Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man and Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw, Robin Redbreast opens on a female TV writer surveying the wreckage of her last relationship from the safety of an isolated cottage. Having decided to keep out of London in an effort to clear her head, the protagonist soon finds her liberty curtailed by a colourful set of local traditions. Initially, the writer treats these beliefs with all the patronising scorn that a middle-class Londoner can muster but she soon comes to realise that the locals expect her to buy into their worldview in much the same way as she bought into their village.
The foreground of Robin Redbreast is dominated by the tension between a modern, professional woman and a culture that expects women to fit into a narrow set of roles. At first, the writer quite enjoys the old-fashioned romance of a village that cares enough about her welfare to guide her into the path of a handsome young man but when her birth control mysteriously disappears and the young man starts lecturing her on his favourite SS regiments, she realises that the village is less interested in her happiness than in the perpetuation of certain ancient rites and rituals.
Unlike The Wicker Man, the play tempers its attack on rural conservatism by suggesting that city-dwellers are just as likely to exert pressure on wayward women as their country cousins. For example, the play’s single most chilling moments comes when one of the writer’s London friends asks whether she ever hears male laughter and drunken voices carried on the wind through the trees. The writer’s horrified face says that while she may never have heard anything of the sort, she’ll almost certainly be struggling not to hear it the next time the wind blows. When asked why he would try to implant such a horrific idea in the mind of a friend, the man simply states that he is fed up of her wasting away in the countryside when she should be back in London applying for jobs and going to dinner parties.
Robin Redbreast captures a profound ambivalence that many of us have about British history and tradition: At first, the writer is charmed by the authentic local colour but the deeper her connection to the village, the harder it becomes to ignore the dark corners and ugly edges of the place she now calls home. This vision of British history as an onion whose shop-soiled outer layers serve only to contain the pungent aroma of horrors past resonates throughout the history of British genre, through the work of Nigel Kneale and all the way to John Mackenzie’s excellent adaptation of Alan Garner’s novel Red Shift.
Arguably best known for The Owl Service, Garner wrote a succession of children’s fantasy novels that rework traditional British folk tales while drawing on Garner’s obsession with the language and geography of his native Cheshire. Scattered across three different timeframes, Red Shift begins with a young couple who are about to be parted by the girl’s decision to move to London and become a nurse. This sudden departure leaves the boy completely prostrate as spending time with the girl was his only means of escaping the TV and sex noises that permeate his parents’ small caravan. The play’s narrative begins in earnest when the boy’s mother confronts the couple about their sexual activities only for the boy to break down in tears at the very suggestion that he would “abuse the hospitality” of his girlfriend’s parents. The boy’s intense fear of socio-sexual transgression turns out to be the animating principle behind the entire play as Red Shift is all about navigating the boundary between the sacred and the profane.
Aside from sharing a setting (the Cheshire village of Mow Cop), the play’s three timeframes are connected by the presence of an ancient axe and mystical visions echoing the boy’s distress at the beginning of the play. All three timeframes feature a couple whose relationship is complicated by the perceived presence of the divine: In the case of the oldest timeframe, an ancient Briton meets a teenaged girl who is serving as her tribe’s corn goddess and while the couple develop a tangible bond, the boy’s fear of breaking taboo means that he refrains from raping the goddess and so escapes her terrible wrath. The young man in the civil war timeframe also experiences visions but this only serves to position him at one corner of a love triangle involving his wife and her previous (more lusty) boyfriend. Incapable of understanding why a worldly woman would suddenly take up with such an unworldly man, the community’s sociopathic leader interprets the woman’s professed attraction to the divine as a sign of profound duplicity and imminent betrayal. The play ends with the boy from the present day realising that his girlfriend is no longer a virgin and turning against both her and the ancient stone axe that served as the sacred icon of their relationship. Though very different in terms of their languages, psychologies and religions, the play’s timeframes all give voice the idea that sexuality is somehow fundamentally incompatible with the sacred.
Though Robin Redbreast and Red Shift both explore the transmutation of women into sexual and religious objects, it is interesting to note that only Robin Redbreast presents this transformation as being in any way problematic, unpleasant or dehumanising. The female characters in Red Shift are strong and beautifully drawn but the play’s sympathies seem to be dependent upon their continued sexual purity. Garner’s script presents us with a clear moral dichotomy between the women who are chaste and the women who decide to throw that purity away by prioritising the satisfaction of their own sexual urges. According to Red Shift, women who abandon that state of virginal grace are not just betraying the sexless men who would grovel at their feet, they are also engaging in an act of profanity so monstrously blasphemous that it will literally scar the landscape and echo down the ages.
Mackenzie’s adaptation of Alan Garner’s novel ends on a magnificently ambiguous shot of the ancient axe, now resplendent on a museum’s silken pillow. As the play fades to black, you cannot help but wonder whether the implication might not be that all women should share the axe’s fate and be locked away as objects of veneration.