Although the late, Edinburgh-born John Mackenzie is perhaps best known for directing Bob Hoskins as an embattled London gangster in The Long Good Friday (1979), it was in television that he made his most resounding works.
We shouldn’t get too nostalgic about things, but just as contemporary British cinema seldom affords us a crime film as dramatically textured and politically involved as The Long Good Friday, it’s with even greater sorrow that we look back now at our golden age of television – the medium in which great writers and directors, such as Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Alan Clarke, Dennis Potter, Jim Allen and indeed John Mackenzie were given the chance to make their name.
The late 1970s were something of a peak for British television. By the time Mackenzie directed Alan Garner’s adaptation of his own 1973 novel for the BBC’s Play for Today series in 1978, he had already made several contributions.
Chief among these was his first. The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (1974), a caustic and comical historical overview of Scottish-English relations, and adapted for the screen by John McGrath from his own play, stands today as a towering achievement in radical theatre and television drama.
In 1975 Mackenzie directed Just Another Saturday, written by Peter McDougall, a coming-of-age drama set against the backdrop of Protestant-Catholic tensions in Glasgow, and in 1976 he directed Dennis Potter’s self-probing teleplay for Double Dare.
Red Shift – released on DVD by the BFI in celebration of Days of Fear and Wonder, its nationwide October-December season dedicated to science fiction on film – is a real curio among the Play for Today gems. It was sandwiched in January 1978 between Licking Hitler and The Spongers – the latter one of the finest Play for Today dramas, an ironically-named and ever-relevant look at the impact that austerity programmes and welfare policies have upon single mothers, produced and written respectively by Ken Loach collaborators Tony Garnett and Jim Allen, and directed by Roland Joffé prior to The Killing Fields (1983).
Alan Garner’s own source material for Red Shift – a children’s fantasy novel criticised by some for not being a children’s novel – proved tricky to adapt. As film scholar and programmer Michael Brooke notes in the book accompanying this very fine release, Garner was “a richly imaginative novelist whose spare, sinewy prose made his work remarkably accessible to children”, but – as is the case with many works about adolescence, and for adolescents – there’s something elusive and challenging in its treatment of time, and indeed of space.
Red Shift effortlessly combines the micro and the macro, the domestic and the social, the now and the then, the here and the elsewhere. More than anything else, it is about the gigantic tussle between boundless inner optimism and niggling external pressures that mark many an adolescence. It’s an odd and often brilliant sideways look at the traumas that growing up can bring. Such traumas are related here to being – or growing to be – a sexually active male, a working-class intellectual, and a young adult coming to terms with a world that is profoundly and inexplicably violent.
Set on the same plot of land – today, “somewhere between the M6 going to Birmingham and the M33 going nowhere” – and across three periods spanning more than a thousand years, Red Shift stars Stephen Petcher as Tom and Lesley Dunlop as Jan, two young lovers for whom the world is something of a romantic oyster, full of possibilities and plans for the future. It also features Charles Bolton as Thomas and Andrew Byatt as Macey, both of whom belong to different times – the former to the 17th century English Civil War and the latter to the Roman occupation of Britain in the second century, around the time Hadrian’s Wall was being built further north.
There’s something teasingly but unfussily complex in the way Red Shift switches between these periods. It seems to stress at once the specificity and universality of things – though it’s never forced, and certainly never clichéd. Its title refers to the astronomical and cosmological phenomenon by which, due to the expansion of the universe, light sources a few million light years from earth expand in wavelength.
Are there also political connotations in the title? Set and filmed outside of London, Red Shift is evidence of the practicability of shifting focus away from our money-sucking capital. Both of the film’s historical sequences depict communities besieged by better-organised and better-equipped invaders, while in the present-day segments Tom battles with feelings of loneliness and betrayal. “We need a communication satellite…” he says wistfully to Jan. To communicate with the past and learn its lessons, perhaps?