To the Cheshire Station : Alan Garner and John Mackenzie’s Red Shift

Baker, Brian (2017) To the Cheshire Station : Alan Garner and John Mackenzie’s Red Shift. In: Heading North : the North of England in Film and Television. Palgrave Macmillan, London, pp. 93-109. ISBN 9783319524993

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In The North (and almost everything in it), Paul Morley writes: ‘Few counties owe more of their history to their geographical position and surroundings, and to the character of their natural features, than Cheshire’. Cheshire is the home of the writer Alan Garner and most of his novels are set in the county; one of the few exceptions, The Owl Service (1967), was adapted to television as a serial by HTV Wales. As with The Owl Service, Garner was involved in the screenwriting and production of the BBCtv Play For Today adaptation of his 1973 novel Red Shift, which was shot on location in 1977 around Crewe station, the South Cheshire countryside around Rudheath (in particular Mow Cop) and Barthomley Church, the site of a massacre of villagers by Royalist forces during the English Civil War. This is Garner’s territory: born in Congleton, many of his fictions are located in specific Cheshire sites, such as Alderley Edge or the radio telescopes at Jodrell Bank. Like the 1980 short tv play To Kill A King, for which Garner wrote an original screenplay, Red Shift negotiates a particular vision or representation of the Cheshire landscape while indicating the contemporary world’s embedding in networks of telecommunications (symbolised by the Jodrell Bank observatory). Red Shift, like the novel form which it is adapted, fuses three historical timelines: the ‘present’ of 1977, in which the young man Tom conducts an increasingly frayed long-distance relationship with his girlfriend Jan, which is centred on Crewe railway station; the time of the massacre at Barthomley, focalised though Thomas Rowley, one of the villagers, who has fits and visions; and the time of the 2nd century AD, in which Macey, himself subject to induced ‘berserker’ homicidal rages, and his Roman soldier companions hide out on Mow Cop after their camp is attacked by local tribes. Each is filmed, without stylistic distinctiveness, according the codes of narrative realism, but although the Tom/Jan ‘present-day’ narrative remains the primary cohering thread, the play increasingly shifts backwards and forwards between times, connecting through place, or through the emotional dislocations of the main masculine protagonists. Garner’s historicity, here as elsewhere, is mythic. While far from a sentimentalised presentation of the Cheshire landscape, Red Shift’s transitions between time periods are uncanny or visionary, articulated as a kind of recursion. John Mackenzie, whose 1979 feature film The Long Good Friday offers a critique of the nascent forces of neoliberal capitalism in genre guise (the gangster film), here presents Cheshire as a ‘place between’: between historical forces and social patterns to do with landscape and village life, and the dislocations engendered by technologies of mobility (trains, the motorway, even bicycles) and emergent social and economic formations. When Tom, in the present, stands upon Mow Cop and declares himself to be between parishes, counties, dioceses, he articulates Cheshire’s geographical and historical position as the ‘beginning’ of the North, and also the end of the 1970s as a temporal dislocation between the end of the post-war settlement and the rise of Thatcherism. Bibliography Cooke, L. (2012) A Sense of Place: Regional British Television Drama, 1956-82, Manchester: Manchester University Press. Blandford, S. (2007) Film, Drama and the Break Up of Britain, Exeter: Intellect. Hockenhull, S. (2014) Aesthetics and Neo-Romanticism in Film: Landscapes in Contemporary British Cinema, London: I. B. Tauris.

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Brian Baker, To the Cheshire Station : Alan Garner and John Mackenzie's Red Shift in Heading North, edited by Ewa Mazierska, 2017, Palgrave reproduced with permission of Palgrave Macmillan. This extract is taken from the author's original manuscript and has not been edited. The definitive, published, version of record is available here:
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21 Sep 2016 12:44
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31 Jan 2024 00:44