Monday, 4 March 2013

Armchair Theatre: Red Riding Hood

In retaliation to critics who sneered at commercial television for its crassness and vulgarity, ITV created Armchair Theatre, a series employing the best writers, directors and actors Britain had to offer, presenting an eclectic mix of classic plays and new works for television. The series quickly became a flagship show, and ran between 1957 and 1974. On occasion, audiences hit twenty million, which is quite incredible.

The early shows were performed live, with all the problems that can bring (in a 1958 show, an actor died during transmission and the rest of the cast, who thought he had simply been taken ill, had to work around it: ‘Well, if John were here, I bet he’d say…’). At first, the shows were simply ‘filmed plays’, static, from a single view point. Over time, however, the series developed a more fluid style, re-writing the technical and artistic conventions of TV drama as they went along.

As you might expect of landmark telly, many of the episodes have been wiped, but the good news is that there are still a fair few kicking about, so let’s count our blessings. The wonderful thing about the series was its variety: you never knew what you were going to get, and what it was going to be like, but you could be sure it would be worth watching.

Red Riding Hood is an ‘Armchair Theatre’ production from 1973 starring Rita Tushingham and Keith Barron. It’s a strange and compelling drama about Grace, an unhappy young woman whose life is made a misery by loneliness and debt and trying to juggle the demands of two elderly bedridden relatives (her whining father and her nasty grandmother) and an unfulfilling job in a library. With all this going on, she has become drab and lifeless, a person without pleasures or desires of her own. Oh, and she wears a natty red cape and caries a wicker basket.

Henry has seen Grace at the library, but they have never spoken. In order to meet and get to know her, he beats her grandmother to death with her walking stick and waits in her house for Grace to visit. When she does, he asks her to stay with him for a fortnight while her grandmother is ‘away’ – two weeks of total freedom, away from work and the world and all the drudgery of her everyday life. She readily agrees, and they spend their time getting drunk, eating spaghetti, tickling each other and (I assume) having sex. In the meantime, Grace’s pathetic Dad is starving to death, which is terrible but then he is really annoying.  

Grace is nowhere as naïve as she seems: she suspects that Henry has done away with her grandmother and soon discovers the evidence. Interestingly, she doesn’t care: granny was a nasty old bag anyway.
At the end of the two weeks, things get unusual, and it becomes impossible to distinguish between the real and the imagined. It is unclear how much of what has happened has merely been Grace’s fantasy but, in any event, the pressure eventually drives her out of her mind.

‘Red Riding Hood’ was written by John Peacock, an interesting author who was also responsible for ‘The Smashing Bird I Used To Know’ and ‘Straight On ‘til Morning’, a 1972 Hammer film that covered similar ground (a love affair informed by mental health issues), and also starred Rita Tushingham. Rita is great in roles like this, sinister in her wide eyed but overgrown innocence: childlike, but manipulative and capable of spite. In the screengrabs it may look like she's giving a rather broad performance: all funny faces and over-acting, but that's just not the case - her face is incredibly fluid and full of expression, it just looks odd when you pause it and take a snapshot. When she flips, and flip does she flip, her total immersion is quite amazing - and extremely harrowing.

Keith Barron has less to do apart from look creepy, but he does this superlatively well: he has a blank, dead waxiness that is perfect for someone who may or may not exist. There is a great scene where he is playing the piano (a selection from ‘Peter & The Wolf’, of course) and looks down to see that he has smeared blood all over the keyboard. After checking that it is not his blood, he simply rubs his hands and carries on playing.

A genuinely powerful piece of drama, ‘Red Riding Hood’ is compelling and enigmatic and really very good indeed. The pieces don’t necessarily all make sense when you replay them in your mind, but it doesn’t matter: the overall effect is haunting.


  1. This sounds amazing. Straight On Till Morning's such a strange, fascinating film and you're spot on about Rita's performance. I'll definitely be seeking this out. I recently wrote about an earlier episode of Armchair Theatre here if anyone's interested (plug, plug, plug):

  2. This is great, thanks for posting!

  3. Watched this in an altered state of consciousness some time last year and it made me feel mentally ill in a Keith Barron kind of way.
    Pure gold !