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Penda's Fen

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Cult TV
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Alan Clarke
Spencer Banks
John Atkinson
Georgina Anderson
Ian Hogg
Bottom Line: 

"Young Stephen, in the last summer of his boyhood, has somehow awakened a buried force in the landscape around him. It is trying to communicate some warning, a peril he is in; some secret knowledge; some choice he must make, some mission for which he is marked down.”

The above synopsis, retrieved from the TV listings pages of a 1975 edition of the Radio Times, pithily sums up, in just a couple of ominously portentous sentences, exactly what makes Penda’s Fen”  stand out today as one of the key standard-bearers for that increasingly popular sub-genre known as Folk Horror. In critical studies devoted to the subject it has, in the words of Sukhdev Sandhu, writing for the booklet that accompanies this limited edition Blu-ray release from the BFI, been endowed with an almost hallowed status -- its credentials for assuming such a mantle indeed being impeccable: as a representative of that loose collection of films and television shows from the 1970s that took a delight in their tea-time Children's TV examinations of the arcane and the occult, or in unearthing the hidden historical byways at the edgelands of traditions long-ago buried and forgotten despite retaining remnants of themselves beaded through the surrounding culture that rejects them, this classic of British drama, belonging to a golden period in television when outstanding playwrights were forging ahead in the medium, neatly fits the bill -- if only by illustration of the fact that it too belongs to a now vanishing tradition. For it comes from a period in British broadcasting that was once defined and largely shaped by the one-off single play, a format which has in the past helped to kick-start many a directorial career by providing a bridgehead between what were once the largely distinct disciplines of television and cinema, enabling the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to seamlessly move across from the one to the other. Today it is a form that lies dormant and largely neglected, having long since been marginalised and delegitimised by the changing commercial climate in which television these days gets to be commissioned and made; though it was, once-upon-a-time, from the 1970s well into the 1980s, a dominant artistic force in British programmed drama.

First broadcast in 1974, and only sporadically seen since that time (until the present release we have had to make do with a fuzzily warped VHS video copy, taped off of Channel 4 when the play was repeated there in the 1990s, and subsequently uploaded to YouTube), Penda’s Fen was commissioned by David Rose, head of the BBC’s regional drama department, then based at Birmingham’s Pebble Mill studios and established there in 1971. Rose had been given a remit from Managing Director Hugh Weldon to produce works of drama exploring aspects of British regional life and culture previously ignored by programme-makers at the BBC’s metropolitan hub at Television Centre. Here Rose nurtured many up-and-coming regional playwrights, encouraging new young names to come forward with their own often startlingly original takes on the depiction of social realities of life outside the Capital affecting the majority of British working-class people since the war, and using the prestigious flagship Play for Today strand to present one-off film-length dramas of often exceptional diversity and scope, addressing ground-breaking subject matter commissioned from authors who were often unafraid to court controversy at the national level. Rose soon found that by operating this way, 110 miles outside of London, he was able to deliver ground-breaking, occasionally quite avant-garde material to prime-time television, without having it subjected it to the same degree of scrutiny by the BBC’s top brass that it would have received if he’d still been working from Television Centre. In the accompanying documentary featurette on this disc, playwright David Hare gleefully confirms that: ‘in those days BBC Pebble Mill was really the place where you could get away with anything!’

“Penda’s Fen” is a prime example of the single play drama operating at its most refined levels: a dense, richly textured film that is definitely unapologetic about throwing in all sorts of esoteric ideas and approaches just to see how they play against, bounce off, or inform each-other, but which is ultimately attempting to address the issue of the nature of Englishness through an allegorical coming-of-age drama that presents as a theological-cum-philosophical dialogue, co-opting the country’s traditions in music and its religious heritage, its ancient landscape and its modern institutions, in what turns into an involved discussion about the nature of Manichaean-ism.  After being presented with the play’s original ambitious, semi-surrealist outline by its writer, David Rudkin, it was David Rose who thought of pairing the playwright with director Alan Clarke -- one of Britain’s most talented directors, but someone who was more associated with stark, political social-realist dramas than surreal, dream-like evocations of England's rural mythology.

But this was a meeting of apparent artistic opposites that proved itself to be an inspired instance of those opposites coming together for the better, and complementing each other’s very different approaches towards screen drama. Clarke’s directness elevates Rudkin’s web of baroque references into what can be recognised now to be a singular unified vision exhibiting a startling intelligence and complexity in the way it utilises diverse sources belonging to classical literature, music, pre-history, ethiology and theology; it’s also an incisive character study and a moving essay in landscape lyricism; a form of visual poetry that takes on an hallucinogenic quality reminiscent of the visionary romanticism of William Blake -- addressing the past whilst looking forward to possible futures. Yet it is sobering to also remember that a work like this, operating on so many levels of meaning and resonance, could only have been expected to get screened and consequently be seen just the one time. It’s hard to reconstruct how such a strange, uncompromising work must have affected audiences back in 1974; just one viewing seems barely adequate for coming even close to unpacking its dense web of meanings, references and allusions -- historical, personal and political -- yet Clarke’s characteristic ability for getting to the emotional nub of his material allows it to connect at a primal level anyway, and after looking at it more closely, one can soon see that its themes are not so far removed from those which have informed many of the big moments in Clarke’s  subsequent career. Although TV drama in Britain is traditionally considered a writer’s medium, it feels just, then, to consider the artistic success of “Penda’s Fen”  to be the result of a joint partnership between two equal talents.             

The Radio Times summery quoted at the head of this piece, appears to position the play similarly to many other now very well-regarded TV texts of the decade, that might also be retro-fitted with the ‘Folk Horror’ prefix; these were dramas (many of them specifically aimed at young people) such as “Raven” (1977), “Children of the Stones” (1976) and “The Owl Service”(1969), which positioned the trials and tribulations associated with the growing pains of childhood and, in particular, that transitional period of discovery that is adolescence, central to a thematic interest in ancient earth mysteries and the notion of the re-discovery of ‘the old ways’ being somehow psychically excavated from a trace memory buried in England’s rural heritage. Appearing in the immediate wake of Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Man” (1973), Penda’s Fen reminds us that, at the time, a burgeoning taste was fermenting in many parts of the country for this type of pastoral invocation to a mythic pre-Christian dispensation. Such material duly began to appear with increasing frequency during what was undoubtedly a period of great unrest and social unease, when escalating industrial strife and an urbanised bleakness born out of the post-sixties urban sprawl, seemed to be taking hold of the country. But there is also ambivalence at the heart of these dramas, where the healing power of ancient myth collides with the stark and often violent history of a resistance that seems to reside deep in the British rural landscape's DNA, perhaps in acknowledgement of an attitude that was always grounded in an implicit recognition of the reactionary tendencies that seem fundamental to any rejection of the modern. “Penda’s Fen” is a visionary, highly allusive piece of drama writing, lent a effectively terse matter-of-fact realism by the understated manner in which its most ornate symbolic set-pieces are staged, even while it addresses and dramatises the momentous clash occurring between conflicting appeals to traditionalism that still lie at the root of the current resurgence of interest in folk myth, forgotten ritual and the ancient geography of the British landscape, using highly surrealistic ideas but with a soupcon of Quatermass-y science fiction bubbling away forebidingly in the background.

The play discusses issues that have continued to trouble the English search for identity in the years since, resonating perhaps even more strongly today: the myths of ethnicity, of blood and land and identity; issues of cultural authenticity, sexuality and gender diaspora are alive in the battle between High Anglican Conservative Christian religious traditionalism and alternative, Green-minded rejection of corporate conformity in the name of productivity that is here aligned with semi-mythical formulations of pagan heresy. The fear that seeds a small-minded sort of heritage-based nationalism, threatening to limit the English sense of self to a set of bigoted dogmas rooted in the concepts of purity and belonging, becomes Rudkin’s main target and has, in a way, never been a timelier issue.

Initially, these pinched ‘Little Englander’ ideals are personified in the unwavering priggishness of seventeen-year-old sixth-form Grammar School boy Stephen Franklin (a luxuriously bouffanted Spencer Banks). The son of the village parson, Stephen lives in the isolated rural splendour of the Worcestershire village of Pinvin, not far from the picturesque Malvern Hills that inspired Elgar’s greatest visionary work, The Dream of Gerontius. He is the school’s ever-diligent church organist, always on hand for a rousing chorus of Jerusalem, and, as one of England's sons, he is obsessed with the religious, visionary music of Sir Edward Elgar. Stephen seems every inch the Conservative traditionalist: raging against the Franklin family's near neighbour, Arne, a left-wing playwright (Ian Hogg), and belligerently defending the motion ‘This House Believes That The Media Are A source of Evil To Society’ in his school debating classes -- his chief target being a recently aired ‘blasphemous’ documentary suggesting the idea that the historical Jesus was a revolutionary figure whose teachings were later revised and whitewashed in the Gospels for contemporary political purposes.

It soon becomes apparent to the viewer, though, that Stephen is finding it increasingly difficult to live up to the values instilled by his school, particularly its militaristic ideals of masculine virtue. Even before the lonely Stephen is aware of it himself, the viewer can see (as can his sweet, ever-loving parents, played by John Atkinson and Georgina Anderson)) that he’s become infatuated with the youthful, working-class dairyman who delivers milk to the parsonage (Ron Smerczak). Stephen’s Manichaean dreams, in which he imagines having the power to transform a demonic entity sitting atop the church steeple into an angel and back to a demon again at will, give way to nightmare and daydream revelries during which, in one he imagines the demon squats grinning on his chest in bed (remaining there even when the bedroom light is switched on) while in another, a haloed angel appears at his shoulder as he takes refuge in the fen. Both visions betray the internal struggle that is gathering force within him. At the same time as these adolescent homoerotic traumas are percolating, strange, secret unearthly government/military experiments of a lethal weaponised nature are apparently going on in a base the depths of the ancient countryside, leading to the hideous disfigurement and death of a local villager (in scenes that anticipate the final 1979 Nigel Kneale series of “Quatermass”), despite a previous warning from the village’s prophetic local leftie firebrand Arne (‘what is it that lies hidden beneath this lovely earth; some hideous angel of technocratic death?’). Stephen’s journey of self-discovery, meanwhile, involves the gradual dismantling of every cherished certainty he had previously ever held, capped by the discovery that he was adopted. This leads him on a visionary quest in which all notions of pure, unblemished heritage are abandoned, and during which the film genuinely plays like it's a freewheeling cross between the pastoral folk horror whimsy of “The Wicker Man”, the incendiary, surrealist bomb-under-the-public-school-system anarchy of Lindsay Anderson’s “If ….”  and the paranoid distrust in the offices of the state and its promotion of technocratic progress that's at the heart of Nigel Kneale’s “Quatermass II”. No matter how weird and dreamlike things become, though, Spencer Banks roots his performance in a profound believability and Rudkin writes Stephen’s gradual change in outlook through visionary revelation with a genuine tenderness and sympathy.

 One could go through this incredible film scene by scene, carefully unpacking the many resonances bound up within its beautifully realised visual marvels, but that would take this review into the realm of monogram or extended essay. Suffice to say that the BFI have transformed this masterpiece of British television thanks to a fantastic restoration job, in which the 16mm elements now look utterly fantastic in glorious HD. The original 89 minute film (which also comes with subtitles for the hard-of-hearing) is accompanied by a 16 minute featurette “The Landscape of Feeling: The Road to Penda’s Fen” which includes interviews with David Rudkin and David Rose among others, and is an excellent, if all too brief, overview of the conception and making of this important piece of landmark TV history. The accompanying booklet features the very fine article, already mentioned, by Sukhdev Sandhu.

 This special edition Blu-ray (also available on DVD) is released a few weeks ahead of a mammoth 13 disc Blu-ray box set (and two smaller DVD volumes, available individually) which will gather together in one place all the surviving works, including “Penda’s Fen”, made during his time at the BBC by Alan Clarke. For those of you Clarke fans out there whose pockets do not extend deep enough to be able to afford to fork out on the main set, this stand-alone disc is an essential purchase -- and folk horror aficionados, hauntology buffs and TV archive completests will not be far behind you in the queue.

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!

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