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Mud And Flame: Penda's Fen re-examined
The Quietus , June 3rd, 2017 08:47

In an piece exclusive to The Quietus, and continuing our series of articles examining the works of director Alan Clarke, Matthew Harle and James Machin examine one of Clarke's most eccentric works, the psychogeographical fantasia, Penda's Fen

If you sat down to watch television on the evening of Thursday the 21st of March 1974, this is what you would have seen on BBC1: at 8:30pm was James Burke’s The Burke Special, followed by the Nine O'Clock News read by Kenneth Kendall. At 9:30pm, there was a feature length ‘Play for Today’ titled Penda’s Fen. Immediately after was Midweek, presented by Ludovic Kennedy — the programme dedicated to the Watergate Scandal and a report on President Nixon’s tax returns. The channel then closed for the night.

Bookended by news of an American President’s criminal scheming and looming impeachment, it may not have felt like the most imperative, urgent broadcast of the evening schedule, but this would be wrong. Sitting between reportage of Nixon’s folly was a complex, literary and intensely prescient story — its writer, David Rudkin, demonstrating that, like the personal, the parochial was political. It aired only once more on the BBC and, apart from a late-night broadcast on Channel 4 in the 1980s, Penda’s Fen seemed consigned to its status as an obscure footnote in television history. Due to the efforts of a handful of enthusiasts, critics, and now the BFI, however, it is now being recognised for what it is: a masterpiece. Moreover, in this fractious age of populism and identity politics, this erstwhile televisual oddity is only gaining traction in terms of its relevance.

Penda’s Fen takes place in the Malvern Hills, near the small village of Pinvin, where Stephen Franklin, a pompous and uncomfortable grammar schoolboy has his identity, sexuality and suffocating religious nationalism unravelled through a series of visions. Stephen meets the ancient King Penda, the last Anglo Saxon monarch of England, from whom Pinvin derives its name; demonic apparitions visit him in bed; he is stalked by angels; Edward Elgar reveals the secrets to his Enigma Variations — all set against the swelling and elusive Worcestershire landscape, itself almost a character in the play. In the first act of Penda’s Fen, it is Stephen’s neighbour, Mr Arne, who reveals the premise — or rather shifting, uncertain foundations — of the film:

“The earth beneath your feet feels solid there. It is not. Somewhere there the land is hollow. Somewhere beneath, is being constructed, something. We’re not supposed to know.”

Three great talents of the BBC drama department made Penda’s Fen. It was commissioned and produced by David Rose at Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham, written by playwright David Rudkin, and directed by Alan Clarke. The next day, national newspapers recognised its impact. Leonard Buckly of The Times declared, “Make no mistake. We had a major work of television last night. Rudkin gave us something that had beauty, imagination and depth.” Even the Daily Mail admitted that it was “constantly interesting to look at, while remaining a play of ideas and arguments — a rare combination.” Rudkin’s authorship points to more than a combination of ideas and aesthetics. In fact, Penda’s Fen was one of the clearest expressions of a rich, dramatic ecology that the author had been cultivating since his first play Afore Night Come in 1962; entwining myth, politics, and identity in a career that shifted between theatre, classical translation, opera, film, and television.

Although increasingly mentioned in the same breath as the recently-canonised 1970s folk horror triumvirate of Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan's Claw, and The Wicker Man, Penda's Fen resists conscription into the genre. Unlike the former films, it does not achieve it potency by surmounting any crude, generic pulp trappings, for it has none. Despite its occasional horrific imagery (including the notorious scene inspired by Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare), it is by no means a horror film. Anyone seeking visceral thrills may well be baffled by lengthy scenes in which the revenant of Elgar discussed the hidden melody of the Enigma Variations and a vicar lectures his son on the subtleties of Manicheism. With its subplot involving secret military experiments, hideously disfiguring a teenager hapless enough to stumble across them, it is certainly weighted with the same 1970s dread and nuclear despair captured in Central Office of Information films like Apaches (1977), as celebrated by Richard Little’s satire Scarfolk. Mr Arne further articulates the queasy paranoia and entropy of the post-sixties hangover. Arne, a local playwright who uses the parish council meetings to air his radical politics, is clearly a proxy for Rudkin himself and gadfly to Stephen's High Tory complacencies.

It is Rudkin’s literary range that gives Penda’s Fen its intellectual sprawl. It is an unusual, even unique, work for television, that emerges from a long British tradition of Christian visionary, ecstatic religious writing from John Bunyan and William Blake to Arthur Machen and Charles Williams. Stephen’s reactionary conceit of a ‘pure’ Englishness harks back to a pre-war idyll of vicars on bicycles and cricket on the village green, every bit as mythical in its own way as the earlier pagan legendarium drawn upon by Rudkin in the play. This idealisation of a homogeneous English culture seems ossified in some long Edwardian afternoon, about the same time that writers like Kenneth Grahame, J.M. Barrie, and Arthur Machen were lamenting the disappearance of the countryside of their youth — the rapid loss of great swathes of green belt to the soulless red-brick of the inexorably expanding suburbs.

Appropriately, there are several works from this same period that strikingly pre-figure Penda’s Fen. Machen’s 1922 novel The Secret Glory relates the history of a Midlands public school boy whose ecstatic visions of the Holy Grail facilitate his escape from his outsider misery, and redeem his failure to fall into step with the system. John Buchan’s 1899 short story “The Far Islands” concerns another public schoolboy beset by visions — this time inspired by his Celtic ancestral inheritance — that again compromise his ability to take his rightful place in the establishment. In this story and others, Buchan flirted with notions of identity and racial inheritance that found grotesque expression in the German proto-Nazi Völkisch movement, with its insistence on identity and national purity based on “blood and soil”. It is the heady and toxic temptations of this version of romantic nationalism that — thanks to his father’s influence, the revelation of his own origins, and the related visions — Stephen is ultimately and happily able to resist and exorcize from his psyche.

It is possible to see the hidden hand of Stephen’s father in this process. The Reverend J. Franklin is outwardly, quietly respectable and every inch the country vicar. However, it quickly becomes clear that he is anything but orthodox. His syncretic pantheism, and sympathy with paganism, shock Stephen, as does his description of Jesus as a “revolutionary” crucified on the machinery of capitalism. As well as the theological challenges issuing from his father, and the political ones he is exposed to through Arne, there is a final revelation on his 18th birthday that finally shatters Stephen’s remaining certainties — although no spoilers here.

It is through the benign paternal influence of Reverend Franklin, as well as the more strident one of Arne, that Stephen’s Blakean visions work against his previously held convictions — by the end of the film, he is no longer in danger of growing up into Nigel Farage. Before he is redeemed by the “true” Jesus and the pagan King Penda, he must escape the attentions of the “Mother and Father of England”, the embodiment of the censorious establishment reaction to the social revolution of the 1960s.

Just a couple of years before Penda’s Fen was made, Malcolm Muggeridge and Mary Whitehouse staged the “Nationwide Festival of Light” across Britain, in an attempt to demonstrate that the “silent majority” wanted the nation to return to the never-never land of wholesome Christian purity. In one startling oneiric sequence of the film, children and young people wait with bovine equanimity to have their hands chopped off. In the Greek myth, Procrustes would arbitrarily amputate limbs in order that his victims fit his iron bed. The children of England suffer a similar procrustean ordeal to make them conform to the arbitrary standards of their self-appointed moral guardians. Penda’s Fen is ultimately about Stephen’s self-emancipation from this fate:

“I am nothing pure. My race is mixed. My sex is mixed. I am woman and man. Light with darkness. Mixed. Mixed. I nothing special. Nothing pure. I am mud and flame.”

This revelation from Stephen crowns Penda’s Fen. It is a final and utter rejection of a cloistered purview and likely an entirely accurate reflection of the typical social ambit of a vicar's son growing up in the Midlands countryside: his world is limited to solitary meditation in his bedroom, the stifling male environment of his school, and lonely bicycle rides in the lonely expanses of the surrounding hills. Moreover, it is an acceptance of Stephen’s emergent homosexuality, that we see glimpses of in his teenage infatuation with his milkman. The more typical adolescent world of drinking and carousing is seen only briefly early in the film—a car full of young revellers pulling over so someone can get out and have a pee—a snapshot of normality that is brutally cut short. However, we never see any of these manifold threads truly tie up. Penda is a film full of interruptions, distractions and incompletions; it demands multiple viewings, as it wanders like the itinerant gaze of Alan Clarke’s camera over the Worcester landscape. It deserves interrogation: Penda is myth, music, ecocriticism, gender and folklore, buried in celluloid.

Strikingly, it is even more than this. Penda's Fen presciently maps onto the current moment, countering nationalism, the conservatism of the provinces, war-mongering and the suppression of an emerging identity politics. Rudkin’s film was broadcast months before the impeachment of a corrupt, duplicitous President in a world threatened by thermonuclear destruction. In the year that Moonlight triumphed under the presidency of Donald Trump, it is important we remember its archival forebears, as Penda also contributes to the same radical filmic tradition — a pregnant counter-cinema — where the everyday becomes newly estranged, old certainties are sloughed off, and entrenched shibboleths don’t bear scrutiny.

Child be Strange, A Symposium on Penda’s Fen is at BFI Southbank on Saturday June 10th Information here

Forthcoming from Strange Attractor Books, the critical anthology Child be Strange will not only include new scholarship ensuing from the conference — written by the participating academics, critics, and medievalists — but a wealth of other material. Child be Strange will be a sourcebook for Penda’s Fen, and collect original archival texts and images, creative responses, walking guides, chronologies, glossaries relating to the myths and landscapes of Penda’s Fen, recommended reading, watching, and summaries of peripheral works.

Matthew Harle is Postdoctoral Research Fellow of the Barbican Centre and Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

James Machin is the co-editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen, and a postdoctoral researcher at Birkbeck College, London.