I first saw Penda’s Fen just a couple of weeks ago, as part of a DVD box set of films directed by the great Alan Clarke for the BBC. Clarke had his own DC’s Day here quite recently, but I’ll explain why this specific film demands an even closer look and why it now means a lot to me personally.
Penda’s Fen is kind of an outlier among Clarke’s other work, being visionary and epic as opposed to his usual social realist style, and seeing the present day England through a prism of its ancient pagan past. It’s an England viewed by the central character Stephen Franklin as a place of radical heterogeneity: “No, no! I am nothing pure! My race is mixed. My sex is mixed. I am woman and man, light with darkness, nothing pure! I am mud and flame!” The scene involves an apparition of King Penda, England’s last pagan king before the Church of England stitch-up turned UKIP mess of the present day.
So I did a little online sleuth work and found that the area in Leeds where I was born and raised, with its Penda’s Way and Penda’s Fields, was actually the place where this pagan king died in the Battle of Winwaed back in 655ad. And spookier still he died on my very birthday, the 15th November. I’d like to think those ancient pagans had a few wild parties around where I grew up and the historical context does give this film some extra resonance for me, but it’s still a unique work of art that deserves to be seen more widely:
Pendas Fields, Crossgates, Leeds
Penda’s Fen is a British television play which was written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke. It was commissioned by BBC producer David Rose, and first broadcast on 21 March 1974 as part of the corporation’s Play for Today series.
Set in the village of Pinvin, near Pershore in Worcestershire, England, against the backdrop of the Malvern Hills, it is an evocation of conflicting forces within England past and present. These include authority, tradition, hypocrisy, landscape, art, sexuality, and most of all, its mystical, ancient pagan past. All of this comes together in the growing pains of the adolescent Stephen, a vicar’s son, whose encounters include angels, Edward Elgar and King Penda himself. The final scene of the play, where the protagonist has an apparitional experience of King Penda and the “mother and father of England”, is set on the Malvern Hills.
Critics have noted that the play stands apart from Clarke’s other, more realist output. Clarke himself admitted that he did not fully understand what the story was about. Nonetheless it has gone on to acquire the status of minor classic, win awards and has been rebroadcast several times on the BBC.
Following the original broadcast Leonard Buckley, The Times wrote: “Make no mistake. We had a major work of television last night. Rudkin gave us something that had beauty, imagination and depth.”
In 2006, Vertigo magazine described Penda’s Fen as “One of the great visionary works of English film”.
In 2011, Penda’s Fen was chosen by Time Out London magazine as one of the 100 best British films. They described the play as a “multi-layered reading of contemporary society and its personal, social, sexual, psychic and metaphysical fault lines. Fusing Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ with a heightened socialism of vibrantly localist empathy, and pagan belief systems with pre-Norman histories and a seriously committed – and prescient – ecological awareness, ‘Penda’s Fen’ is a unique and important statement.”
Penda’s Fen is a breathtakingly complex, bravely ambitious, expertly executed and profoundly subversive Pilgrim’s Progress in reverse. It charts the rebellious journey of a sanctimonious clergyman’s son from doctrinaire adolescence to emotional, political and sexual maturity. At the start of his quest, young Stephen Franklin gazes dreamily across a sun-dappled green and pleasant land and, stirred by Edward Elgar’s emblematic oratorio ‘The Dream of Gerontius’, asks himself how he might best serve his country. By journey’s end, he no longer wishes to follow England’s ‘Aryan national family on its Christian path,” is more relaxed about his homosexuality, and has shaken off parochial, parroted patriotism in favour of more heterodox and nuanced notions of nationhood earthed deep in the pre-Christian pagan past.
As Stephen’s moral compass swivels and the tectonic plates of his universe shift, he comes to see himself, those in his orbit, even the landscape of his boyhood in a different light. His father proves to be more interesting than he’d allowed and other than he’d assumed. He develops affection and respect for the radical writer, Arne, and his wife – a progressive couple he formerly despised. Having initially viewed the Arnes’ childless marriage as an example of divine justice, he comes to hope they can adopt: ‘I hope they give you lot’s of children, a whole tribe, because you’re interesting people and your children will have interesting lives.” The very names of places he thought he knew change before his eyes and take on fresh significance (Pinvin, Pinfin, Penfen, Penda’s Fen). The countryside comes to seem less and less benign. Arne (a surrogate Ruskin as much as Stephen is) suggests that chilling state experiments are afoot beneath the land. And, as Stephen unravels before aligning with his authentic self, as his pubescent infatuations solidify into adult sexual desire, things become increasingly strange and dark, occasionally apocalyptic and violent.
One of the most powerful, haunting and thought-provoking films of its era, indeed of any era. An endlessly fascinating, forensic examination of England, its landscape, its past and its politics; a perceptive, completely convincing, and moving portrayal of the turbulence of adolescence; a philosophically and politically rich meditation on what it is to grow up, and continue to be human. Television could do this once. Alan Clarke, David Rose, David Ruskin. The holy trio. Emblazon their name in shining lights. Please, don’t dilly-dally, watch this magnificent film without delay. Highly recommended.
At certain times, the stars and planets seem to be in perfect alignment. Take for instance a particular time in the early 1970s when folk art abounded and films like The Wicker Man were being made.
TV companies at this time ploughed money into new and experimental writing, such as for the Play for Today series. Many of these lovingly crafted screenplays are recognised in hindsight to be lost treasures, such as Good and Bad at Games and Just a Boy’s Game. Most were a slap in the face for any repressive establishment. These exciting times peaked for me in 1974 when the singular talents of director Alan Clarke, producer David Rose and writer David Rudkin collaborated to make Penda’s Fen, the most striking, multi-layered and affecting film I have seen.
Part-inspired (and admired) by Harold Pinter, Rudkin is an unusual character; humane and vulnerable, with an edgy wit and titanic intellect. A consummate dramatist and screenwriter, he is most importantly a storyteller from the Anglo-Irish tradition (I think here of the darkly soporific tones and the relish with which he introduced Penda’s Fen on its 1989 rerun, drawing us into its world). He had appeared to wait in the regional wings behind Brook and Tynan throughout the 1960s, soaking up a different kind of wisdom. Things “came together”, he said, with Penda’s Fen.
Made at the BBC’s Pebble Mill studios, the film is set in the rural midlands, Rudkin’s spiritual homeland, where the last urban outposts of Birmingham meet the ancient hills that Elgar walked and immortalised in music. Among these contrasts and to the strains of the hymn Jerusalem, played on the school assembly organ, we witness a soul in transition, that of an adolescent boy, Stephen Franklin. Voicing his outrage at the ‘unnatural’ content of popular television plays, we meet him as a priggish and idealistic young conservative about to be engulfed by the natural mysteries of the visionary landscapes that surround him.
As we watch he is unravelled on every level as the voices of the ancient land penetrate the staunchness of his defences. His homosexual awakening is punctuated by apparitions of angels, demons and the ancient fathers who walked his hills, including the affirming presences of the ghosts of Elgar and the pagan King Penda. Stephen descends further into a fantasy space where place names regress hypnotically. He witnesses the sick Mother and Father of England, “who would have us children forever”, a TV couple he once admired for upholding family values. In a memorable scene their yellow-clad devotees willingly surrender to mutilation with much wrist chopping and bloodstained oaks. Certain times, the stars and planets seem to be in perfect alignment.
And many of his other suppositions are challenged. His father turns out to be not as religiously conservative as Stephen had imagined but is still a stabilising presence. He provides a historical context with reference to the struggles of Joan of Arc and King Penda in which Stephen can locate his own turbulence. Mr. Arne, the local radical screenwriter and his wife become unexpected friends to Stephen as opposed to people to be feared and ridiculed. Stephen is rejected by his militaristic boys’ school for his lack of national pride and his entire direction changes. He becomes ready to receive his true inheritance.
David Rose has praised the economy of Rudkin’s writing and, indeed, nothing is overstated as Stephen’s values- moral, political, sexual, emotional, spiritual and familial – are decimated, leaving a space in which something new can be created. It is a film of changes; Stephen is nurtured through his journey by the hills and the phenomena sent out by the “primal genie of the earth” to guide him on his way.
This is not general pathetic fallacy, but something much more intricate; the landscape seems alive, active and knowing. It communicates with Stephen, encourages him and he receives his true parenting from it and his ancestors. The film captures the process of change so accurately, with a real understanding of the trials of emotional development.
I first saw it when I was eighteen. To witness at that age (the same age as Stephen) the cathartic turmoil of his adolescence was like being blessed; something about the irrevocable force of change and progress implicit in the film stayed with me. The idea of working for a more genuine and authentic self which has the potential to be at odds with social normality has enabled me to work on the frontline with people who are in transition, who are achieving meaning and progress through the most seemingly senseless of adversities. Penda’s Fen has informed my understanding of this in many and profound ways.
‘I am afflicted by images, by things that are seen, pictures of things,” dramatist and screenwriter David Rudkin told an interviewer in 1964. “They are extraordinary, momentary, but they stay with me.” He was talking about his play Afore Night Come (1962), which led Kenneth Tynan to proclaim: “Not since Look Back in Anger has a playwright made a debut more striking than this.” But it’s also true of Penda’s Fen, an unforgettable hybrid of horror story, rites-of‑passage spiritual quest and vision of an alternative England that has been hailed as one of the most original and vauntingly ambitious British films of the last half century.
Originally broadcast in 1974 as part of the BBC’s Play for Today strand, and directed by Alan Clarke, who would later become celebrated for scaldingly in-yer-face social realist films such as Scum (1978) and Made in Britain (1982), it’s set in Worcestershire, at the heart of pastoral England. Stephen Franklin (played by Spencer Banks) is a pastor’s son who talks fondly of supporting the “Aryan national family on its Christian path” and is repelled by the arrival in his village of a socialist writer who defends striking workers and asks pointed questions about government-backed projects in the local countryside.
Soon, however, Stephen’s moral certainty and grip on reality begin to founder. He has dreams of naked classmates, of a demon sitting on his bed. He sees an angel in a stream. He meets Edward Elgar who tells him the secret of Enigma Variations. Cracks appear in a church floor and he learns, not only that his father holds a far less orthodox position on Christianity than he imagined, but that he is adopted. Then, just when things couldn’t get any more mysterious, he starts to come into the orbit of King Penda, the last Pagan king of Britain who died in AD655.
The film is a passionate deconstruction of conservative myths about nationhood. At a critical point, the formerly hidebound Stephen cries out: “No, no! I am nothing pure! My race is mixed. My sex is mixed. I am woman and man, light with darkness, nothing pure! I am mud and flame!” Rather than hewing to a belief in tradition, continuity or stability, Rudkin champions hybridity and what Salman Rushdie would later term cultural “mongrelisation”. A while before it became fashionable for historians to talk about the inseparability of “nation and narration” or “the invention of tradition”, Rudkin was arguing that English Christianity was a violently imposed ideology. The family, heterosexuality, militarised manhood: all these pillars of patriotism take a tumble.
What makes Penda’s Fen particularly prescient is that it locates these hybrid transformations in the English countryside. The 1970s saw a number of artists offering new versions of pastoral – Philip Trevelyan’s The Moon and the Sledgehammer (1971) was a creepy documentary about a family living without electricity in a wood; Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside (1973) introduced readers to what would later be known as edgelands; Jeremy Sandford’s Tomorrow’s People (1974) portrayed the Dionysian longings of free-festival revellers. Rudkin shows rural England to be a place of struggles and heresies, of antagonisms and anguish. The film even turns to etymology, arguing that “pagan”, which originally meant “belonging to the village”, referred to the politics of local governance as much as it did to theological doctrine.
Stephen, the film’s unsteady centre, is told: “Be secret. Child be strange, dark, true, impure, and dissonant. Cherish our flame.” For Rob Young, author of Electric Eden (2010), Penda’s Fen is part psychogeography, part toolkit for imaginative unshackling: “The pattern under the plough, the occult history of Albion – the British Dreamtime – lies waiting to be discovered by anyone with the right mental equipment.”
The film is acute in its portrait of adolescence at a time of scepticism, idealism, susceptibility. Priggish and a touch self-righteous, Stephen is not someone with whom it’s immediately easy to empathise. He is not as lovable as Billy Casper in Ken Loach’s Kes (1969). Nor is he a hero or a role model. He doesn’t have the charisma of Mick Travis in Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968). But, like Mick, he finds himself in flight from the corridors of English power, its citadels of prestige and establishment group-think – its imperial masculinity.
Even though its effects are primitive by today’s standards, Rudkin’s drama, appearing a year after Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, is often hailed as a watermark of British horror. But its real peers are eldritch TV thrillers such as Jonathan Miller’s adaptation of an MR James story Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968), Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (1969-1970) and Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972). For Jim Jupp, one half of the Ghost Box record label whose sonic and visual aesthetic owes a debt to Penda’s Fen, “What made these films so powerful to me as teenager was that you didn’t know anything about them. They weren’t repeated. There was no internet to help you crack them. They kept their mystery.”
Another mystery, from a modern-day standpoint, is how Rudkin’s script was even commissioned: deeply layered, rich in sexual and mythological motifs, trusting the audience to have the patience and intelligence to engage with its handling of complex theological, historical and political ideas, it also migrates beyond the social-realist templates of the majority of screen and stage productions in the early 1970s – the West Country has never looked so Aztec – and uses a subtly minimalist sound design shaped by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Paddy Kingsland.
Penda’s Fen’s admirers include TV historian Michael Wood, comic-book writer Grant Morrison, and Sight and Sound editor Nick James. For various copyright reasons it has never been issued on video or DVD. Nonetheless, divining the ways in which archaeology can be a necessary agitation, landscape an imaginative resource, Rudkin’s work is as vital now – and as incandescent a rejoinder to the pious bucolics of cultural nationalists – as it was in 1974.
Penda’s Fen is a dense, difficult work, drawing on themes of theology, psychogeography, national identity and classical music. It’s if anything too dense, a film which no doubt needs unpicking over more than one viewing. That’s quite an ask for a television production for which the original contracts specified one showing with the possibility of one repeat within two years (which it received, on 13 February 1975). For the great majority of the population, there was no means of recording a television programme, and plot points were in danger of being missed if the phone rang or you dozed off, with no means of replaying. Penda’s Fen was repeated again in 1990, which was the first time I saw it.
One risk the play takes from the outset is that Stephen is an all but insufferable prig. But over the next 89 minutes, the pillars of his worldview have been undermined: church, school, the army (Stephen is a cadet), the sanctity of marriage and heterosexuality. He wonders if his neighbour, Arne (Ian Hogg), is “unnatural” – homosexual – and suggests it’s for the best that Arne and his wife (Jennie Hesselwood) have not been able to produce children. But he soon wonders if he is homosexual himself.
Early on, we see him in debate praising a Christian couple for obtaining an injunction aganst the showing of a documentary about Jesus. Take note of the couple’s triumphal gesture, as it recurs in a dream sequence where Stephen sees a group of smiling children lining up so that a man can chop their hands off with an axe – a clear linking with evangelical religion with older faiths involving child sacrifice. Rudkin suggests that as newer religions supplant older ones, the older gods are cast in the role of the Devil…and it may have been that Joan of Arc (and death by burning also features here) worshipped an older god than the one in whose name she became a Christian saint. Penda’s Fen harks back to an earlier, visionary tradition where people regularly saw angels and devils, and that’s exactly what happens to Stephen. We see the angel before Stephen does, implying that it is real and not simply a product of his imagination. Contemporary life, it’s suggested, has narrowed its perspective, and we have a barrier preventing us from seeing angels. And if we have such a barrier above, so we have one below: we don’t see devils either. For Stephen, those barriers have become porous.
At the beginning of the film, Stephen is writing an essay on Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, a vision of death, the afterlife and a meeting with God. As Ken Russell did in his own film on Elgar, Rudkin and Clarke frequently lets Elgar play out on the soundtrack, a departure from Clarke’s usual practice of not having any non-diegetic music in his work. Another unusual technique is mismatching the soundtrack and visuals at certain points. Partway through the film, Stephen meets Elgar (Graham Leaman) who gives Stephen (and us) a key to what is going on: he left a piece of music as a puzzle, to work in counterpoint with an unspecified well-known piece of music to produce something new. Arne and his wife’s “chemical compound” does not work as they are infertile. Jesus, Stephen’s father says, is where “legislator and demon fuse” and he compares him to Karl Marx, another visionary whose message is distorted by those who followed him, and both are “crucified” over and over. Light and darkness. Two of the ancient elements: mud (earth) and flame (fire). Man and woman. Finally, Stephen has a vision of King Penda, the last pagan king of England, whose tribe intermarried with the Welsh, and after whom the village is named. (Penda’s Fen – Pendefen – Pinfin – Pinvin.)
Heady stuff, and if ultimately this is a writer’s film rather than a director’s one, in Clarke’s hands it has a realism which prevents the whimsy that could have infested a story like this. It’s certainly a play of ideas, and so the characters tend to be mouthpieces for those ideas rather than nuanced people, the play is still as well acted within those limitations as you would expect from Clarke. It’s certainly an outlier in his work, but a compelling and highly original one that, it was widely suspected, was only made in the first place due to its Birmingham base. In London, it might have met with more interference. No doubt most people watching on that Thursday night in 1974 hadn’t seen anything like it, and it’s hard to imagine it being made at all nowadays.
Come back to the village: A Penda’s Fen pilgrimage:
To watch the film itself, you have two options. The only embeddable YouTube clip has it showing in a corner of the screen against a backdrop of falling snow:
Alternatively, the film is available fullscreen by simply clicking on this link:
Thanks, and I hope you enjoy it.
p.s. Hey. This is really nice: Last week or thereabouts, as you will remember, I did an Alan Clarke Day. Today, _Black_Acrylic aka artist Ben Robinson does a zoom-in and concentration on one of the films that was briefly presented in the larger post. Which is kind of beautifully meta in that sense, not to mention the fact that you get a great post that is fascinating on its lonesome. Please dig in, thank you, and, as always with guest-posts, do reward _B_A’s work and generosity with a word or many more. Big up and huge thanks from me, Ben! ** Dóra Grőber, Hi! Yeah, my friends who’ve had artist parents always both express their feelings of luck for that and caution me not get too daydreamy about how perfect that situation is. But it’s very cool that all of you in your family are artists. My parents weren’t, like I said, but my grandmother, my uncle, and my great grandmother were all painters. My siblings aren’t artists, but my nephew is a writer. I feel lucky for that much. Setting up the bank account is in motion, and hopefully I can get that done by the first of the year. The location photos were great. We’ve found the world where our film will be shot! It’s a kind of bleak but beautiful newish neighborhood/ housing development on the outskirts of Cherbourg that has most of what we’ll need: blocks of towering brutalist-ish social housing buildings, small houses, parks, playgrounds, strange mall, etc. all right next to each other so we won’t have to fake the neighborhood we’ll need by having shoot pieces of it all over the place. We still need to find a few locations like a small amusement park, a small river, a field, and a mine, but we’re getting there. So, yes, everything is going really well. The rehearsals went very well yesterday. Good progress. One last long rehearsal today and then there’s a break for a few months. I hope you a very great day yourself? Was it? ** Jamie, Hi! Thank you, sir. About the poetry post. Yes, I got your emails. I will write to him very soon, as soon as I’m not eaten up by the dance rehearsing. Everything went excellently out in Nanterre. A lot of concentrating on helping the dancers develop their individual characters and figure out how to move/dance while staying in character to a degree that the viewer can read them as individuals with narrative agendas and emotional trajectories and so on. The progress was very good. It is fun work, and the dancers are such awesome, dedicated people, so they’re a true pleasure to collaborate with. No, I didn’t see that Zadie Smith piece. I’ll go find it. Thanks for alerting me. Make Xmas cards? Like by hand? Future collectibles! I’m back at he dance rehearsals again today. And you? And Thursday? How did you and it get along? Love, me. ** David Ehrenstein, Ha, it’s true. ** Steevee, Ha, I suppose I could figure out a way to compose a BDSM loving detective if I had absolutely had to, ha ha. Well, your doc is probably right, although I did immediately think, ‘Doctors always want to take the credit for any positive effect in their patients’. Well, I’m not sure how hard it is for someone in France who has a ‘9-5 job’ and an easily proveable income, but for an artist like me who makes money randomly and unevenly, it’s definitely harder here. Like I think I mentioned before, I need to set up a French bank account, and it needs to contain an amount of money covering at least a year’s worth of rent in advance before I can even begin the process of renting anything. ** Tomk, Hi, T. Promising, if only. No, there is a charm to have one’s culinary possibilities bracketed by what fits inside a machine. Well, what I really wanted was one of these awful, usually kind of stale sugar-coated cold waffles that are generally a staple of French vending machines. But they were sold out! So I bought, ate, and could ultimately accept a Bueno bar, if you know Bueno bars. I think today I will try this horrible looking kind of roll thing that has some kind of horrible looking jelly inside it and is called Petit (something). Nice, man. xx ** Omar, Hi. Yes, here’s the deal. MAC VAL is rather disorganized, to put it mildly. At the moment, the plan is that there will be no advance tickets sold, and it will be a first-come-first-served situation. Gisele does not like that arrangement one little bit, so she’s trying to get them to offer advance reservations. We will see. In any case, I can get you in. Whatever the arrangement is, I can put you on ‘the list’ and guarantee you a seat. Basically, write to me at my address — firstname.lastname@example.org — sometime between after Xmas and whenever in January, and I’ll put your name on the company’s reservation or guest list or whatever it ends up being, if that makes sense and is okay? ** Larry Delinger, Thanks a lot, Larry. I’m very happy that the poems gave you pleasure. ** H, Hi. Thank you about the poem post. I’m getting the buche today. I actually put it off too long, and now a number of the best candidates are already sold out, so now I have to choose among the remainders and reserve asap. Eek. Xmas themed experimental films! I would love to have a peek at your list when you’re finished compiling. ** Misanthrope, Thank you, sir. Staying in the city would be nice. I didn’t realize you weren’t staying in the heart. That sounds like a lot busy work. Yeah, I understand. I generally can squeeze humor out of everything, and the blacker the humor the better, but I just can’t with him. It’s biologcal or something. ** Mark Gluth, Hi, Mark! Oh, I fear my high five just ended up being a strange looking, indistinguishable one. Maybe if I tried to construct that new-form high five as the substructure for a novel, I could do it, but in the real world, I just went dork. I most assuredly will keep my half of that promise, I promise. ** Jeff J, Thanks, Jeff. I think, if I had to guess, no, on the Berrigan question. Yes, so we have aligned about ‘Evolution’. Lucille (the director) is a good friend of Gisele’s, and I know her through Gisele. (Gisele helped choreograph that static orgy scene on the beach in ‘Evolution’.) Lucille’s also the partner of Gaspar Noe, and I know her through Gaspar. I think she honestly is trying to do what you would think she’s trying to do: construct a compelling utter cinematic mystery involving but not overly disclosing childhood-centric fantasies and emotions intersected with adulthood-centric fear and repressed erotic perversion. I just think that she ends up giving too much weight to her film’s atmospherics at the expense of whatever meaning the atmospherics are resulting from. Or something. I think she’s very talented, and I think she’ll get closer. I’m well on my end, busy like you are, and I’m glad you’re striking a good balance. ** Right. Forage in ‘Penda’s Fen’ today, and talk to _B_A, and to me too if you want, and thank you again. See you tomorrow.