Penda's Fen 1973

When I think about English director Alan Clarke, I think of a young borstal boy clobbering the head of a fellow inmate with a sock filled with pool balls. I think of a bunch of football casuals planning to establish themselves as the most feared firm in the country, or I think of a skinheaded Tim Roth strutting around London on the lookout for some aggro.

His name doesn’t conjure up dramas set in idyllic rural villages overlooking the Malvern Hills, with a central character who is seventeen but does his best to sound like an old, lifelong Conservative, pompously clinging on to the last days of empire. This is Penda’s Fen, though, shot in 1973 by Clarke for the BBC’s Play for Today strand.

The play (or film for television according its author David Rudkin) opens with a shot of a Worcestershire landscape that could almost be a John Constable painting.

Spencer Banks plays the priggish sixth former Stephen. Social skills obviously aren’t his strongpoint, and he is highly unpopular at his posh all-boy’s school. Extemely proud to be English, he is also a devoted Christian (his father is a parson) and he rails against the unions who, he believes, are holding the country to ransom through their industrial actions. I’m guessing he would approve of Mary Whitehouse, Britain’s most high profile killjoy of the era.

Spencer Banks - Penda's Fen

On the week of Penda’s Fen being screened in March 1974, the top 20 of the British singles chart included Queen’s Seven Seas of Rhye, Devil Gate Drive by Suzi Quatro and Bowie’s Rebel Rebel but predictably, Stephen is no glam fan. Instead, he adores Edward Elgar, and the nearest Stephen manages to get to rebel rebelling is when his mother insists he turn the volume on his Bush Dansette as Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius is being blasted out. He glares at her, clearly thinking about disobeying her. But he doesn’t.

The highlight of Stephen’s social life is a night out with his parents to the local parish hall where a debate is taking place between some stuffy locals and Arne, an incomer, who writes controversial TV plays and whose politics are a radical mirror image of Stephen’s. It’s easy to assume that he is a substitute character for Rudkin.

Arne outlines his ideas on how the village and the country as a whole could be improved. He also makes mention of what he sees as a sinister and highly secretive local development with government involvement – later we get a hint of what is happening there with a probable radiation death before this subplot is quietly ditched.

Not surprisingly, Stephen despises Arne. ‘He’s a terrible crank,’ he shrieks to his mother. ‘He’s unnatural.’

‘Stephen,’ she chides him. ‘You can be grotesque.’

Despite his traditional outlook, it’s obvious that he holds some kind of fascination for the local milkman – look that one up if you’re under 30 – a young man who looks like he’s just back from an allnighter at Wigan Casino. Is this sexual?

Strange visions begin to haunt Stephen’s sleep. He sees golden angels and naked schoolboys. A demon visits him, with a face that momentarily morphs into Joel’s. It squats on his bed like the incubus in Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare, its distinctive hooked nose resembling Elgar’s.

Soon, while Stephen shelters from some rain in a barn, he gets to meet the ghost of his favorite composer, and later comes across King Penda, reputedly the last pagan king in England.

Penda's Fen church

As the visions continue, his worldview begins to unravel. He becomes strangely drawn to Arne and his wife and starts visiting them. He even encourages Mrs Arne to adopt children and doesn’t baulk when she mentions that homosexuals ‘make very good fathers I’m told.’

When Stephen asks if his next play will be outrageous, Arne admits that he’ll have to tone it down. ‘The public have lost the imaginative strength they had,’ he explains. ‘Their sight and will to see what’s really going on has been steadily weakened by the entertainment barons for gain, by the yes men for cravenness.’

It wouldn’t be hard to guess what his opinion would be on the dumbed-down television offered up by Britain’s 21st century entertainment barons like X-Factor, Celebrity Big Brother and Love Island.

This complex drama is very 1970s, the pace is slow, its ambitions are high and its author doesn’t feel the need to spell things out, preferring to let the audience work out what is going on for themselves. Don’t expect to see anything like this on TV any time soon.

Penda's Fen March 1974

As noted by the TV correspondent of my local newspaper, the Glasgow Herald, an arts show Real Time felt that the play was important enough to discuss later that same evening over on BBC 2. Rudkin was invited on to have his say and this show lasted 45 minutes, roughly half the length of the play. Sadly, I’d guess that any tape of this held by the BBC would have disappeared long ago.

Penda’s Fen split opinions. While many critics praised it – including, surprisingly enough, the Daily Mail – it wasn’t to be shown again on British television for over fifteen years.

Should it be classified as a folk horror?

Author David Rudkin doesn’t believe so, although as Rob Young pointed out in Electric Eden, his book on visionary British folk music: ‘It was created at exactly the same time as The Wicker Man, and deals with a similar theme: the lingering pagan presence in the British landscape, and by extension, in the soul of the nation.’

Rudkin himself considers it a ‘political work’. It also examines religion, myth, the family, repression, nationhood, and history.

Penda's Fen still

Clarke excels, and some of the phantasmagorical imagery he presents us with is as disturbing as it is startling, especially one involving a truly bizarre series of atrocities in a gorgeous picture book setting, which I won’t ruin for anyone who hasn’t already seen the play.

Some might find criticism with the special effects on display, and although these look outdated today, they must have appeared rather impressive for British television of the era.

Penda’s Fen is far from perfect. There’s little real drama and much of the conflict is interior. The theology debates failed to arouse much interest in me and surely more could have been made of the radiation death, but it is such a thought-provoking piece of drama that I have a hunch it won’t be too long before I’ll want to see it again. Rudkin is a highly individual voice and I’ll be seeking out more of his work in the forthcoming weeks and months.

For more on the play click here, and for David Rudkin’s official site, here you go.