Penda’s Fen

By Victoria Childs

pendas-fen-alan-clarke.jpgPlay for Today, 1974

Alan Clarke’s 1974 Play for Today collaboration with David Rudkin is one of the great visionary works of British film

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.

Victoria Childs is a Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist and Psychodynamic Counsellor. She has a private practise in Covent Garden (