On ‘Penda’s Fen’
I’m old-fashioned enough to think that for something to count as a cult, it should be dark, subterranean and bound up with sacred mysteries. On that definition, Penda’s Fen (1974) may be the only authentic cult TV I’ve come across.
My initiation came in 2015, when I saw a screening of a rather yellowed 16mm print at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. I went because I was interested in the director, Alan Clarke: he is best known for dramas, mostly made for the BBC, that could loosely be described as ‘social realist’, often dealing with what we’d now call toxic masculinity; they include the borstal drama Scum(1977, remade for cinema in 1979 – the one where Ray Winstone yells ‘Who’s the daddy?’) and The Firm (1989), which stars Gary Oldman as an estate agent who spends weekends as a football hooligan. He also directed the film version of Andrea Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too(1987), about two working-class teenagers from Bradford sexually involved with a married man.
What sets Clarke apart from other British directors is the fleetness of the camerawork and editing, and an anti-realist streak most blatant in his version of Brecht’s Baal (1982, starring David Bowie), more subtly displayed in Elephant (1989), set in Northern Ireland, a concise, virtually wordless series of vignettes of killing. It may be misleading to talk about the editing style and the anti-realism as if they are separate things, rather than aspects of a way of looking at things that mistrusts objectivity.
None of what I knew of Clarke prepared me for Penda’s Fen. In outline, David Rudkin’s script can be made to sound conventional. It is set in rural Worcestershire in the summer of 1973: Stephen Franklin, played by Spencer Banks, is an awkward, priggish 17-year-old, a vicar’s son, in love with an antiquated, delusory Englishness and its symbols – Elgar, the Church, the school cadet force. Over the course of a few weeks he discovers a new identity, new desires; his pomposity and prejudice are stripped away and he becomes maturer, gentler, more open to the world’s possibilities.
But from the start the play has a hysterical intensity. It opens with a landscape of green summer hills, over which Elgar plays and Stephen intones: ‘Oh my country. I say over and over: I am one of your sons, it is true; I am, I am. Yet how shall I show my love?’ The voice of the Angel in The Dream of Gerontius rises to a climactic high A, then sticks, the note dragged agonisingly out, then blurring into the wail of a siren; barbed wire appears over the landscape, a hand reaches up and claws at it then twists to display scorched, scabbing skin.
And to make the play sound conventional, you have to leave out most of what goes on in the film, though how much of it actually happens is open to interpretation: a wet dream – stroking the nipples of the blond thug who bullies him at school – ends in a grinning demon crouched on Stephen as he lies in bed; a local boy staggers screaming from the fen at night, his skin on fire; out on the fen by day Stephen encounters a golden angel; in the garden of an old manor house he witnesses a ritual in which men, women and children have their hands chopped off with a cleaver and rejoice at the mutilation; in an old army hut he meets the wheelchair-bound ghost of Elgar; in his father’s church he sees Jesus’s feet, blood running from around the nail that transfixes them, and Jesus whispers to him, begging to be freed ‘from this tree’; finally, on the Malvern Hills, Stephen has a revelation of impurity (‘My race is mixed, my sex is mixed, I am woman and man … I am mud and flame!’) and receives a blessing from Penda, the last pagan king of Mercia.
In between the dreams and visions, the script often attains a lecture-hall wordiness: Stephen’s father delivers a disquisition on manicheism, paganism and the true nature of Jesus; a radical playwright called Arne (apparently a Rudkin surrogate) declaims to a church hall meeting about military-industrial capitalism and the destruction of nature: ‘One hope for man only: when the great concrete mega-city chokes the globe from pole to pole, it shall already have buried in some hidden crack the sacred seed of its own disintegration and collapse’ – yeah, well, looking good so far.
There are elements here that are ponderous and silly, or could easily become so: on the page, passages in Rudkin’s script have an intellectual self-absorption and self-importance; but Clarke’s film remains light, vivid, any clumsiness in its messaging and metaphors offset by nimble shifts in rhythm, tone, palette, the way it flits between grief, wonderment and anger, seizes and discards fragments of genre – pastoral, science fiction, horror, industrial documentary. It never feels fragmented, only surprising and funny; and even on repeated viewing, surprise lingers, if only the surprise that such a programme ever got made.
Penda’s Fen was broadcast as a ‘Play for Today’ on BBC1 on 21 March 1974. The reviews were positive and though it did not lodge in collective memory as Abigail’s Party or Blue Remembered Hills did, it made a deep impression on a few people; its reputation was boosted by a repeat on Channel 4 in 1990, but it’s only in the last few years that the cult has become noticeable, helped by YouTube, screenings at galleries, and the release by the BFIin 2016 of a restored version on disc. (Christopher Douglas, who played the blond bully, now plays Ed Reardon in the Radio 4 sitcom Ed Reardon’s Week, and apparently turns up to all the Penda’s Fen screenings; Ed Reardon has a cat called Elgar.) The play has been the subject of a day-long symposium at BFI Southbank (the former National Film Theatre), and has inspired two books: The Edge Is Where the Centre Is, a limited edition collection of responses and interviews edited by Sukhdev Sandhu, and Of Mud and Flame: The ‘Penda’s Fen’ Sourcebook, edited by Matthew Harle and James Machin (which includes the script).
I don’t know of any other television film that has attracted a fraction of this attention. The reasons are partly sociological: Stephen’s Bildungsromanis attractive to viewers who remember being arty, awkward adolescents, and the script’s abstrusities might make it more sympathetic to someone with a strong recollection of being misunderstood. The film plays, too, into a seemingly eternal discourse about overlooked great British directors (which Clarke certainly is) and a more vogueish one about ‘folk horror’ (a baggy genre founded, roughly speaking, on psychogeography, The Wicker Man,and too much cheese before bedtime).
A thread of environmental anxiety that runs through the play feels very contemporary, though Rudkin was worried long before most: his first stage play, Afore Night Come (1962, the year Silent Spring was published), features an apocalyptic shower of pesticide from a helicopter. And there is the coincidence of the play’s first appearance the year before Britain’s first referendum on Europe and its resurgence shortly before the second: nationalism is one of the themes, and the film can be read as a plea for an English – I don’t think British – identity that embraces impurity and anarchy: blessing Stephen, Penda invokes a ‘sacred demon of ungovernableness’.
More than anything, in its collage of tones, its exploration of the spiritual through landscape, Penda’s Fen reminds me of T.S. Eliot, though the ideology could hardly be more different; and as with Eliot, the best thing may be to swallow the images and utterances whole. (I mean, ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree’?) It means a golden angel on the fens; it means an old man’s ghost in a shed; it means maimed children and a screaming man; it means a demon squatting on your chest. And who, these days, would dare say this isn’t realism?