Skip to main content

What is it, hidden beneath this shell of lovely earth?

Penda’s Fen
(1974)

(SPOILERS) Confession time: I wasn’t even aware Penda’s Fen existed before reading a recent Fortean Times piece on haunted childhoods of the ‘70s, curious in itself as Play for Today wasn’t exactly teatime, Basil Brush and Doctor Who, viewing (I guess they’re taking in inquisitive teenagers). But it’s very easy to see why the piece, directed by Alan Clarke from a teleplay by David Rudkin, had an impact on impressionable young minds. It’s just the sort of fare, with its open countryside and occult undertones, that proves indelible, in the manner of Children of the Stones or The Owl Service (or Alan Garner generally). That, and simply the way that movies and TV were made then; the texture of film, the lingering of edits and weight of imagery and unnaturalistic dialogue.
 

That said, I’m not sure the more fantasy-tinged end of the spectrum was really Clarke’s forte (he also gave us the less than venerated Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire). Whether it’s his reading of the script or just his eye, there’s a literalness to his depiction of young protagonist Stephen Franklin’s imaginings that’s rather less evocative than Mr Arne’s impassioned, paranoid rants at the local village meeting. Apparently, Dudkin requested Clarke for the gig, and the director admitted to never fully understanding the material. Dudkin commented of Clarke “He distrusted intellectual drama, and was wary of the story’s frames of scholarly reference: theology, Latin and Greek, classical harmony… I said he was to let all that aspect look after itself, and concentrate on the emotions”.


Stephen (Spencer Banks, also of Timeslip) nurses the readily recognisable (stereotypical?) symptoms of repressed sexuality, adopting a staunchly conservative (its difficult not to see a whiff of Michael J Fox’s character in Family Ties, only less humorously, in his morally severe attitude to the world and those around him). Living in the Malvern Hills, the son of a pastor (John Atkinson), Stephen juggles a confused passion for the milkman (Ron Smerczak) with his public-school affiliation to the combined cadet force and an obsession with Elgar, and more especially The Dream of Gerontius. He’s almost a parody of the prig in his behaviour towards others; his teachers and even his mother find his dogma tiresome, but the film takes him on an increasingly sympathetic journey of sexual, socio-political and spiritual awakening, one fuelled by the landscape around him, its myths and archetypes, in which visions form, guiding him to a place of new awareness.


As his father tells him, dreams are true: “The truth you need to know about yourself for your wellbeing”. And Penda’s Fen is accordingly about stripping away the outer paraphernalia to reach core truth. Stephen’s major influences, the father he has assumed is a traditionalist and the lefty writer (a positively youthful Ian Hogg’s Arne) towards whom he is initially antagonistic, lead him to reject those more formal props of appropriate behaviour, of schooling and the military, and of respect by his peer group (Honeybone, about whom Stephen has erotic dreams, like most of those around Stephen, recognises he is “different” and leads the rugby squad in a ritual humiliation).  


So Stephen starts off complaining of the “modern wilderness of amorality” and (suggestive that any such restrictive viewpoint is indicative of repression on the part of the proponent) gets all Mary Whitehouse about Arne’s work (there’s “always someone unnatural in his TV plays”). But because he translates “Know thyself” as “Discover thyself”, he takes the rejection by the presiding authority figures in his stride; he leaves the CCF, whereupon he is accused of being a non-cooperative (or unmutual: Number Six would be proud), accompanied by the inevitable impugning of his masculinity (the Major wonders if he wants to be a man at all). Stephen also reacts indifferently to being told he can’t be recommended for the sixth form club (“If that’s how you feel, sir”). It’s a necessary path; after all, it’s his inability to express himself that causes destruction (the death of a bird beneath the milk float while he is paralysed by Joel’s presence: Joel, who appears on his bed as a demon, and is forceful when he realises Stephen’s intentions – “That’s all”).


The pulse running through Penda’s Fen relates to a philosophical musing over Manichean forces, as proposed by Arne and debated between Stephen and his father, fuelled by Stephen’s visions of angels and demons and his obsession with The Dream of Gerontius (“What is to happen to my soul?” we hear Stephen ask at the opening; the Dream relates the musician’s experience after death as he comes before the throne of God (or Penda), encounters angels and demons, and hears “the dissonance that is the piercing gaze of God”). Arne speaks of the Manichean challenge, speculating that a church acts as an aerial for such forces, while the pastor admits “I am not sure which side the church has always been on”, taking a moderate view towards their “heresy” (to the Manicheans, Jesus was one of many sons of light in the “unending battle to save man’s spark of light”).


And there are nominal oppositions throughout. Arne considers himself subversive, albeit of his plays he admits “I make ‘em tamer now”. Stephen is subtly aware that the political troublemaker is less insightful than his father, so impassioned is Arne by his position (“Oh I don’t know” Stephen replies, when Arne suggests the pastor would be horrified by his tirades, because Stephen has already heard his father’s heresy: “You believe in God” he earlier asks in confirmation. “I believe in truth” his father replies, having also spoken of the “troubling historical and spiritual reality of God himself”. He is only conservative in terms of a reserved disposition, not of an exercised mind.


And symbolically, the final scene, as Stephen rejects the fake parents of his vision – “There you have seen the true dark enemies of England. Sick father and mother, who would have us children forever” – informs Penda’s Fen, tying in with Arne’s obsession with vile technocracy and Stephen’s vision of willing sacrifice of hands to the state (sacrificing their freedom, remaining children forever). So Stephen is able to marry and satisfying the twin opposing forces: “I am nothing pure. Nothing pure. My race is mixed. My sex is mixed. I am woman and man, light and darkness. I am mud and flame”.


Penda’s Fen has shares a romanticism towards the old religion with the likes of John Masefield’s Box of Delights. Something even the pastor recognises. Stephen lives in Pinvin – Penda’s Fen, the name though to reference the last pagan king of Mercia – and there are discussions tying paganism to the correct social grouping, the positive one, and so kicking against the urban (and implicitly Christian) one. Pagan means “belonging to the village” we are told, and it seems to me that a scathing review of the play on Amazon, that refers to it as having a “globalist” agenda (based mainly on the idea that Stephen’s final speech symbolises a unified world) is rather missing the point, that the Pastor explicitly puts the microcosm first when he sings the benefits of the centred village over the sprawl of the city, the community of the countryside. That, and Arne’s railing against the machine.


Brott: The British working man will never let a dictatorship happen. He’s too bloody-minded.

Arne explicitly rejects the metropolis for The Good Life, and I have to admit I found his conspiratorial tirades about the “strategically expendable populace” in response to emotive language being used to condemn strikes holding the country to ransom (very much flavour of the month at the time) the most engaging aspects of the play. Arne all but whispers illuminati agendas when he speculates “What is it, hidden beneath this shell of lovely earth? Some hideous angel of technocratic death? Some alternative city for government from beneath? Motorways there, offices, control suites. Silent there, empty, waiting for the day”, as there are numerous such theories and postulations regarding such vast underground complexes. Further, he digs into the occult obsessions of the elite when he notes “Those lonely places our technocrats chose for their extreme experiments” (Los Alamos for instance) and “Sick laboratories built on or beneath these haunted sites” even if he responds “Not in the least” when asked by the pastor if the is interested in the occult.


For Arne, the dystopia is inevitable – the forces will only rise – and the one hope for man is that the great concrete megacity inspires the seeds of “Disobedience. Chaos. Out of those alone can some new experiment in human living be born”. Accompanying Arne’s speculations is a confirmatory side plot, in which a burnt man is discovered in the countryside, an aspect that not only projects a similarly eerie apocalyptic feeling to Edge of Darkness but also expressly conjures the spectre of upper tier machinations when the very Roswell cover story “man injured by weather balloon” is released (yet the measure of the play is such that it would less lend itself to an “out there” hypothesis as an “in here”).


If I wanted to go further along this line, I might suggest the PINVIN changed to PINFIN in Stephen’s mind on signs is a representation of the Mandela Effect 40 years early. I have to admit, however, that the visionary aspect of Penda’s Fen is the least resonant aspect, because, as I’ve suggested, it’s so very literal. You could see Nicolas Roeg coalescing such material far more seamlessly, whereas Clarke gives us King Penda sitting atop a hill like he’s waiting around for a Depeche Mode video, a great crack appearing down the aisle of a church, and a really rather rote conversation between Stephen and Elgar (who resembles one of the hosts of History Today).


Penda’s Fen doesn’t offer much in the way of humour, about the closest it skirts is Stephen being told by his parents of his adoption, and that “Like the English language, Stephen, you have foreign parents too” (Britishness is itself just a mask, an illusion). The pastor then follows this up with the reassuring “Even Elgar has some Welsh blood”.


I’m not sure Penda’s Fen is quite the masterpiece its rediscovery makes out, but it’s a fascinating piece of work, the likes of which simply could not be imagined now, either in terms of writing or delivery. If it’s rather didactic at points with regard to the latter, the conversations are engrossingly literary. It scarcely matters if anyone talks like this outside of the realm of academia: they’re interesting. Rudkin and Clarke have created a textured, layered examination of identity, and the “identity” of Englishness.














Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.