Film 2020: Penda’s Fen


The run on Sunday morning film DVDs that I began on the first weekend in January 2018 is now very near the end. Short of any late acquisitions, Film 2020 will be coming to an end this autumn.

To help postpone the evil moment,I’ve turned to a number of TV films, though it would be more proper to call these plays.

The first of these is definitely stretching things to call it a film. A decade later, the definition might have been looser, but in 1974 Penda’s Fen was broadcast as an episode of the BBC’s Play for Today, from the era when the BBC, and ITV, still trafficked in single plays, frequently to great effect.

Penda’s Fen was not the sort of thing I would normally watch, neither in itself or in the Play for Today slot. What caught my eye was the presence of Spencer Banks in the leading role, who practically everyone of my generation will fondly recall as one of the two leads in the very successful cult classic Children’s ITV SF series Timeslip (1970-71).

There were a lot of very famous productions in Play for Today down the years, such as ‘Blue Remembered Hills’, ‘Abigail’s Party’ and the original, one-off, ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, and the series covered a wide range of subjects but was largely concerned with realistic dramas. Among such plays, Penda’s Fen is a cult story, but it is remembered to this day.

It was broadcast once when I watched it, and repeated once, when I only got to turn over to watch the rest of it when something my mother was watching finished, and I turned straight into a dream sequence emblemising one of the film’s  more over themes. In a Terrible Voice, my mother demanded to know what this was. My answer was a very red-faced admission that I’d completely forgotten that scene was even in it. Which had the merit of being completely true whilst being completely implausible. Today is the first time I have seen the film since.

Penda’s Fen was written by David Rundkin and was a far cry from his normal, realistic fare, a story with intense moral, religious, nationalistic and mystic roots that the writer himself confessed to not fully understanding, and directed by the celebrated Alan Clarke. It’s set in and around the village of Pinvin, in Worcestershire, filmed completely on location, an English pastoral location of fields and grass and gentle green country, to which the Malvern Hills and Sir Edward Elgar are an essential backdrop. We don’t know how long a period the story covers but, with the exception of a single rainstorm, it runs through a long, idyllic summer.

Banks is Stephen Franklin, the son of a slow-talking, thoughtful and philosophical C of E Parson (John Atkinson). We meet him studying music in his bedroom, listening to Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’. He’s an awkward, priggish, intelligent but wholly dogmatic boy, a gifted organist, a Corporal in his Private School’s Army Corps, ultra-Christian, small and big C-Conservative with convictions as to the pureness of Englishness and the correctly stratified society that make you instinctively loathe the idea of spending ninety minutes with him. Stephen is one of those adolescents who knows already, who you can hardly imagine needing school to teach him anything.

What follows through a series of increasingly fantastic visions, is Stephen’s unmaking.

One thing that’s as clear as the gulfstream waters from the outset but of which I was next to wholly ignorant in 1974, which says a lot about me as a sheletered and naive character even through seven years of an all-boys Grammar School, is that Stephen is a far from latent homosexual. Even though, at the beginning, he would denounce it as unnatural, and certainly against God’s wishes from which all things derive, it’s as plain as the nose on his face, and it was a dream sequence in which his hand is stroking down the chest of a naked man towards a shaded area that I unfortunately turned over to on repeat (I genuinely had forgotten that and remembered the increasingly fantastic and quasi-horrific visions, in keeping with my onrushing enthusiasm for fantasy fiction).

Though the story is handled in static manner, with plenty of long, slow conversations, the old Stephen breaks down into something more questioning, finding an old paganism, born of place, breaking through. The moment he crosses an internal line into accepting his sexual nature, everything that has matter before, his narrow-defined Englishness based on traditional authority as worshipped all around him, ceases to become important without anything but questions replacing it.

He questions the values of his School, and its Backbone of England men, his father the vicar turns out to be considerably more of a Freethinker than Stephen has been, he learns he is adopted and that his natural parents were not English.

And the visions. a devil squats on his groin in bed. An Angel is reflected in a puddle beside a cornfield. Crashing off his bike and stunned, he hallucinates a scene in an Elizabethan house garden where contemporary children and adults re having their hands chopped off, presided over by a middle-aged couple who he has already praised as the ‘mother and father of England’ for winning an injunction to ban broadcast of a TV documentary on Jesus that is ‘investigative theology’ but which he denounces as a deliberate atheist plot.

In a rainstorm, he meets the aged, wheelchair-bound Sir Edward Elgar, talking about his music and disclosing the secret of the unrevealed melody that fits the Enigma Variations, a secret to e kept between them and England. Playing ‘Dreams of Gerontius’ on the Church organ, the aisle slipts in a widening crack intent on swallowing up…

There are no answers, nor any dogma. The closest we come to a definition is in the final scene. What Rudkin is striving for, on an unconscious level, is a definition of England that extends beyond its mortal traditions, attached to the Empire, and reaches into subsconcious areas of doubt and darkness and dissension and questioning.

It carries with it a suppressed power. Pinvin is a corruption of Pendefen, Penda’s Fen, the land of the last Midland’s King, King Penda. It is where Stephen lives and behind all his simple certainties it lies, awake still, holding deeper lessons.

And in the end, Stephen sits alone on the Malverns, looking out on this world. A man and a woman approach him over the brow, the ‘mother and father of england’, the banners and stiflers of the start of the story. In a scene echoing the Temptation on the Mount, they offer Stephen his Kingdom. He is the boy Prince, the one they have been promised so long, the Second Coming, the Pure who they exalt. But Stephen isn’t pure in his own mind, he’s a mixing of all things, and he claims this for himself and runs away downhill.

The ‘mother and father’ won’t let him go. If he cannot be theirs, he cannot be the Devil’s. They take a polaroid, start to burrn it. Stephen falls, his clothes starting to burn, his burning the agony it really is, not the joy this couple have claimed for it. He cries out to Penda and the couple vanish in a burning explostion. Penda sits on his throne, anointing Steph n for the truest qualities he embodies, for what he can now be. Stephen silently accepts this kingdom and descends to rejoin his people.

I don’t pretend to understand all of this any more than Rudkin does. What astonished me was the power of its appeal. The story reflects its time, and is a window into a past in which there were good things and bad things and these were different to what is good and bad now, and were differently proportioned, but even nearer to an English nationalism that was assumed and assumed to be both right and continuous instead of the crudely contrived bullshit we have now, it reminded me of an England with which I aill always have far more sympathy than that we live in today. That England was an England to share, and enjoy, not the England I now hate and despise and would abandon if I could.

I am from the Northern parts, shaped by my heritage and my home, nor the rolling country, the softer landscapes of Worcestershire and the south west Midlands. We are of different races in that ancient England. But theirs is mine as well in what we really are, beneath all surfaces. Penda’s Fen took us through those layers, into an England I recognise as true and of which I want to be part. Whether you call it a film or not, it holds its place here as much as any cinematic triumph.