“Hear the angel and the demon on those hills.”
‘Penda’s Fen’, directed by Alan Clarke and written by David Rudkin in 1974, is a BBC television play. Set in and around the village of Pinvin in the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, it focuses on Stephen, played by Spencer Banks, the son of the local vicar who is battling with his sexuality, his commitment to the militaristic philosophies of his school, the political tension between the left and right in the village, and how all these are in tension with his strong, conservative religious beliefs. His love of Edward Elgar, specifically the composer’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’, and his preoccupation with the layering of pre-Christian mythology in the landscape around him, funnel this tension into a series of fever-dream hallucinations including visions of angels, a conversation with Elgar as an old man, encounters with a malevolent couple and, ultimately, an audience with Penda, the King of Mercia at the time the Christians occupied Britain. It’s a rich and complex drama that someone manages to be pastoral and modern at the same time. Clarke’s direction is the key to this, he presents the encounters with a punchy, abstract energy, but also presents the landscape and Stephen’s movements through it with a romantic and languid pace. The conversations, particularly between Stephen and his surprisingly open-minded father, are touching. At first the teenager is unsympathetic, but his encounters open him up to a wider world, and expose the turmoil of his inner-world, particularly his sexuality. There are fragments of horror movies in Clarke’s direction, but the overall piece is more complicated than that. It’s tempting to try to pigeonhole ‘Penda’s Fen’ as another example of the genre that includes the 1970 television play ‘Robin Redbreast’ and ‘The Wicker Man’, but Clarke’s play isn’t really horror. Instead the countryside is a part of Stephen’s coming of age and his access to resolving his deeply ingrained philosophical anxieties. There are certainly striking, and at times alarming, moments, but the overall view of the play I was left with was as a kind of anti-folk horror.
Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s recently been released on DVD and Blu Ray and was surprisingly engaging. The perfect (perhaps accidental) blending of Rudkin’s freewheeling script with Clarke’s tightly controlled and inventive direction make this a true classic. Watch in a double bill with ‘The Wicker Man’, because everyone needs to see it, or even better ‘Red Psalm‘ which has the same complex interweaving of the poltical, philosophical and pastoral.