Wednesday, 11 February 2015
Penda's Fen (1974)
You'd be forgiven for thinking that Penda's Fen, with its air of bucolic strangeness, its preoccupation with Elgar, its fantasy sequences and its (homoerotic) sexual subtext, was a film from Ken Russell rather than Alan Clarke, that acclaimed director of urban, working class dramas. Clarke was handpicked by the play's author David Rudkin who (rightly) viewed him as one of the best British directors working at that time. Clarke, mystified by Rudkin's screenplay, approached Penda's Fen with a typical straightforward directing style and as a result created his first true masterpiece. It's fair to say that on first impression there's little in common here with the rest of Clarke's work but, delve deeper, and you'll be rewarded with a through line of yet another disenfranchised, confused youth searching for his identity in a surrounding that seems to shape him.
The plot concerns itself with Stephen, played by Spencer Banks, a precocious and initially rather unlikeable middle-class son of a clergyman who amid the Malvern Hills at the height of summer encounters angels, the composer Edward Elgar, and the mythical 'mother and father' of England as well as the last pagan ruler of the land himself, King Penda. It is never specified whether these woozy encounters are real or imaginary - as Clarke shoots them as continuous from the daily realistic events - but it is through them that Stephen begins to question his beliefs, both religious and political, and his sexuality.
This journey of bizarre visions serve as a unique coming of age for Stephen; a visible maturity and articulation that turns him from a cretinous conservative youth to a sympathetic point of identification for the play's narrative especially as, as time goes on, he realises that the things he believed in and believed he was turn out to be rather hollow and false after all. His father, may be a vicar but he is open minded enough to accept that religion as an organisation doesn't always have Christ's teachings at its heart and holds some interesting views on Manicheanism (a recurring motif in the drama) and on Christ himself. It also turns out that his parents aren't really his parents at all, that he's adopted and not as English as he had once considered. Who Stephen is goes hand in hand with the question of what England is and Clarke captures the beauty of the rural scenery in such a manner that reminds you just how unique the landscape is that we reside upon.
I can't quite make my mind up about Penda's Fen. It's undoubtedly brilliant, but I can't escape a feeling of disappointment or a desire that it addressed some issues a little further...yet I can't quite put my finger on what or why. I think if I return to it it will probably go up in my estimation. I know that now I have properly viewed it, several scenes will linger in my mind for a long time.
This film remains unavailable on DVD and can only be watched on YouTube. It's rather ridiculous that one of the UK's finest directors has so much of his work under appreciated/little screened.
To get the BBC to consider repeating some of these classic TV plays please sign the petition I started here