This is one of a series of reviews of the BFI's box set. For the other reviews, in chronological order, go to:
Half Hour Story
George's Room/The Last Train Through Harecastle Tunnel/Sovereign's Company
The Hallelujah Handshake/To Encourage the Others
Under the Age/Horace
A Follower for Emily/Diane
Danton's Death/Beloved Enemy
Stars of the Roller State Disco/Contact
This is a review of the standalone release of Penda's Fen. The disc which forms part of the BFI's Alan Clarke boxsets is different and is reviewed separately here.
Stephen Franklin (Spencer Banks) is a teenage schoolboy in the west country village of Pinvin, near the Malvern Hills and the Welsh Hills. He is the only child of his mother (Georgine Anderson) and his pastor father (John Atkinson). But strange events occur which undermine his views of himself and his society...
It's a truism that the British film industry, after a boom period in the 1960s, contracted considerably in the following decade. You could be forgiven for thinking, from what was shown at your local cinema in those pre-multiplex days, that British cinema largely comprised James Bond, bigscreen spinoffs of television sitcoms, softcore sex comedies and horror (Hammer in decline and lower-budgeted grittier material from directors like Pete Walker and Norman J. Warren). However, that would overlook an experimental/arthouse strand, often funded by the BFI, with directors like Bill Douglas and Terence Davies making their first films. And a lot of British film wasn't cinema at all, as it was made for the small screen. With fewer opportunities available, directors who had made big-screen features (like Ken Loach) or just one feature film (Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh) continued their careers on television, often for the BBC.
One of those was Alan Clarke, born in 1935 in Wallasey. He was eight months older than Loach, but entered the industry a little later. He had spent time in Canada in the late 1950s and on returning to England began his directing career there on the stage. He broke into television as a floor manager at ATV (at the time the ITV franchise holder for the London region at weekends) and made his directing debut on the series Half Hour Story in 1967 and 1968, made for Rediffusion (formerly Associated Rediffusion, at the time the London franchise holder for ITV during the week). He directed his first play for the BBC in 1969, for the Wednesday Play strand.
The Wednesday Play ran on BBC1 from 1964 to 1970. This slot showed a different single play each week, mostly original works, often showcasing new writers and not afraid of controversy. Dennis Potter's first four plays for the BBC were all shown in this slot in 1965. On of the most influential Wednesday Plays of all was Cathy Come Home, directed by Ken Loach. Peter Watkins's The War Game would have been broadcast in this slot if it had not been banned. The Wednesday Play became Play for Today in 1970. While it had a reputation for contemporary, realist, often issues-led drama – as indeed did Clarke by this point - that didn't preclude work in a more fantastical or science-fictional vein. Another example would be the 1978 adaptation of Alan Garner's novel Red Shift. Red Shift shares with Penda's Fen a strong concentration on place, though for Garner's Cheshire we have writer David Rudkin's (and Edward Elgar's) Malvern Hills, and also themes of darker and more elemental forces at work beneath our present-day reality. Using its own imagery, Penda's Fen is a merger between two sensibilities you might suspect would not meld easily, those of Clarke and Rudkin. In fact, Clarke's first reaction to the script was "How many books do I need to read to make this?" Even afterwards, he claimed not to understand it. Many people have had a similar reaction to Penda's Fen.
Rudkin (born 1936) had first made his reputation in the theatre, with Afore Night Come in 1962. While he continued to write for the stage, he was soon recruited for television, beginning with the now-lost The Stone Dance for ATV in 1963. His output included some Wednesday Plays. The BBC had opened Pebble Mill Studios in 1971, and David Rose was a drama producer based there. He brought Rudkin back to television writing after a hiatus and following two thirty-minuters (Bypass, now lost, and Atrocity, partly lost), began to write a longer work. This became the feature-length, Penda's Fen, made in 1973, and it was first broadcast on Thursday 21 March 1974 in the Play for Today slot.
Penda's Fen is a dense, difficult work, drawing on themes of theology, psychogeography, national identity and classical music. It's if anything too dense, a film which no doubt needs unpicking over more than one viewing. That's quite an ask for a television production for which the original contracts specified one showing with the possibility of one repeat within two years (which it received, on 13 February 1975). For the great majority of the population, there was no means of recording a television programme, and plot points were in danger of being missed if the phone rang or you dozed off, with no means of replaying. Penda's Fen was repeated again in 1990, which was the first time I saw it.
One risk the play takes from the outset is that Stephen is an all but insufferable prig. But over the next 89 minutes, the pillars of his worldview have been undermined: church, school, the army (Stephen is a cadet), the sanctity of marriage and heterosexuality. He wonders if his neighbour, Arne (Ian Hogg), is "unnatural" – homosexual – and suggests it's for the best that Arne and his wife (Jennie Hesselwood) have not been able to produce children. But he soon wonders if he is homosexual himself.
Early on, we see him in debate praising a Christian couple for obtaining an injunction aganst the showing of a documentary about Jesus. Take note of the couple's triumphal gesture, as it recurs in a dream sequence where Stephen sees a group of smiling children lining up so that a man can chop their hands off with an axe – a clear linking with evangelical religion with older faiths involving child sacrifice. Rudkin suggests that as newer religions supplant older ones, the older gods are cast in the role of the Devil...and it may have been that Joan of Arc (and death by burning also features here) worshipped an older god than the one in whose name she became a Christian saint. Penda's Fen harks back to an earlier, visionary tradition where people regularly saw angels and devils, and that's exactly what happens to Stephen. We see the angel before Stephen does, implying that it is real and not simply a product of his imagination. Contemporary life, it's suggested, has narrowed its perspective, and we have a barrier preventing us from seeing angels. And if we have such a barrier above, so we have one below: we don't see devils either. For Stephen, those barriers have become porous.
At the beginning of the film, Stephen is writing an essay on Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, a vision of death, the afterlife and a meeting with God. As Ken Russell did in his own film on Elgar, Rudkin and Clarke frequently lets Elgar play out on the soundtrack, a departure from Clarke's usual practice of not having any non-diegetic music in his work. Another unusual technique is mismatching the soundtrack and visuals at certain points. Partway through the film, Stephen meets Elgar (Graham Leaman) who gives Stephen (and us) a key to what is going on: he left a piece of music as a puzzle, to work in counterpoint with an unspecified well-known piece of music to produce something new. Arne and his wife's "chemical compound" does not work as they are infertile. Jesus, Stephen's father says, is where "legislator and demon fuse" and he compares him to Karl Marx, another visionary whose message is distorted by those who followed him, and both are "crucified" over and over. Light and darkness. Two of the ancient elements: mud (earth) and flame (fire). Man and woman. Finally, Stephen has a vision of King Penda, the last pagan king of England, whose tribe intermarried with the Welsh, and after whom the village is named. (Penda's Fen – Pendefen – Pinfin – Pinvin.)
Heady stuff, and if ultimately this is a writer's film rather than a director's one, in Clarke's hands it has a realism which prevents the whimsy that could have infested a story like this. It's certainly a play of ideas, and so the characters tend to be mouthpieces for those ideas rather than nuanced people, the play is still as well acted within those limitations as you would expect from Clarke. It's certainly an outlier in his work, but a compelling and highly original one that, it was widely suspected, was only made in the first place due to its Birmingham base. In London, it might have met with more interference. No doubt most people watching on that Thursday night in 1974 hadn't seen anything like it, and it's hard to imagine it being made at all nowadays.
The standalone release of Penda's Fen is released on Blu-ray and PAL DVD by the BFI. A checkdisc of the former was supplied for review. Resolution apart, both discs are identical. A different disc including Penda's Fen will be released as part of the six-disc DVD box Dissent: Alan Clarke at the BBC Volume 1 (1969-1977) and the limited edition thirteen-disc box (eleven Blu-rays and two DVDs) Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989). I will be reviewing that disc as part of a series of reviews of the box set. The Blu-ray is encoded for Region B and the DVD for Region 2. As this production was shot at 25 frames per second for PAL TV broadcast, the Blu-ray resolution is 1080i50.
Penda's Fen is transferred to Blu-ray in its original ratio of 1.33:1 from the original 16mm negatives. The results are excellent, Michael Williams's camerawork being a testament to BBC expertise. The colours are strong and the grain – inevitably present due to the 16mm origins – is natural. To state the obvious, as this was originally viewed on SD PAL television sets rather smaller than those available nowadays, this is the best it has ever looked for home viewing.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0. It's clear, with the dialogue, music and sound effects well balanced. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available for the feature, but not the extra.
That extra is "Landscape of Feelings" (15:49). This is a shortened version of Part Four of Alan Clarke: Out of His Own Light, a new four-hour documentary split over the twelve discs in the boxsets. The documentary is made up of interviews with people who knew and/or worked with Clarke. Along with Davids Rose and Rudkin (who gives us quite a lucid exegesis of his own play), we have three writers who did work with Clarke (David Yallop, David Hare and David Leland) and one who didn't but who knew him (Howard Schumann). Also featured is an actor who did work with Clarke but who isn't in Penda's Fen, namely Sean Chapman. The regard they have for Clarke, and for this film, is quite evident.
The BFI's booklet runs to twelve pages, most of it taken up with an essay by Sukhdev Sandhu, discussing the film in the context of Rudkin and Clarke's work, further unpicking some of its themes. Also in the booklet are credits for the feature, notes and credits for the extra, transfer notes and stills.