Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989): The Love-Girl and the Innocent/Penda's Fen
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
Some of the below is adapted from my review of the BFI's standalone Blu-ray and DVD release of Penda's Fen.
The Love-Girl and the Innocent (127:09)
The Soviet Union, 1945. Prisoners arrive at a prison camp, most of them incarcerated under article 58 paragraphs 10 and 11 of the Soviet penal code, for counter-revolutionary propaganda and agitation. Nemov (David Leland) is the production chief, trying to live his life honestly, in the face of the moral corruption and compromise practised by the other prisoners...
After Under the Age, Horace and To Encourage the Others were all broadcast within the space of eight days in March 1972, a whole seven months passed before Alan Clarke's next play was broadcast.: A Life is For Ever on 16 October, in the Play for Today slot. It's worth mentioning that not every television play received a repeat showing, far from it, even though the usual contracts allowed for one within two years of the first transmission. However, this one did, on 11 July 1974, but that didn't prevent it being wiped, and it remains lost. Many reference sources spell Forever as one word, though Radio Times rendered it as two, and from that magazine here is this synopsis: “Johnson is convicted for a recommended minimum of 30 years for murdering a policeman.” A month later (18 November, its only broadcast), the 80-minute Horatio Bottomley, with Timothy West as the financier and swindler, followed as an episode of The Edwardians. This eight-part series of dramatisations of the lives of prominent Edwardians survives intact in the archive and is available on DVD from Acorn Media. Then, on 18 March 1973, Achilles Heel was broadcast on ITV. Made for London Weekend Television, it was written by Brian Clark, with whom Clarke would work again on A Follower for Emily, which is on Disc Five of this boxset. And then, on 19 March 1973, another Play for Today, written by David Hare, Man Above Men. This was never repeated and is the most recent Clarke play or film to be lost. Radio Times blurbed it as “'I'm the judge's daughter... I think he's a monstrous old man. I think all men who say " I'm only doing my job" are monstrous. I've despaired of changing him. But I'd stop short of killing him.'” Hare does not regard it as one of his best works.
Play of the Month was a prestigious slot on BBC2 for television productions of theatre plays. They were often shot in the studio, but the BBC Drama Department were keen to extend the use of video outside, as it was less expensive than 16mm film, let alone 35mm. As a result The Love-Girl and the Innocent, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, translated by Nicholas Bethell and David Burg, was shot in a disused RAF camp in Norfolk (standing in for a Soviet prison camp) with bulky outside-broadcast video cameras. Christopher Morahan had become the BBC Head of Plays and had suggested a production of the play and had suggested Clarke direct it. The Love-Girl and the Innocent, the longest work Clarke directed for either television or the cinema, was broadcast on 16 September 1973 with a repeat showing on 11 August 1974.
Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) was at the time still in the Soviet Union, and an outspoken critic of it. Apart from his short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich his work was published abroad and he had not been able to travel to Stockholm to accept his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. He was finally expelled from the country in 1974. Drawing on his own experience of imprisonment, eight years for being in breach of article 58, The Love-Girl and the Innocent (sometimes less gracefully known in English as The Tenderfoot and the Tart) was written in 1969.
The play, and Clarke's production of it, is a large-scale work with many characters, with the love story between Nemov and Lyuba (the Innocent and the Love-Girl of the title, respectively) really only kicking in halfway through. In Solzenitsyn's eyes, the prison camp is a separate nation within the larger one, but its rules – with everyone out for themselves with survival the imperative – are much the same. Despite the title, the romance is only a small part: Nemov and Lyuba are just two of many people here. Nemov is innocent because he cannot make the moral compromises he needs to...which in Lyuba's case involves sleeping with the camp doctor in return for favours.
Playing Nemov is David Leland, who had started his career as an actor (as, amongst other things, the protagonist's sidekick Grange in the highly controversial Big Breadwinner Hog from 1969). This was his first collaboration with Clarke. He would later become a writer and director, in the former capacity working with Clarke on Beloved Enemy and Psy-Warriors, which are on Discs Nine and Ten of this boxset and Made in Britain, one of four plays under the series heading Tales Out of School, made for ITV and broadcast in 1982 and 1983. Gabrielle Lloyd gives Lyuba a bruised integrity, and there's a strong supporting cast. (Terence Davies, by the way, is not the writer/director of the same name.)
Penda's Fen (88:32)
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...
In 1970, The Wednesday Play, which had been running since 1964, became Play for Today. While it has a reputation for contemporary, realist, often issues-led drama – as indeed does Clarke - that didn't preclude work in a more fantastical or science-fictional vein. An 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.
This is Disc Four of the six-disc DVD boxset Dissent: Alan Clarke at the BBC Volume 1 (1969-1977) and of the limited-edition thirteen-disc (eleven Blu-rays and two DVDs) set Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969-1989). A Blu-ray checkdisc was provided for review. The Blu-ray and DVD are encoded for Regions B and 2 respectively. The standalone Blu-ray and DVD releases of Penda's Fen differ in some respects to the boxset discs.
The six-disc DVD set has a 15 certificate and the thirteen-disc set an 18. Both the plays on this disc are rated 12.
Both plays are presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The Love-Girl and the Innocent was shot on video and has been transferred from a digibeta copy of the original two-inch PAL transmission videotape. Shot on 16mm film, Penda's Fen is transferred from the original negatives. As it was shot at 25 frames per second for PAL TV broadcast, the Blu-ray resolution is 1080i50. The Love-Girl and the Innocent does show the limitations of its SD source, with trails on some bright lights, for example – but the higher resolution will show this up, as the play was watched on rather more forgiving and smaller equipment than nowadays – and, in 1973 and 1974, in black and white by a large number of its viewers. For Penda's Fenthe 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, 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 features, but not the extra.
The extra on the standalone Penda's Fen release was Landscape of Feelings, a shortened version of Part Four of Alan Clarke: Out of His Own Light. The full Part Four (18:37) appears on the boxset disc. The additional two and a half minutes are at the beginning, covering The Love-Girl and the Innocent, courtesy of David Leland and set builder Mike Hagen, talking about the challenges of filming inside the ex-RAF base. The rest of this is devoted to Penda's Fen, with David Rudkin giving a quite lucid exegesis of his own play. Other writers featured here include David Leland again and another two Davids who did work with Clarke (Hare and Yallop) and another writer who never did but who knew him personally, Howard Schumann. Their regard for this film, quite an outlier in Clarke's work, is very evident.
The standalone release has a booklet featuring an essay by Sukhdev Sandhu, discussing Penda's Fen in the context of Rudkin and Clarke's work, and further unpicking some of its themes. The same essay appears in the book included with the boxsets (two hundred pages in the limited edition, split into two in the six-disc DVD sets). Kaleem Aftab discusses The Love-Girl and the Innocent> He talks about Clarke's approach to shooting on video and making use of its limitations, though claiming that “Clarke also uses the box frame of video to trap the characters, reinforcing their predicament” is a bit of a stretch: it may be true, but a filmed production could have the same effect, being as it would have been shot in the same aspect ratio. That said, this is a useful overview of the play and its place in both Clarke and Solzhenitsyn's careers. It seems that in “Solly Neasden” (his nickname for the writer), Clarke found a Russian soulmate. Also in the book are full credits , transfer notes and stills.