Penda\’s Fen Film Details
Overview: Through a series of real and imagined encounters with angels, demons, and England’s pagan past, a pastor’s son begins to question his religion and politics, and comes to terms with his sexuality.
Review: Broadcast as part of the BBC’s Play for Today program, Alan Clarke’s Penda’s Fen is so highly regarded that Time Out magazine once included it on a list of the one hundred best British films, even though it isn’t a film. First broadcast in 1974, it languished in obscurity save for a dedicated cult following for years, until the British Film Institute finally made it available on DVD in 2016, bringing it to a whole new audience. Alan Clarke is best known for the gritty realism of television productions such as Scum, Made in Britain and The Firm, so this surreal fantasy scripted by David Rudkin is something of an oddity in his all-too sparse back catalogue. Rudkin’s script has been described variously as folk horror (although it isn’t especially horrific) and even comedy, but it’s essentially a coming of age drama set against a backdrop of English folklore. Rudkin explores themes of sexuality, as well as religion, with material about the clash between ancient pagan beliefs – as personified in this case by King Penda – and the modern church in England. The wise Reverend Franklin’s musings on faith, religion and spirituality make for some fascinating dialogue. Penda’s Fen stars Spencer Banks (of cult children’s science fiction program Timeslip fame) as vicar’s son Stephen. He’s very uptight, pompous and downright obnoxious at times, delivering a passionate speech about Christian morality at his school and expressing disgust at writer Arne’s “unnatural” television characters. He gradually gets his certainties challenged, not least by his own growing realisation of his homosexuality and the undermining of his staunch patriotism by the revelation that he was adopted and that his birth parents were foreigners. Banks gives an excellent performance here, conveying Stephen’s emotional conflict and growing self-realisation very convincingly, and the character’s development is reflected in his encounters (perhaps real, perhaps imagined) with decease composer Edward Elgar, an androgynous angel, and King Penda. In the process, Rudkin questions conservative British views and condemns them as outdated, narrow-minded and petty, whilst Arne’s criticisms of media caution and censorship are perhaps intended as a reflection of Rudkin’s own experiences, or his own fears. It ends with Stephen realising that he – with all his impurities of race and sex – is the future. Presented with this strange brew of themes and concepts, Clarke’s direction is remarkable even though he later admitted that he didn’t fully understand the script. He makes use of pretty much every filming technique available, with great use of low and high-angle shots, tracking shots, and panoramic vistas of the English countryside. There are striking close-ups of different motifs and slogans at one point, with Stephen translating each one in voice-over, whilst detailed close-ups of printed texts and photographs feature heavily. The surreal, homoerotic dream sequences are particularly memorable. The soundtrack – consisting of Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and compositions by Paddy Kingsland – slides between diagetic and non-diagetic; Elgar’s work is Stephen’s favourite piece of music and plays a part in the story. Clarke assembles an impressive cast that includes naturalistic performances from Ian Hogg, Ivor Roberts and John Atkinson. The overall result is unique, and stands out not only amongst some of the other classic television plays that Play for Today produced but also – as the compilers of Time Out magazine’s list realised – British film as a whole. The BFI DVD release was long overdue: Penda’s Fen is something special, and in its questioning of religion, sexuality and race and the part they play in modern Britain, it remains as relevant today as it was in 1974.
Duration: 90 min
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Also known as: Penda’s Fen