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Posts Tagged ‘David Rudkin’

There’s nothing quite like pointlessly diluting your brand, is there, and so we shall take another break from reviewing movies old and new and looking at cult TV shows to examine another obscure play from over forty years ago. Well, maybe this stuff qualifies as cult TV as well, I don’t know – it seems to be a curiously elastic term which expands to cover everything from Supermarket Sweep to The Bridge. Up for consideration this time is a play I mentioned a little while ago when discussing Abigail’s Party: the 1974 production Penda’s Fen, written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke.

Clarke was an acclaimed and controversial director who is best remembered for a series of political, naturalistic plays concerned with topics such as racism, the death penalty and the situation in Northern Ireland. Penda’s Fen is a wholly different kind of beast, and apparently Clarke himself, who was recruited to the production by Rudkin, never completely understood what it was supposed to be about. Perhaps this explains some of the play’s weirder and more outlandish images. Or perhaps not: the whole thing is like a sort of lyrical fever-dream set in the heart of England.

Penda’s Fen begins with classical music playing over beautiful shots of the English countryside – but then what looks like barbed wire is superimposed on the image and a hand, disfigured with some kind of burn or scar, rises into view to grasp at it. It’s the first of many striking images and, like many of them, the significance of it only becomes clear (or, at least, less obscure) later.

We spend most of the play in the company of Stephen (Spencer Banks), a boy in his late teens who is, shall we say, a lad of strong opinions. His father (John Atkinson) is the local clergyman, so it’s just as well that he is a devout adherent of a certain brand of Christianity; his politics are equally uncompromising and he also seems to be staunchly homophobic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all this means that he is a bit of a misfit at school, mocked and disparaged by his peers – and his teachers too, to some extent. The scorned do well to look scornful, as Aldous Huxley nearly said, and he is hostile to a local left-wing writer named Arne (played by Ian Hogg from Rockcliffe) when they meet, and Arne shares his belief that a secret military facility has been built somewhere in the vicinity.

It seems that Arne may have a point, when a young man out in the fields is found horribly burnt, and the police and army camp out around his hospital bed. (It looks like Penda’s Fen is about to turn into something resembling Edge of Darkness, but this plot point never actually eems to go anywhere.) The play has a curiously impressionistic quality to it, where it’s often not entirely clear how events are connected, but this seems to be the catalyst for a sort of existential crisis which besets Stephen: he dreams of angels, demons, and an erotic encounter with a male classmate. He discovers not only that his father is responsible for a number of almost-heretical works of theology, but that he himself has been adopted. His sense of his beliefs and himself is deeply shaken as the play continues, where he has more bizarre visions, including an encounter with Edward Elgar and a climactic audience with King Penda, the last pagan ruler of England and a symbol of…

Well, that would almost be telling, wouldn’t it? If you take a long hard look at Penda’s Fen and render it down to its essentials, it is basically just a story of the coming of age of white middle-class boy who learns to look beyond the clear-cut certainties that have previously comprised his beliefs. This is a horribly reductionist view of the play, however, missing out much of what makes it such a startling cultural artifact. It’s obviously the product of a somewhat rarefied intellectual sensibility – there are casual references to etymology, classical music (the dream-Elgar Stephen encounters imparts to him the ‘solution’ to the Enigma Variations), and theology – in 1974 it was apparently perfectly okay for a mainstream TV drama to include lengthy discussions of the nature of the Manichaean heresy.

However, what makes the play so visually striking are the fantasy elements that are perhaps responsible for much of its reputation and the continued interest people have in it. Angels and demons fill the screen, ancient kings manifest from out of thin air, Stephen witnesses a ritual where children are ritually mutilated while their smiling parents look on, the ground cracks open, threatening to engulf the action… much of this is done with a primitiveness that makes it all the more jarring. I should really it make clear that this is not a ‘naturalistic’ fantasy (there’s an awkward oxymoron for you) – it is always quite clear that the play is operating in the realm of symbolism and metaphor, rather than ‘real’ supernatural creatures: lazily putting it into the same category as a play like The Stone Tape would be a mistake.

At the heart of the play is the English countryside, which Rudkin clearly envisions as the heartlands of a kind of principled dissent, home of a spiritual awkward squad including Penda and Edward Elgar, possibly including Jesus as an honorary member and with Stephen as their latest representative. Near the conclusion of the play he laments the fact that he now finds himself questioning his faith, his political beliefs (he can no longer be sure he’s the pure-blooded Englishman he formerly thought), and his sexuality. But Penda’s apparition suggests there is no shame in any of this, that there is merit in being an outsider and a revolutionary. A play which initially looks to be in the lyrical-pastoral mode turns out to be a paean to the radicals and the misfits (not entirely surprisingly given this was initially shown in the Play for Today strand).

Put like that, the message sounds glib, but the play is powerful in both its imagery and performances, striking for its intelligence and willingness to challenge the viewer. It’s one of the most experimental pieces of TV drama I’ve ever seen, but it was clearly made with commitment and skill by Dudkin, Clarke, and the BBC. It would probably be disastrous if something like Penda’s Fen was shown on TV every week. But it must have been wonderful to live at a time when new dramas like this were always a possibility.

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