In quest of the Romantic tradition in British film: Penda’s Fen

The ancient mysteries of English landscape and nationhood are explored in Penda’s Fen, a visionary TV drama that’s among the few true attempts to grapple with Romanticism on screen. 

Graham Fuller
Updated:

Penda’s Fen (1974)

Penda’s Fen (1974)

The Blu-ray release of Penda’s Fen (1974), written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke, should cement its status as a timeless drama about modern England’s connection to its pre-Christian roots. It celebrates not the perfidious Albion cynically lionised by the power-hoarding establishment, but the England of the last pagan ruler, Penda (d. 655), whose stand against the spread of Christianity into his kingdom of Mercia makes him a symbol of non-conformism for the film’s questing Worcestershire sixth-former Stephen Franklin (Spencer Banks). Wedding the English literary imagination to the spirit of resistance, it is not the least remarkable for being one of few British films to draw successfully on Romanticism.

It does not follow that films about Romantic poets and artists convey the sublime, emotions, the numinous power of the landscape and nature, the possibility of the gothic-supernatural, or freedom from tyranny. Ken Russell’s Gothic (1986), Julien Temple’s Pandaemonium (2000) and Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (2014) all have merits but do not deliver a haunting or transcendent Romantic experience, nor was that necessarily their makers’ intentions; Russell’s TV two-parter Clouds of Glory (1978), Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2009) and Andrew Kötting’s By Our Selves (2015) come closer to the mark.

Excalibur (1981)

Excalibur (1981)

There are genuine moments of Romantic mysticism in such non-biopics as Roman Polanski’s Tess (1979), John Boorman’s pre-Raphaelite-ish Excalibur (1981), Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping (1987) and Derek Jarman’s short A Journey to Avebury (1971) and The Last of England (1987). If Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2011) subordinates Emily Brontë’s gothic to realism, it is a genuinely strange nature film with intimations of the empyreal. Few would argue that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are unchallenged as British cinema’s preeminent Romantics, though Celtic mysticism and the Rückenfigur paintings of the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich seemingly had more influence on them than the English High Romantics. For A Canterbury Tale (1944), they invented the village squire Thomas Colpepper, JP (Eric Portman), a Kent village magus and deliverer of blessings whose superciliousness, outsiderdom and sexual repression – as well as his passion for his myth-steeped landscape – anticipates Rudkin’s Stephen.

Robin Redbreast (1970)

Robin Redbreast (1970)

Commissioned as a BBC Play for Today by David Rose and directed on 16mm by Clarke, Penda’s Fen is often lumped with ‘folk horror’ or folkloric movies and television dramas of the late 60s and early 70s: Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968), Witchfinder General (1968), The Owl Service (1969-70), Robin Redbreast (1970), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), The Stone Tape (1972), The Wicker Man (1973, a virtual son of Robin Redbreast) and Red Shift (1973); contemporary equivalents would include Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011), partially, and A Field in England (2013). Yet none of these works has the religio-philosophical reach or political urgency of Rudkin and Clarke’s masterpiece.

Penda’s Fen depicts the multifaceted enlightenment of the initially priggish Stephen whose realisation that he is gay and a series of visitations prompt him to reject his conservative conditioning and quit his grammar school’s cadet corps, the embodiment of masculine authoritarianism and nationalism. Shortly after a classroom discussion of Manichaeism (and an erotic dream about a sneering classmate), Stephen sees an incubus perched on his bed, then a corporeal angel reflected in a river. (In Alan Clarke, the oral history of the director’s life edited by Richard Kelly, Rudkin describes it as a “beautiful moment” with a “Buñuel-like quality of the apocalyptic”; Stephen’s guilty Belle de Jour-like fantasy of being pelted with mud by his schoolmates is the film’ sole lapse because Banks was protected by a plastic screen.)

Penda’s Fen (1974)

Penda’s Fen (1974)

He also witnesses a manor-house atrocity rite suggestive of the class war. He converses with the ghost of his idol, the composer Edward Elgar, whose The Dream of Gerontius provides a metaphor for Stephen’s need to “know thyself”, which means accepting his emergent Dionysianism and that he is not the pure-bred Briton he thought himself but a mongrel son of a European couple who gave him up for adoption. He is, of course, no less English for that. Penda’s Fen refusal of a narrow definition of Englishness anticipates Britain’s diasporic cinema.

Rudkin posits words as the means of revolt. Stephen is gently mentored by Arne (Ian Hogg), a radical television playwright, and his father (John Atkinson), the local parson. Arne laments that, thanks to the greed of the entertainment barons and the cravenness of yes men, the public has lost the imaginative strengths and desire for change it once had, though he still hopes that out of “disobedience, chaos” can “a new experiment in human living be born”.

Penda’s Fen (1974)

Penda’s Fen (1974)

The Reverend Franklin is the author of an unpublished heretical manuscript ‘The Buried Jesus’, who extols not the plaster Christ of cathedrals but “the village god” – pagan in the true sense, therefore – that he believes Joan of Arc may have seen as she burned. Speculating that “man may revolt from the monolith and come back to the village”, the father’s speech to his son becomes incantatory as, walking in the gloaming with the Malvern Hills behind them, he wonders “what mystery of this land, what wisdom” died with King Penda as he fought his last battle against “the new machine” of the institutionalised church.

In preaching ungovernableness, both Arne and Franklin tacitly urge Stephen to resist the evil of corporate culture and bring about the resurrection of man, the reverend suggesting to Stephen that he write a much-needed book on this theme.

Signage is integral to Stephen’s education. He questions the mottos in Greek pasted around his school. After Arne has alerted the villagers to the government’s building of a secret facility beneath a nearby beauty spot, a radiation casualty there necessitates that traffic should be diverted from the village of Pinvin (near Pershore). Stephen’s noticing that the detour sign has been misspelled ‘Pinfin’ leads him eventually to discover it was once known as ‘Pendefen’, or ‘Penda’s fen’ (though Penda was probably slain near Leeds, or possibly Oswestry according to Rudkin). The disclosure augurs Stephen’s encounter with Penda and the passing on of the mantle of resistance. The BBC’s 1981 adaptation of Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man concludes with a caption stating that the Marxist sociologist lecturer Howard Kirk voted Tory in 1979; it may be assumed that Stephen, who’d be 61 now, is an ardent Corbynite.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (1781)

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (1781)

Critics still marvel that Penda’s Fen was directed by Clarke, who has reductively been regarded as an aggressive naturalist. He ruefully asked Rudkin how many books he needed to read to understand the script. Roy Minton, the writer of several other scripts he directed, recalled Clarke saying, “I had no idea what I was doing” on Penda’s Fen. Yet Clarke empathised not only with the anarchic flavour of the film, but knew that its visual representation of Romantic imagery – born of Stephen’s repression and yearning for selfhood – required a subtle touch. Despite Rudkin’s misgivings, the incubus, a harbinger of Stephen’s anxiety concerning his homosexuality, remains a startling three-dimensional incarnation of the homunculus in artist Henry Fuseli’s 1781 and 1790-91 versions of The Nightmare and equates Stephen with the painting’s female dreamer. (Russell’s recreation of The Nightmare in the feverish Gothic is comparatively literal.)

In an interview with Rudkin published in The Edge Is Where the Centre Is, a monograph on Penda’s Fen edited by Sukhdev Sandhu, the screenwriter intimates to Gareth Evans and William Fowler that the angel standing beside Stephen on the riverbank originated with William Blake, while the “sacred disobedience” to which Stephen is called is also Blakean. Blake also informs the ideological conflict in the film. The singing in school assembly – Stephen at the organ – of ‘Jerusalem’ as the patriotic hymn composed by Hubert Parry at first seems less ironic than its use as the borstal song in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). However, its rendering by long-haired youths in army fatigues is an absurdity – unfortunately invoking Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s pompous ‘Jerusalem’ – that undercuts the nationalistic co-opting of William Blake’s poem ‘And did those feet in ancient time’.

Chief among the nationalists is the headmaster who assumes that Stephen, having left the cadets, wants to join his “generation’s underside” and sneers at such “angular” boys at the end-of-school-year service prior to another singing of the hymn. This scene, which concludes with the headmaster’s reading of the first six lines of Blake’s poem, follows Stephen’s vision of the crucified Jesus’s bleeding feet in church, the apocalyptic fissuring of the aisle behind him, and Jesus’s appeal to Stephen “to unbury me, free me from this tree.”

This is the saviour of whom Stephen’s father spoke – “son of Adam, son of man… The torn, flayed hero….[who] was a revolutionary in the most elemental sense. In him alone the legislator and the demon fuse.” Though no intertextual link could have been intended, this Jesus is not dissimilar to the earthy, secular Jesus of Dennis Potter’s 1969 Wednesday Play Son of Man.

Penda’s Fen (1974)

Penda’s Fen (1974)

John Martin, another Romantic painter, is invoked in Penda’s Fen. At the film’s climax, Stephen’s birth parents, whom his superego has similarly conjured up, seek to wrest him from his newly chosen path as an adult embracing his impurity as a being of mixed race and mixed sex – “light and darkness… mud and flame!” Because he flees them and the overlord role they had ordained for him in society, they try to extinguish him. Like Joan of Arc, he starts to burn, but Penda intervenes by zapping them. Despite the BBC’s modest means, Clarke captured – and essentially paganised – the spirit of Martin’s biblical apocalypse paintings The Great Day of His Wrath and The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

“It’s romanticism of a sort, I know,” Stephen’s father muses – considering the possibility that the “present bedlam” might not have occurred had Penda’s supposedly enlightened pagan despotism been followed and had the church’s institution mongers and doctrine men not perverted Christianity. Penda’s Fen is “Romanticism of a sort”, too – a bravely radical sort long absent from British television drama. Clarke wasn’t quite done with the Romantics. Two of the sedate housing-estate streets numbly walked by the eponymous adolescent heroin addict and pusher (Vicky Murdock) in his 1987 BBC film Christine are named for Coleridge (an opium addict) and Keats (allegedly a user). Her plight explains exactly why Britain needs its Pendas and its reborn Stephens.

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