Penda's Fen

This post may either mark the end of my series of posts on 1980s TV or be a break in it. Anyway we go back to the seventies for some truly legendary television, since I was thinking about Penda's Fen and decided I wanted to have a go at writing a post about it. I say have a go: Penda's Fen is a hugely complex, ambitious and layered drama and while nobody has a higher opinion of my abilities than I do myself, I think even I might have dificulty doing it justice.

It doesn't help that quite a lot of what is written online about it is written by the literati and is - sod it, I'm going to go there - a load of poncey wank and toss. Sorry, but I'm merely describing the fanciful stuff written about this show. I'm going to come straight out with it here and say that in my opinion this play is barking mad and that's why I love it. Who in their right mind would write this play and then even think of committing it to the jolly old 16mm? This difficulty is perhaps best captured in a quote from the BFI website (always a good sign that a film will be used on university film courses but nobody else will be able to get their head around it):

'Critics still marvel that Penda's Fen was directed by Clarke, who has reductively been regarded as an aggressive naturalist [the article if about the romanticism of the play]. 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 Henry Fussell's 1781 and 1790-91 versions of The Nightmare and equates Stephen with the painting's female dreamer.' Source

And so it goes on.... This play manages to contain enough material for something like six or seven feature films, which means that it can of course be approached in several ways, which regular readers will know is one of my criteria for quality television. I am going to attempt to touch on some themes in a bullet-point type of way. I am not going to be able to write a sustained analysis of this show.

I have a certain local attachment to this play because much of it revolves around the Worcestershire village of Pinvin, just down the road from here, named after King Penda of Mercia, who was England's last pagan king. The illustration to the post is a statue of King Penda on Lichfield Cathedral and I see they've given him a cross. Doh. This is not actually ancient history: I live by the river which the tribe of Beorma sailed up and founded this city, and am proud to consider myself a Beorminga.

The play sets the Christianity of Stephen's home against the paganism of the naturalistic countryside and of King Penda. Of course Stephen's father is a priest of the Church of England and also has a heretical manuscript under his belt. There is no easy resolution to this conflict in the play.

Any play which can manage to squeeze in a discussion of Manichaeism is just fine by me. In fact Stephen's arguing about the battle between good and evil reminds me very much of the way I have repeatedly argued that Christianity is dualist and is just in denial about it. There's some seriously weird shit going on in this play and it's brilliant.

It manages to squeeze in a bit of a grammar school drama in the middle of everything else; of course representative of the establishment, king and country and stability. There is an irony that we see the volumes of the Latin classics in Stephen's bedroom and the shcool has Greek and Latin mottoes painted everywhere: despite the apparent Christianity once again his education is in literature by pagans and everyone is in denial of this.

There is a heavy element of Stephen's personhood and identity, partly influenced by him discovering that he is adopted. He reaches an understanding with his adoptive father as his own understanding of the world and everything in it becomes more nuanced.

A further local aspect is in the use of Elgar's music.

The scene where the floor of the church appears to open up is as weird as you can get.

One of the things I love most about this play is that all this high falutin' philosophizing is set against Stephen's awakening sexuality and his crush on the milkman, whose muscles he has a go at feeling at one point. Not gonna lie, I love that despite there being so much going on the play can still draw on the idea of the hot milkman.

It even manages to squeeze in Blake's Jerusalem. No - Jerusalem was not builded here.

In conclusion, my own opinion is that this is a show which has to be appreciated for what it is. You have to admire any attempt at biting off this much material and not having it turn into a complete dog's dinner. I was actually just talking with a friend who thinks it's rubbish (and he may not be wrong) but even though it may be rubbish it's still such a stunning achievement that it's good and criticism is kind of superfluous. See, I'm not a Manichaean!

Actually I do have a criticism, which is that I'm not convinced by the milkman's accent. They could have convincingly made him Birmingham, and despite being born there I'm not from Worcestershire so am not an authority but I'm far from convinced that the milkman's accent is proper Worcestershire. Anyway, here's a video which may have appeared here before of one of my heroes, Frank Gunnell, a bin man in Worcester who lives up a tree. This accent is about as Worcester as you can get.

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