Penda’s Fen (1974)

Penda’s Fen first published by Little White Lies as the tenth instalment in my Cinema Psychotronicum column

“Father, do you think dreams come true?” asks Stephen (Spencer Banks) in Penda’s Fen, David Rudkin’s 1974 teleplay for BBC1 directed by Alan Clarke.

“Don’t come true. They are true,” replies Stephen’s father, Reverend Franklin (John Atkinson). “Your dreams tell you a truth about yourself. A truth you hide from while you’re awake. A truth you need to know about yourself for your well-being. This buried truth comes up in your head while you’re asleep, rising to act itself out like a play. That’s the responsibility of the dreamer, Stephen: to acknowledge that truth about yourself that the dream reveals, then act upon that truth. Believers would call such a dream ‘voice from God’.”

In his waking hours, 17-year-old Stephen is brimming with certainties. He is a son of England, believing passionately in God and country, in order and the establishment (as embodied by the regimented practices of the all-boys’ school he attends). He supports a married couple (from a Festival of Light-like organisation) who have campaigned against “atheistic and subversive trash” in the media. He regards his neighbour Arne (Ian Hogg), a leftist, anti-authoritarian firebrand who also writes ‘outrageous’ plays for television (plays perhaps not unlike Penda’s Fen), as “unnatural” in both his political views and his childlessness. Stephen is conservative, at least with a small c, and looks upon any kind of recalcitrance or dissidence with suspicion.

Yet there are early cracks in the professed certainties of this odd, arrogant boy, appearing as signs of unruliness to come. Stephen adores The Dream of Gerontius, a mystic oratorio written by late, local composer Sir Edward Elgar, but admires its ‘dissonance’ (which he describes as “the piercing glance of God”) as much as its more orderly harmonic sections. He is proud, indeed considers it his patriotic duty (at the height of the Cold War), to wear his corporal’s uniform during school military exercises – but is tellingly dressed down by a teacher for the untidiness of his clothes, as though they are not really a proper fit for the teen. At first drawn to Manichaeism because its dualistic morality appears to mirror his own way of seeing everything in black and white, he is soon as much attracted as repelled by its heretical nature, and surprised to learn that his own father, though parson in the nearby church, does not simply reject its unorthodox tenets.

Then there is Stephen’s sexual identity. Although it is obvious to both his parents that he harbours nascent longings for the milk boy Joel (Ron Smerczak), it takes a dream (of an angel, a demon, and several scrumming schoolboys) to reveal to Stephen the truth of his homosexuality. With the ground shifting beneath his feet, and all the mainstays of his life – even, at his 18th birthday, his very Englishness – falling away, Stephen’s dreams (of Elgar discussing secret codes in his music, of pagan ritual sacrifice, of ancient resurrected Kings) will continue pointing to a divided, less dogmatic self, as he at last becomes open to a more complex truth about his own complicated identity, and a less blinkered, more panoramic vision of England.

As Stephen comes crashing into his late adolescence and a very different adult path, the West Midlands countryside that is his milieu will also reveal a hidden history not marked in current maps or on street signs. So it is that Rudkin’s coming-of-age pagan pastoral is also a non-conformist chronicle of secret England, where boundaries – geographical, political, spiritual – are constantly being redrawn but forever leaving their trace. The film’s final injunction to “be secret, child, be strange – dark, true, impure, dissonant” is a plea for a new (yet old) Albion, rooted in alterity, with Stephen as its latest messiah, or at least scribe, in an endless Manichaean struggle with both the world and himself.

Combining rites of passage with state of the nation, Penda’s Fen is staggering in its richness and ambition, and without precedent for the way that it undermines and queers its own idyll of twentieth-century England. It is, as the quote with which this review began suggests, a wordy affair, but it is also full of oneiric images and subversive ideas. Despite the legendary reputation that it has acquired from its 1974 broadcast on BBC1’s Play for Today (and a single repeat on Channel 4 in 1990), Penda’s Fen has never, till now, been made available in any format for the home market – so for lovers of British film at its most eccentric and outrageous, this High Definition release from BFI is a dream come true.

Penda’s Fen is released for the very first time on Blu-ray and DVD by BFI, 23rd May 2016

© Anton Bitel