King Penda of Mercia’s fall at the Battle of the Winwaed, as depicted in Worcester Cathedral.
In 1974, the B.B.C. broadcast a strange and singular television play for their acclaimed Play for Today series. It was not repeated. Then, in 1989, it was shown again, this time on Channel Four, with a new introduction by the play’s writer, David Rudkin. Again, it was not shown on television anywhere and remained a haunting and peculiar memory in the minds of those who had seen it. Then, forty-two years after it was first broadcast, it was given a long-overdue DVD release in the early summer of 2016. This was during a referendum that led to an outcome that has forever stained British history and has divided the country by competing notions of what it means to be truly British. The film in question addressed such an issue before anyone had ever coined the term Brexit, yet eerily prophesied the jingoistic attitudes and social unease of a Britain under the shadow of Brexit. Despite its then-obscure status, the film acquired a cult status among cognoscenti of the fantastical and visionary British imagination. The film is Penda’s Fen.
PENDA’S FEN’S opening title, set to the dramatic music of Elgar, showcases the dualistic nature of the play, in this case, natural landscape and ominous militaristic constructs.
Penda’s Fen was directed by Alan Clarke, an acclaimed director noted for his brutal social realism dramas, and written by David Rudkin, a dramatist and screenwriter whose work explores landscape, heritage, myth, history, and British-Irish relations; this last theme is significant, for Rudkin himself is of Anglo-Irish stock, and this filters into his work. The theme of duality also shows in Rudkin’s personal choice of director; Rudkin the fantaisiste and Clarke the realist. Even the play itself is touched by the polarities that Rudkin is interested in. Penda’s Fen‘s surface plot is simple enough: Stephen Franklin is the proud yet priggish son of a parson in a small village in the heart of pastoral England. He champions the Christian sanctity of the nuclear family and detests anything that challenges the English government, including ”atheistic and subversive trash” that masquerades as ”investigative theology”. Despite his staunch conservatism and patriotism, he is sneered at by his fellow pupils and teachers for not subscribing to his school’s traditions. He passionately loathes a local playwright, Arne, who, at a village meeting, defends striking workers and speculates on secret government constructions beneath the very land they live in.
Angels pervade the psychic English landscape of Stephen’s dreams.
Soon, Stephen’s rigidly hidebound exterior begins to dissolve as he experiences homoerotic dreams, visions of angels and demons, meets the ghost of his idol, the composer Edward Elgar, learns that his clergyman father holds rather heretical views of Christianity, that he is adopted and that his real parents were not even of the Anglo-Saxon stock he so fervently champions, and discovers King Penda, the last pagan king of England. Conflicted between radical and traditional notions of Englishness, as well as England’s modern Christianity doctrines and the country’s ancient pagan past, Stephen’s very being becomes an unsteady, complex focal point where anything seems possible.
Stephen’s guardian angel.
In the play, Stephen tells Arne’s wife, who is infertile, that he is like a molecule with unknown elements and possibilities. He could be describing the play itself. Rudkin’s drama keenly explores a diverse range of themes which, however haphazard they may seem, nonetheless seem to tie together with a strange logic all its own. It is, in essence, a visionary, Blakean epic masquerading as quiet and solemn pastoral drama, with whipers of Ballardian underworlds underneath the arable furrows and fields. It also seems to invoke the spirit of William Burroughs with its anti-establishment attitude, homoerotic dreamscapes, and demonic, Manichaean visions, as well as Arthur Machen, Alan Garner, Algernon Blackwood, Derek Jarman, John Cowper Powys, Hermann Hesse, and Henry Miller. In 1981, Rudkin would script another wyrd B.B.C. drama, Artemis 81, an ambitious Philip-K-Dickian fusion of dystopian science-fiction and Gnostic cosmology. That affair is even less coherent than Penda’s Fen, but it is interesting and worth watching. However, one would be correct in stating that Penda is Rudkin’s masterpiece; and, as I wrote above, it has gained an even greater relevance now that the insidious Brexit agenda is spreading lies and hate and fear among Blake and Merlin’s land. In these turbulent times, I wonder if Rudkin is receiving ideas for a new drama, or if the ghosts of pagan kings and angels and demons are haunting Britain’s Brexit-bruised green and pleasant land. If I may quote from Jarman’s Jubilee: Equalty prevails not for the gods’ sakes, but for mans; men are weak, and cannot endure their manifold nature.
Stephen looks over his native England from the sacred Malvern Hills with a new look on life.