An extraordinary evocation of conflicting forces within England: authority, tradition, hypocrisy, landscape, art, sexuality, and most of all, its mystical, ancient past. All of this comes together in Stephen, a rather prissy adolescent, and his growing pains deep in Elgar’s Worcestershire. Marrying the very different styles and concerns of writer David Rudkin and director Alan Clarke, Penda’s Fen delves deep into the heart of England to try and find answers to its identity. You’re unlikely to have seen anything quite like this and its strange events will stay with you for years afterwards.
Clarke is of course often identified as the hard man of British television drama and film. He is closely identified with his 1978 BBC-banned Borstal drama Scum (eventually turned into a feature film), as well as his studies of collapsing working-class cultures in dramas such as Jim Cartwright’s Road and The Firm, a devastatingly bleak portrayal of soccer hooliganism.
Penda’s Fen, however, reminds us of a different talent. It tells the story of a relatively privileged sixth-form boy Stephen, unforgettably played by Stephen Banks, who is brought up by adopted parents in the Midlands among the Malvern Hills. He is obsessed by Elgar’s music, most specifically The Dream Of Gerontius and it is this work that enables Stephen to unlock his doubts and confusions about his identity. Elgar’s music identifies two kinds of England for Stephen: one intellectually radical, which he fears, the other deeply conservative, to which he is drawn.
What was remarkable about the writing and directing was the sympathy with which the play treats Stephen’s dilemma. Elgar’s music in the film overwhelms us not as a seductive soundtrack but as the most vital of dramatic clues to Stephen’s inner being and quest. It liberates and imprisons the boy. Cycling through the Malvern Hills, arms flung high in the days before the Walkman, Stephen is overjoyed to remember the Allegro For Strings. Playing the opening chords of The Dream of Gerontius on an organ in a tiny country church, the floor starts to crack open in front of the boy. Real demons are down there. This is a Play For Today, transmitted primetime on BBC1 to a large audience, which not only broke from naturalism, but acknowledged the power of fantasy and intellectual excitement in the growth of a human being.
Penda’s Fen was produced by David Rose out of BBC Birmingham. It was Rose who went on to become Channel 4’s first Head of Drama and to launch Film On Four in November 1982. Although Rose had always planned to promote some of the films through a limited release in cinemas, his prime concern was to revitalise the single play on television. At a time when the BBC was beginning to question the rising cost and raison d’etre of the single play, particularly those shot on celluloid, Rose committed his entire drama budget to the cause.
1.23GB | 1h 28mn | 768×576 | mkv