Penda's Fen (BBC Birmingham, 1973)

ROBIN CARMODY on a television masterpiece, and the lure, and arguably the fading, of English mythology.

Radio Times, Thursday 13th February 1975:

The English West Midlands in 1973/74 were deeply, profoundly polarised, as Mark Sinker could doubtless recall. The urban areas of Birmingham, Wolverhampton and the Black Country were producing the roistering laddish all-in-together rock of Slade and Wizzard, responsible for some memorable party-atmosphere Top of the Pops performances, and the same culture was represented on the terraces of the region's successful football teams. But the area, which had experienced massive rebuilding and the uprooting of much of its Victorian industrial infrastructure in the 1960s, and was still going through the overspill of some of its overcrowded population to new towns like Telford, was also struggling to make the transition between a traditional white working-class conurbation and modern multi-cultural urban area. Enoch Powell's constituency was in Wolverhampton, and it was in Smethwick in April 1968 that he made his notorious "Rivers of Blood" speech, founded on his own curious idea of the ethnic homogeneity, continuity, and fear of change of the English people (an example of the man's poisoned view of "Englishness" can be read at http://www.royalsocietyofstgeorge.com/journal.htm, though I wouldn't recommend it). In 1973 the National Front achieved a record high share of the vote for a far-right party (unequalled until the BNP's high-profile campaign in Oldham at the 2001 general election) at a by-election in West Bromwich, and Wolverhampton Wanderers had been one of the first football clubs to develop a strong, and sometimes racist, skinhead element among their support at the dawn of the "hooliganism" era in the late 60s and early 70s. In this context, the assertion in the 1974 BTF travelogue Midland Country (http://www.britishtransportfilms.co.uk/productions/films/BT1132/BT1132.html and http://www.bfi.org.uk/bookvid/videos/special/btf/volume4.html), every word of whose narrative could have been written in the 1950s (and indeed almost identical scripts were written for BTF in the 50s by scriptwriter Ian Ferguson), that "England, particularly on its western edge, is slow to change" had potentially very dubious connotations that it would not have had 10 or 20 years before - in context, it could be read as a devastating indictment of the mentality which had got the National Front all those votes.

Ah yes, the western edge, that ancient landmass of Shropshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and mid-Wales, with its resonances of historical figures like Plowman, Housman and Sir Edward Elgar, and its roots dating back further than pretty much anywhere else in England, before Anglo-Saxon, Christian, or even Roman history. In 1973 playwright David Rudkin recognised the weight of history these places carried, the spirits and inheritances that echoed through them, and was inspired to write one of the greatest works from this highpoint of creativity and imagination in British television.

It opens with the stirring, familiar sounds of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, as a teenage boy, the son of a vicar, sits in his bedroom in a part of rural England which is obviously classically "flat and brooding" (the other part of England famously like this is East Anglia hence, I thought when the film was first described to me, the word "fen" in the title). For several minutes he talks at length about the importance and meaning of this work, and of its "Christian values" (virtually every book in his room is on these subjects) before kitting himself out militaristically, claiming that he is "learning to defend his country". It is clear that this is an adolescent as obsessed with these ideas - the defence of a certain idea of "English values" against the perceived threat of 60s / 70s "trendy liberalism" - as other adolescents might be with football, or their favourite pop group, or these days computer games.

Then, in the chapel of his intensely religious, classical, traditional all-boys' school (it could be a day private school but, incredible though this seems now, there were still many state grammar schools like this in 1973) Stephen is playing the organ during "Jerusalem" while other boys are heard but not seen, spreading rumours about his character. Seconding a motion in debate that "This house believes that the media are a source of evil to society", he works himself up into a hysterical diatribe against a banned TV documentary called Who Is Jesus? His parents are clearly worried, but feel they should let it blow over. Left-wing playwright Mr Arne (possibly based on Rudkin himself?) makes a long, passionate speech defending trade unionists (the populist right-wing "demons" of that time, as programmes as diverse as this and Fawlty Towers reveal) and declaring that the true danger to this countryside was placed by the technocrats of government (at the time this meant Edward Heath's Conservative Party), causing Stephen to react with a frightening burst of revivalist anger (like all right-wing protectionist ruralists, he regards the Tories as pretty much beyond criticism). Then we see what sounds like a hippie love-in in a car, and a grotesque accident made more startling through being totally unexplained. Then Stephen makes a lengthy speech in class about his willpower, in dreams, to turn "a demon into an angel".

Stephen's father is helping him with some of his religious doubts, but his dreams are becoming more and more visionary: he can see an angel / demon as he looks on at a rugby match, he is being sexually touched and aroused, fire is burning around him. A demon figure stands, then sits, upon his bed, then fades. "Unnatural" is his only word. What is this? Is Stephen chosen, allocated for something, marked down? Absenting himself from Compulsory Cadet Force at school, he whispers "Discover myself". Wherever he goes - down a lane, beside a pond - he can only think, no longer speak, as though his actions are being controlled.

Momentarily it's as though he's living an idyll, cycling down a country lane, whistling along to the Elgar piece we hear, the archetypal happy provincial middle-class English schoolboy. Then suddenly the music fades into mono, the demon appears again, and Stephen's on the ground, out cold. The road sign for the village, suddenly, changes from "Pinvin" to "Pinfin" to "Pendefen". His every step becomes a hard knife's carving, and he sees what seems to be a Victorian garden party, as elegant as you could expect, but where everyone appears to be having blood carved from their hands, some kind of quasi-religious ritual. Reading a tract against mainstream Anglican Christianity called The Death of Jesus, Stephen notices that it was his own father's work. Arne is denouncing the subservience and lack of individual thought in modern humanity - "our taskmasters now Hitler, Stalin or Mao". Stephen is beginning to come round to some of Arne's ideas - that only through "disobedience and chaos" can "some new experiments in human living be born".

Stephen is being interrogated by his headmaster, now indifferent to the academic's call to him to join the school's roll of honour of "the sons of England" where, at the start of the film, he would have been keen above all else to add his name to it. Seeking refuge in a storm, he encounters an elderly, wheelchair-bound Elgar himself. Elgar reveals the common, lightweight tune to which the words from his Enigma should be set - "a secret between yourself, the hills and me" - as though he trusts Stephen to inherit a part of his legacy. Elgar himself has now denounced to Stephen the idea of "purity" in music: a key part of his previous intellectual basis has been undermined.

Stephen's mother is driving him into a nearby industrial city - probably Birmingham - and warning of industrial apocalypse for man: "the rhythm of his life is chained to the machine". Then the truth is revealed to Stephen on his 18th birthday: "You're like the English language, you have foreign parents. Even Elgar had some Welsh blood". He says the words to Mrs Arne: "I'm adopted". He has been freed from his idea of being tied to the supposed purity of his parents' womb, and there are now blank spaces to fill in, as he is humiliated by those left in the CCF at school.

The Rev Franklin is telling Stephen about Joan of Arc, and how Christianity usurped earlier, more primitive religions, suggesting that we still practice "human sacrifice" in the cities and in our industries, and that the literal meaning of "pagan" - "belonging to the village" - is one that still makes sense, the model for living that we must return to (the core of this and so many other works of English High Romanticism - a passionate streak of anti-industrialism and pro-individualism, anti-standardisation and pro-"authenticity"-in-human-souls - is coming through). Then his words strike home: he knows he participates in the misunderstanding and "crucifixion" of Jesus Christ in church every week, but now we all need "non-selves" to live, and this is his. There is a second coming, a resurrection, that man must still bring about. It is, he suggests, Stephen's destiny to enact such a thing.

Then the title of the play makes itself clear. The Rev Franklin suggests King Penda, the last pagan king of England, who had ruled in this place, as someone whose last battle was analogous to ours today - a battle against the dying of the light, against the new machine. Stephen's question "Did Penda die here?" is met with the response "Who says that he is dead?".

On his own Stephen walks into the church, and opens the score for The Dream of Gerontius. Almost trembling with knowledge of the potential importance of what he is about to do, he plays its opening bars. Unseen by him, the church floor begins to crack. Slowly, as he plays, the cracks widen. He hits the organ harder, harder, harder, as if his life depends on it. The aisle is almost completely open. Parts of a blood-stained body appear, and then a voice: "Stephen. Stephen Franklin. Unbury me. Free me from this tree." The aisle has closed up again, and momentarily it is Stephen trapped, immovable.

It is Stephen's final day at school. Once again, in a valedictory moment, "Jerusalem" is to be sung, but his expression is now one simply of uncertainty, where when the film began it was one of hearty all-boys-in-together comic-book patriotism. We hear his headmaster intoning the words, but we never hear the singing begin.

Stephen sits at the highest point of the hills, and is met by a man and woman who talk as though they have seen the Messiah or, at least, a vision of human perfection: "true English boy, such a light in his eyes ... he does not know his inheritance". Nothing is said, but we sense that these may well be his "birth parents", and we can now get the sense that they are the people from whom he inherited his earlier obsession with "purity". The woman cries when he says "No, no ... I am nothing pure ... my race is mixed, my sex is mixed, I am woman and man, light with darkness, nothing pure ... I am mud and flame". Light years have passed since Stephen's earlier assertions of his specialness, his status as England's saviour: now he is openly rejecting such positions being placed upon him.

He runs down the hill. Paddy Kingsland's sound of apocalypse rings out. The man and woman photograph him, and both he and the photograph are burning. In desperation he calls on King Penda.

The narrow horizons of this petit-bourgeois couple - now incarnated as all that had been wrong with conservative Anglican England - disappear in flames, and King Penda rises where they had stood: "There you have seen your true dark enemies of England, sick father and mother who would have us children forever. Stephen, our land must live, the land we love must live, her deep dark flame must never die. Night is falling, your land and mine goes down into the darkness now, and I and all the other guardians of her flame are driven from our home, up, out into the wolf's jaw. But the flame still flickers in the fen. You are marked down to cherish that. Cherish the flame, till we can safely wake again. The flame is in your hands, we trust it to you, our sacred demon of ungovernableness. Cherish the flame. We shall rest easy." As he blesses Stephen, King Penda says: "Stephen, be secret, child be strange, dark, true, impure, and dissonant. Cherish our flame. Our dawn shall come."

An entire set of unpleasant, narrow Little Englanders' values have been lifted and denounced, and a whole other vision of England has been put forward, what it could have been, and should have been, had the fathers of prurient provincial Anglicanism not killed it and imposed their own unbending social structure in its place. There can only be, in this repressed and self-destructing society, a limited number of people with the vision to carry the flame, to live and believe as they were intended, and the first rulers of this land can sense and recognise them. Their power has outlived all the pathetic, small-minded attempts to laugh at and discredit them.

Slowly, with only a strange Kingsland hum, at first almost inaudible but slowly becoming louder and more ominous, in the background, and the credits rolling on screen, Stephen walks down into the village, his new responsibility definitively placed upon him. Nothing more needs to be said.

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It has become almost a given at the end of such pieces as this to ask questions of ourselves as to whether such a work could be made now - and that is no bad thing, because it shows that we still know how to compare our past selves with our present incarnations, that we retain some basic level of perspective over time.

English High Romanticism is not dead, but the age conspires against it. Our relentless battering away at all cultural concepts based around geography, our prioritisation of technology, our pop-cultural tyranny, our sneering at and virtual eradication of the kind of rural, introverted, isolated, "poetic" adolesence experienced by the likes of Stephen, serve to crush its basis, to interfere with the ideas that run through and define Penda's Fen. Such early 21st Century phenomena as the anti-globalisation movement and the revival of interest in British folk-rock arguably strike a counterbalance that the 90s could have done with, but we still live in a world of controlled triviality, one where the media effectively tells us what to think, and more importantly not to think such thoughts as these. For although Penda's Fen is telefantasy, it is - like virtually all the works of Alan Garner and Peter Dickinson, especially The Owl Service and The Changes, with whose TV versions it arguably forms a triumvirate - fantasy inherently rooted in the physical, the contours and incantations of places, and when your place means nothing to you, how can such fantasies ever form?

Of course there are many, many downsides to High Romanticism, most obviously those who would invoke it as a means of ensuring "purity", but is they who are the ones seen to be in the wrong in Penda's Fen, from the early militaristic certainties of Stephen himself, to the call of his "natural" parents that he rejects. The aspects of the philosophy that are seen to be in the right - a rage against the mediocrity of so many people and places, and the brute forces of anti-humanism (whether heavy industry then or massive internet companies now) I could find very little fault with.

Were this Worcestershire land mine - as a geographically close and atmospherically similar piece of land was Mark Sinker's at almost exactly the same time as that whose doubts and uncertainties Penda's Fen bleeds - my first temptation, my natural choice, my instinct, would be to do as most of those of my generation growing up there would doubtless now do: to drive around playing So Solid Crew at top volume, to come on every inch the playa, to act urban, to ignore the power of place and mythology. I suspect that little of Penda's Fen would live in me, bar a strange, rogue mental cell, one which would prove that, indeed, I am nothing pure, that culturally I am mixed, that I barely know myself, or can control myself, that I am mud and flame, but that I know, sometimes, what I must do.

I'll never climb that hill, but I'll walk that way down sometimes, and feel that Stephen might, just, in another lifetime, have been me.

Robin Carmody, 25th August 2001

Thanks to David Sheldrick, David Inglesfield and Mark Sinker.

http://filmsociety.wellington.net.nz/PendasFen.html and
http://www.aucklandfilmsociety.org.nz/movies/penda.html - a superb piece of writing by Howard Schuman from Sight and Sound in 1998.

http://www.4-wall.com/authors/authors_r/rudkin_david.htm - a bibliography of Rudkin's work.

http://www.cix.co.uk/~shutters/reviews/98006.htm - a fine review of Rudkin's Afore Night Come from The Financial Times in 1998.

http://www.tomphillips.co.uk/portrait/drud - a portrait of Rudkin by an Oxford contemporary.

http://www.britarch.ac.uk/ba/ba39/ba39comm.html - short piece on the subject from British Architecture.

http://www.bfi.org.uk/showing/nft/featurearchive/clarke/showing_feb.html - the BFI showing of Penda's Fen in February 2002, which I greatly regret not having attended (read: "not having been able to attend", sad to say).

http://www.scriptwritermagazine.com/singout.htm - a fantastic piece, although it takes a while to get to the reason why I link to it. The continuation should make fascinating, if depressing, reading when it gets to Channel 4's creative decline in the last decade or so.

http://www.dreamsong.freeserve.co.uk/page46.html - biography of Rudkin. Just look at the current Alan Garner collaborations - the Weirdstone trilogy possibly finally completed, wow!

http://www.davidrudkin.com/html/penda.html - from Rudkin's own site. I'm not surprised by the comments about Alan Clarke - Penda's Fen is often cited as an atypical work for Clarke, but for me the sheer lacerating quality of Clarke's direction shows how wide his scope really was, and (arguably) the weakness of "the urban-rural divide" to start with.

http://www.alternatechannels.org - fascinating comments on the gay aspect of the narrative.

http://www.btinternet.com/~pgwood/oldwla.htm - there's a brief allusion not far down this epic page ...

http://tv.cream.org/arkp.htm and http://tv.cream.org/playtoday.htm - of course, the redoubtable TV Cream entries.

http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/tv.htm

http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/ruralbritain.htm

http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/index.htm