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Penda's Fen (1974)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Penda's Fen (1974)
BBC Birmingham for Play for Today, BBC1, tx. 21/3/1974
90 minutes, colour
DirectorAlan Clarke
ProducerDavid Rose
ScreenplayDavid Rudkin
Film CameramanMichael Williams

Jennie Hesselwood (Mrs Arne); John Scott (Sir Nicholas Pole); Spencer Banks (Stephen); Georgine Anderson (Mrs Franklin); John Atkinson (Reverend J. Franklin)

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A middle class pastor's son has dreams of angels and the pagan King Penda that force him to question many of his beliefs and opinions.

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Written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke, Penda's Fen was first broadcast in 1974 as part of the BBC's Play for Today series. It tells the story of seventeen year-old Stephen, a middle-class pastor's son who has a bizarre series of encounters with angels, the composer Edward Elgar, and King Penda, the mythical last pagan ruler of England. These encounters - whether real or imagined - force Stephen to question his religious beliefs, his politics and his sexuality.

Central to Rudkin's drama is the timelessness of the countryside and its place in the construction of 'Englishness'. At the beginning of the play, Stephen has a solid if somewhat conservative sense of nationality defined through his Christianity, his belief in the sanctity of marriage, faith in the military, distrust of socialism and a love of the music of Elgar. His encounters, coupled with the discovery that his father's beliefs are far from orthodox and his realisation that England has a religion much older than Christianity, compel Stephen to re-evaluate not only his own values, but also his notion of what it means to be English.

Penda's Fen, with its discussions of Manichean philosophy, dream sequences and the appearance of mythical creatures, seems somehow out of place in Alan Clarke's output. Indeed Clarke himself, who was recruited to direct the play at the behest of Rudkin who saw him as one of the best TV directors in Britain at the time, claimed he never fully understand what the play was about. Nevertheless, the exploration of white English masculinity is a theme common to many of Clarke's dramas. While Stephen is far removed from the aggressive, urban and often working-class (anti) heroes typical of Alan Clarke dramas, he shares their disenfranchisement and their desire to rebel against his surroundings.

Justin Hobday

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Video Clips
1. The ancient fen (2:10)
2. Sacrificial vision (4:22)
3. Children and adoption (2:54)
4. Pagan discussion (4:18)
Children of the Stones (1977)
Elgar (1962)
Clarke, Alan (1935-1990)
Rose, David (1924-)
Play for Today (1970-84)