AKA “Play for Today: Penda’s Fen”
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DIRECTED BY: Alan Clarke
FEATURING: Spencer Banks, John Atkinson, Georgine Anderson, Ian Hogg
PLOT: Shortly before his eighteenth birthday, Stephen Franklin must come to terms with his emergent homosexuality, lineage, and theological outlook.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Strange visions and societal upheaval get the BBC treatment in Alan Clarke’s adaptation of David Rudkin’s densely packed narrative. While it is littered with theologically-leaning surrealism throughout (including a charming chat with a wry Edward Elgar), Penda’s Fen earns its recommendation from how its many layers, each differently profound, integrate, as Manichaeism, paganism, deep history, military corporatism, labor crises, and sexual awakening un-peel and reincorporate into this philosophical coming-of-age drama.
COMMENTS: Profundity comes crashing right out of the gate in Penda’s Fen, and never lets up. A young man’s voice intones a prayer, of sorts, in the opening minutes as the title card appears over various pastoral scenes: “Oh my country, I say over and over, I am one of your sons…” The protagonist is the seventeen-year-old son of a parson; the era is England at its nadir; and the classical references fly left, right, and center. Simultaneously, Penda’s Fen feels familiar: the story of a boy on the cusp of manhood, coming to terms with himself and his surroundings. The relatability of this awkward character, and the complaisant manner in which the story is told, are a testament to the talents of the leading actor, Spencer Banks, and the story crafters, Alan Clarke and David Rudkin. The gravity of the whole experience strikes deeply into our consciousness, simultaneously opening channels of fascination.
Stephen Franklin (Spencer Banks) is the quintessential goody-two-shoes. He excels in his studies; he enthusiastically partakes in military volunteer training; and he leads debates at school while attending municipal debates after hours. He loves the works of Sir Edward Elgar, particularly “The Dream of Gerontius,” a meditation on death and salvation. Stephen also has feelings for the young milkman, though is not quite aware of their nature. His parents, however, have sussed their son’s leanings for some time, and are accepting thereof—though the father can’t hide his amusement at the well-worn typicality of the recipient of his son’s affection.
As a back-drop to the sexual awakening, there is a local labor agitator who is also a playwright (and also, probably, a homosexual); a secret military installation being built under a nearby field; and ecclesiastical visions. This endless string of semi-colons and splashes of back- and side-story doubtless convey the difficulty in attempting to dissect Penda’s Fen in any brief-but-meaningful way. Discussing the father, with perhaps half an hour of shared screen-time, could fill a slender volume. A profound thinker, his erudite remarks hover along the believable side of esoteric, and coupled with his deeply human understanding of himself and his son, along with an awareness of England’s, and the world’s, pagan antecedents, make him both an unlikely parson, and an unlikely source of love and stability in his son’s life.
And there I go again, listing elements. Let’s change tack. Penda’s Fen was made for television (I shudder to think what appeared on United States television at the time), but this is no detriment. It shows a concise craft: brisk pacing that is never hasty; perfect accompanying music from Elgar; and a sense that the limitations of the screen and budget forced the filmmakers to convey their many (and complicated) messages in as simple, and distilled, a form as possible.
Alas, more semi-colons, more parentheses, more commas. Penda’s Fen is unlike anything I’ve seen before it, and its sprightly ninety minutes deeply explore more concepts and experiences than some of the artiest art-house meditations I’ve been forced to endure for hours on end.
Penda’s Fen is available on a single Region B Blu-ray (which won’t play on most North American Blu-ray players). It is one of the keystone films in Severin’s massive “All the Haunts Be Ours” folk-horror compilation. Another option for American viewers is to sign up for a BritBox subscription (free trial available).
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“A highly popular play from the reliably weird David Rudkin, with a younger audience than Play for Today was used to, mainly due to its fantasy elements, it has since acquired a reputation as a cult piece of ‘telefantasy’ which, deserved though it is, belies its sophistication.”–TV Cream (DVD)
(This movie was nominated for review by Chris Reynolds, who described it as a “metaphysical journey of a young boy in rural England [wjo] encounters symbolic figures representing Britishness who begin to disrupt his notions of identity..” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)