Penda’s Fen: still a play for today

Tonight we watched Penda’s Fen – David Rudkin’s Play for Today, first broadcast in 1974. It is extraordinary – first that such a challenging piece should be broadcast at peak viewing time on one of only two TV channels that existed at the time; but also because it remains a complex and stimulating film. There seem to be about ten different things going on in the screenplay –  a coming of age story, meditations on the natural world and the English landscape, the meaning of Englishness, paganism and Christianity, Manicheanism, Elgar’s music, industrialism, ethnic and sexual identity, and an Edge of Darkness-type political thriller (which didn’t get off the ground and wasn’t very convincing).

Directed by Alan Clarke, with photography by Michael Williams that captured the Malvern landscape and contributed to the strong sense of place in the piece, the film tells of Stephen, a parson’s son, who has developed a worldview which encompasses a love for the English countryside, the music of local composer Edward Elgar, and a naive embracing of extreme right-wing ideas. Through a series of encounters with angels, demons, and England’s pagan past he begins to question his religion and politics, and comes to terms with 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.

His father after Stephen discovers, on his 18th birthday that he is adopted: ‘You see: you are like the English language, Stephen.  You have foreign parents too…even Elgar had some Welsh blood.’

Stephen in the dramatic conclusion: ‘No, no, I am nothing pure…My race is mixed, my sex is mixed, I am woman with man, and light with darkness, mixed, mixed, mixed. I am nothing special, nothing pure. Iam mud and flame!’

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