27 February 2020


Matthew Harle and James Machin (editors). Of Mud and Flame: The Penda’s Fen Sourcebook. Strange Attractor Press 2019.

There are very few TV plays that have received the kind of critical essay treatment of Penda’s Fen (1973.) And Of Mud and Flame is grandly even more – a source book drawing upon English social history, mythology and philosophy. Does it warrant this kind of attention? After giving Penda’s Fen three viewings I can honesty say yes.
For though it’s a film that’s become a study text (not in the boring school exam level sense) but an important drama whose coded references, to other disciplines, deepen your enjoyment and understanding of a complex and ambiguous film. In the 1970’s the BBC 'Play for Today' slot produced quite a few politically radical films (Works by Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Trevor Griffiths and David Mercer come to mind) but not radical TV that you could term as being visionary.

Their concerned territory was social realism or heightened naturalism. Penda’s Fen does partly have their aims and sometimes style but comes firmly down on the side of darker, even mystical, elements to change (indeed save) society from the encroachment of a Nuclear State authority and a repressive English identity. It’s more for spiritual revolution before social upheaval.

Writer David Rudkin, director Alan Clarke and producer David Rose went out on a limb to produce a work that both pleased and mystified its audience. Discussion of Penda’s Fen often places it in the same company as such 60s/70s productions as Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man, now grouped under the term 'folk horror.' The film has an obvious horror scene when a demon squats on the bed of the protagonist: a moment that’s a powerful if slightly self-conscious reference to Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare. And a fantasy hand chopping scene, carried out on its welcoming of ‘pure’ English couples, that I felt to be an artistic mistake – a sideways nod here to the The Wicker Man. But generally throughout Penda’s Fen director Alan Clarke’s achieves many fine and tightly framed shots that don’t suggest horror but unease about the difficulty of fitting in with a corrupt nation. He directs Penda’s Fen not as a horror experience but as an edgy inner journey of an adolescent towards maturity, in an England that the schoolboy comes to politically distrust.

I need to backtrack a little by supplying a brief synopsis of Penda’s Fen’s plot to indicate why its text has been sourced out: “It (Penda) tells the story of a 17 year old schoolboy, Stephen Franklyn, 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 events – whether real or imagined – force Stephen to question his religious beliefs, his and his sexuality.” --  BFI online

There are over twenty essays in this book. They are all compelling. But I’d like to mention four chapters in particular.

(1) 'And in the Soil, There be Mirrors: Penda’s Fen and Folk Horror'  by Adam Scovell. Scovell recognises that critics had fond it problematic to talk of Fenda’s Pen as Folk Horror. He even quotes David Rudkin as saying “It’s a bloody political piece” before adding “I’ve always thought of myself as a political writer.” Scovell argues that Folk Horror is about two layers – the Pagan past, ready to  erupt, and the blighted English landscape of the present. That Penda’s Fen allows traumas of the past,  political and the personal to cross real and mythic borders.

(2) 'Stephen and the Women' by Carole Larrington. This is very perceptive examining the role of Stephen’s mother; Mrs. Arne the wife of the left wing TV playwright, and Mrs. King a newly widowed parishioner of Stephen’s parson father. For Larrington they complicate and make strange Stephen’s story which is a strange male coming of age story anyway.

(3) 'Place and Names: A Medieval-Modern Glossary of Penda’s Fen' by Beth Whalley. “The word-hoard of the British landscape contains a rich source of poetically –] precise terms that, when looked at carefully, evoke compelling visions of the earth’s histories. Yet these same words are also being lost.”

Whalley examines the etymology of keywords in Penda’s Fen: Earth, England, Fen, Hill, Land, Mud, Pasture, Pinvin, Village and Wilderness. By discovering where a place-name has come from we are able to renew our relationship with the place itself. I found her research added greatly to not only
understanding Penda’s Fen but why these words matter and still hold multiple meanings for our understanding how we have shaped our history of the countryside.

(4) 'Gasping for Silbury Air, Notes on the music of Penda’s Fen' by John Harle. For Harle the use of music (pre-dominately Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius and very briefly some electronic sounds by Paddy Kingsland of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) is comparable to the highly effective music and sound design of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch.

I’ve only mentioned four chapters that illuminated my enjoyment of watching Penda’s Fen again. Yet all the book’s essays are rewarding: revealing an intelligent engagement with a drama where the authors’ consensus is they’re writing about a masterpiece of television drama. They are.

“What is to happen to his soul? Which shall prevail? The Angel, or the Pandemonium; the sickness of power and obedience to power, or the sacred demon of ungovernableness.”

Stephen Franklyn is left with a choice between the illusory purity of a failing Christian England or a mongrel individualism too free to be controlled. 'Ungovernableness' is the inspiring clarion call of David Rudkin’s script – included in Of Mud Flame, an exemplary example of how well a book can be produced to examine not only a unique work for television but a memorable artefact for detailed critical investigation. -- Alan Price.

1 comment:

Phil said...

I remember Penda's Fen - who wouldn't? - although I wonder if at 12 I was just a bit too young for it. I do remember being jolted out of sympathy with Stephen in the scene where he insists that it's "Pinvin", not "Pinfin" - obviously it ought to be an F, they didn't even have a V back then...

But I've got quite mixed feelings about it now. One of my pet hates is people in folk circles finding 'pagan' meanings and evocations of an Old Religion in every Green Man and every branch of holly (and ivy). As eny fule kno, we hav - ahem - we have an Old Religion in the history of this country, a religion which was interwoven with the fabric of everyday life before it was uprooted and replaced by the top-down imposition of new beliefs; it's called Roman Catholicism, and it was swept away around about your great-x15-grandfather's time. The chances of anything, physical or cultural, surviving from back then are slim, but the chances of anything surviving from before the Christianisation of the country - which was going on in your great-x45-grandfather's time - is mindbogglingly tiny. Paganism = nonsense, is my considered conclusion; Old Pagan Truths, Deep Pagan Secrets, Pagan Survivals In The Very Soil Itself, it's all a load of nonsense. (Digging in the Ancient English Cultural Soil for survivals of folk Catholicism might be interesting, though.)

Anyway, that's me and paganism. And I was having a rant about it all, one fine day in cyberspace, when I remembered Penda's Fen. Is it possible that David Rudkin was on the wrong side with regard to this one? Is it possible that Penda's Fen, while certainly some sort of masterpiece, was also... pagan folk nonsense? It's a painful thought.