Child Be Strange: On Alan Clarke’s “Penda’s Fen” (1974)

A stylized shot of Stephen and a parson from Alan Clarke's "Penda's Fen" (1974).

Stephen Franklin, son of a parson (not a priest, mind you) and enjoyer of Elgar, is about as self-serious an eighteen-year-old boy can get. Self-serious to the point of silliness, as his mother is quick to point out when she interrupts his deep listening of the English composer’s The Dream of Gerontius. The moment’s humor is not altogether obvious, since it is surrounded by Stephen’s high-minded musings over God and mortality and the soul in relation to the musical notation unfurled before him. But it’s there, and serves to deflate Stephen’s supercilious self-conception in the form of earthly reality’s interruption of the ideal. It is this tension that is among the film’s primary concerns, and is further buttressed by the boy’s prayers being quickly set aside when the swaggering, bare-armed milkman arrives to their doorstep with his delivery.

That Stephen harbors lust for the milkman is seemingly not yet clear to him, although it is only one of many essential facts concerning his self that will eventually be made clear, whether he likes it or not, amidst the backdrop of the Worcestershire countryside and the imposition of its various institutions: Church and public school and the provincial mind.

Some of the labels Penda’s Fen has garnered over the years—folk horror, pagan parable, anti-establishment allegory, queer cinema pioneer, etc.—are all in their own way revelatory of its peculiar staying power. Indeed, its status as a cult classic adds further mystique which may or may not cloud an interested viewer’s engagement with what’s onscreen. Even the film’s own director, Alan Clarke, professed to not understand what the film was “about” (as if to pinpoint a single meaning were the end-all-be-all of one’s viewing of any movie, esoterica or otherwise); and certainly, despite Clarke’s clear visual mark, particularly notable for its restraint concerning the material being adapted, Penda’s Fen might be better understood as screenwriter David Rudkin’s creation, excesses and all.

Excesses, however, are not exactly out of place in a bildungsroman, albeit a heavily concentrated one. And the brisk 88-minute running time relieves a viewer who may be belabored by its periodically intense registers, a la the dissonant groans of Stephen’s favored instrument. In fact, claims like Clarke’s and those of other viewers who remain willingly stumped by the film’s more hermetic moments themselves obscure its rather straightforwardly countercultural appeals. Penda’s Fen is undeniably strange but not too difficult, really; might even prove particularly attractive to more radical-minded moviegoers in our current age, the problems of which are unfortunately not dissimilar from what the film examines.

However, if such claims stump the curious viewer, maybe the most important first step is, again, to set aside what the film “means.” Or, rather, simply accept that Penda’s Fen means a multiplicity of things, but first and foremost is centered around and is filtered through the dissonance of Stephen’s reckoning with self, its repressions and fresh opportunities for reconcilement. Funnily enough, examination of character, when it comes to character portraits, often does well to clear the cobwebs.

Stephen (a gawky Spencer Banks) is an unlikable boy, and his conservatism is a priggish, straining sort that not even his fellow public school classmates find endearing. He rails against any and all opposition to the English establishment and its Christian heritage. Progressive elements that might dare to interrogate the historicity of Jesus, for instance, are deemed “atheistic and subversive trash.” When Arne, the local playwright who’s also a political radical (and Rudkin stand-in, no doubt), launches into an anti-government/pro-Common Man tirade at a town hall, Stephen fumes and, back home, hurls personal invective against Arne and his wife much to the disappointment of his parents.

By this point, it ought to be clear that Stephen is overcompensating, and his fixation on strict dichotomies—Christian and non-Christian, Angel and Demon, Light and Dark, Divine and Earthly—will continue to plague him until, by film’s end, he is confronted with the opportunity for resolution, however tenuous. This drama’s kickstarted when a local youth gets disfigured as a result of some of the shadowy defense operations (excoriated earlier by Arne) taking place in the nearby wilds of their village, named Pinvin. The event might lull a less-aware viewer (such as myself) into thinking that more pulpy genre elements are now at play: government tampering has awakened a malevolent, pre-historic entity slumbering beneath the Malvern Hills, and it’s got its hungry eyes set on the unsuspecting Pinvin population, and so on. You’ve seen it before.

While Penda’s Fen is decidedly NOT such a flick, what’s intriguing is that Rudkin/Clarke draw upon the same well of cultural paranoia that such flicks do, and direct those forces onto a psychological dissection of Stephen’s coming-of-age, which is its own horror-show. Possibly the most chilling moment in the film is the first dream sequence, where Stephen’s vision of an angelic silhouette rising from between two hills is interrupted by images of homoerotic desire: sweating, muddy lads locked in a rugby scrum, and then a bully from school made naked and smirking atop him. A pale hand caresses the bully’s torso, drawn down to a flickering fire where his genitals ought to be—only for Stephen to open his eyes and see, straddling him, a grinning incubus.

Spiritual visitation? Sleep paralysis? Whatever the case may be, it’s arguably the film’s most famous image, and more importantly, is horror done right, finished in total silence, nicely counterbalancing the heavy-handed symbolism preceding it. Something certainly has been awakened by the arrogant manipulations of establishment power, but nothing as crude as a Monster of the Week menace.

What follows is far from something like The Wicker Man, non-reliant on any single shocking plot twist that dramatically overturns the viewer’s perception of the proceedings. A revelation does occur, but at the far end of a series of blows to Stephen’s psyche which have gradually weakened his resistance to seeming “impurities.” One of the more mysterious moments is Stephen’s encounter with Edward Elgar himself, wheelchair-bound and muttering to no one in an abandoned building. Here, Elgar the old and broken man, not the channel of genius through which Divinity reveals itself, manifests. And another dream-sequence where genteel families in an Edwardian garden have their hands butchered off exposes to Stephen the real price of conformity.

That Stephen’s plight can be seen as an allegory of England and its anxieties over purity (be it racial, ideological, etc.) has been amply noted. He is well-sketched enough, however, to resist a straight allegorical reading. He is believable, as are the people around him, even Arne, whose grandiose speechifying a lesser actor than Ian Hogg would’ve hammed up. But I think the most noteworthy performance belongs to John Atkinson, who plays Stephen’s father, the Reverend J. Franklin. He is a closeted subversive, whose drafts of a book concerning the true revolutionary nature (and pagan origins) of Jesus which has been corrupted by the Church are found by Stephen in his study. His attachment to “truth” above doctrinal compulsion is an essential motivator for Stephen’s subsequent detachment from dogma. Atkinson has a craggy, soulful face, and his eyes convey much depth on their own, and he perfectly embodies the sort of thoughtfully articulate type the role demands.

It is through his father that Stephen learns of the country’s pre-Christian past, and of King Penda, one of Britain’s last pagan rulers, from whom their village name derives (“Penda’s Fen” becoming “Pinvin” over the centuries). These revelations are crucial for Stephen to understand how very little that’s claimed to be pure actually is, and how much the politics of the conservative establishment is truly committed to squashing any trace of the strange or foreign—even that of its own past.

While one doesn’t have to adopt wholesale an allegorical reading, Stephen’s dreams/visions do carry allegorical weight, especially in the film’s final moment. Stephen confronts the Mother and Father of England (recurring figures in his dreams in the guise of anti-progressive figures whom Stephen initially admires) and, after resisting their appeals, has a vision of a resurrected Penda enthroned. He implores Stephen to take to heart his newfound “dissonant” nature, in the hopes that it will resurge once the current Christian establishment falls. In a wise choice, the film ends with no strong indication that Stephen has fully devoted himself to these injunctions—instead he is simply viewed from behind in his cross-legged position once again, and then he walks away, hands in his pockets.

How common is it for an extremist in one ideology to drop his beliefs in favor of simply the opposite extreme? We do not know what Stephen will do with these many lessons, now, and although it’s entirely possible for him to become as ardently anti-establishment as Arne, the closing moment’s silence leaves Stephen’s future slightly ambiguous. To be truly dissonant, of course, one must not be held in the sway of a single tone, but contain more than one, however awkwardly.

Penda’s Fen is not what one would call a subtle film, exactly. It’s actually quite clear about the ideas it traffics in and is unafraid to lay down the heavy hand of symbolism. However, one cannot deny its relevance even for today’s age, with talk of so-called national purity still firmly capturing the minds of citizens in the “Christian” west. It’s a convenient myth for those in power, and it relies on the Stephens of the world being crushed in order to survive.

But it’s myths all the way down, really, whether pagan or Christian. Stephen finds worth in relating Britain’s ancient and conflicting mysteries to his situation—a move which may or may not be as helpful for others on their own identity-seeking path. It is Stephen’s discovery of difference, though, which is most significant, rather than the comfort of any easy answers applicable to all.

While Rudkin/Clarke’s work is nowhere near perfect, it directs its many influences/concerns in such a way that marks it sui generis, and of a time when public television (in Britain or beyond) was daring enough to confront viewers with truly eclectic programming. Such days have passed, unfortunately, but there’s reason to hope that the example of Penda’s Fen might inspire the current age’s artists to stage their own re-vision of things, and to lead audiences toward even stranger dissonances.

The YouTube channel Play for Forever contains a generous collection of the BBC’s now-defunct Play for Today series, which Penda’s Fen featured in thanks to David Rose, who also produced Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May later in the decade. The channel is a wonderful resource, check it out.

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