Sunday, 12 February 2017

The old elemental forces...

Sometimes you see a programme on television that ticks so many boxes you can practically see the commissioners delight when they first saw the pitch. It's exactly what the public wants, here's your cheque, go away and make it.

Sometimes something gets made and you think "ok, well it was a brave risk" when it doesn't quite work.

Then there's Penda's Fen.

Looking at it from 40-odd years on, it's difficult to fathom exactly how Pebble Mill got away with making it. David Rudkin's sprawling, soaringly ambitious entry into the Play for Today canon is *so* far beyond the run of the mill that you wonder who was braver - Rudkin for writing it or the BBC for not holding him back.

As a narrative I've always felt that it shares a kindred spirit with O Lucky Man! It's not a satire, but it is bitingly, howlingly angry. Angry about all sorts of things - conservation, organised religion, sexuality, myth, the government, the establishment, the education system; very little escapes Rudkin's attention.

The plot is slight - a teenage boy is forced to confront his emerging sexuality in an almost overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere. As the film progresses, his rigid certainties (he's quite an unpleasant chap anyway) are one by one stripped away through a series of occult/mythic encounters - from the ghost of Elgar through angels, demons to the hillside denouement meeting with the spirit of King Penda himself. Penda was the last pagan king of England and stands for all the things that the hero starts out despising - the unruly, untidy, impure and non-conformist.

Beautifully shot in Worcestershire, Penda's Fen gets under the skin of the English sensibility and questions who the English are. It's quite an intense experience, blending cinematic pastoralism with Hammer horror. The effects are clearly dated, but I think are none the less unsettling with the patina of naivete which the passage of time has given them. Some scenes (one in particular) are so horrific that they remain burned into my mind years after I first saw them.

Overall it's a difficult, troubling film, that asks difficult troubling questions. Play for Today ranged widely in its styles, and the subjects that it tackled, but with Penda's Fen I think it reached a high water mark for experimental television. There's just no way that it would have been made today - it's difficult enough to believe that they made it then!

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