ponedjeljak, 27. travnja 2015.

Alan Clarke - Penda's Fen (1974)


Iskopavanje starog tv-filma sada je ono što je nekada bilo iskopavanje groba kralja Arthura. A i u filmu je riječ o iskopavanju istine, mitova, "čistoće"... itd. Grant Morrison ga je volio.

Written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke, Penda's Fen was first broadcast in 1974 as part of the BBC's Play for Today series. It tells the story of seventeen year-old Stephen, 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 encounters - whether real or imagined - force Stephen to question his religious beliefs, his politics and 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.
Penda's Fen, with its discussions of Manichean philosophy, dream sequences and the appearance of mythical creatures, seems somehow out of place in Alan Clarke's output. Indeed Clarke himself, who was recruited to direct the play at the behest of Rudkin who saw him as one of the best TV directors in Britain at the time, claimed he never fully understand what the play was about. Nevertheless, the exploration of white English masculinity is a theme common to many of Clarke's dramas. Whilst Stephen is far removed from the aggressive, urban and often working-class (anti) heroes typical of Alan Clarke dramas, he shares their disenfranchisement and their desire to rebel against his surroundings. - Justin Hobday

This is a post I’d been intent on writing for the past four years but kept putting off: why go to great lengths to describe another television drama which people can’t see? And how do you easily appraise something which haunted you for twenty years and which remains a significant obsession? My hand has been forced at last by a forthcoming event (detailed below) so this at least has some fleeting relevance, but before getting to that let’s have some facts.
Penda’s Fen was a TV play first screened in March 1974 in the BBC’s Play For Today strand. It was shot entirely on film (many dramas in the 1970s recorded their interiors on video) and runs for about 90 minutes. The writer was David Rudkin and it was directed by Alan Clarke, a director regarded by many (myself included) as one of the great talents to emerge from British television during the 1960s and 70s. The film was commissioned by David Rose, a producer at the BBC’s Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham, as one of a number of regional dramas. Rudkin was, and still is, an acclaimed playwright and screenwriter whose work is marked by recurrent themes which would include the tensions between pagan spirituality and organized religion, and the emergence of unorthodox sexuality. Both these themes are present in Penda’s Fen, and although the sexuality aspect of his work is important—pioneering, even—he’s far from being a one-note proselytiser. Alan Clarke is renowned today for his later television work which included filmed plays such as Scum (banned by the BBC and re-filmed as a feature), Made in Britain (Tim Roth’s debut piece), The Firm (with Gary Oldman), and Elephant whose title and Steadicam technique were swiped by Gus Van Sant. Penda’s Fen was an early piece for Clarke after which his work became (in Rudkin’s words) “fierce and stark”.
The most ambitious of Alan Clarke’s early projects, Penda’s Fen at first seems a strange choice for him. Most scripts that attracted Clarke, no matter how non-naturalistic, had a gritty, urban feel with springy vernacular dialogue (and sometimes almost no dialogue). David Rudkin’s screenplay is different: rooted in a mystical rural English landscape, it is studded with long, self-consciously poetic speeches and dense with sexual/mythical visions and dreams, theological debate and radical polemic—as well as an analysis of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. But though Penda’s Fen is stylistically the odd film out in Clarke’s work, it trumpets many of his favourite themes, in particular what it means to be English in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Howard Schuman, Sight & Sound, September 1998
Spencer Banks is the principal actor in Penda’s Fen, playing Stephen Franklin, an 18-year-old in his final days at school. The BBC’s Radio Times magazine described the film briefly:
Young Stephen, in the last summer of his boyhood, has somehow awakened a buried force in the landscape around him. It is trying to communicate some warning, a peril he is in; some secret knowledge; some choice he must make, some mission for which he is marked down.
The magazine also interviewed Rudkin about the film:
“I think of Penda’s Fen as more a film for television than a TV play—not just because it was shot in real buildings on actual film but because of its visual force…
“It was conceived as a film and written visually. Some people think visual questions are none of the writer’s business—that he should provide the action and leave it to the director to picture it all out. For me, writing for the screen is a business of deciding not only what is to be shown but how it is to be seen…
Penda’s Fen is a very simple story; it tells of a boy, Stephen, who in the last summer of his boyhood has a series of encounters in the landscape near his home which alter his view of the world…

“The first idea for the film came to me from something that happened a couple of years ago. It almost grew out of a village or, rather, its name (I won’t say what the name was because I use it for a special reason in the film). My wife was coming home one day when she found the road to the village closed. There was a diversion sign—and the name of the village had been misspelt by one letter. But it didn’t look like a mistake, more as if the painter had a different pronunciation. I found that the name had been spelt and pronounced this way—but centuries ago. And this was a corruption of an older, 12th-century version, itself a corruption of the oldest name of all, dating from pre-Christian times. You could, if you like, be fanciful and say that the misspelling was the old, primeval ‘demon’ of the place opening half an eye…
“The village itself is nothing much to shout about. It’s typical for the area: Victorian redbrick cottages, council houses, not ‘rurally picturesque’…
“I began to think of ‘burials’—like the legend of King Arthur, not dead but merely sleeping underground to wake again on a trumpet blast in England’s hour of peril. But I was becoming interested in another king—only a century after Arthur. And, if this king’s name is not exactly a household word, that’s because he was on the losing side. But he is a historical reality—we have the dates of his reign, the battles he fought. He was the last pagan king in England; I was thinking of Penda of Mercia…
“The wars that Penda waged against his Christianised neighbours were not religious wars—in fact, Penda himself did not try to prevent his son and daughter from becoming Christians as part of the dynastic marriage pacts they made—he was fighting for the political survival of Mercia. Not many years after the battle in which he died, England was Christianised—yet the old, dark ‘demon’ of Penda’s England refuses to lie down…
“Another, more famous figure’s hidden historical reality is also unearthed in the film—Elgar. But it’s more than Elgar’s music that haunts Penda’s Fen: there’s something of his spirit, too…
“Some still think of Elgar as the archetypal country gentleman whose music enshrines the noblest sentiments of patriotism and faith. That way of looking at him is similar to Stephen’s outlook on the world at the beginning of the film Elgar was, in fact, a tradesman’s son who married above himself and was socially over-sensitive all his life…
“But I didn’t want to think merely of the past—I wanted to open a futuristic window on the landscape, too. So into the story is borne Arne, the embittered neighbour who offers Stephen a savage political outlook on tomorrow’s world…
“I also wanted wanted to show that as far as earthly life is concerned, death is an absolute parting and a farewell. The old Mr and Mrs Kings, living in their cottage and growing their neat vegetable garden also show the strength of those people who can accept this…
“So there it is. As Stephen crosses the beautiful, haunted landscape towards the distant hills, his false certainties are one by one, stripped away. And finally, he looks back across the landscape and sees it with a new, harder sight…
Rudkin’s play is essentially a psychodrama in which the character of Stephen is shocked out of his priggish, conservative attitudes by a succession of personal and spiritual revelations. His parents inform him on his 18th birthday that he was adopted; his dreams reveal a growing awareness of his homosexuality and he’s chastised at school by teachers and the other boys for not fitting in; he discovers that his apparently mundane Rector father has authored a study of the Bible which argues that the original Gospels were malevolently tampered with in order to distort the radical message of the historic Jesus. The Malvern countryside becomes a psychic battleground in which the agents of a “pure” Christianity (the Gospel tamperers, in other words) compete with the nation’s buried pagan ancestry for Stephen’s soul which we can read as representing the future of Britain. The wealth of symbolism is rich without ever being forced and it’s partly this which makes the film so remarkable. An example: Stephen’s name is almost certainly a reference to Saint Stephen who was martyred by being stoned to death (in one of Stephen’s dreams we see him being pelted with mud). Rudkin is a Classical scholar (he provided the commentary on Greek matters in Tom Phillips’ and Peter Greenaway’s A TV Dante), as is Stephen’s character, and both the schoolboy and the writer would know that “Stephen” is a derivation of the Greek “Stephanos”, meaning “crown”; Stephen’s character is eventually seen as the inheritor of a spiritual kingship. Like Lindsay Anderson’s If…., the film is anti-authoritarian in a distinctly English way, standing against the orthodoxies of a poisonous and poisoning State and Church, and against attempts to enforce “purity” and “normality”. It should be noted that Rudkin is never anti-Christian, he’s against the contemporary manifestations of a religion which has lost sight of its origins.
Stephen (Spencer Banks) discovers his father’s manuscript.
The layered symbolism and discussion of metaphysical crisis was extremely bewildering to this 12-year-old TV viewer who was somehow allowed to watch the whole of the film past his usual bedtime. Spencer Banks was very familiar from a children’s science fiction series, Timeslip (1970-72), in which Banks played a bespectacled, slightly geeky character with whom I—being bespectacled and slightly geeky—naturally identified. In Penda’s Fen he appears wearing a bomber jacket like one I wore at the time, so the overall impression was of watching an older avatar of myself undergoing a bizarre rite of passage. None of it made any sense at all and the sexual aspect was completely lost on me; what was impressive and somewhat traumatising was the atmosphere of dread which accumulated in a succession of powerful, supernatural and—in one startling incident—uniquely horrifying scenes. Alan Clarke gives the dreams his usual documentary veracity but you’ll have to forgive my refusal to discuss any of those scenes in detail, to do so would spoil the effect and resonance of individual moments; the film should be experienced as a whole. It was the dreams and hallucinatory moments which I remembered for years after but, to my endless frustration, not the play’s title. Throughout the rest of the 1970s and most of the 80s no one I knew had seen it and consequently those disturbing images developed an additional power and mystery as they entangled themselves with my own dreams and memories. In the late 1980s the magic words “Penda’s Fen” came to light when it turned out that comics writer Grant Morrison was a Rudkin enthusiast who had also been haunted by the film. Grant later told me that a friend of his had corresponded with Rudkin in the 1970s so he’d got to Rudkin’s other work a lot sooner, and Rudkin’s plays have been an influence on Grant’s own work for the stage. What most frustrates me now is that I distinctly remember an announcement after the film that Rudkin would be discussing the drama in a following program. Given the BBC’s negligent handling of its output there’s no guarantee that this studio discussion has survived.
Penda’s Fen might have remained as buried as its ancient king had it not been screened again on Channel 4 in 1989 as part of a retrospective season of dramas produced by David Rose. That gave me the chance to record it at last and I’ve been acting as a cheerleader for the film ever since. (I also carefully transferred my copy to DVD in 2003, worried that the tape might get damaged and I’d lose the thing again.) It’s likely that I’m partly responsible for its renewed cult reputation having alerted various friends in the music and publishing world to its existence. The film is increasingly cited in discussion of Britain’s heritage of folk and pagan culture, most recently by Rob Young in a piece for Sight & Sound. Perhaps inevitably, the film has been ushered into the charmed circle of revenant Ghost Box icons, and will be receiving a rare screening at the Belbury Youth Club event this coming Sunday, March 28th, along with other films and music which comprise the Flatpack Festival 2010. If you’re in the Birmingham area, the Flatpack events run throughout this coming week.
Rudkin’s play wasn’t a one-off, his other work is equally powerful, engaging and fascinating. A later film for the BBC, the wildly ambitious Artemis 81, is three hours in length (!) and explores similar themes, albeit in a less coherent fashion. It also includes Daniel Day-Lewis’s first screen appearance and has Sting playing Hywel Bennett’s angelic object of homoerotic desire. Rudkin’s stage work is fiercely imaginative, using Joycean dialogue to striking effect, and I’m continually surprised that no one seems interested in re-staging remarkable plays such as The Sons of Light. As for Penda’s Fen, whenever a TV executive tries to argue that television hasn’t dumbed down I’d offer this work as Exhibit A for the prosecution. Rudkin and Clarke’s film was screened at 9.35 in the evening on the nation’s main TV channel, BBC 1, at a time when there were only three channels to choose from. A primetime audience of many millions watched this visceral and unapologetically intelligent drama; show me where this happens today.
Finally, as with the Beardsley play, yes, I have my own copy but, no, I can’t copy it for you, so please don’t ask. Artemis 81 appeared on DVD in 2007 but a proposed release of Alan Clarke films from the BBC including Penda’s Fen has yet to emerge. A DVD set of Clarke’s later work appeared a few years ago but these were all the violent dramas which tends to skew perception of his career and make him appear as a kind of Stanley Kubrick with a Stanley knife. Given Clarke’s reputation and the growing cult status of Penda’s Fen it’s surely time to put this unique drama before a wide audience once again.
- John Coulthart www.johncoulthart.com/feuilleton/2010/03/22/pendas-fen-by-david-rudkin/

David Rudkin’s website



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