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Penda’s Fen — Quest for Identity


kansiAlan Clarke’s television movie Penda’s Fen (1974) is a uniquely rich, dense, symbolic and engaging drama, like a multi-layered and multi-faceted gem. Written by David Rudkin, the movie follows a few weeks in the life of the 17–18-year old Stephen Franklin (Spencer Banks) who lives in the heart of England, in Pinvin, Worcestershire. The movie was produced for BBC’s Birmingham unit by the legendary David Rose (1924–2017).

From the very beginning it is evident that the protagonist, Stephen, is not an average adolescent. In stead of cadet excercises, he adores classical music, especially Sir Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. In a way, he is a classic outsider, despised by his classmates. On the top of this, he seems to have an innocent crush on the handsome young milkman, noticed by his parents before he himself does in a series of erotic dreams. It is almost surreal how he himself in the beginning of the movie esteems the nuclear family and abhors “unnaturals.” This is actual today as well because many people still yearn for “pure” identities and even wish to keep their country “clean.”

Penda’s Fen contains so much material that one might fear it bursting from the huge network of meanings and references. But everything seems to find its correct place, everything feels relevant and apt. The movie is a beautiful example of contemporary Baroque filmmaking — like a temperate representative of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s style, without the flamboyance of Ken Russell.


What have we here not? A political debate on the English miners’ strike of 1972; discussions of the true revolutionary personality of Jesus Christ by Stephen’s father (played by John C. Atkinson), a rector who secretly seems to have lost his faith; a search for the ancient rulers of England, especially Penda (606–655), the last pagan king of England; the sexual confusion when a young man is faced with his desire for other males which he cannot help; and Stephen’s search for a true English identity, after he is told on his 18th birthday that he was adopted and is of foreign origin — like the English language.

As the story proceeds, Stephen seems to find his way. His father explains almost in a Freudian vein that we can learn things from our dreams. “Your dream tells you a truth about yourself. A truth you hide from when you’re awake.” There are several dream sequences in Penda’s Fen which are not explained but still have their rightful place in the narration: people have their hands chopped off, angels and demons manifest themselves, and Stephen has a lengthy conversation with the late Sir Edward Elgar.


The theme of the film seems to be self-knowledge and the search for a true identity. In the beginning, we are encouraged to discover ourselves by a Greek inscription. So we embark upon a quest to find the deep true roots of the quintessential Englishness, below the layers of Christianity, before all the later façades. Also Stephen wishes to find out his real, pure self. However, he is forced to realize, “I am nothing pure! My race is mixed! My sex is mixed! I am woman and man, light with darkness, nothing pure! I am mud and flame!” Such seems to be the essence of any indentity, both personal and national, and that’s what life will learn us if we will lend it our ears.

It is almost uncanny how Stephen’s convictions are disturbed one by one, and simultaneously beautiful how he gains new understanding and solace, for instance when discussing adoption with Mrs. Arne.

Without understanding all or even feeling an urge to understand the movie completely, I was deeply moved by it. With a powerful honesty it poses impressive, surprising images and beautifully recited English dialogue, surrounded with the noble music of Elgar.

Penda’s Fen is not a gay movie; instead, homosexuality is merely one of the several aspects in Stephen’s personality, noted without making any ado about it, as if a person’s sexual preference were a fully neutral thing, like left- or right-handedness. This was modern in 1974 because homosexuality was illegal in some parts of the United Kingdom till 1982, and an equal age of consent was brought into force only in 2001.


Penda’s Fen was first broadcast in the U.K. on 21 March 1974 in the series Play for Today, BBC 1, and repeated only in 1990. The movie has been unaccessible for a long period of time. Therefore it is a much-awaited occasion that the British Film Institute has finally in 2016 remastered and released the movie on DVD and Blu-ray.

BFI has done a great job with this masterpiece. The film has been restored from the 16 mm camera negatives, and the monaural audio track from original tapes. The single-layered Blu-ray also includes a 16-minute featurette “The Landscape of Feelings: The Road to Penda’s Fen,” containing interviews with Rudkin, Rose, and others. A 16-page bookled is included, with an essay by Sukhdev Sandhu.

On the top of the single-disc release, Penda’s Fen is also available in the 13-disc collection Dissent & Disruption: Alan Clarke at the BBC (1969–1989) with a load of movies and a different selection of bonus materials.


Penda’s Fen
Directed by Alan Clarke
© 1974 BBC
Blu-ray Region B
Video: 1.33:1 High Definition (MPEG-4 1080i50)
Audio: English PCM 2.0 mono (2304 kbps)
Subtitles: English HoH
Runtime: 88:32 (25 fps)
British Film Institute BFIB1222
EAN 5035673012222



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