Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"How Shall I Show My Love?"

PLAY FOR TODAY - PENDA'S FEN (1974)

Interviewed in the Radio Times at the time of PENDA'S FEN's original broadcast, David Rudkin commented " ... 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 ..."
 
BRITAIN is a land of foreboding subterranean terrors, isolated woodlands and remote islands. It is a country that, to a certain extent, still follows its ancient boundaries, pathways and quirky lore. Beneath the decomposing topsoil of British film, a richer, weirder substance pervades. It is a material of the past that permeates the present and future, mineral horizons darker in tone that exist within our celluloid. If the moving image itself is the greatest ghost story, this secret property teems with a surreal catalogue of customs and practices, and an engaging alternative to urbanisation. In this semi-forgotten Albion, film has seen human nature fighting its demons in WITCHFINDER GENERAL and BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW; Ben Wheatley's phantasmagorical nightmares KILL LIST and A FIELD IN ENGLAND; and old religions explored in THE WICKER MAN and THE BORDERLANDS.

Written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke on the writer's insistence, the BBC's PLAY FOR TODAY showcase PENDA'S FEN is a major example of this exponent for television, and a ninety minute sermon on identification. During his last boyhood summer Stephen (Spencer Banks) awakens a buried force against the backdrop of the Malvern Hills. His sexual, mystical and political growing pains are played out against a past and present England, where he encounters angels, demons, Edward Elgar and King Penda ("Be secret. Child be strange, dark, true, impure, and dissonant. Cherish our flame.") His confusion is further heightened by his pastor father's doubts of orthodox Christianity, and the revelation that his is adopted "with foreign blood."
 
"Unnatural"; in a constant flux between adolescene and anguish, at the height of a homosexual yearning Stephen awakes in his bed to find a gargoyle perched over him.

Under a minimal sound design from the Radiophonic Workshop, the play mirrors the elemental struggle between pagan values and the modern "machine." Clarke himself has admitted that he didn't fully understand its meaning (Stephen's "waking dream" of a man cutting off the hands of willing children is particularly perplexing), but Banks portrays a character as pompous as much of the dialogue. Its focus on myth sits out-of-place with Clarke's usual social realism, and in Rob Young's 2010 book Electric Eden, the author labels PENDA'S FEN as a psycho-geographical toolkit: " ... the occult history of Albion – the British Dreamtime – lies waiting to be discovered by anyone with the right mental equipment." It would be hard to see Rudkin's pastoral hybrid commissioned today; in fact, its slow-burning theories and ideas must have been a test even for seventies audiences.