But, privately, Stephen is in turmoil. He is struggling with his sexuality and secretly beginning to question the world around him. His grip on reality is slipping away. His fascination with Edward Elgar’s orchestral work The Dream of Gerontius is inspiring nightmares of angels and demons and he wanders into a grove where men, women, and children smile serenely as their hands are severed on a chopping block. Before long, a chance meeting with the long-dead Elgar, a portentous hill-top encounter with King Penda – the last pagan King of England - and shocking revelations about his own genesis will threaten to shatter Stephen’s world completely.
Penda’s Fen caused a sensation when it was originally televised in 1974, and it is easy to see why. It is a powerful piece of filmmaking that defies categorisation. It is, by turns, surreal, political, mythological, magical and a multi-layered character study of a conflicted adolescent on the brink of sexual and ideological transformation. Some reviewers have called it a ‘folk horror’ and, because of its pagan elements and its subtle underlying thread of theological conflict, believe that Penda’s Fen shares some of its DNA with The Wicker Man. Given that Penda’s Fen was broadcast only four months after The Wicker Man was released, the comparisons are understandable, but don’t really hold up. The two films might touch briefly upon similar themes but they are very different animals, albeit equally disturbing and impressive.
Penda’s Fen is not only a landmark of British television. It is also a reminder of how great British television used to be, when writers and directors were allowed full unfettered rein to work their craft and the results, although sometimes challenging and uncomfortable to watch, were almost always intelligent, thought-provoking, and deeply personal leaps of the imagination. This is all that and more, and if you are serious about cinema the BFI’s fabulous new Blu-ray presentation is definitely not to be missed.
PENDA’S FEN / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR: ALAN CLARKE / SCREENPLAY: DAVID RUDKIN / STARRING: SPENCER BANKS, JOHN ATKINSON, GEORGINE ANDERSON / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW