Penda’s Fen was first broadcast in 1974 as part of the BBC’s long-running Play for Today series. Since then it has only been broadcast on TV once, in 1990 on Channel 4. It has never been released on video, DVD or BluRay but it has cropped up at various film festivals through the years. Fortunately, a video recording of the 1990 broadcast has been uploaded to YouTube so it is possible for anyone to watch this most unusual TV play.
Stephen Franklin is a snobbish, right-wing moralist in his last year at school. He espouses a rigid view of Christian morality that even his mother and his Anglican vicar father find embarrassingly conservative. In a sixth-form debate he praises a well-known, campaigning Christian couple. They have recently succeeded in getting banned a TV documentary investigating the historical truth of Jesus. He describes them as “a mother and a father of England who in this modern wilderness of amorality stand up alone to uphold our Aryan national family on its Christian path.”
But Stephen’s awakening sense of sexuality forces him to realize that he has homosexual desires. With this realization comes an extraordinarily tense and dialectically violent series of supernatural encounters that seem to reflect the sense that Stephen’s metaphysical world is breaking down. At one point he wakes in the night to find a Fuseli-like gnome sitting on his bed. Sitting on a riverbank he sees an angel. And in a memorable scene he meets the ghost of Edward Elgar.
By this point, his previously rigid sense of right-wing, Christian morality has been broken down. Meeting some sort of spectral version of the Christian couple he had so admired earlier, Stephen now rejects their concept of purity: “No, no! I am nothing pure! Nothing pure. My race is mixed. My sex is mixed. I am woman and man, light with darkness, mixed, mixed. I am nothing special, nothing pure! I am mud and flame!”
Ultimately, Stephen encounters a manifestation of King Penda, the last pagan king of England. The pagan king operates as a sort of presiding deity of England and blesses Stephen’s new found sense of identity: “The flame is in your hands, we trust it to you our sacred demon of ungovernableness. . . Stephen be secret. Child be strange, dark, true, impure, and dissonant. Cherish our flame. Our dawn shall come.”
This brief précis barely scratches the surface of this extraordinarily busy play. In fact, an uncontrolled excess of strange symbolism is a recurring structural flaw in the work of the writer, David Rudkin. But what is perhaps most striking of all in this film is the vast power that seems to emerge from the land and the way in which this power is handled ideologically.
The title of the play comes from a small Worcestershire village, Pinvin, which derives from the Old English, Penda’s Fen. Stephen’s gradual realization that his identity is more fluid than he had previously realized is closely connected to the etymological uncovering of the meaning of Pinvin. We are alerted to the significance of this when Stephen sees a workman incorrectly spell a road sign as ‘Pinfin’, inadvertently pointing to the earlier spelling. For Stephen, his identity has always been integrally Christian English, and the notion that either Christianity or Englishness could be undermined in any way would strike him as subversive. The realization that this small village is named after the pagan King allows for the hidden heathen past of England to rise to the surface of Stephen’s consciousness. Stephen’s ultimate encounter with Penda is a direct reckoning with the pagan heritage of the British Isles, and the final nail in the coffin of Stephen’s Christianity.
All of this is intended to undermine Stephen’s notion of an ‘Aryan’ England, something that David Rudkin is quite clear about: “that boy’s journey is toward the very opposite of a simplistic ‘purity’. That’s the naïve image of himself with which he starts out. In a series of encounters, on various levels of reality, this ‘pure’ self of his is deconstructed. Even his iconic Englishman, Edward Elgar, proves to have Celt in his blood. And those Celts themselves, who might seem original to these islands, came here once from Asian lands.”
So, the point is not to alert us to a prior, more authentic version of England that existed before Christianity, but to resist the very notion of national identity itself. Rudkin explains: “At his last encounter, with Penda himself, what the old pagan king enjoins upon him is to reject the notions of belonging and ‘type’ altogether, and go out instead into a complex world, truly individuated, empowered by his own mixedness and inner contradictions, and unique.”
What this all amounts to is a sort of dark night of the soul, wherein Stephen experiences numinous emanations from the English landscape that cause him to abandon his prior certainties and to adopt a more fluid and layered sense of identity.
As I intend to show, the strength of this story comes from the powerful depiction of the numinous spectres of the land that cause such a dramatic dissolution of Stephen’s identity; the weakness consists in the reconstruction of Stephen’s personality as a prescient anticipation of 1980s Left-wing identity politics. As an exercise in Right-wing hauntology, this analysis will be unique in reversing the received evaluation of Penda’s Fen’s merits that has now become orthodox amongst critics.
One of the crucial things to note about the effectiveness of Penda’s Fen as a work of drama is the powerful role that the spectral emanations play in the narrative. Almost throughout the play Stephen is haunted by various supernatural beings and hallucinatory scenarios. Where these are definitely registered as dreams or hallucinations they are filmed closer to a vérité style rather than as a surreal, hypnagogic intermission. And where the spectral beings simply appear in the narrative, as though they were entirely natural, this is deliberately intended to posit their objective presence in the landscape. Rudkin is clear about this:
I remember one moment in the dub. . . It’s that moment when the angel visits Stephen on the riverbank and the syntax is very careful. You see the objective presence of the angel first, and then you see Stephen seeing the reflection. That’s because the angel is really there, in my book. The dubbing mixer was very unhappy about that. When we did the first edit, he’d taken the bird song off the soundtrack. And I said, ‘Why have we lost the birds here?’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘because there’s an angel there.’ I said, ‘No, no, no. The birds go on. That angel is part of that context.’
And this is one of the reasons why Penda’s Fen exerts such a powerful effect on the viewer. We somehow sense that Stephen’s dissolution is not simply an individual breakdown, but is connected with much wider and more powerful energies, all of which seem to touch on a sense of national identity. Indeed, these sinister emanations appear to conform to Rudolf Otto’s description of the numinous in The Idea of the Holy as the intrusion of the “wholly other.” Never is the viewer invited to feel that these supernatural beings are a psychological projection of Stephen’s troubled mind, even though that would be a rational interpretation. Another film that chose to rely on the psychological interpretation of ghostly phenomena was the 1968 adaptation of M. R. James’ Whistle and I’ll Come to You. That film does depict the ghostly apparition quite clearly as a product of the Professor’s neurosis and it consequently fails spectacularly as a work of horror fiction. Penda’s Fen by contrast shows the numinous intrusion of the sacred landscape as an objective fact and derives great power from doing so.
But at this point we have to deal with Stephen’s subsequent reconstruction as an incipient New Leftist. The emanations from the Worcestershire landscape dissolve Stephen’s ego and compel him to reengage with a different, buried England. This England is shown to be one that conforms closely to the vision of England depicted by another character, Arne, who is a socialist writer. Stephen is initially repelled by Arne (whom he even suspects might be ‘unnatural’ [i.e. homosexual]) but subsequent to his series of strange revelations, Stephen comes to recognize Arne’s England as a place where he more truly belongs. Significantly, Stephen mentions that Arne’s plays always have an ‘unnatural’ character in them. Appearing only a few years after the decriminalization of homosexuality, this was a somewhat radical idea. Naturally, Arne is a sort of synecdoche for the playwright, Rudkin, himself.
So Stephen’s reconstruction of his identity from the ashes of his numinous disintegration is at least partly guided by a rather novel idea of left-wing identity politics. To some extent this notion was drawn from thinkers of the New Left who modified conventional Marxist thinking to move away from a focus on the economic means of production and advocated for feminism, gay rights, etc. as a new means of facilitating social change. Thus, the new focus was more concerned with the cultural means of production. The subsequent and ongoing popularity of this sort of politics is probably one reason why David Rudkin’s works have not dated in the same way as some other politically committed Left-wing playwrights of the 1970s.
For Stephen, this new identity comes as a sort of mystical revelation. He becomes at one level the alchemical androgyne, experiencing the power of sacred anarchy, dissolving boundaries and coming to know the power of disobedience. For Rudkin, this is a Blakean moment whereby the shackles of religion and social conformity are broken and the light of individuation is experienced directly. But for me, as mentioned earlier, this moment of self-realization does not carry the power it is intended to. For one thing, Left-wing identity politics has revealed itself to be more about individualism than individuation. But more significantly, Stephen has merely exchanged one ideology for another. Strangely enough, this can best be understood by referring to Slavoj Žižek.
In his analysis of the John Carpenter film They Live, Žižek explains that ideology is not simply an imposition on reality; that one cannot simply take off the distorting glasses of ideology and see things for what they really are. Elsewhere he elaborates further on the notion that ideology is inscribed into our sense of self-awareness:
One does something, one counts oneself as (declares oneself as) the person who did it, and, on the basis of this declaration, one does something new – the proper moment of subjective transformation occurs at the moment of declaration, not at the moment of the act. This reflexive moment of declaration means that every utterance not only transmits some content, but, simultaneously, determines how the subject relates to this content. Even the most down-to-earth objects and activities always contain such a declarative dimension, which constitutes the ideology of everyday life.
From this point of view, Stephen’s declaration of a new androgynous, pansexual, racially mixed identity is a transformative moment which is ideologically different from his previous identity but no more authentic. He has destroyed one ideologically conditioned sense of identity and replaced it with another. Certainly he has changed as a person but I don’t think that the nature of his new identity carries the weight that it needs to in order to express the sort of mystical, alchemical transformation that is intended. He has dissolved his ego into the Worcestershire landscape but then emerged with a pre-formatted identity based on the emerging idea of identity politics. This might have seemed mildly shocking in 1974 but the subsequent popularity of those ideas only seems to vindicate the reading that I am suggesting; that Stephen’s new identity is an ideological construct just as much as the one he has discarded.
So, if at one level Stephen has simply progressed from one sort of ideology to another, what is there that remains to transmit the evident power that comes from Penda’s Fen? The answer, I feel, must lie with those spectral emanations of the landscape, those ghosts and angels who attend Stephen’s period of greatest dialectical tension. Some of them (e.g. Elgar and Penda) give advice and counsel to Stephen whereas others simply appear and then disappear. It is those latter specters, I would suggest, that best exemplify the nature of the numinous. According to Otto in The Idea of the Holy, the numinous is a direct engagement with the “wholly other,” whereas traditional religions are a systematization and codification of that experience. The specters who counsel Stephen are performing the role of traditional religions, nudging (or compelling) him towards a particular ideologically sanctioned sense of identity. The spectral emanations that simply appear to Stephen without any apparent message are more genuine intrusions of the numinous. Or to put it in slightly different terms, the numinous is a moment of authentic self-realization, whereas the self-awareness of identity is a return to an ideologically inscribed projection of ego.
So, that which remains in Penda’s Fen when all that is ideological is stripped away are a few moments of silent confrontation with something that is wholly other. As soon as one attempts to conceptualize these moments one falls into ideological interpretations of one sort or another. The orthodox reading of Penda’s Fen gives weight to Stephen’s reconstruction as a New Left quasi-mystic, and this ensures its current popularity. But lying beneath this story are some of the latent energies of Albion, and it is in those mute ghosts that the enduring power of the landscape resides.
1. David Rudkin, “Mongrel Nation,” Vertigo, 2(5) Summer 2003.
3. S. S. Sandhu, ed., The Edge is Where the Centre is: David Rudkin and Penda’s Fen: A Conversation (No location: Texte und Töne, 2014), p. 46.
4. Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (London: Verso, 2011), pp. 226-7.