Penda's Fen (1974)
Spencer Banks (Stephen Franklin), Georgine Anderson (Mrs Franklin), John Atkinson (Rev. Franklin), Jennie Hesslewood (Mrs Arne), Ian Hogg (Arne), Graham Leaman (Sir Edward Elgar), Geoffrey Staines (King Penda), Ray Gatenby (man), Joan Scott (lady),
Writing these entries can be a tiring business. Some write easier than others, pieces that are drawn from within like those coloured cloths from a magician’s hat. Others are like self-performed operations without anaesthetic, they leave you needing a couple of weeks’ recuperation in hospital. Then there are the really difficult ones, pieces that taunt you, get inside your head and whisper ‘na, na, na, na, na’ and take off again. Film writing like catching flies with chopsticks.
Take a director like Alan Clarke, Britain’s premier mirror holder to grim, angry working class Britain in the 1970s and 80s. If one missed his name on the credits could one believe he had actually made it? Not since Henry Hathaway made Peter Ibbetson – if indeed he really did – has a director fit less cosily with his material. This was the man who gave us Tim Roth in Made in Britain, and while that’s the only other Clarke in this selection, his admirers would talk about Contact, Elephant and Christine. I myself would trade all three just for one sequence in his Road, with Lesley Sharp giving one of the greatest Steadicam monologues that you will ever see (if only the drama had quite lived up to that moment). I was close to including it just for those few minutes…
Who should have made Penda’s Fen? Michael Powell, perhaps, c.1945, or Lindsay Anderson, whose If… is a sort of inspiration…at least up to a point. Yet on another level, was Clarke actually an inspired decision, for in understanding Britain in its most deglamorised, socially divided time, did he not get to the very essence of modern Britain and, in doing so, its past? Still, one finds it easier to imagine him directing Johnny Rotten singing ‘God Save the Queen’, not a public school assembly singing ‘Jerusalem’.
I haven’t even mentioned the plot yet, and I’m not going to. My reasons may become apparent if you are ever lucky enough to see it, for even now Clarke’s stuff – Made in Britain and The Firm aside – is still not on DVD in the UK. But I wonder if Penda’s Fen is not the most ‘dangerous’ of them all. A film that raises the question of Edward Elgar’s Enigma within the Enigma, and dares to have the composer himself turn up to answer, but not to tell us. A work that dares to have as its protagonist a truly dislikeable little oink, the sort who not only does get persecuted at school but in many ways deserves to. Politics is always there, but it plays second or even third fiddle to something altogether loftier and unclassifiable; the very notion of religion, of Christianity against Paganism, of ‘the old ways’, of the fight between light and dark…