Penda's Fen (1974)


One of your sons:

Penda's Fen

Author K B Morris examines the 1974’s BBC Play for Today, David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen, and its exploration of the notion of Englishness…

Penda’s Fen was first broadcast on Thursday 21st of March for the BBC1 strand Play for Today. It was written by David Rudkin (1936-) who rose to prominence in the ’60s with his play, Afore Night Come (1962). Rudkin was inspired by the playwright Harold Pinter,

‘…a play came to Oxford on its out-of-town try-out, called The Birthday Party and by an unheard-of writer called Harold Pinter, and it simply exploded between my ears. This amazing unknown writer had discovered poetry at the very opposite end of the language spectrum, in the trite and the stunted and the banal.’ (Rudkin, Afore Night Come (2001)). 

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David Rudkin

Rudkin was born into a family of evangelical Christians and studied Classics at Oxford before going on to teach Latin, Greek and music at a high school in Worcestershire. He directed amateur theatre whilst teaching and went on to write stage, radio and TV plays and scripts. Rudkin’s background in classics is evident throughout Penda’s Fen from myths to ancient Greek sayings.

Penda’s Fen was produced by David Rose who was head of English Regional Drama at the time and responsible for nurturing some incredible British writers and directors such as Alan Bleasdale, David Hare and Mike Leigh. It was Rose’s idea to bring David Rudkin and Alan Clarke together for Penda’s Fen. In his notes to the screenplay Rudkin wrote:

‘But I must without being invidious single out for particular gratitude the producer David Rose who far from being daunted by my first synopsis removed every administrative and financial barrier that might have fallen in its way.’ penda's fen

Penda’s Fen is visually striking and director Alan Clarke, later admitted that he didn’t really understand it. During an interview about his work, Rudkin said, ‘I am afflicted by images, by things that are seen, pictures of things, they are extraordinary, momentary, but they stay with me.’ He was talking about his play Afore Night Come, but could easily be talking about Penda’s Fen which features, angels, demons and other striking scenes.

penda's fenPenda’s Fen was written and broadcast during a particularly tumultuous time in British history. At its core, it can be said to be an exploration of the notion of ‘Englishness’. This was partly because of the National Front who formed in 1967 as a reaction against predominately South Asian immigration. By the mid-70s the National Front was the fourth largest political party in the UK and Penda’s Fen is set in Birmingham which was Enoch Powell’s constituency. In fact, Powell gave his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968, at the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham.

The idea for Penda’s Fen came about after Rudkin’s wife described a diversion sign, that misspelt the name of the village. After some research, Rudkin discovered that the village had been spelt like that centuries ago. Not only was that spelling a mistake, but the one before that as well. This discovery was described by Rudkin as, ‘…the old, primeval ‘demon’ of the place opening half an eye…’

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Stephen (Spencer Banks) sees the misspelling of the village

King Penda’s Kingdom was Mercia which is a Latinisation of the Old English Mierce or Myrce meaning ‘border people.’ It is now known as the English Midlands. Birmingham is a borough and city in the Midlands or ‘middle England’. King Penda was a pagan king who ruled from 626 until approximately 655 when he was killed at the Battle of Winwaed and succeeded by his son. With this knowledge, which Rudkin described as, a ‘shock to encounter’ we already have a theme of progeny, of inheritance, of liminal spaces and embedded history. Rudkin found this information because of a misspelling, ‘at this unremarkable crossroads with its traffic lights and cluster of council houses, an epiphany of that critical convulsion in our history when officially the old gods died and their light went out.’

Rudkin, who saw himself as a political writer placed himself into the film as the reactionary playwright, Arne (Ian Hog) who lives with his wife (Jennie Heslewood, unfortunately only named ‘Mrs Arne’). At a debate in the local village hall, Arne is answering a question about the strikes which ground Britain to a halt during much of the 70s concluding in the ‘winter of discontent’. Arne is arguing against the assertion that the strikers are holding the country to ransom which was a common refrain at the time. Arne instead tries to divert attention to the government which he sees as secretive and malevolent.

Arne believes that the government do not have the people’s interests at heart. He talks of things hidden in the landscape, that the breathtaking views are not as benign as the people think. We are given a sign of this during the opening credits when a badly burned hand rises from the ground. Later, a man who is taking a leak in the grass comes back to his friends badly burned. We later catch a glimpse of him in his hospital bed surrounded by the military. As such, there is not only an air of secrecy in and about the land but the idea that it’s not ours but belongs to the government or some other force. Arne introduces the idea of other people, people who control the government, the people really in power that don’t have the people’s best interests at heart.

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Arne at the debate

Arne tells the villagers to think about what is really underneath them: ‘Farmland and pasture now, an ancient Fen. The earth beneath your feet feels solid there. It is not. Somewhere there the land is hollow. Somewhere beneath is being constructed, something – We’re not supposed to know. A Top Secret: we locals are not supposed to know it’s even there!’ The seventies was in the midst of the cold war with the constant threat of nuclear strikes as Russia and the US sought to outdo each other in arms. Britain was building a series of bunkers in readiness and living under the four minute warning.

The institutions that Stephen is so keen to be a part of at the beginning of the film, are becoming less attractive. Arne touches upon this in the debate when he describes miners, factory workers and the villagers as unsuspecting fodder for something bigger than themselves. Stephen’s mother (Georgine Anderson) warns him about getting an education, as factory workers pour like ants out of a factory and surround them. She describes ambulances going to and from the factory, as the workers are forced into an early grave. This is still applicable today, with The World Health Organisation estimating that 700,000 people a year are dying from stroke and heart disease, because of long working hours. With the rise of globalisation, we are outsourcing our factory workers who are in low-income countries working in factories, with scant labour laws protecting them.

Even though the Midlands was a cornerstone of the industrial revolution, because of its natural resources, it also produced plenty of dissenters and radicals, most prominently in the Lunar Society and Victorians such as Darwin. Penda’s Fen features the hymn Jerusalem, said by many to be England’s unofficial anthem. The words were by William Blake who was staunch anti industrialist. Blake makes reference to ‘dark Satanic Mills’ which has been interpreted as factory workers who were working under the yolk of the rich, including the monarchy. Blake believed that industrialisation mechanised the lives of people and saw it as an evil. As Stephen’s mum tells him, ‘A man cannot leave the belt for one moment, without calling a stand-in to take his place. The belt moves on regardless of the needs of men…It gets at his heart, his life’s whole rhythm gets chained to the machine.’

In contrast, Arne is planting vegetables and flowers and is described as having ‘earthy’ hands. He talks of the ‘primal genie of the earth’, perhaps a reference to the genius loci, which in classical Roman religion was the protective spirit of the land. As such Arne is harking back to an old religion. His wife has placed a leaf over their cat’s wound acting as a poultice and takes us back to a time when herbs and plants were used as medicine. Arne and his wife act as a metaphor for simpler, more wholesome times even though Stephen had earlier called them ‘unnatural’ because they can’t have children. It is Stephen’s parents who could not have children and Stephen finds out he’s adopted from parents who aren’t English. As such, everything Stephen is sure of about himself, his Englishness is stripped back.penda's fen

There were many socio-political changes in the 70s, including a clash between liberals and conservatives as censorship legislation was loosened. TV, film and books were changing what was considered acceptable viewing. Many people weren’t happy with the changes and took it upon themselves to monitor the ‘arts’. Mary Whitehouse was campaigning against the permissiveness of society and founded a group called the Clean up TV Campaign in 1964, and their first meeting was in Birmingham’s Town Hall.

In reaction to the permissiveness of the 60s, there was a short-lived grassroots movement called the Nationwide Festival of Light which was founded by Whitehouse, and Peter and Janet Hill amongst others. Peter and Janet Hill are the Mother and Father of England as depicted in the film. The movement was for the restoration of conservative Christian values in the UK. There were several mass rallies in London during the early 70s. The founders of the movement, wanted Britain to revert back to a state of Christian purity and Rudkin is exploring exactly what that purity means through his protagonist.

penda's fenStephen has a dream when he is knocked off his bike where he encounters a large, country house with people dressed in yellow who are having their hands chopped off. He is approached by the Father and Mother of England as he walks into the garden. This scene could be based on the Greek character, Procrustes who is also called ‘the stretcher.’ He was a smith and bandit from Attica who attacked people by stretching them out or cutting off their legs in order to force them to fit the size of an iron bed. Procrustean is now an adjective, meaning enforced uniformity or conformity especially of a framework or system without regard to individuality.

As Rudkin said in a 2001 lecture:

‘…because the impulse of political institutions is always reductive: to limit us to identities that can be mechanically satisfied, thereby managed – i.e. controlled; to reduce us to identities that are predictable. I see it as our human identity to resist that reductive pressure; as our existential duty to subvert it at every turn.’

The opening of Penda’s Fen starts with The Dream of Gerontius (1900) which is based on a Roman Catholic text and it became a core repertory work despite its origins. Elgar saw himself as an outsider, he was from a Roman Catholic background, born to humble surroundings and he was self-taught. His reputation grew largely from the work he produced for the choral festivals of the English Midlands. As such his spirit, as well as his music, haunts the land. Rudkin describes him as ‘the archetypal country gentleman whose music enshrines the noblest sentiments of patriotism and faith’. That way of looking at him is similar to Stephen’s outlook on the world at the beginning of the film.

The Dream of Gerontinus is considered by many to be Elgar’s masterpiece. It was composed for the Birmingham music festival of 1900 and its first performance was at Birmingham Town Hall. Due to its Roman Catholic theology, it was difficult for it to be played in Anglican cathedrals so a revised version was used until 1910. Both Elgar and Hubert Parry who wrote the music for Jerusalem were influenced by European composers. Again reiterating the point that nothing is really ‘pure’.

The Dream of Gerontinus is about a journey through purgatory; a man searching for a place for his soul. Stephen is on a similar quest and has all his preconceptions shattered by finding out he’s not English, he’s not ‘pure’. At the end, the Father and Mother of England come to claim him as their own, but Stephen has irrevocably changed, not only by the information he has found out about himself but by the information he has discovered about the land.

Throughout his journey, Stephen is like a spur to his surroundings; he creates dissonance. He is different to the other schoolboys, who talk of boiling him in oil. He has his hair tied up in pink ribbons, perhaps because of something he’s done or because his classmates know he’s gay. His teachers talk of how he just doesn’t fit in. Dissonance is used in music to lend it a sense of urgency and to create strong emotions in the listener. It is a disruption of the harmonic or rhythmic, a deliberate awkwardness that creates a disturbing effect. Dissonance is used in order for music to progress, and Stephen suffers from a metaphorical dissonance from both himself and others.

Stephen begins with certainty over who he is and where he comes from, ‘Oh my country. I say over and over: I am one of your sons, it is true, I am, I am. Yet how shall I show my love?’ He wants to be a part of the institutions of not only England but masculinity, but layer by layer his surety is peeled away. He comes to the realisation that there is no such thing as ‘purity’ or pure Englishness or masculinity, he is man and woman. Through a series of encounters, Stephen learns that his sense of ‘purity’ was naïve.

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Penda (Geoffrey Staines) anoints Stephen

Stephen’s name is derived from the Greek Stephanos which means crown and his surname Franklin suggests a freeholder. It seems as though he is set to inherit a spiritual kingship. King Penda advises Stephen to ‘be strange’, to embrace himself in all his darkness and dissonance yet we are still unsure of how that will turn out as Rudkin says at the end of the script: ‘Which shall prevail? The Angel, or the Pandemonium; the sickness of power and obedience to power or, the sacred demon of ungovernableness’


Of Mud and Flame, the Penda’s Fen Sourcebook, Strange Attractor Press, 2019

Penda’s Fen: a lasting vision of heresy and pastoral horror, The Guardian, Sukhdev Sandhu, 2014

Picture of KB Morris

KB Morris

K B Morris write plays, novels and short stories.

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