The English countryside is alive and brimming with multitudes of symbols, myths, gods, spirits and monsters. Whilst origin stories are shrouded and concealed in confusing folk ritual, pub signs and place names, their original specters loom in the slippage between past and present. I identify this sense of liminality with Derrida’s term, ‘Hauntology’, expanded on by Mark Fisher to refer to the ideas of the past bleeding into and haunting the future. I feel a greater connection to these strange places and themes and to the landscape which they belong than any notion of nationhood. Alan Clarke and David Rudkin’s BBC-produced monolith of a film, Penda’s Fen (1974) is definitely a hauntological piece. At the present time of increased tensions and questions of autonomy and nationhood, its subject matter bleeds into the future more than the filmmakers might have intended.
From tackling lofty romantic Machinean thought down to the growing pains of adolescence, Penda’s Fen is an incredibly challenging film. Through layering and interlacing of themes and symbols, David Rudkin and Alan Clarke created an English pastoral masterpiece. Story lines appear briefly before being woven into the complex tapestry. Whilst sometimes confusing and disorientating, it provides less of a clear narrative and more of a portrait of a young man in an incredibly turbulent time, both personally and historically. In an interview with the BFI, Rudkin explains that none of the script was written in any order or compete narrative. The haunting snippets of themes and leitmotifs make it perfect landscapism, a collage of events and feelings rather than a linear procession.
The film follows Stephen, the son of a rector in a rural English village, a priggish young man on the cusp of adulthood concerned with classical yet contrived notion of patriotism. He lives as the stereotypical pinnacle of protestant Englishness, the marriage of church, land and nationalism; the chocolate box image of rural England as imaged by the city dwelling upper classes and currently pined for by institutions such as the Daily Mail.
Stephen’s opening monologue is an idealistic musing of romanticist Edward Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ over lingering shots of the English countryside. Yet this ‘Merry Old England’ never existed, a myth made by those that never lived there, a daydream of those who nationalism would benefit the most and those who use it as a rallying cry against multiculturalism, which is as startlingly relevant today as it was in 1974. Through the character of Stephen, we will see this English fantasy unravel.
Victoria Lane, 2017
Stephen’s school is a zenith of strict English Home Counties Protestantism and a metaphor for the nationalistic establishment as a whole. We are first given a taste of the school’s presiding culture with the patriotic hymn Jersualem, through pupils dressed in military uniform, and though Greek and Latin inscriptions plastering the walls that create an analogue of ‘English public school’. Although you would expect Stephen to blend into this narrative, we soon come to learn the darker side of this English reverie, the toxic masculinity embodied by both Stephen’s classmates and the stiff upper lip and disdain for his non-conformism shown by his teachers.
Whilst the school itself is decidedly grounded in conservative middle England, there is an interesting juxtaposition as Stephen finds himself at odds with his classmates. They jeer at his traditionalist view that weave together his sense of ‘Englishness’ and religious orthodoxy. No matter how hard he appeals to authority, to the establishment, he is knocked back. His views may align with those in power, but he is helpless to their disapproval. His views may make him unlikable to the viewer, like many teenagers, his main goal is simply acceptance. He shies away from militaristic drills and is plagued by hallucinatory homoerotic dreams about his classmates, exacerbated by physical sports. Stephen wonders of his country, “I am one of your son… how shall I show my love?” How can he be excel in a system that rejects him?
This is where I believe Stephen’s dogmatic approach to nationhood begins to unravel. The militaristic masculine ideal is revealed as harmful as he is not accepted for who he is and cannot, despite his efforts, become someone who he is not.
The modern concept of nations, and especially England and ‘Englishness’ did not develop until the rise of nationalism in the 19th century. One of the key aspects of English Pastoral Horror/Folk Horror is the undercurrent of unquiet in the countryside, the quiet discord of the people that have never quite given up their old ways. They do not belong to the ‘system’ of England. They know fields, Holloways, driving paths and the turn of the seasons rather than county boundaries, A-Roads and train timetables. The rural folk beyond the system imposed by the industrial revolution do not do benefit from the ideals of nationhood and the strict orderliness of Protestantism.
We are then made aware of the playwright, Arne. He embodies these notions of dissent in regards to the countryside. He is first introduced to us during a debate in the village church hall in support of the miner’s strike. His opening monologue is shockingly relevant to today’s situation of growing concern over nuclear war, gentrification and global warming as he warns of “nothing but dust for the children of tomorrow”. He speaks passionately about both the value of community and the beauty of the landscape. I found that David Rudkin’s beautiful script was especially powerful through the persuasive voice of Arne. During his opening scene, he speaks of his own surroundings and is accompanied by slow panning shots of the landscape.
“Farmland and pasture, an ancient fen, beneath your feet it feels solid there”
He goes on to detail a government testing site, reminiscent of and perhaps based on Porton Down in Wiltshire;
“What is it hidden beneath this shell of lovely earth? Some hideous angel of technocratic death”
As with Stephen’s musings on Elgar, Arne uses romantic language and religious imagery to talk of the landscape. The right of the people to own their own country and take pride in it, to reject established thought. In many ways, it reminded me of the following work by contemporary artist, Richard Montgomery on the ‘lie’ of England, an ode to those who swear loyalty to the beauty of the land rather than the ruling establishment.
Richard Montgomery, 2011
Arne urges for social disquiet and perhaps echoes the thoughts of Rudkin himself as he explains the division between the people and the establishment in ways that mirror Stephen’s Machinean visions of good and evil. At this first meeting, Stephen disparages and rejects Arne’s traditional community socialism as wrong and subversive, he continues to extol the state as he is bullied by his classmates and berated by his teachers, yet as the film progresses, Stephen becomes fascinated by Arne and his wife, unable to keep away from their discordant views.
Looking further into connections into the landscape, The Old Ways are still alive in Pinvin. The ‘new’ socialistic leaning intellectuals in the form of Arne and his wife stand for the new wave of interest in folk stirred by mid century tensions. Arne’s wife’s herbal cure for their kitten’s abscess is met by an incredulous Steven; two hundred years previously, this intimate knowledge of herb lore would be met with accusations of witchcraft. Another interesting indicator of the Old Ways is through an intriguing scene with Steven’s father and a recently bereaved woman at her husband’s deathbed. As a Rector, he surprisingly uses no religious language when comforting the woman and she leaves the window open for his soul to escape in a gorgeously set scene as the Rector leaves the house. Folk practices are often as subtle as they are subversive.
Victoria Lane, 2017
Whilst Penda’s Fen has a plethora of well developed, subversive characters, I found Stephen’s father to be the most intriguing. He is the embodiment of contradiction, a Rector of a traditional parish yet open to debate and socialistic leanings; Knowledge of both profane and the occult. As we hear of Stephen’s views before his father’s, we assume their priorities to be similar, yet it seems his father’s sense of duty is firmly centered towards the village than the church. Through a revealing talk between Stephen and his father, we see that he is an unlikely spokesperson for Jungian thought. He ponders what Joan of Arc may have seen through the flames as she cried out to God,
“Who did she see? The plaster Christ of the cathedral or her old elemental village God… son of man, torn flayed hero, unchaging, ever-changing, Marduk, Balder, Heracles,”
He mentions the original meaning of Pagan, ‘of the village’ and echoes Arne’s thoughts on revolution when he ponders the people’s capability to ‘revoke the monolith, come back to the village’; an ancient thought that has repeated itself time and time again returned to modern times of instability. He ponders the strength of this ancient god, this sense of duty to soil rather than country,
“…by whom this earth was haunted since the first beat of the heart of man”
Stephen’s climactic and hallucinatory meeting with Penda that ends the film was directly influenced by the profound impact of his father’s words. His own bastion of conservative English Protestantism had questioned authority all along. Through his experience in school, the revelation of his adoption and his sexual awakening, his views binding orthodoxy and nationhood unraveled.
Penda, the last pagan king of England whose name haunts Pinvin is symbolic of dissent. He gave his name to the land yet he has been forgotten; erased by the establishment when he fell to the forces of Christianity more than one thousand years ago – yet his flame of dissent can be carried by a new generation. Penda personifies the landscape and tells Steven “her deep dark flame must never die” – by rejecting the establishment, he is rejecting those that have scored him. To move against the current and to be rejected is to be closer to the land itself, closer to Penda.
I refer back to Steven’s first line’ ‘I am one of your sons, it is true .. how shall I show my love?” – that question is deftly answered by Steven becoming a full person, contradictory and dissonant, he is no longer ‘son of England’ but son of nature, son of the land, a young person paving his own way in a turbulent time.
A few years back in my dissertation, I outlined the appeal of the old ways to a society in turmoil. As we found ourselves in the chaos of the 70s, we find ourselves again in an eerily similar situation. I was shocked by how deeply and openly rebellious Penda’s Fen was. Watching it now feels like a knife at the throat of the establishment, for the BBC to allow a playwright to not only write openly and critically about nationalism, government power and homophobia but to also point fingers at corrupt media seems unheard of and I highly doubt anything as radical in spirit would be put into production by the BBC today.
Victoria Lane, 2017