Penda’s Fen (1974) (blu-ray film review).

‘Penda’s Fen’ directed by Alan Clarke and written by David Rudkin was originally shown on BBC1 way back in 1974 as part of ‘Play For Today’. I missed it at that time as I was otherwise engaged with my birthday celebrations. For some reason, the BBC only repeated the broadcast once in 1990 and I managed to miss that one, too. The lack of repeated airing would seem to be quite surprising as it gets rave reviews from the critics who have actually managed to see it. Anyway, the BFI has decided to remedy this and have produced both a Blu-ray and DVD disc of the production.

Included on the disc is ‘The Landscape Of Feelings’ which is a short 16 minute documentary on the making of ‘Penda’s Fen’. There are interviews with the writer David Rudkin and producer David Rose. Contributions from David Yallop, Sean Chapman and David Leland provide different insights on the film. This little extra is a recent composition filmed in widescreen and Blu-ray high definition quality. The contributors are identified on screen except for the two chaps towards the end. There is also an illustrated booklet written by Sukhdev Sandhu that adds a lot of additional background information.

Penda’s Fen - A film by Alan Clarke
Penda’s Fen – A film by Alan Clarke

As I write this, Sir David Attenborough is quite rightly being honoured for achieving his 90th birthday. He so happened to be the person who tasked the commissioning editor, David Rose, to lead the new regional drama department. Just a bit of Attenborough trivia from the included booklet.

The film itself has been remastered in high definition for this release, although you would not think so from the opening shots. These scenic views look to have been shot with a very poor quality home movie camera. Thankfully, quality is restored once the opening sequence is over. I think the production crew have done a wonderful job of remastering the video and the sound. Sadly they couldn’t do anything about the picture format which is the old TV 4:3 aspect ratio. I’m quite glad they didn’t really as to make it widescreen would have meant zooming and cropping. You would lose far more than you would gain from this.

So, what about the film then? ‘Penda’s Fen’ is essentially a story of the main character the adolescent Stephen Franklin (actor Spencer Banks) attempting to make sense of the world and his emerging adult personality. Stephen’s big passion, which is almost an obsession, is Elgar’s ‘The Dream Of Gerontius’. He attempts to map his experiences and somewhat confused emotional feelings onto the events depicted in ‘The Dream Of Gerontius’.

Stephen is growing up and as part of that his sexuality is starting to emerge, which all adds to his general confusion with the world. He’s the son of the local vicar and not particularly liked at school partly because he’s quite bright and because he’s a non-combatant. I found the musical score to be a little strident at times. It opens with Stephen musing on the meaning of Elgar’s ‘The Dream Of Gerontius’. These musings are accompanied by the music until Stephen’s mother (actress Georgine Anderson) interrupts. I’m not surprised at the interruption. As Mrs. Franklin says herself, ‘It was a bit loud.’

There’s quite a lot of symbolism and reflective pauses in the film but it does make for compelling viewing. For one thing, it is such a stark reminder of how things were before the tidal wave of technology hit us towards the end of the 20th century. There’s one particular scene in the grounds of a country house which I’m still struggling to understand. Many scenes are open to interpretation and will no doubt be discussed in various forums. It would be a good topic of conversation at a 1970’s themed dinner party.

Towards the end of the movie, Stephen becomes aware of the responsibility of inheritance and of passing on obligations from one generation to another. However, I’m not completely convinced about the ancient king’s appearance to inform Stephen of his somewhat mystical obligation. This seems to have been bolted on just to give him some purpose in life before the closing credits make their inevitable appearance.

It is difficult to judge if ‘Penda’s Fen’ was such a ground-breaking and important film as the various contributors in the documentary say it was. The disc cover blurb says it’s one of British television’s greatest ever achievements. I’m not so sure, as it seems to have had such a limited audience. I expect those in or associated with the TV drama business probably watched it, but not many outside of this group seemed to have seen it. With such a limited audience, I don’t see how it could have had a significant impact on the wider population.

Even so, I enjoyed watching the movie which I think remains an intriguing piece of drama. Some scenes were undoubtedly shocking to the 1974 audience but things have moved on and the ability to shock has greatly reduced. It would be a shame if the only people to watch this re-release were collectors of Alan Clarke films as it deserves a far wider audience.

Andy Whitaker

June 2016

(region a/region 2: pub: British Film Institute. 89 minute film with extras. Blu-ray: Price: £19.99 (UK). Cat. No. BFIB1222. DVD: Price: £19.99 (UK) Cat. No. BFIV2070)

English, with optional hard-of-hearing

cast: Spencer Banks, John Atkinson and Georgine Anderson

check out websites: http://www.bfi.org.uk/shopand http://shop.bfi.org.uk/penda-s-fen-ltd-edition-blu-ray.html#.V1FV_8v2aM8



I live in deepest darkest Essex where I enjoy photography, real ales, walking my dog, cooking and a really good book. I own an e-book reader which goes with me everywhere but still enjoy the traditional paper based varieties. My oriental studies have earned me a black belt in Suduko and I'm considered a master in deadly Bonsai (there are very few survivors).

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