Penda’s Fen follows pompous and priggish young vicar’s son Stephen Franklin (Spencer Banks from Timeslip) through a summer in which he reacts both to the forthcoming pressures of adulthood (he’s about to turn 18), to his moral confusion, and to the mysterious landscape and dark forces of nature around him in the idyllic rural village of Pinvin, Worcestershire (although the actual filming location was in and around Chaceley, Gloucestershire).
Through a series of real and imagined encounters with angels, demons, and England’s pagan past, Stephen begins to question his religion, politics and sexuality.
He discovers that he was adopted and that he is not the pure-bred Briton he thought himself (he talks fondly of supporting the “Aryan national family on its Christian path”) but a mongrel son of foreigners.
He dreams of naked classmates and of a demon (Geoffry Pennells) sitting on his bed. He sees an angel in a stream (Martin Reynolds) and meets quintessential (deceased) English composer Edward Elgar (Graham Leaman) who tells him the secret of his Enigma Variations.
In the garden of an old manor house, he witnesses a ritual in which men, women and children have their hands chopped off with a cleaver and rejoice at the mutilation, and he even encounters King Penda (Geoffrey Staines) – the last Pagan king of Mercia who died in AD655 – on the slopes of the Malvern Hills.
At the film’s climax, Stephen’s birth parents – whom his superego has conjured up – seek to wrest him from his newly chosen path as an adult embracing his impurity as a being of mixed race and mixed sex.
He flees from them and they try to extinguish him. Like Joan of Arc, he starts to burn, but Penda intervenes by zapping them.
Originally produced and broadcast as an episode of Play For Today, Penda’s Fen was written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke (who later admitted that he didn’t fully understand the script).
When it was first broadcast on 21 March 1974, The Guardian described it as “dense, thick, primaeval onion soup”.
Reverend J. Franklin
Sir Edward Elgar
Sir Nicholas Pole