Penda's Fen


Spencer Banks, Ian Hogg, John Atkinson.

Lighting Cameraman: Michael Williams.
Film Editor: Henry Fowler.
Music: Elgar.
Produced by David Rose.
Directed by Alan Clarke.


'Stephen be secret, Stephen be strange...': England's last pagan king sends Stephen with his blessing into the world. Spencer Banks (Stephen), Geoffrey Staines (Penda). Production photograph © Willoughby Gullachsen.

For BBC Play for Today. During his distinguished tenure as Head of English Regions Drama at BBC Pebble Mill, David Rose produced also three new 90-minute tv films per year. These years are regarded now as a golden age of original tv writing, in its variety of scope, theme, and regional base.

In the pastoral landscape of Three Choirs England, a clergyman's son, in his last days at school, has his idealistic value-system and the precious tokens of his self-image all broken away - his parentage, his nationality, his sexuality, his conventional patriotism and faith... Below the slopes of the Malvern Hills, he has encounters with an angel, and with a demon, with the ghost of Elgar, the crucified Jesus, and with Penda, England's last pagan king. In the final image, he turns away from his idealized landscape, to go into the world and adulthood with a value-system more anarchistic now, and readier to integrate the contradictions of experience.

A visionary, sometimes hallucinatory piece that bent the conventional grammar of domestic tv drama. The late Alan Clarke - in the estimation of many, the greatest director in British tv drama to date - was the producer's surprising and inspired choice for this. Clarke was more at home with overtly social and political themes, which he dealt with in an uncompromisingly realistic mode. He distrusted intellectual drama, and was wary of this story's frames of scholarly reference: theology, Latin and Greek, classical harmony... I said he was to let all that aspect look after itself, and concentrate on the emotions. Alan asked in mild irony were there any books he should read? I said, The script. He took me at my word. For whatever reason, Penda marked a turning-point for him: after this, his art became increasingly fierce and stark.

There were two or three aspects of the design that disappointed him (he said they lacked 'theatre'), but Alan Clarke created an acknowledged 'tv classic' from which even now, after more than 30 years, a fierce glow of moral sanity seems to burn.

It is at last possible to add here that Penda's Fen is now available on DVD, as one of an Alan Clarke box set, also individually.  The film itself is the subject of an exhaustive 'archaeology', The Edge is Where the Centre Is, edited by Gareth Evans, Will Fowler, Sukhdev  Sandhu, and published by Texte und Töne in collaboration with the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture;  and of a British Film Institute one-day symposium, June 2018, papers to be published in autumn 2019.