It’s a little bit difficult to know where to start in reviewing something like PENDA’S FEN. Not that I’m alone. Its own director, Alan Clarke, was quoted as not being entirely sure what David Rudkin’s script was about. That’s not to say PENDA’S FEN is bad - in fact, far from it, and it definitely deserves its inclusion in Time Out’s 100 Best British Films list that it published back in 2011.
Britishness - that’s a good place to begin. PENDA’S FEN is as much (if not more) about the changing of British attitudes as it is about the attempts of the government to change the country’s landscape, their insidious method of doing it from beneath the ground perhaps more of an allegory than we first realise.
The narrative of PENDA’S FEN follows a young man, Stephen Franklin (Spencer Banks). Stephen is the son of a parson, lives in the tiny country village of Pinvin, and attends the kind of all-boys public school that provides several of the attitudes both Rudkin and Clarke were probably keen to hold up a mirror to. Stephen is a staunch Christian, loves the music of Elgar, and is starting to have strange dreams involving angels and demons (beautifully and disturbingly realised even with the limits of 1970s BBC technology, by the way).
But there are other weird things going on in the outside world. A local church hall meeting is concerned with a nearby secret underground government development. A local man ends up horrible burned and scarred as a result of an interaction with...something...on the fen that the government are keen to keep quiet. All through this, Stephen is coming to question every value he has ever believed in or felt confident about, including his own sexuality.
It’s no accident that Pinvin is an actual village in the Malvern Hills, or that Stephen gains comfort from listening to The Dream of Gerontius. Elgar, often considered the most English of composers, derived much inspiration and comfort himself from the area around Malvern, and it’s the perfect place for David Rudkin to set his story. Like Alan Clarke, I can’t claim to understand all of what’s going on in PENDA’S FEN, but it remains a vital, and still very relevant, piece of British television.
How excellent, then, to have this Blu-ray release from the BFI. Most British TV of this period was shot on 16mm film, but the Blu-ray transfer makes this look the best it must have ever done, with the English summer landscape looking absolutely glorious. The only extra is a short sixteen minute new making of, featuring interviews with David Rudkin and producer David Rose. You do get the usual excellent BFI booklet essays as well, though.
David Rudkin's PENDA'S FEN is getting a DVD and limited edition Blu-ray release on Monday 23rd May 2016. It will also be part of the massive 13 disc Blu ray Alan Clarke box set DISSENT & DISRUPTION which comes out on 6th June 2016