Categorised | The Wednesday Play

Tags | None

The Wednesday Play: Penda's Fen (1974)

Posted on May 8, 2013 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

King Penda

Paganism, while not exactly featuring heavily in the more secular and Christian-influenced television drama schedules of Western societies, hasn't been completely invisible over the past few decades. As we're shortly to discover (ie either on Thursday or Friday when I write about it in much greater detail), British writers, particularly those who were working in the 70s, have occasionally taken time out to examine other religions in drama.

Despite coming from a family of strict evangelical Christians, one of the main writers to do so is David Rudkin. As well as translating Greek pagan works, such as those of Aeschylus and Euripides, Rudkin examined British paganism in plays and long-form series such as The Stone Dance, The Sons of Light and ultimately Artemis 81.

One of his major works was a Play For Today: Penda's Fen. Directed by Alan Clarke, who normally was a strictly realist director and who admits he didn't really understand it, the play is an evocation of the conflicting forces within England, both past and present. These include authority, tradition, hypocrisy, landscape, art, sexuality, and most of all, its mystical, ancient pagan past. In the play, all of this comes together in the growing pains of the adolescent Stephen, a vicar's son, who encounters angels, Edward Elgar and King Penda, the last pagan king of England, during the play.

Since its broadcast, Penda's Fen has gone on to be regarded as a minor classic. Leonard Buckley (no relation) of The Times wrote: "Make no mistake. We had a major work of television last night. Rudkin gave us something that had beauty, imagination and depth." In 2006, Vertigo magazine described it as “One of the great visionary works of English film” while in 2011, it was chosen by Time Out London magazine as one of the 100 best British films, describing it as:

"A multi-layered reading of contemporary society and its personal, social, sexual, psychic and metaphysical fault lines. Fusing Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ with a heightened socialism of vibrantly localist empathy, and pagan belief systems with pre-Norman histories and a seriously committed - and prescient - ecological awareness, ‘Penda’s Fen’ is a unique and important statement."

And it's your Wednesday Play - enjoy!

Further reading: Sparks in Electric Jelly

Related entries

  • May 10, 2013: Your handy guide to true religions on TV
    Your handy guide to true religions on TV
  • May 13, 2013: Your handy guide to true religions on TV - Celtic, Western and Northern Germanic religions + Wicca
    All the scripted shows on Western, English-language TV that have not just featured Celtic, Western or Northern Germanic religions or Wicca, but have actually shown them to be true in some way or other
  • June 5, 2013: The Wednesday Play: Diane (1975)
    The Wednesday Play is Diane, written by David Agnew and directed by Alan Clarke
  • January 6, 2016: What TV's on at the BFI in February? Including Nuts In May, Penda's Fen, Artemis 81 and Leap In The Dark
    What TV the BFI is showing in February 2016
  • May 10, 2017: What TV's on at the BFI in June 2017? Including Penda's Fen and Architecture on TV
    What TV's on at the BFI in June 2017? Including an architecture on TV season and a symposium dedicated to Penda's Fen

Allowable comments

You can leave just about any kind of comment you like. You can argue, suggest I am (or anyone else is) wrong, leaving general messages of love – anything. However, you absolutely can't leave messages that attack other commenters (or me), are simple variations of "your review sucks" or that are misogynistic, racist, homophobic, etc: your comment will either be edited or deleted and you'll be barred from leaving any further comments. We want to keep it civil here.


You can hide a spoiler by putting <spoiler> before it and </spoiler> after it. Hover over a spoiler to reveal it!

Featured Articles

Ronny Chieng – International Student

Not an A-student but a good pass at least