The Wednesday Play: Penda’s Fen (1974)

The last English pagan king lives

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