SF/F Editor Keith Allison is engaged in a top secret mission abroad, so this month we’ll be sharing his meditation on folk horror and Penda’s Fen.
Mentally unpacking Penda’s Fen, a 1974 entry in the BBC’s “Plays for Today” series of television movies tackling controversial subjects often in similarly controversial fashion, can seem at first a tad overwhelming. There is so much going on in this deceptively modest looking movie that one scarcely knows where to start, though the most common point is simply wondering how it ever got made in the first place. “Plays for Today” rarely backed away from challenging subject matter, and more than a few of them fell within the realm of horror and science fiction. Robin Redbreast, a personal favorite of mine, examined a woman’s right to an abortion and the social pressure on women to marry and have children, all within the framework of folk horror. Penda’s Fen is also often classified as folk horror (much to the consternation of its creator), and while it does indeed fulfill many of the tenets of that sub-genre (some overtly, others more subtly), it is also a tale situated within the realm of science fiction, radical political films, queer cinema, and coming-of-age drama. This being a column on science fiction, however broadly I might sometimes define that term, we’ll stick primarily to looking at those aspects of the film, though we’ll certainly dabble in the others.
Teenager Stephen (Spencer Banks) is doing his best to be a sanctimonious right-wing religious nut (you could see him growing up to be The Wicker Man‘s Sgt. Howie). He attends an uptight academy and frequently rambles on about righteousness, religious purity, and the moral decay of England in general and his own generation in particular. In short, he is an 80-year-old Brexiter in the body of a 1970s teenager. At times, his moral condescension and condemnation of the impure and “the wrong” tests even the patience of his father, a local minister. Stephen, in turn, is disappointed that his father holds rather a less rigid interpretation of spiritual doctrine and religious life. Why, he’s even on good terms with the local radical, a writer who has moved to the rural British midlands in search of the mythical “English countryside” and instead finds himself in pitched arguments about the corruption of England, the abuse of the working class, the ravaging of rural land, and the canny way the filthy rich in politics con the poor into thinking they are on the same side. The timeliness of Penda’s Fen in that regard is, frankly, depressing, though I suppose that political con has been going on since the dawn of human civilization.
Just as we’re beginning to think Stephen might be a thoroughly miserable character with whom to spend the run time of Penda’s Fen, we become privy to certain cracks in his ideological armor that point toward his zealotry being over-compensation. For starters, he doesn’t fit in at all with the rah-rah “join the military” types at his school. Though he considers his religious views to be a reflection of a good and pure England, his classmates and teachers consider him weird. Certainly not officer material. Second, he has rather an intense fascination with the local milkman, a strapping young man with rippling muscles, tight jeans, and a grand porn star mustache. Third, when he sets out to confront his father about being too liberal or the writer about being a strike-supporting commie, he instead begins to find himself fascinated by their takes on life, religion, government, creativity, and the lies people and countries tell themselves about their glorious, perfect golden past.
Both the folk horror and science fiction aspects of Penda’s Fen manifest in the nearby countryside. Arne the writer (Ian Hogg), during a town hall debate about striking miners, wanders off on a tangent about the bizarre correlation between ancient spiritual sites and modern top secret government facilities. Naturally, both benefit from remote settings for a number of reasons, but Arne posits that there is much more to it than that and rattles off a list of very real instances in which government installations have rolled into rural areas, set themselves up, and sealed themselves off from any and all scrutiny, sometimes even going so far as to deny their own existence despite being right there for people to see. Suddenly the ancient English countryside is a patchwork of chain link fences topped with barbed wire, “No Trespassing” signs, mysterious aerials and satellite dishes and armed guards at checkpoints. Arne’s conspiracy theories place Penda’s Fen very comfortably alongside other British science fiction meets folk horror stories, like These are the Damned and Quatermass 2, and of more recent vintage, Stranger Things.
The sense that one of these mysterious installations exists right there in the nearby stretch of land known at one time as Penda’s Fen (Penda being the fabled last Pagan king of Britain) is lent credibility when a local teenager wanders off the road running through the fen only to stumble back to his waiting friends after having suffered some horrific sort of burning. The appearance of power lines and other structures only serves to further escalate the mystery—a mystery that Penda’s Fen then refuses to explore any further. Having put it on the table, writer David Rudkin and director Alan Clarke then refuse to provide concrete pay-off. Not because they’re being slapdash, but because Penda’s Fen is meant to confront the viewer with multiple mysteries, not all of them solvable and, as in the case of these military bases and underground research facilities, never even explicitly verified as existing. Maybe that kid who got burned just drunkenly stumbled into a power transformer, or set himself on fire trying to light a doobie. Maybe the fact that Stephen wanders the glen and meets a dead composer, an abrasive couple of “Britain First” zealots, an angel, and Penda himself are just the hallucinations of a lonely kid trying to come to terms with the fact that what he believes might need to evolve.
Or perhaps there is something sinister going on out there, something to do with the military, with mysterious scientists, with ancient leylines and stone circles and Pagan rites. Penda’s Fen isn’t going to tell us. There’s no scene where Stephen stumbles upon a secret entrance to a stark white research facility. There’s no confirmation that Arne’s theories aren’t just the rantings of a bored liberal conspiracy theorist. Like many of the best works of folk horror and science fiction, much of Penda’s Fen is implied rather than stated, and the expectation is that the viewer will take it from there. We’re not meant to be certain, and we’re certainly not going to be told. Uncertainty is the very essence of Penda’s Fen, whether it uncertainty over racial and national purity or uncertainty over whether or not that mysterious off-limits site really is just a weather monitoring station like they say.
A second science fictional aspect of Penda’s Fen comes during a conversation between Stephen and his father Reverend Franklin (John Atkinson), one that takes place when Stephen is well down the road of reassessing his once firmly held beliefs about God and country. In much the same way that Arne ponders the association between shadowy research facilities and haunted rural landscapes, Reverend Franklin posits that there might be some strange religio-scientific purpose for church steeples, which certain heretical beliefs hold served as a sort of aerial or conduit for tangible energies humans interpret as good and evil. Religious belief often serves as the explanation for scientific principles mankind has yet to understand or uncover. Fire and lightning were once magical, as was the coming and going of the sun and moon. Perhaps then a church’s steeple is more than symbolic, and the channeling and existence of these elemental forces something greater than Christianity or any other religious interpretation of their existence. Once again Penda’s Fen isn’t going to dole out a definitive answer. There’s no scene where Stephen has to battle demons whilst wielding a Celtic cross.
Although not a child of the British countryside, I did grow up in one of those liminal spaces between the rural and the suburban, the traditional and the modern, surrounded by deep, dark woods that bore the scars carved into them to run power lines. Penda’s Fen is a similarly liminal place, occupying the transitional space between horror, science fiction, and political discourse. Decades later and despite its talky, philosophical nature, Penda’s Fen retains the power to shock and inspire. In the end, it’s not about wondering how something so strange got made; we should simply be happy that it did.
This essay was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on Oct. 27, 2016.