It’s both an outstanding testament to the BBC of 1974 and an indictment of the way things are now that even its much-vaunted Play For Today series would commission something as startlingly ambitious as Penda’s Fen – although, purely in terms of look and feel, this eerie hybrid (encompassing horror, pastoral, polemic and rites-of-passage themes) can often strike one as an intellectually superior version of popular productions of the time, similar in some ways to the various Hammer Films releases, and comparable to The Wicker Man.
Creatively speaking, that Penda’s Fen was made in Birmingham is an important consideration. The BBC had recently inaugurated its Pebble Mill studios, an arm of the organisation lauded by many for boldness and a lack of artistic interference. David Rose, a producer there, was known to acknowledge little separation between the disciplines of television and cinema, dismissive of concerns over what can be done in which context. It was Rose who actively sought out the writer David Rudkin, firstly for a couple of short (and apparently lost) productions named Bypass and Atrocity, subsequently guiding him towards a longer work which became the feature length piece under discussion here.
Director Alan Clarke would become celebrated for his fierce and uncomfortable examinations of an emerging underclass (Scum; Made in Britain; The Firm), and yet, in a deceptively gentler manner, Penda’s Fen points a fairly harsh light at the subjects of religion and government policy. The fulcrum of Rudkin’s screenplay is Stephen Franklin (played by Spencer Banks), a vicar’s son who comes to realise that the morally one-dimensional view that he holds of himself and others is untenable, especially for a person of his sensitivity and advanced intelligence. It’s a scholarly backdrop that Rudkin has used here (we have theology, classical music, history, Latin, and Greek – it goes on) and so Clarke’s involvement provides useful grounding in terms of accessibility. That being said, the film is destined to remain an outlier in his canon. (Anecdotally, according to Rudkin himself, Clarke asked with a degree of irony what books he should read in order to embark on the task.)
We’re introduced to a Stephen who takes Elgar (and himself) extremely seriously, playing recordings at ear-splitting volume in the family home, and sulking when made to turn the music down. He takes to the lectern at the school debating society, speaking eloquently but naively on the unhelpful influence of the film industry regarding the “national family” and its “Christian path.” His disgust at the anti-establishment views espoused by Arne, a local socialist playwright, is plain to all, yet ones feels it to be contrived. (Sure enough, Stephen’s admiration for the writer and his wife comes through eventually.) In the meantime, though, Stephen declares him ‘unnatural,’ since the couple are childless —much to the chagrin of Stephen’s own mother and father. Later, we hear of an impending ‘conversation’ that must be undertaken on the boy’s eighteenth birthday…
The fact is, Stephen knows that his text-book idealism regarding Englishness, patriotism and sexuality is at odds with his developing knowledge. It is a confusion that manifests itself in a period of hallucinatory visions: demons, sprites and angels abound, and even Edward Elgar makes himself apparent in a section of the film that gives Clarke’s creativity free reign. Mostly the result is first rate, particularly the concluding appearance of Penda himself, the last Pagan king of Britain.
The deconstruction of Stephen’s former personality is complete when, in the knowledge of his own homosexuality, and having understood that the ability to conceive children is not dependent on religious faith, he declares with joyous abandon “I am nothing pure! My race is mixed. My sex is mixed.” Quite a statement in prime-time 1974 television. Nudging Stephen on his way to this epiphany is the initially rather stuffy vicar, who, of course, turns out to be his adoptive father (the boy’s blood parents are revealed to be foreign —tears are the reaction). In a series of protracted conversations, often set in glorious countryside, he shows himself to be an open-minded individual, not at all emotionally hamstrung by his position in the community. At one point the un-reformed Stephen catches his father in friendly discourse with Arne, who, as a socialist, is of low regard in a predominantly conservative locality. Stephen’s natural admiration for his father forces him to again question his own outlook and judgements.
While Stephen’s father sees reason well enough, and provides some important pre-Christian history lessons during these pastoral parent-child dialogues, Arne is the more obvious voice of the film’s true standpoint. Gently quizzed about his art by Stephen while the playwright is tending to his garden, for example, he becomes agitated and animated, ultimately concluding that “we’re not people any more with eyes to see, we’re blind gaping holes at the end of a production line, stuffing with trash.” (This was in the early 1970s —we can only imagine what he would make of The X Factor.)
It has been noted in some quarters that Penda’s Fen has an affinity with the field termed ‘psychogeography.’ Certainly there are scenes that form interesting anticipations of the predominantly bucolic Robinson series of films made by Patrick Keiller and Keith Griffiths around twenty years later. The Unofficial Countryside by Richard Mabey introduced the notion of the edge-lands —those liminal interzones between town and country, a setting dabbled with here— and appeared a year before Penda’s Fen was made. This is an aspect, however, that most likely requires treatment in its own right. Suffice it to say for now that not only is Penda’s Fen essentially a haunting examination of what is to be human and within that, English, it also serves as a potent reminder of what the BBC could once achieve but, in its mystifyingly commercial modern guise, all too rarely wants to attempt today.--Neil Jackson
Review of Charlie Chaplin: The Mutual Comedies 1916-191
BFI DVD release, 2015
As a child this reviewer was affronted to see Chaplin referred to in print as an American comedian. However, there is no denying that America provided him with the opportunity to realise his genius (that is, up until his persecution by the Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s), and this clutch of twelve short films represents the first major fruit of this. Made under contract to Mutual Films, which signed Chaplin in 1916 and gave him full artistic control, these are tiny masterpieces which, in their themes, anticipate his later great feature-length films. This new set contains a wide range of delights, from the lyrical humanism of The Vagabond to the wild comedy chases of The Adventurer. The BFI are to be congratulated on the exquisitely restored prints, which not only reveal details of the sets, but also allow Chaplin’s delightful facial expressions to be properly appreciated. The scores by Carl Davis are sublime throughout: the comically dignified cakewalks, the delicious tinkly ragtimes with a hint of music-box, the superb piano blues and the romantic string themes are all perfectly judged, and precisely synchronised to the onscreen mayhem.
In his best works, such as City Lights and The Kid, for example, Chaplin evolved a comedy of vulnerability and suffering that keeps the viewer poised on a knife-edge between tears and laughter. (This reviewer’s most outstanding cinema experience was not a talking picture, but a showing of The Kid in Zagreb’s Kino Europa with a live orchestra playing Chaplin’s heart-rending theme, so similar to his later hit This Is My Song. There was not an empty seat in the house, and when the Little Tramp wobbled at warp speed onto the screen, the audience roared, laughed and applauded with recognition.) With the exception of The Vagabond, these shorter films generally do not succeed in scaling the emotional heights —or plumbing the depths, depending on your point of view—of his feature films. This is simply to do with the scope affording by a short as opposed to a feature. On their own terms, however, these are (mostly) brilliant works.
In this collection, the Little Tramp is often to be found rebelling at menial jobs (The Pawnshop, The Floorwalker) or struggling through life as a vagrant, a harsh indictment of the choices that faced the unskilled poor. In the former mode he veers from boredom through insubordination towards tyrannical petty managers to despairing energy —witness, for example, the brilliant sight gag with chairs in which he turns himself into a human hedgehog in Behind the Screen, while working as a set assistant. Chaplin’s critique of the working world’s inhumanity to the little man may have reached its apotheosis in Modern Times, but elements of it are already recognisable here.
Some of the films are dedicated to simple silliness, however. There are several bouts of highly ridiculous flirtatiousness from Chaplin: he swoons, simpers, and giggles, falls over backwards while attempting to drape himself seductively over furniture, and bounces his hat up and down by dint of waggling his eyebrows, exhibitions which usually baffle the object of his infatuation. The balletic rollerskating sequence from The Rink is pure slapstick genius, while in The Adventurer, there is a wonderfully surreal moment when Chaplin’s head emerges very slowly out of the sand.
Not all the comic sequences are successful. The episode in The Pawnshop in which he recklessly destroys the treasured possessions that customers bring in to pawn is predictable and (unusually for Chaplin) callous. Although it is particularly famous, The Immigrant, which sees the Little Tramp sailing to America and having various unhappy experiences in New York, tips too far in the direction of despair to completely work as a comedy. This cannot be said, however, of the profoundly accomplished, alarming and poignant study of inebriation, One A. M. Chaplin plays a rich playboy returning, with great difficulty, from a heavy night out, and portrays his various shambolic encounters with reality. The humorous invention is relentless over the course of nearly half an hour, with the spinning table and the fold-down bed sequences particular highlights --the look of innocent questioning on Chaplin’s face when the bed flips over completely is uproariously funny but also touching. This is probably the greatest comedy drunk performance ever filmed, and becomes truly disturbing when one considers how much the child Chaplin suffered as a result of his father’s alcoholism.
The Vagabond is the stand-out film of this set. It anticipates the great theme of his later masterpieces: the rootless proletarian desperately searching for love and a home. The Little Tramp encounters an abused waif whose vulnerability is greater even than his, and his protective instincts come to the fore. When she is (inevitably) discovered to be the missing child of a rich family, she initially spurns his devotion. The film is particularly interesting because it combines the lost-love theme of City Lights with the foundling trope of The Kid, so that we can see elements of Chaplin’s greatest narratives already taking shape.
The Little Tramp is a beguiling combination of irrepressible vitality, dangerous fragility, and a gritty determination to survive, captured best in The Adventurer when he is discovered lying in the surf, lights almost completely out, but wakes up the next morning restored and ready to swan about in borrowed finery. Chaplin’s greatest creation is a glorious celebration of life lived against apparently insurmountable odds.
The similarities between Chaplin and Dickens have been commented on many times before: it is well known that Chaplin was a devotee of Dickens from an early age, and that both had a dramatic bent. However, this set throws the connection into sharp relief. In their portrayals of resilient Cockney chancers adrift amidst the lonely randomness of industrialised mass society, as well as their insistence that there is something wilful, creative and mysterious in human nature that must not be broken upon the wheel of middle-class Benthamism, both Dickens and Chaplin criticised the horrors of their respective epochs, while providing comfort to those who suffered through them.--Isabel Taylor