Friday 20 May 2016

David Rudkin at 80

On June 29th the playwright and author David Rudkin will be 80 and this blog is by way of premature and inadequate celebration - an homage, if you like. I think he's a great writer, and rather undervalued. He's very active (with a recent translation of Genet's Haute Surveillance and a forthcoming stage version of the great M. L. R. James ghost story Oh Whistle and I'lll Come to You), and has a very interesting website detailing past and future projects. We'll come back to this. It's a particular, perhaps unrepresentative part of his substantial oeuvre that I'd like to consider here.

The British Film Institute is about to release a box set of the director Alan Clarke's BBC dramas, including Penda's Fen, which was written by Rudkin and transmitted as part of the BBC's Play for Today series on Thursday 21st March 1974. It made a huge impression on me as a fifteen-year-old and I still remember it vividly. It scared the living daylights out of me and, I suspect, my contemporaries.  Rudkin's screenplay - Quatermass re-imagined by William Blake - defies straightforward summary but I'll do my poor best. 

Image © BBC Television/British Film Institute

It's set in the village of Pinvin in Worcestershire, the name derived from 'Penda’s Fen. (Penda was the king of Mercia in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom in what is today the English Midlands.

Stephen Franklin, a bright, priggish schoolboy (played by Spencer Baks), haphazardly  navigating puberty, has his high-minded ideals and preconceptions about the world first challenged and then dismantled: his parentage (he discovers he's adopted), his patriotism (which veers closer to nationalism), his religious faith (Anglican) and his sexuality. There are encounters with an angel (see above) and a terrifying demon (see below), and the ghost of Edward Elgar, whose noble Dream of Gerontius is heard throughout. There are hallucinatory dream sequences (one particularly horrible), and a pervasive sense of barriers breaking down during the erratic process of self-discovery. It's a visionary work - disturbing, sometimes baffling, but always compelling; and it's slow in the way that television used to be - no hyperkinetic editing or wobbly cameras. It has a leisurely intensity, and is bursting with ideas. It may appear dated, but only in the way that, say, medieval art is dated. It's as much about now as any altarpiece.

© BBC Television / British Film Institute

In 2011 Penda's Fen was chosen by Time Out London magazine as one of the 100 best British films, and described as follows:

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.

It certainly was, and is. To find out more about this and Rudkin's very substantial oeuvre, see his website.  There's a page on Penda's Fen with the authors reflections on the production and much else besides.

You can also watch online Rudkin's epic three-hour television play Artemis 81, made seven years later and directed by Alastair Reid. I can't resist lifting this terse summary from Wikipedia:

Occult novelist Gideon Harlax (Hywel Bennett) is drawn into an epic battle between Helith (Sting), the Angel of Light and Asrael (Roland Curram), the Angel of Death.

Here they all are:

© BBC Television

Strange, erratic, self-indulgent and quite wonderful. They don't make 'em like that any more - but they didn't make 'em like that at the time either. It's a must, incidentally for Hitchcock admirers. And look out for a very young Daniel Day-Lewis.

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