The following is a transcript of the paper delivered at the Child Be Strange Conference at the British Film Institute, 10/06/2017
I want discuss Penda’s Fen today in a context which, for many, is now taken for granted but which is also not entirely agreed upon: the genre that the play sits within. That genre context is Folk Horror; a relatively recent description which is now used to denote a large number of works from many different eras and, most intriguingly, in a large variety of different media. Before I try to summarise what Folk Horror is and how Penda’s Fen relates to it, I think it is worth quoting at length a section of an essay by Sukhdev Sandhu. In the quote, Sandhu broaches the topic of Folk Horror in regards to Penda’s Fen, sourcing a description from another writer, Andy Paciorek, and then quoting a response from writer, David Rudkin, to the suggestion that the play is potentially part of the genre, taken from a Q+A at a screening event. The quote is as follows:
After the recent public screening of the film, Rudkin distanced it from the field of “folk horror” – “psychogeography, hauntology, folklore, cultural rituals and costume, earth mysteries, visionary landscapism, archaic history” – which it has come to have hallowed status. “It’s a bloody political piece,” he observed, before adding, “I’ve always thought of myself as a political writer.” Dread and paranoia permeate the drama: mounting industrial disputes. Whispers about top secret military installations, withering denunciation of “the manipulators and fixers and psychopaths who hold the real power in the land.”
Today I have two aims that derive from this exchange. The first is to show quite simply that Penda’s Fen can be considered an example of Folk Horror. The second, however, is to show that it is an excellent example of Folk Horror because it is “a bloody political piece”; that, of all the currently recognised sub-genres still producing material today, Folk Horror is the most overtly political in its discourse and in the questions it raises surrounding landscape, English nationality, group mentalities and fears of some notion of “outsiders”. First, it is worth briefly attempting to summarise the genre and highlight a few of its key traits, all of which I believe are in some way present or questioned in Penda’s Fen. Folk Horror is a term which came about from an interview with the director, Piers Haggard, who when describing the making of his film, The Blood On Satan’s Claw, described it as “making a kind of Folk Horror.” The description gained a much wider popularity when it was used as an umbrella term in Mark Gatiss’ TV series A History Of Horror to describe Haggard’s film alongside two others: Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). The term has since become associated with a wide variety of material, from old Public Information Films to the novels of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, from HTV children’s series such as Children Of The Stones (1977) and Sky (1975) to, most relevantly, a number of Play for Today episodes, including John Bowen’s Robin Redbreast (1970) and A Photograph (1977), Alan Garner’s Red Shift and, of course, Penda’s Fen.
But what is at the heart of this genre and why can it now be considered political? Folk Horror, especially in its British and, even more specifically, in its English iteration, draws heavily on relationships to the rural landscape. Though this is not always exclusively the case (for example, both versions of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit deal with an urban equivalent), the landscape is imbued with malevolent qualities and traumas; a stark friction between our romanticised visions of English Pastoralism in particular and the genuine toil, violence and struggles of boundaries that have marked the English landscape for centuries. Folk Horror’s landscapes isolate both communities and individuals, skewing their morality to the point of allowing forms of violence (and in some cases supernatural elements) to be summoned and to occur. But, in the context of Penda’s Fen, I want to concentrate in particular on the deep history of the landscape and how this politically imbues the play. As will be shown towards the end, this is a trend of which Penda’s Fen is only one of many works to explore such themes.
Though I do not wish to fully relay the narrative of Penda, some aspects are worth relating in the context of Folk Horror. That it concerns a young boy whose whole sociological make-up is gradually eroded because of (and through the reality of) the landscape around him equally proving to be false, is an essential component of Folk Horror. It could be argued that the real nature of the English landscape – the same landscapes that witnessed the violence of the Enclosures Act and the radical English rebellions of the Diggers and various other resistances in the quiet class war that is at the heart of so much English topography– breaks through in the play first when Stephen becomes aware of the etymological evolution of the place name, Pinvin, through the “misspelling” of a road sign. The old name breaks through in the same way that the reality of Stephen’s politics, sexuality and identity eventually breaks through the repression he has forced himself to live within up to that point.
Folk Horror is so often about this older reality, whether it be the paganism still surviving in Christian Britain in the likes of Robin Redbreast, the old powers lying dormant in the Avebury stones in Children of the Stones or Azal the Daemon having influenced humanity in the most Nigel Kneale-esque of ways in the Doctor Who story, The Daemons. In other words, the old ways and the reality of past lies dormant in the English landscape, ready to be churned up and to break apart the fallacies built up through modern life and post-Enlightenment ideologies. As Rudkin himself has suggested, his way of questioning the very notion of Englishness is in itself through the prism of a ruralism, an acknowledgment that such thematic elements are present in the very soil of England. He suggests in another interview that:
There had always been in me a very vague sense of wanting to write and deal with my feelings about England, whatever that might mean, and that inevitably derived for me from the landscape because my work is pretty strongly landscape-based very often.
British Folk Horror is not only derived from the landscape but equally unearths the traumas and politics that are hidden under its top layer. When Folk Horror, and Penda’s Fen for the matter, excavates the soil, it travels temporally as well as physically; it is an action that devolves into what can comfortably fit into the sense of the Uncanny in the most typically Freudian of parameters for the term. It is quintessentially about the discarding of those pleasurable, perhaps even nostalgic memories of the landscape, discarded in order to avoid the baggage of their reality, the trauma and the vast politic calamities that inevitably lie in the English palimpsest.
As Sandhu himself suggests, Penda is “… a deconstruction of the pieties of the English landscape tradition at the same time as a loving wassail to the occult potential of that very cartography…” (2014, p.10). This is a perfect template for many examples of Folk Horror, a form of occulture that derives quite naturally from the hidden nature of the landscape, whether it be pagan or otherwise. Sitting Penda’s Fen alongside other examples of Folk Horror, especially adaptations of work by the Cheshire fantasy author, Alan Garner, highlights this trend further, even when it is less politically imbued. John Coulthart has written of the likeness between Garner’s The Owl Service and Red Shift with Penda, the latter also being a Play for Today entry. Though Coulthart is addressing the likenesses initially through characterisation, it is worth noting the factor that his comparison concludes upon. He writes that:
Stephen in Penda’s Fen, Gwyn in The Owl Service (1969) and Tom in Red Shift (1979) are all intelligent teenagers compelled to face deep truths about themselves by contact with the history interred in the British landscape, what Rudkin calls the ‘layer upon layer of inheritance’.
Essentially it is about contact with the landscape, a landscape that forces characters to confront the reality of their personal situations or at least their perception of them. Red Shift is especially like Penda’s Fen in that its obsessive focus on one landscape allows traumas past and present, political and personal, to traverse across temporal barriers. Only, for Garner, this is revolving around Mow Cop in Cheshire rather than the Malvern Hills and splits between three young men across various eras rather than focussing on one central figure undergoing change. Yet the politics is arguably still there, the idea that an English identity, because it is derived from a landscape of subversive, fluctuating meaning, is surprisingly delicate. Sandhu highlights this idea further in relation to Stephen, questioning it through a literal tie to pastoralism: “The military masculinity of his school, mainstream Christian doctrine, the eternal benevolence of English pastoralism: all of these come to seem like fronts and conspiracies.” (2015, p.49). The idea that the old ways are far older than the conservative rewrite of history, of land, of politics and of morality, is essential to Folk Horror and to Penda’s Fen. As Rudkin further writes, it only requires a more attentive, unyielding gaze to see that, underneath the prim and proper English village is a wealth of radicalism, of hardship, and of rebellion; in other words, the past as it really was. He suggests the following:
And you can see the different anatomy that’s underneath just as you can look at an old village and, with a bit of training, can subtract the modern buildings and you can see the old ones. Or you can look at a road and you can see where the old road was. So I began to feel in that way about the landscape, looking at the surface as though it were a filter through which you could just glimpse a previous layer.
This ties in to another form of Folk Horror, that of the English Eerie; a very specific form of Folk Horror in which the political fallacies of English nationalism and pastoral identity are subverted through cloaking itself as a counter-narrative to the typical, romantic pastoralism found in traditional English culture and art. The writer, Robert Macfarlane, believes that the eerie is “that form of fear that is felt first as unease, then as dread, and which is incited by glimpses and tremors rather than outright attack. Horror specialises in confrontation and aggression; the eerie in intimation and aggregation.” (2015). He further elucidates that the form is one that:
…explores the English landscape in terms of its anomalies rather than its continuities, that is sceptical of comfortable notions of “dwelling” and “belonging”, and of the packagings of the past as “heritage”, and that locates itself within a spectred rather than a sceptred isle…
This sense of the eerie was first explored in the writing of Joe Kennedy for a number of articles for the culture website, The Quietus. In 2013, he charted the evolution of a counter-strain of English arts, with emphasis on music especially, that tie into this sense of the eerie: “This, though, is a perversion of a tradition in English art which has long intuited that the countryside is uncanny: a place which seems to offer security, and yet is somehow the location of menaces far more profound than those found in the city.” (2013). All of these ideas are incredibly relatable to Penda’s Fen; a play which literally uses the “anomalies” rather the “continuities” of the English landscape to highlight the ultimate fallacy of English conservatism as a whole; that it is built on the fantasy and rewrite of a landscape that was never the “green and pleasant land” as that other appropriated English radical, William Blake, ironically suggested, but one built on hardship, toil, pre-Christian ideologies and narratives outside of the benevolent Downton Abbey-ism that we are now force fed and expected to swallow gratefully today. In the era of Brexit and the overt repoliticization of the more toxic notions of Englishness as a virulent and horrific lapse into nostalgia for visions of society and landscape that never really were, Penda’s Fen and Folk Horror as whole have, therefore, never been more relevant.
For what both the genre and the play share is a stark questioning of all of these political ideas, always in the context of the exploration into the lie of the land. This is not only why I believe Penda’s Fen is one of the most important and brilliant examples of the genre, but why it still speaks to audiences today. While we look on as the myths Stephen initially constructed his identity from are lapped up with depressing gusto once again by a sizable chunk of our population, the landscape still ultimately provides a subversion to such narratives. In other words, it provides a glimmer of light in darker times as we sit patiently in wait for the true sacred demon of ungovernableness to rise once again from the land. As understood explicitly in Folk Horror and in Penda’s Fen, the true antidote to the fallacies of Englishness has always lain in wait under the soil ready to be exhumed once more.