Weekend links 86

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Salammbô by Alastair (Hans Henning Voigt) from Harry Crosby‘s Red Skeletons (1927). Dover published a new collection of Alastair’s drawings in September.

A Taste of Honey showed working-class women from a working-class woman’s point of view, had a gay man as a central and sympathetic figure, and a black character who was neither idealised nor a racial stereotype.” RIP Shelagh Delaney. Related: Shelagh Delaney’s Salford (1960), directed by Ken Russell, and all 47 minutes (!) of The White Bus (1967), Lindsay Anderson’s strange, pre-If…. short, written by Shelagh Delaney, filmed in and around Manchester.

Since birth I’ve craved all things psychedelic, the energy and beauty of it. The pleasure… […] But in the US the exploration of consciousness and its powers—or really any curiosity about anything at all—is actively discouraged, because the system is so corrupt that it depends on people being virtually unconscious all the time. Burroughs cracked that code long ago. Spirituality here equals money; no one seems to be able to think, never mind explore their own consciousness.

Laurie Weeks: Making Magic Out of the Real

• Ian Albinson shows us The Title Design of Saul Bass while Ace Jet 170 has a copy of the new Bass monograph.

Kris Kool (1970) at 50 Watts, Philip Caza’s lurid, erotic, psychedelic comic strip.

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Götz Krafft by EM Lilien from a collection at Flickr.

Serious Listeners: The Strange and Frightening World of Coil.

The Octopus Chronicles, a new blog at Scientific American.

• We now live in a world where there are Ghost Box badges.

Kilian Eng interviewed at Sci-Fi-O-Rama.

Dalí Planet

Bedabbled!

A Taste of Honey (1962) by Acker Bilk | A Taste of Honey (1965) by Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass | A Taste of Honey (Moog version) (1969) by Martin Denny.

Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin

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This is a post I’d been intent on writing for the past four years but kept putting off: why go to great lengths to describe another television drama which people can’t see? And how do you easily appraise something which haunted you for twenty years and which remains a significant obsession? My hand has been forced at last by a forthcoming event (detailed below) so this at least has some fleeting relevance, but before getting to that let’s have some facts.

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Penda’s Fen was a TV play first screened in March 1974 in the BBC’s Play For Today strand. It was shot entirely on film (many dramas in the 1970s recorded their interiors on video) and runs for about 90 minutes. The writer was David Rudkin and it was directed by Alan Clarke, a director regarded by many (myself included) as one of the great talents to emerge from British television during the 1960s and 70s. The film was commissioned by David Rose, a producer at the BBC’s Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham, as one of a number of regional dramas. Rudkin was, and still is, an acclaimed playwright and screenwriter whose work is marked by recurrent themes which would include the tensions between pagan spirituality and organized religion, and the emergence of unorthodox sexuality. Both these themes are present in Penda’s Fen, and although the sexuality aspect of his work is important—pioneering, even—he’s far from being a one-note proselytiser. Alan Clarke is renowned today for his later television work which included filmed plays such as Scum (banned by the BBC and re-filmed as a feature), Made in Britain (Tim Roth’s debut piece), The Firm (with Gary Oldman), and Elephant whose title and Steadicam technique were swiped by Gus Van Sant. Penda’s Fen was an early piece for Clarke after which his work became (in Rudkin’s words) “fierce and stark”.

The most ambitious of Alan Clarke’s early projects, Penda’s Fen at first seems a strange choice for him. Most scripts that attracted Clarke, no matter how non-naturalistic, had a gritty, urban feel with springy vernacular dialogue (and sometimes almost no dialogue). David Rudkin’s screenplay is different: rooted in a mystical rural English landscape, it is studded with long, self-consciously poetic speeches and dense with sexual/mythical visions and dreams, theological debate and radical polemic—as well as an analysis of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. But though Penda’s Fen is stylistically the odd film out in Clarke’s work, it trumpets many of his favourite themes, in particular what it means to be English in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Howard Schuman, Sight & Sound, September 1998

Spencer Banks is the principal actor in Penda’s Fen, playing Stephen Franklin, an 18-year-old in his final days at school. The BBC’s Radio Times magazine described the film briefly:

Young Stephen, in the last summer of his boyhood, has somehow awakened a buried force in the landscape around him. It is trying to communicate some warning, a peril he is in; some secret knowledge; some choice he must make, some mission for which he is marked down.

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The magazine also interviewed Rudkin about the film:

“I think of Penda’s Fen as more a film for television than a TV play—not just because it was shot in real buildings on actual film but because of its visual force…

“It was conceived as a film and written visually. Some people think visual questions are none of the writer’s business—that he should provide the action and leave it to the director to picture it all out. For me, writing for the screen is a business of deciding not only what is to be shown but how it is to be seen…

Penda’s Fen is a very simple story; it tells of a boy, Stephen, who in the last summer of his boyhood has a series of encounters in the landscape near his home which alter his view of the world…
Continue reading “Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin”

If….

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Lindsay Anderson‘s masterpiece, If…., is finally given a DVD release in the UK in June. Anderson’s film—the dramatic resistance to authority by three boys at an unnamed British school—was made in 1968 but I didn’t get to see it until (as I recall) 1977. I was 15 at the time and feeling increasingly desperate and hidebound by school-life so this film was explosive in its psychological impact as well as its story (that grenade on the poster was very apt). Given my age and the year, I’m supposed to have cult yearnings toward the wretched Star Wars but it was If…. that made the lasting impression.

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Poster for the 2002 re-release.

If…. was important for a number of reasons, not all of them obvious during that first viewing. I didn’t go to an all-boys public school (note for Americans: “public school” in Britain actually means an expensive, private establishment) but my grammar school had been an all-boys place a few years before I arrived. Some teachers wore gowns at assembly and many of the older teachers there were of a rigid, brutalist mindset exactly like the ones in Anderson’s film. Bullying was endemic, uniform rules were enforced to a degree that would make an army colonel proud and you stood out from the crowd at your peril; I had friends there but I hated every minute. So here comes young Malcolm McDowell on the television screen, effortlessly charismatic and insouciant in his first film role, portraying the ultimate Luciferan rebel, one who (as Anderson writes in the screenplay preface below) says “No” in the face of overwhelming odds. Reader, I identified so very much…. The famous ending (borrowed from Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite) where Mick and the other “Crusaders” fire guns and throw grenades at the rest of the school was headily wish-fulfilling. (And given recent events, you’ll also see below that Anderson and screenwriter David Sherwin regarded that ending as metaphorical, not literal.)

Continue reading “If….”