Brecht and Bowie


While David Bowie is still making the news it’s worth revisiting Baal, an hour-long BBC TV adaptation of the Bertolt Brecht play broadcast in 1981. Bowie stars as the title character, a thoroughly disagreeable poet and café singer who ruins the lives of those around him. This caused a stir at the time more for Bowie’s presence than for the content although Brecht wasn’t exactly a popular choice for evening entertainment. Prior to this most of Bowie’s acting had been in films, with his television appearances being limited to song performances or chat show discussions. The Man Who Fell to Earth aside, I’ve been somewhat dismissive of Bowie’s acting at times, his accent and the sheer weight of his musical persona overwhelm whatever role he’s given, but he’s good in this. He throws himself into the role, and is more convincing than I remember him being a couple of years later in Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence.


For many people Bowie will be the sole attraction in Baal but for me there’s also the presence of the great Alan Clarke as director and co-adaptor (with John Willett). Clarke directed the cult TV play Penda’s Fen in 1974, and was later responsible for a handful of other notable TV films including Scum, Made in Britain, Road, Elephant (1989), and The Firm, all of which are distinguished by a singular intensity and dramatic power the likes of which is usually only found in the best feature films. Compared to those plays Baal is a minor piece, filmed entirely in the studio, and made deliberately stagey to honour Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt. The cameras keep their distance from the performers, and Brechtian distance is also achieved by the use of split-screen, title cards, and Bowie’s direct addresses to the viewer. If this seems like challenging material for a general audience (never mind the singer’s fans) consider that Baal was broadcast in primetime on BBC 1 when there were only three television channels in the UK. This would not happen today.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin

A Journey to Avebury by Derek Jarman


Among the Doublevision video releases I was writing about earlier this month there’s a notable omission from those which have been reissued on DVD: Derek Jarman’s In the Shadow of the Sun was the seventh release on the label, the 1980 version of a film which was compiled in 1974 using footage from his earlier Super-8 shorts, one of which was A Journey to Avebury (1971). Several of the short films have appeared as extras on recent DVDs but the gorgeously oneiric In the Shadow of the Sun remains stubbornly unavailable.


A Journey to Avebury lasts for ten minutes, and in its original state was nothing more than silent, static shots of fields, pathways (putative ley lines, perhaps), silhouetted trees, and finally the Avebury stones. I still find it one of the most fascinating of his short films. The yellow filter gives all the shots an oppressive, sulphurous cast which turns the otherwise bucolic landscape into a place of imminent (or even post-) apocalypse. I’m reminded of the yellow skies in Charles Platt’s erotic nightmare The Gas (1970), or some of the outdoor shots in Penda’s Fen (1974) which are equally suffused with menace.


The copy of A Journey to Avebury that’s currently on YouTube is a recent version with an uncredited electronic score. I still don’t know who did the music; it doesn’t sound like Coil. Cyclobe? (It’s Coil.) The YouTube version can be found in far better quality on the Second Sight DVD of Jarman’s The Last of England.


And just to show how everything here is connected to everything else, that brooding megalith above (known locally as “The Devil’s Seat”) can be seen in at least one shot in Children of the Stones. No surprise there but the shot also reveals the place where Jarman and co. would have been standing five years earlier.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Children of the Stones
Avebury panoramas
Derek Jarman’s music videos
Derek Jarman’s Neutron
Mister Jarman, Mister Moore and Doctor Dee
The Tempest illustrated
Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin
In the Shadow of the Sun by Derek Jarman
Derek Jarman at the Serpentine
The Angelic Conversation
The life and work of Derek Jarman

Weekend links: Ghosts, Spooks and Spectres edition


Cover design by Philip Gough.

Ghosts, Spooks and Spectres (1972 reprint). Editor Charles Molin collected nineteen ghost stories by writers including Oscar Wilde (The Canterville Ghost), Charles Dickens (The Signal-Man), J. Sheridan Le Fanu (Madame Crowl’s Ghost) and HG Wells (The Inexperienced Ghost). This was one of my favourite books when I was ten-years old. There’s nuffin like a Puffin. Puffin Books’ parent company, Penguin, is 75 this year.

• The good people at the Outer Alliance have posted an interview with me here in which I talk about the subversive sexualities of sf in the 1970s and also admit to writing fiction.

• There’s just time to mention It Came From Pebble Mill, an event which includes another screening of David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen.

• “In our society, there has tended to be a very strong compartmentalization of different experiences, different cultural forms, different genres. We can talk in a very broad sense and say art is separate from science, for example, or body is separate from mind, or we can talk in a specific sense and say one certain form of dance music is separate from one form of, say, heavy metal. I don’t really buy those compartmentalizations. I understand why they exist, how they’ve come into being and why they’re convenient, but it’s not the way I think, it’s not the way I experience the world, it’s not the way I believe things should be.” From an interview by Colin Marshall with David Toop at 3QD. Toop’s latest book is Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener.

The Kingdom of the Pearl by Léonard Rosenthal, illustrated by Edmund Dulac.

Ghost Stations by Dollboy, a CD package. And then there’s the Ghostly Bento.

7 Inch Cinema are Birmingham-based cultural historians.

• Mark Pilkington’s Mirage Men now has its own site.

Borges on Pleasure Island: JLB and his love of RLS.

• RIP Arne Nordheim, Norwegian composer.

• Charlie Visnic’s Modular Ghost Synth.

On the trail of Tutankhamen’s penis.

Photos by Thom Ayres.

Ghosts by Japan | Spooky Rhodes by Laika | Purple Dusk by Spectre.

Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin


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.


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.


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”