To say that Penda's Fen is overrated would be a criminal understatement. Just google it and you'll get a taster of the extruded verbiage. (BFI's take on the play actually comes up before Wikipedia's.) On the other hand, David Rudkin's 1974 television play is certainly worth watching. It's also worth thinking about and (witness one's own effort!) worth writing about.
Dramatically and thematically it is a failure. But it is a heroic, indeed romantic failure. It titillates aesthetically, intellectually, theologically, poetically, musically (almost to excess), politically, historically, romantically and (of course!) sexually. It manages to maintain a consistent tone throughout, and yet it skips, nay gambols quite happily from one television genre to another - one moment a gay coming-of-age drama, one moment a neo-socialist social realist critique of modern living, one moment a whimsical paean to old England... and at other times fairly blundering into symbolism, magical realism, surrealism, allegorical fantasy and "folk horror" (albeit to a much more limited extent than some of its fans would have you think when they compare it to The Wicker Man and/or Children of the Stones - because actually it's not very much like them at all).
All of which, of course, makes even less sense on a thematic or symbolic level! At the beginning of the play Stephen is listening to The Dream of Gerontius. We hear that the music was by "devout Catholic" Sir Edward Elgar, but not that Elgar ended up going from being a "devout" Catholic to being a "lapsed" Catholic, or indeed that the libretto for Dream was by infamous gay Catholic convert Cardinal Newman.††† And then we hear nothing of Catholicism again. Meanwhile, Stephen also knows that Manichaeism is a heresy, and then under the guidance of his vicar father learns to reject its "light and darkness" view of the world in favour of a less "pure", or perhaps just less puritanical, more down-to-earth and even "pagan" version of Christianity - perhaps even the patriotic peasant piety of St Joan of Arc (who was canonised by the Catholic Church in 1920). But how exactly is any of this "subversive", either by modern standards or indeed those of 1974?†††† And did socialists digging in vegetable gardens seem radical (except in a literal sense) in the early '70s? Jeremy Corbyn probably thinks his allotment is radical even nowadays, but by the late '70s such things were the preserve of Tom and Barbara Good and one's own semi-suburban Tory-voting grandparents. Worst of all is poor Penda himself, appearing at the end like a pantomime king (and looking like one too - another dramatic screw-up!). Rudkin could have played an interesting thematic game pitting modern day political militarism (and xenophobia - because why not?) against a deep patriotism of a pre-Conquest old England. Such a perfectly respectable left-wing Penda's Fen fan as Michael Wood would have been quite comfortable with that sort of take. But Rudkin bottles it (and one wonders why) and just leaves off with a vague notion that a pagan king can in some improbable way represent the ordinary common man versus the nasty post-imperialist British Establishment. (On a meta level of course it's no more improbable than a classically educated BBC playwright imagining that he's taking the side of the common man against nasty establishment types like, er, Mary Whitehouse. Γνώθι σεαυτόν indeed!)
And that of course makes me wonder why up until now it's only been the cultural Left who have made Penda's Fen their own when there's plenty in it to interest traditionalists, and gay traditionalists especially. It's very attractively shot, and the camerawork holds up well even today. And beneath its pseudo-socialist cynicism about modern British patriotism and protestant Christianity it has a deep romanticism about land and race and religion, all suffused with a quivering, sparkling, boyish sexuality that is quite beautiful. In the end it's far from perfect, but in and of itself it's a wholesome reminder that even without perfection or purity what we have is worth having.
And it's worth holding on to.
*Again though, it is also arguable that it falls between these two stools. Like its main character, the play doesn't quite know what it wants to be.
†Which I'd have thought to most of us just means... lazy? (There's oneiric, and then there's just onanistic.)
††I mean puh-lease! Penda the pederast we could have done without! And telling gay people that they should be "secret" is something I'm quite comfortable with. But by 1974 it must have come across as a bit rum.
†††There were more of them in the Victorian-Edwardian era than most people realise. (Before there was homophobia there was Romophobia.)
††††Let's face it, there's something fundamentally silly about a classicist like Rudkin imagining to himself that he's a subversive. My own view has for a long time been that Protestantism had its roots in Lollardy which had its roots in Catharism which had its roots in Manichean Gnosticism (which itself had roots in eastern dualistic religions such as Zoroastrianism). The reason puritanism and its ideological descendants, from abolitionism to suffragism to teetotalism, seem so Manichean is because they are.