Two celebrated television plays explore Britain’s landscape and the enduring relationship with its ancient, pagan – and sometimes terrifying – past in this double bill curated by filmmaker Mark Jenkin. The Malvern Hills loom large in a distinctly mystical curio from Alan Clarke’s filmography, and a cursed burial ground on the Norfolk coast is the setting for a classic Christmas ghost story.
This screening includes a 10-minute intermission.
Penda’s Fen (1974)
Director: Alan Clarke/Actors: Spencer Banks, John Atkinson, Georgine Anderson
A public schoolboy in the Malvern Hills undergoes a series of visionary experiences which strip away many of his complacent assumptions about his place in the world. David Rudkin’s peerless teleplay uses its protagonist’s journey of self-discovery as a microcosm through which to refract questions of sexuality and national identity.
First broadcast in 1974, and directed by Alan Clarke, Penda’s Fen is unlike any other TV play and has attained cult status due to its potent mix of mysticism, music and landscape, which taps into an elemental truth about who we are and our pagan past.
“There has to be an Alan Clarke film in this season. Although it’s a real outlier in terms of his body of work, this was a touchstone when I was developing Enys Men. I’d be lying if I said I fully knew what the film means. But like Robert Bresson’s work, I prioritise feeling over understanding. Besides, even Clarke claimed to not really know what it was about.” – Mark Jenkin
A Warning to the Curious (1972)
Director: Lawrence Gordon Clark/Actors: Peter Vaughan, Clive Swift, Julian Herington
Broadcast in the dying hours of Christmas Eve, the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series was a fixture of the seasonal schedules throughout the 1970s and spawned a long tradition of chilling tales, which terrified yuletide viewers for decades to come.
Based on a classic short story by MR James, A Warning to the Curious tells the story of an amateur archaeologist who visits the remote Norfolk coast to search for a buried Saxon crown. Legend has it that three crowns were placed in the ground to protect the country from Viking invasion. Only one remains. Should anyone try to take it, they will have to reckon with the ghost who guards the artefact.
“When I think of the A Ghost Story for Christmas series, I think of Lawrence Gordon Clark more than MR James. But of all the James adaptations, this is my favourite – a highly atmospheric piece of visual storytelling with a chilling climax. I find the simplicity of the filmmaking invigorating. No doubt born of limitation, this is cinema by way of TV.” – Mark Jenkin