Sunday, 13 May 2012

David Rudkin: Penda's Fen, The Ash Tree and Artemis 81


The organ plays a key part in the climactic church scenes of Artemis 81 and Penda’s Fen, with both Stephen and von Drachenfels threatening to shudder the walls and buttresses apart. This is in part another element of transfigured autobiography, Rudkin himself having learned to play the organ as a young man during the course of his music studies. Stephen and Gwen in Penda’s Fen and Artemis 81 respectively are both organ students. It is the gothic instrument par excellence, with a swelling sound of majestic power, irreducibly associated with the religious buildings in which it is often housed, and the richly resonant sound which such stone encasement affords. Classical and sacred music plays a significant part in Rudkin’s work. He scripted the film Testimony (1987), about Shostakovich’s trials in Stalinist Russia, wrote Symphonie Pathetique (1992-5) about Tchaikovsky, and the BBC radio3 play The Haunting of Mahler (1994). It is Elgar’s spirit which presides over Penda’s Fen, inhabiting the Malverns and their surrounds, the landscape which has so inspired his music. Stephen’s analysis of a passage of the Dream of Gerontius at the start of the story immediately establishes the centrality of music to his life, and to his sense of himself and the world. It evokes the power of music, its connection with the landscape, its ability to tangibly evoke complex mental and spiritual states and to approach an expression of the ineffable. Stephen’s statement about Elgar’s great choral work is like a testament of faith. ‘I think the greatest visionary work in English music is The Dream of Gerontius by Sir Edward Elgar. It poses the most important question: what is to happen to my soul?’ He goes on to speak (in an essay composed in his head) of Elgar’s creative gift which an awed reverence, also locating him within a particular sense of place. ‘To be a man…have Heaven and Hell between your ears…and write them down, in notes. And walk those hills: and hear the Angel and the Demon…The Judgement: on those hills’. He will undergo his own Judgement and see his own versions of angels and demons at the end of the story. Stephen definitely feels the spirit of the music, and is attuned to the landscape in which he has grown up, and with which he is so familiar.

Stephen with Elgar - Projected landscapes
We get the sense that Stephen yearns to feel some of the transcendent sensations which Elgar experienced, and maybe find his own way of expressing them. For all the youthful arrogance and unyielding certainty which he displays in the early part of the story, he exhibits a due humility in the face of what he perceives as creative genius. When he meets Elgar in the course of his explorations of the surrounding lanes and fields, the composer appears like another incarnation of the angel which has been looking over him, but which he hasn’t been aware of. This angel he sees, however. The angels in the story tend to be associated with the landscape, the sacred topography, whereas the demons (of which Stephen is far more aware) are more connected with buildings and their interiors, as well as with the tainted fen, with its imagined technocratic underworld. If Elgar is an angel, then he is a very human one. He is old and frail, seated in a wheelchair and confined to an old, crumbling outbuilding. He whispers the secret of the Enigma Variations, the hidden code, to Stephen, as if passing on the flame to a new acolyte. Elgar’s spirit returns to inhabit his own blessed, Edenic place. ‘I come to look at the world, you see’, he points out to Stephen. ‘The lovely world. The silver river and the verdant valley. The beautiful world’. He sees all of this in a dank, featureless wall, to which he points as if it is a screen across which a film plays. It’s an indication of the vivid power of the imagination, the creative vision which contains worlds within and can project them outwards. Rudkin writes in his playscript that ‘he may see the Severn Valley, Cotswold, Bredon. But we, coldly behind Elgar, squarely see only the mouldering wall before his pointing hand’. Stephen is ecstatic after his encounter. As the playscript puts it, ‘he has been vouchsafed an encounter with the noble giant who has haunted him; glimpsed his mortal reality; been told his secret’. The camera-eye point of view soars over the landscape, gliding on the surging updrafts of Elgar’s overture In The South. It’s as if it is following in the slipstream of Stephen’s exultant spirit, finally alighting in his bedroom to focus on the portrait of Elgar on the sleeve of the Gerontius sleeve. The birth and death dates below it are a concrete affirmation of his mortality. The mystery of what happens to the soul, which Stephen had identified as ‘the most important question’ at the heart of the Dream of Gerontius, seems to have found its answer in his visionary meeting with the composer. Elgar’s soul lives on through his music, and through his love of the land and the ‘beautiful world’ which it expresses. ‘If, on the hills, you ever hear an old man’s whistling in the air…don’t be afraid’, Elgar tells him. ‘It will only be me’. It is a tender and benign haunting by a blessed spirit of place.

Von Drachenfels - blind improvising
We’ve already seen how Artemis 81 and Penda’s Fen both include improvisations on church organs as climactic preludes precipitating moments of crisis. Both Stephen and von Drachenfels play music which invites chaos and destruction, an acknowledgement of the power of art to invoke darker forces as well as to elevate the spirit. Von Drachenfels, the great organ maestro in Artemis 81, plays the role of the Elgar figure in Penda’s Fen as far as Gwen is concerned. In his case, however, he actively discourages her from pursuing her dreams of becoming a composer or a virtuoso such as himself. Attempting to make light of her disappointment, she tells Gideon that she’ll have to give up on her ‘though of being another Gillian Weir’. Weir was (and still is) one of the great contemporary organists, particularly renowned for her interpretations of the music of Olivier Messiaen. Von Drachenfels is very much the Faustian figure, the artist whose genius and penetrating vision comes at a great cost to his soul. His discouragement is perhaps an attempt at diverting Gwen from suffering a similar fate, or he may be pushing her towards finding her own voice and style, partly through a more general process of self-discovery and the assertion of personal strength and conviction. He uses her score, which she brings to him to look over and which he half borrows, half steals, to send a coded message to Gideon and herself. His final improvisation, which he knows will be the last piece he will play, uses the theme which she composed as a central motif for it. It seems to be an acknowledgement that he finds worth in her music after all, and considers her to be ready to continue her artistic pursuits in the wake of her transforming experiences. Von Drachenfels eschews the melodrama and grandiose Gothicism which are often associated with the organ, partly due to its placement within the framework of gothic architecture. He vows never to play Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor, the hackneyed staple of so many gothic horror films, regarding as a piece of empty showmanship rather than a work of genuinely expressive art. The reduction of creativity to recycled and mass produced cliché is another indication of a world dulled into a mechanised, programmed facsimile of authentic experience. When Gwen and Gideon hear that he is to include a performance of the Tocatta in his programme, they know that he is sending them a signal that all is not right, and that events are reaching a climax. They immediately set out for the abbey at which he will be playing.

The fiery descent
Wagnerian themes and music also permeate Artemis 81. Von Drachenfels himself is a very Wagnerian figure, with his cape, scarf and long sweep of white hair. As he descends the winding stair into the basement beneath his house, the walls are illuminated with baleful red lights as if he is approaching some fiery, molten furnace. The Magic Fire Music from the Valkyrie, the second opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, thunders around him. His Brunnhilde lies below, in a state of suspended half-life on a bed surrounded by the flickering electronic fire of medical instrument readouts. The picture on the wall which he looks at before climbing down depicts a woman with winged helmet and spear, suggesting that his wife may indeed at one point sung the role of Brunnhilde. At the end of the story, the immolation music from the final Ring Cycle opera, Gotterdamerung, surges and swells as von Drachenfels joins his love on her burning bed for a last embrace. It all conveys a sense of the grand drama of life, with mythological archetypes resonating through into modern times. Gideon’s descent into the underworld beyond the sick metropolis also approximates the hellish foundries of the dwarves in Niflheim in Wagner’s mythology, where the treasures and material goods are made for the use and pleasure of the gods. Here, the material being forged is human, however, the mind melted down and shaped into a uniform mould. Gideon’s art, his writing, has taken on a similarly joyless and basely materialistic quality. When he leaves Jed, rejecting his attempts to reach out to him, he mumbles a quick and dismissive ‘back to the forge’. It’s a retreat from a genuine connection with the world or with the self, an escape into baseless fantasy. We see him writing on his golf-ball typewriter, the latest technology for an author at the time. The phone is off the hook and Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the first of the Ring Cycle operas, blasts from his boombox in the background. For him, it is mere noise to block out the world, and he is completely shut off from external reality in his glass-walled, high-rise eyrie. Gwen, in real need of his help, tries to get through to him on the phone, but he has taken it off the hook. He is unreachable.

The Ash Tree - shadows of the past
The divided and fragmented self, turned inward and denying a part of its true and whole nature, is a recurrent theme of Rudkin’s work. In The Ash Tree, Sir Richard’s divided self is suggested by the re-emergence of the past in his perceptions of the present. His modern and ‘enlightened’ Jacobean qualities are undermined by the oppressive shadows of Puritan judgement which he sees outlined in the windows and against the flickering firelight. The portrait of his ancestor, Sir Matthew Fell, also looms above him whenever he ascends the stairs, its baleful stare draining away his own character and infecting him with the self-delusion, weakness in the face of authority, and denial of desire which his forbear had displayed. Thus he leaves himself vulnerable to a renewal of the deadly curse delivered by Mistress Mothersole from the scaffold. The fragmented self is reflected in Artemis 81 by images of divided and occluded vision which run throughout the story. We open on a close up of Gideon’s mouth and then his eye, before the camera pulls back and he puts on his large, rounded glasses and uncovers his typewriter, after first taking the phone off the hook. Verbal and visual communication and perception are modes of expression and understanding which he has rejected in favour of writing, of creating his own insular subworlds. The glasses and the other screens through which he sees the world – the windows of his flat, the windscreen of his motorhome and the glass eye of the TV, always on but largely ignored in the corner of his room – become a symbol of his retreat from direct engagement with life. His dream of converting the tower, located on a rise of remote moorland, into a new home would isolate and elevate him completely apart from and above the concerns of the world, and complete the building of his impenetrable self-armoury. Here, too, the stone foundations are topped by a glass walled living space, more screens through which to gaze out at the world without any danger of being touched by it. More screens representing false sub-worlds are found in the story. There are the space invaders arcade games on the ship, the medical screens in the basement which lend an illusion of life to von Drachenfels’ wife, and the false projections of the sea which provide a programmed technological replacement for the natural sublime. Early on in the film, on the ferry over from Denmark, we see a small, rather reserved boy with his mother and a priest. He looks very much like a younger version of Gideon. He too wears large glasses, but one lens is frosted, shattered in some accident. He is shown a dried blue flower pressed in a book, the same blue flower which we will later see growing at the sorrowful sites to which the passengers travel before succumbing to the death impulse which has infected them via the fragments of the Magog statue. Just as the blue flower is a symbol of hope amidst bleak despair, so he carries with him the potential of a brighter future. We glimpse him later on the television news, his mother pulling him away from the self-immolated body of the priest, burning in the streets of a town on the east coast of Northern Ireland. When Gideon looks at himself in the mirror in Helith’s hut, it’s like he is seeing himself for the first time. He doesn’t wear glasses from this point on in the story, an indication that his vision has been ‘cleared’. The traumatic moment of the explosion on the Welsh cliffs which has destroyed his motorhome, the mobile fortress in which he ventures out into the world, has shocked him into a renewed perception of reality.

Artemis 81 - the robotic eye
Language and its construction can also act as a potentially occluding veil, a means of obscuring rather than exploring the true nature of the self. We see Gideon examining the spherical golf ball components of his electronic typewriter, with their letters and symbols raised from the surface, holding them in front of his eye. They look like detachable metallic eyeballs, cyborg organs which enable only mechanical vision. Gideon’s writing, as a result, is soulless and empty, and offers a facile and even dangerous form of escapist wish-fulfilment. With this technology, Gideon is able to erase instinct and authentic feeling, effectively censoring and suppressing his self in an act of semi-automatic self-delusion. This erasure of language can also lead to true vision, the veil of self-deluding words torn aside. This is the key to the riddle etched onto the stained glass in the church by von Drachenfels’ home: ‘such as when these writings shall disappear you shall know my face’. In Gideon’s visionary dream, these words themselves are erased, in a similar way to the erasure of the type on his modern machine. This removal of the barrier of obfuscatory and evasive language, used to keep the authentically real at a distance, allows for vision of the Magog figure, the lumpen chthonic rockform which is the destructive power let loose by Asrael in the world. Seeing his own face beneath the obscuring cowl, in classic dream-revelation style, shows that the heart of this potential for destruction lies in the dislocation and dissociation within and between people. The debased form of Artemis as Magog, a hunched, granitic stone figure twisted painfully in on itself, is an outward projection of Gideon’s soul. His state, unacknowledged by himself, is an example on an individual level of the wider atomisation and the resultant sense of dull despair on a social level that the re-awakening of Magog/Artemis will bring. Phaedra, in Rudkin’s translation of Euripedes Greek tragedy Hippolytus, articulates this state, musing ‘always in me this backing away, from the reality of others, into a still safety of the self that’s no security at all’. Von Drachenfels, talking to Gwen in the ‘confessional’ of the organ booth in his church, likens Gideon to one who is ‘in thrall to Artemis’, just as Hippolytus is in Euripedes play. He is ‘withdrawn, within beyond our reaching – a prisoner in his own nature’. The divided self nurturing and protecting its fragmented nature within an armoured and impenetrable shell of its own careful and thorough construction. Gideon stands by an open grave outside the church, and von Drachenfels subsequently philosophises to Gwen, in the kind of dramatically formal stage language which retains the flavour of Rudkin’s classical interpretations, that beyond ‘that death we die, that ends’, there is also ‘that death whose grave bonds form around us as we live’. This is the living death into which the prisoners of the underworld in the parallel world to which Gideon and Helith cross over are programmed before being sent up to the surface once more. In Penda’s Fen, Stephen’s father talks to him about the division of the self in the modern world, proclaiming that ‘only by being nonselves can we survive in our own mortal shrouds we weave around us. And what shall this ‘survival’ profit us? In this day of the mask, this day of Corporate Man’. Having hijacked the van in which the living dead are being transported and driven it to the surface, Gwen and Gideon abandon them, locked in the back like so much livestock. They consider them to be lost, beyond redemption and scarcely even human. In breaking free of their own conditioning and escaping the underworld, leaving two dead bodies in their wake (their sloughed off selves?), they bring some of its taint of moral disconnection with them to the world above. The people in the van may be wretched, but in abandoning them to their fate, Gwen and Gideon exhibit a lack of compassion and a readiness to judge which takes them a step towards becoming equivalent to the dispassionate operators of the technocratic machinery of control from whom they have just fled.

Penda's Fen - Dream Demons
Gideon’s divided state is revealed to him in a dream which he chooses to ignore. Dreams as conveyors of hidden truths are also important in Penda’s Fen. They become so vital that they break out into the real world, the angels and demons battling within manifesting themselves in palpable form. Stephen’s awareness of his difference, of his homosexuality, emerges in a dream. He sees a mighty, radiant angel descend from the Malverns, and transform within the hall of his school, beneath the Greek inscription reading ‘know thyself’, into one of his classmates, Honeybone, with whom he has a rather fractious relationship. A hand, presumably his own, runs down his naked torso until it reaches his pelvic region, further exploration denied by a burning, brilliant torchlight. Waking up, he finds the gargoyle-like demon squatting at the foot of his bed, and knows himself to be, in his own mind, ‘unnatural’. He also, with innocent naivety and disregard for the potential for mockery, relates one of his dreams to a disinterested teacher during a class, a dream which he suggests is ‘like a parable’. In it, he sees a demon on the roof of his father’s church, and through an effort of will, transforms it into a shining angel. Having discovered his power to transform the nature of these manifestations, he then turns it back into a demon again. He later asks his father about what dreams mean, and is told ‘your dream tells a truth about yourself. A truth you hide from while you are awake. A truth you need to know about yourself. For your…well being’. He goes on to suggest that ‘the responsibility of the dreamer (is) to acknowledge what truth about yourself the dream reveals. Then act upon that truth’. The demon can thus be confronted and transformed into angelic shape, and back again if need be, the marriage of heaven and hell consummated and the demonic and angelic aspects united. The ‘balance of mind’ offered as an ideal by the Greek dictum inscribed on the school wall can thus be achieved, the divided self made whole again.

Artemis 81 - The Hitchcock and Dreyer wall
Cinematic references abound in Artemis 81. They are made explicit by having Gideon’s old friend Jed teach a course in film history and theory. He elucidates the substance of the Hitchcockian undercurrents running through the film in his lecture on Vertigo, and specifically the embrace between James Stewart’s Scottie and Kim Novak’s Madeline/Judy. Jed talks of the camera which circles them as being a moral, consecrating eye, imbuing it with almost religious power. He claims ‘it tells us we do right to dream and for our sanity we must learn to fall’. The transformation of the backdrop around Scottie and Judy, the woman he has moulded into the form of the dead Madeline, as the camera circles them, the cheap motel room at some point disappearing to be replaced by the tower in which he witnessed the fatal, traumatic moment of her fall, is a transition into the emotionally expressive vision of the inner eye. Scottie embraces the first Madeline (who is in fact Judy as well) in front of a turbulent Pacific Ocean which is rather obviously a back projection, an expression of his passionate and troubled inner state. This projection of an unreal ocean is realised in a more literal fashion in the cells of the technocratic underworld, with the indoctrination of the experimental subjects into seeing the sea in an auroral curtain of dry ice and shimmering laser light being a step in the process towards complete mind control. Rather than an expression of overwhelming emotion, it has become instead a means of manipulating feeling and directing the inner eye, dulling the senses and creating a compliant, malleable mentality. Further Vertigo references are found in the scene set in the bell tower in the cathedral of the sick metropolis. Gideon holds on to the ‘Hitchcock blonde’, who is also his idealised image of Gwen, trying, and failing, to save her from falling. He also has his of camera consecrated embrace with the angel Helith, the bleak tower block in which they have found meagre shelter transforming behind them into the safe haven of the sea by which the homely hut in which Gideon had, in all senses, awoken stands. Through offering him his compassion, love and the warmth of his coat, Gideon saves the angel, who has become infected by the sickness of this dark city, a sickness brought about by his brother Asrael. But Gideon also compounds his fall, his descent into the human world, where he now feels the cold and sees his reflection, a level of sensation and self-awareness previously unknown to him. The last we see of Helith, he is sitting on the shore between lake and sea, the planetary moons once more sinking towards the horizon. Now completely alone, his brother for the time being broken and defeated, he clutches Gideon’s coat and gives off a rather pitiful sob.

Artemis 81 - Learning to fall
Gideon has his own Vertigo moment in the abbey towards the end of the story. He looks up at the ladder which stretches up to the roof, and temporarily balks at climbing it, before Gwen urges him on. In the galleries inside, he has to overcome his fear of heights in order to edge along the narrow walkways and reach up to the Magog statue in its nook, preventing it from cracking open and releasing its poisons. Finally, he learns to fall, tumbling from the elevated arches, his face filled with beatific acceptance rather than rigid fear. He survives his fall, the broken leg which he suffers complementing the limp he acquired in the explosion on the clifftops. Both are an outward replacement for the spiritual lameness which has been healed, the physical cost of his inward transformation. More Hitchcockian allusions are to be found at various points in the film. As they approach the abbey along the A road heading east in order to hear von Drachenfels’ recital, a huge, locust-like swarm of crows rushes overhead, as if fleeing an apocalyptic oncoming stormfront. It’s a fairly obvious nod to The Birds. Amongst the posters on Jed’s wall, we see ones for late Hitchcock films: The Birds, Torn Curtain and Family Plot. Jed also has numerous stills from Carl Dreyer’s film Vampyr on his wall. Dreyer is a particular cinematic touchstone for Rudkin. In his bfi Classics book on Vampyr, he testifies that ‘I revere Carl Dreyer more deeply than any other artist of my time’. He cites a circling tracking shot in Dreyer’s Ordet which observes the holy madman Johannes as he comforts the little girl whose mother is dying in the neighbouring room. ‘The camera passes quietly around them in a perfect circle’, he writes, ‘enfolding them and consecrating them’. It is the Vertigo embrace again, suggestive of an intensely focussed inner vision.

Artemis 81 - gothic glow
The gothic is a central visual motif in Artemis 81, and Rudkin and director Alistair Reid summon it up with several references to and borrowings from Hammer films. Red and black are predominant colours throughout, from the red lining of von Drachenfels’ Inverness cape, to the black suit and red tie sported by Asrael in human form. Red light emanates from the porch of von Drachenfels’ church, from the basement below his house and from the tunnel entrance to the technocratic underworld. Asrael and von Drachenfels are both eminently gothic characters. They are generally to be found in or near the gothic surrounds of churches or cathedrals. The name von Drachenfels melds the key character of gothic horror, Dracula, with a prefix denoting Germanic nobility, and the Teutonic roots of the modern gothic. Whilst von Drachenfels looks more like a figure from a Dreyer film, Asrael has the customary well-dressed and suave manner of the monstrous Hammer adversary, be it human or fiend, Cushing or Lee. With his vulpine features and jet black hair swept back from a sharp widow’s peak, he it the traditional image of Satanic persuasion, the smooth face of evil. His final fall from the abbey galleries and impalement on the spike of an iron railing draws directly from the finale of the Hammer film Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, in which Christopher Lee’s Count suffers a similar fate, plunging down onto the sharpened end of a large gold crucifix. In case we miss the allusion, there is also a thin trickle of blood which drools from the corner of Asrael’s gaping mouth. The overhead shot of his face, half-imploring, half full of hissing, animalistic hate, hand reaching our as if to grab hold of life and cling on, is very much akin to the parallel shot in the Hammer film. The scene in the bell tower of the cathedral, in which Gwen/the Hitchcock blonde hangs within the bell, which Asrael sets to ringing, is also a blend of the finale of Vertigo and the beginning of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. The Hammer film begins with the discovery of a woman’s body, drained of blood, hanging pendant within the bell of the local church, muffling its clangorous morning call to prayer. The plot to release a deadly plague into the world supervised by the vampirically styled Asrael also brings to mind Christopher Lee’s final outing for Hammer as the Count, The Satanic Rites of Dracula. In this intriguing contemporary re-imagining of the cycle, the Dracula has become the head of a corporation, with an office suite at the top of a high rise, and uses his position to synthesise a new and virulent form of the bubonic plague, which he intends to use to precipitate Armageddon, thus ending his cursed eternal half-life. As Gwen and Gideon approach the abbey in her car, frightening and disturbing illusions manifest from a mist in front of Gideon’s windscreen view in an attempt to turn him from their path. Children robed in white sing a ritualistic chant and a headless rider rears up on his horse. They are very much like the phantoms sent to strike fear into the hearts of the characters gathered in a magic pentacle and thus to drive them out of its protective boundary in the Hammer film The Devil Rides Out.

Alternative impalements - Artemis 81 and Dracula Has Risen From the Grave
Penda’s Fen and The Ash Tree also show an awareness of British horror traditions. The former has a flavour of the Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood strain of British supernatural fiction, with its re-emergence of long buried Pagan traditions and figures inherent in a particular, localised landscape. Penda’s Fen is one of a good many TV series and plays from the 1970s which were set in rural areas (usually in the West Country) and which found mystery and magic in ancient landscapes. Amongst these, Children of the Stones was filmed in Avebury, The Moon Stallion around Wayland’s Smithy and the White Horse of Uffington, and The Changes roved through a rural Midlands traumatically thrown back into a pre-technological age by what turns out to be the pulsations from a powerful sarsen stone which has been disturbed. These, fine as they all were, were broadcast as children’s programmes, whereas Penda’s Fen was scheduled as an adult drama, and was thus able to deal with adult themes more directly, even though its central character was a boy on the threshold of adulthood. The Ash Tree, with its bucolic backdrop jarringly mixed with acts of base brutality carried out in the lovingly filmed pastoral settings, displays a definite debt to Michael Reeves classic Witchfinder General, which balances similar stark contrasts between the picturesque and the cruel. In Artemis 81, we also see a crude exploitation horror poster on the wall in the dark metropolis, its title, Zitpilakoda, suggestive of a collided Esperanto of East European languages. The imagery is unsubtly Freudian, redolent of the sexual revulsion and fear evident in some horror films and fiction, which reflects Gideon’s former state of mind. A gloating Asrael figure leers out whilst a naked man is grabbed by the claw of a giant crab. A reference to 70s pulp horror writer Guy N Smith, perhaps, who wrote a surprising number of novels featuring giant, flesh-eating crabs, which were an ubiquitous sight on the wire bookracks in newsagents at the time.

Artemis 81 - Tarkovsky interiors
Other film references beyond Hitchcock and British gothic are also evident. The maze of the technocratic underworld which Gideon infiltrates and then escapes from with Gwen is like a James Bond villain’s hi-tech subterraenean lair, as realised on a BBC budget. The poisoned city, with its ramshackle market underneath abandoned factory vaults is like something from Eastern European cinema, with a Kafkaesque sense of the world tilted off its axis of normality. A man with a bowler hat and thickly coiled scarf, and a couple of kids running by in Nazi uniforms add to this atmosphere of an old Eastern Europe of the mind, various aspects from different times gathered together in a temporal collage of imaginary geography. The monumental interior of the cathedral, with its drifting mists suggesting a vastness which generates its own atmospheric conditions, brings to mind Tarkovky’s Andrei Rublev and Stalker, as well as the cathedral interior/exterior which provides the transcendent conclusion to Nostalgia, released a couple of years after Artemis 81 was broadcast. Stalker also begins and ends in a poisoned landscape, in which both the environment and the people who inhabit it have become degraded and sick, physically and spiritually. The lighting in the cathedral sequence, especially in the bell tower sequence, with its long, pronounced shadows and strong contrasts between shadow and light, shows the influence of German expressionism. Metropolis is a particular inspiration for the whole sick city section of the film. Gideon’s bewildered wanderings through this dark urban landscape are also reminiscent of those of the titular character in Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark as he explores the strange, fantastic city of Unthank, which may be his own personal purgatory. Jean Cocteau and his modern mythological film Orphee is also summoned up when Gideon regards himself in the full length mirror after awakening in Helith’s cottage. He reaches forward to touch his image as if the silvered surface will prove to be a window or doorway, as it does in Orphee and Le Sang d’un Poete. One of the fated passengers on the ferry at the beginning of the story is himself a film director. Gideon goes to visit his wife in the course of tracing the pattern of the ferry suicides. Tristam Guise was known, and notorious, for his ‘shock film’ The Dark Night of the Earth. It sounds like the kind of taboo breaking British picture associated with several directors from the 70s. He is a Lindsay Anderson, Nic Roeg or Ken Russell, with his best years behind him and his fires damped down. Indeed, there is something of Roeg’s Don’t Look Now in the scene in the cathedral, with Gideon being lead breathlessly on by the figure in white, who always remains just tantalisingly ahead of him on the stairs, disappearing through a door or standing for a moment on top of a buttress bridge. Guise’s The Dark Night of the Earth may be a film into which Gideon strays when he passes over with Helith into the dark metropolis, or a preview of what is to come should Magog’s poison be released by Asrael.

Penda's Fen - The British visionary tradition
Rudkin’s TV plays are certainly not without their faults, as he is himself only too ready to admit. On his website, he writes of Artemis 81 ‘I acknowledge that the piece is uneven – in the writing and in the realizing’. Some may find the dialogue too stagey, with the language occasionally taking on the declamatory quality of the mythic rhetoric of classical drama. This creates a distancing effect when used in a modern context, most people expecting contemporary drama to be essentially realist, with speech patterns like those of everyday conversation. Some of the acting, particularly in Artemis 81, can be a little tentative, giving the impression that the characters are notional archetypes rather than fully formed characters. Even this fits in with the general mythological atmosphere, however. BBC budgets didn’t allow for a full realisation of Rudkin’s more elaborately visionary ideas, but, as with Doctor Who over the decades, the imagination can colour in the basic sketch. The accusation of pretentiousness has been levelled at the films, with Artemis 81 once more being especially singled out by the critics, perhaps because by this time the fantastic and the allegorical had lost favour with the cognoscenti. This contempt for anything deemed ‘pretentious’ is a particularly British obsession, the idea of people overreaching themselves being viewed with dismissive disdain. Brian Eno talks about this in one of the appended essays in his book A Year With Swollen Appendices (the essay in question forming one such appendix). ‘In the arts’, he writes, ‘the word ‘pretentious’ has a special meaning: the attempt at something which the critic thinks you have no right even to try’. He decides to turn the word into a compliment. Artemis 81 and Penda’s Fen do stretch audience comprehension and tolerance at times. But they also challenge the viewer. If they have an overriding fault, it’s that they try to include too much – to attempt a grand synthesis of the personal and the political, the philosophical, mythological and spiritual. If this results in failure, then a least it’s a noble one, the result of huge ambition and a desire to draw everything together to form a new Blakean worldview. As such, these films are in the great tradition of visionary English art, which always slips in and out of tradition, but remains as an ineradicable undercurrent; from Milton to Blake, the new-Romantics (Paul Nash, Cecil Collins and David Jones) to Derek Jarman and Andrew Kotting, through to the modern resurgence of interest in musical explorations of the mysteries underlying English landscape and memory (as typified by Damon Albarn’s new opera based around the life and work of the Elizabethan astrologer John Dee). It would be good to see more attempts to construct such overarching modern mythologies, to resurrect the British visionary spirit once more. Penda’s Fen currently remains unreleased on dvd, having failed to make into the recent Alan Clarke box set, having perhaps been deemed out of step with the rest of his work. A shame.


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