Child Be Strange: A Symposium on Penda’s Fen

Dr Joseph Brooker, Director of the Centre for Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, comments on a recent symposium and screening of cult film Penda’s Fen. pinvin-text

The dramatist David Rudkin (b.1936) wrote the television play Penda’s Fen in 1972-3. It was filmed by director Alan Clarke (himself acclaimed as an auteur in recent retrospectives) and screened as a 90-minute film in BBC television’s Play For Today slot in March 1974. The play was repeated in 1975, then scarcely seen for another 15 years. Until the arrival of VHS recorders in the early 1980s, it was almost impossible for viewers to catch up with or re-view a piece of television unless they managed to be in front of the screen on the occasion of a repeat. In 1990 Penda’s Fen was at last screened again, with an introduction from Rudkin, in a Channel 4 retrospective of the work of the influential producer David Rose. Now it was possible to record works of television that came recommended for their quality or rarity, and amateur VHS copies of Penda’s Fen began to circulate. This was the basis of a gradual revival in interest in the play, which in the 2000s came to be seen as a significant instance of a certain cultural strand from the 1970s: put simply, an English uncanny. The play depicts the experience of teenager Stephen Franklin, living in a conservative household in the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, whose stable assumptions are disturbed as he encounters a series of spectral figures, culminating in a meeting with Penda, the last pagan king in England prior to Christianity. As Stephen ventures through this mystical rural landscape, issues of sexuality and politics are also implicitly raised.

Following a DVD and Blu-Ray release in May 2016, the revival of Penda’s Fen reached its peak with a high-profile screening at the British Film Institute on 10th June 2017, preceded by a whole day conference about the film, supported by the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image and Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature. The conference and screening were organized by Matthew Harle and James Machin, who both completed PhD theses in Birkbeck’s Department of English & Humanities. They had assembled a full day of presentations about the film from speakers including David Ian Rabey, author of a monograph about Rudkin’s drama, and Adam Scovell, whose recent book Folk Horror indicates one way to categorize the film. Given the traditional – but now certainly shifting – gender balance of fandom in cult TV and film, it was not very surprising that a majority of speakers were male; but substantial contributions were also made by three women scholars: Carolyne Larrington, a Professor of Old Norse at the University of Oxford, who among other things raised the question of the place of women in the film; Yvonne Salmon of the University of Cambridge, who spoke on the recent assembly of the canon of ‘Occulture’; and Beth Whalley, a researcher from King’s College London who brought expertise in medieval history to bear on this late twentieth-century work.

Birkbeck’s Roger Luckhurst opened the day by situating Penda’s Fen in a ‘polytemporal 1970s’ of texts that combine traces of different periods, suggesting that such combinations were often a response to periods of social crisis. Characteristically of his work as a cultural historian, Luckhurst did not discuss Penda’s Fen in isolation but as part of a cluster of other texts from the period, including the 1977 children’s TV drama Children of the Stones and the fiction of Alan Garner. Such texts became increasingly familiar reference points during the day, as an ‘eerie’ version of the 1970s materialized through the mists of cultural history. Recent ideas of sonic ‘hauntology’ and the comic period spookiness of Scarfolk Council are relevant co-ordinates, though they also risk anachronism in being imposed on a work composed, as Luckhurst pointed out at the close of the day, from a richly educated post-war sensibility.

Speakers brought specific angles. Craig Wallace (Queen’s University Belfast) compared Penda’s Fen to other legends of sleeping kings who will return in times of crisis – not least King Arthur. Andy W. Smith (University of South Wales) set the play in the context of Manichean religion. BFI programmer Will Fowler and experimental poet Daniel O’Donnell Smith (another Birkbeck graduate) offered responses which were at times openly subjective and personal.

Carl Phelpstead (still another presenter based in Wales, quite suitably for the play’s geographical setting and interest in Anglo-Welsh encounters) situated Rudkin alongside other writers, including Geoffrey Hill and, fascinatingly, J.R.R. Tolkien, whose Riders of Rohan were said to be based in part on Mercian history. Phelpstead’s clear and erudite presentation was accompanied by images of the region today, lush and green yet also peppered with quirky details, taken by his brother on a research trip. Beth Whalley also showed us images of a trip to the real Pinvin, inspiration for the play. Her paper brought together not just a detailed account of the work itself and a comparison with Hill’s King Offa, but also the natural history of fens as material environments, and new emphases on their social history in medieval times. In its interdisciplinary range Whalley’s was one of the day’s richest presentations.

Yet amid all this emphasis on the content of the play, I was particularly intrigued about another aspect: the play’s place in the history of television and the institutions of the BBC. This was addressed by David Rolinson (University of Stirling), who explained that he had put together a day-by-day calendar of the entire creation of Penda’s Fen – the kind of obsessively complete coverage one might just about expect with Guernica or Citizen Kane. Through research in BBC archives, Rolinson had unearthed extraordinary materials: letters from writer and director; details of a wrap party after shooting dubbed Penda’s Fun; duty logs recording viewers’ calls and letters to the broadcaster (often expressing dissatisfaction, in the age of Mary Whitehouse). Such material is a valuable addition to the discussion, giving us a salutary reminder of how the play’s mystical aura was in fact generated by mundane work within conventions of television production of the time.

The event closed with a Q&A conference call to David Rudkin at his home. As his rich voice with its Ulster traces resounded through the darkened theatre, the effect was akin to a séance: an apt image of communication for this ‘unburied’ work.

 

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Arts Week 2017: “Doing and thinking: methods in practice-based research”

Dr Maria Kukhareva, Educational Developer at the University of Bedfordshire reflects on the interaction of creativity and academia following a workshop as part of Birkbeck Arts Week 2017.creativity-academiaAs an interdisciplinarian (both by background and by own curiosity) I seek opportunities to be amazed by the way different disciplines and approaches interact, the conflict and tension borne out of this process, and the turbulent energy and questions it has potential to generate.

I recently participated in the ‘Doing and Thinking’ workshop during Arts Week, which gathered an exciting and diverse crowd of practicing artists, researchers, and artist-researches – both Birkbeck’s own and external enthusiasts, like me.

Here, I broaden the focus of the workshop and turn to the discourse around creativity, rigour and scholarship in higher education – and what it means for the creative practitioners and researchers, as well as the wider academic community.

“Is it alive or is it ref-able?”

What the workshop discussion demonstrated very quickly and relatively clearly, is that there seems to be a vast and deep ocean between the mysterious continent inhabited by the creative practitioners, and the equally mysterious land of “this is how things are done in academia”.

The ocean was represented by a heap of colourful cards with research (and life?) related words on our tables. As we were shuffling through them, we realised we could not agree on the meanings, values and emotions of some seemingly common words, for example:

impact (think: theatre performance versus academic publication)
serendipity and intuition as a driving force (think: visual arts versus systematic research)
discomfort and doubt (think: open creative process versus evaluation outcomes)

In fact, words and language in general continued to be the cause of frustration, namely the incompatibility of creative output (a painting, a book, a film) and the academic language accompaniment (a thesis).

One could almost imagine how creativity and its magic, so necessary for any artist’s existence, breaks into pieces on encountering the academic expectation. As if to become an academic scholar, an artist needs to give up a part of their soul in exchange for the gifts of rigour, systematic inquiry and strictly formatted self-expression and self-representation. As if the fruits of your labour can either be ‘alive’ or ‘ref-able.’

But… is this really the only way to cross the ocean?

“Follow your nose”

Let’s view creative practice – whether you are a professional artist, early researcher or an educator in any given field – as something you NEED. Whether it’s where you experiment, or where your intuition, or some other undefined drive pushes you to create news things. It’s where a part of your soul lives; it’s something that fuels your daily activity. It’s what inspires your signature pedagogy, your authorial voice and what gives it life – as demonstrated effectively by Emma Bennett, Katherine Angel and Catherine Grant.

If this is what your creative practice does, then not only does it not go against the ‘traditional’ academic activity, with its rigour, systematic approach, structure, format and language – rather, creative practice makes the academic activity possible and interesting, from teaching to publishing.

The messy, unstructured creativity with a mind of its own, should be preserved and nurtured, rather than ‘re-trained’ when entering the world of traditional academic boundaries and standards. As Thomas Fisher has pointed out, creativity can be a rigorous process.

In other words – ‘it’ needs to be alive to be ref-able.

I would like to invite the reader to consider the following questions:

  • How and where do your practice and research activity co-exist?How disparate or how close are these two preoccupations? Do they fuel or hinder each other?
  • Which one of these (research or practice activity) offers more scope for creativity?
  • How does your creative and experimental activity drive your signature approach?
  • And lastly, how can we preserve and nurture our creativity, while we are developing our academic identities and careers?

On that note, I am off to read Katherine Angel’s book!

Contact Maria Kukhareva:
@maria_kukhareva
University of Bedfordshire profile

 

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Arts Week 2017: Underground Films from the Barrelstout Archive (1968-2016)

Bev Zalcock and Sara Chambers have been making underground films together performing as themselves and/or with their friends since the early 1990s.  Under the name Barrelstout Productions (formally known as Pitbull Productions), their super 8 films fashion what they like to call a ‘home-made aesthetic’. With two new films to show in the Arts Week film programme, their present count of 27 short films (or ‘quickies’, if you like) is no mean feat.  Bev (who is an Associate Lecturer in Film Studies at Birkbeck) and her partner and collaborator Sara came to the Birkbeck Cinema on the first Monday of Birkbeck Arts Week 2017 to show a cornucopia of queer feminist experimental films from their extensive archive.

As is usual with Barrelstout screenings, on arrival we were given a brightly coloured (this time pink) hand out that carefully listed the evening’s running order of films with brief synopses, as well as information on Bev Zalcock/Pitbull Productions/Barrelstout’s complete filmography dating back to Zalcock’s suitably titled first film Untitled, from 1968.

In the programme notes, they write: “Our film influences are various, ranging from Early Cinema, Soviet Montage, The American Underground and the best elements of Exploitation Cinema. We like to think that our films try to pay tribute to key moments and movements in cinema’s history, as well as our own lives. They are, we hope, experimental, comical and maybe political”.

Bev & Sara whipped through nine films with pithy intros in just over 60 minutes, so instead of reviewing each film shown, here are a few personal highlights from the evening.

The programme started with Rose Tinted (2007) a tender homage to American artist Joseph Cornell’s experimental collage film Rose Hobart (1936). A delightful, theatrical, found footage piece that merges avant-garde and feminist film theory where Anita Ekberg is re-worked into the narrative to create a feminist consciousness and, arguably, a feminist aesthetic.

The Deep Purple Film (2012). Courtesy of Barrelstout

The Deep Purple Film (2012). Courtesy of Barrelstout

Following on was a film from Bev’s teenage years The Deep Purple Film (2012), described as ‘autobiographical moments in Bev’s adolescence’.  Set to Nino Tempo and April Stevens 1962 hit tune ‘The Deep Purple Song’, this poignant film that plays with abstraction explores feelings of isolation, family and identity through an archive of family photographs. “It is what academics would call the transience of memory”, Bev postscripts with a wink at the film’s introduction.

At a running time of 9 minutes, The Psycho-Delic Trilogy was the longest film of the evening, consisting of three wonderful shorts (two which were world premieres) that deftly focused on the experimental tropes of colour, light and rhythm. Southwark Spring (2016), a psychedelic landscape film shot in Bermondsey, burst pink and white blossom out of the frame. Shot on slide and transferred to super 8, this nature ‘quickie’ is a celebration and memento to the glorious primary colours only captured on analogue.  Sara Gets Carried Away (2017) is a remake of Sara Gets Carried Away (2007), a structural film of sorts, in which the film’s medium is explored. Real ITV footage of Sara being dragged away by the police at an NUJ demonstration is repeated on a loop with music from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), evoking a semi-meditative yet strange atmosphere. The final film in the trilogy Liz – Moments in Transfigured Time (2017) was a moving portrait of one of Bev’s oldest friends Liz. With a nod to Maya Deren’s Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), the film is a tender study of long-term female friendship. Lovingly captured through a simple shot of Liz sitting on a sofa drinking red wine, the film evokes early memories of their time spent together “when we were young, listening to Beefheart music”, Bev adds.

The evening’s screening was a delight. The cinema was full of Bev and Sara’s long-term friends and collaborators (Carol Morley, Cairo Cannon, Val Phoenix), as well as new audiences. The specialness of a Barrelstout screening is that due to copyright infringements none of their films are available on line. “We can’t show stuff online” Sara says, “as we would be dragged to the clink”, so they need to be watched collectively in a cinema. Regardless of the heated debates about the future of cinema coming out of Cannes right now regarding Netflix, to come together to experience Barrelstout’s particular aesthetic of queer feminist punk cinema feels radical, resistant and restorative, every time.

“We want our films to be enjoyed and we want to convey the enjoyment we experience in making them. To misquote Marilyn Tweedie “We require filmic pleasure!”

Some Barrelstout films are available through Cinenova, otherwise contact them directly.

Selina Robertson is a film PhD candidate in FMACS,  School of Arts at Birkbeck.

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Science Week 2017: Resistance – film screening and panel discussion

Dr Clare Sansom, Senior Associate Lecturer in Biological Sciences, writes on the screening of Resistance: not all germs are created equal and panel discussion on antibiotic resistance, which took place as part of Science Week 2017

resistance_panel-disc-3Antibiotic resistance is one of the most crucial issues facing humanity in the early 21st century, with some commentators even suggesting that it poses as serious a threat to civilization as climate change. It was therefore timely that one of Birkbeck Department of Biological Sciences’ contributions to Science Week 2017, with its strapline ‘Microbes in the Real World’, should tackle the issue. This took the form of a screening of an award-winning feature film from 2014, Resistance (subtitle: Not all germs are created equal) followed by an extensive and lively panel discussion. The four panellists were scientists from the department whose research is geared to the development of antimicrobial drugs: Dr Sanjib Bhakta, a Reader in microbiology; Professor Nicholas Keep, Executive Dean of the School of Science and a structural biologist; and two promising students from Dr Bhakta’s lab: PhD student Arundhati Maitra and MRes student Alina Chrzastek.

Not surprisingly, given the timeliness of the issue and (it has to be admitted) the size of the venue – the tiny Birkbeck Cinema in Gordon Square – the session was over-subscribed. After a short introduction by Dr Bhakta, who used his own research field of tuberculosis to set out the ‘global threat’ of drug resistance, the packed audience were treated to 70 minutes of engaging and at times chilling documentary. The film, by US producers Ernie Park and Michael Graziano or, collectively, Uji Films, uses a combination of archive footage, animation, interviews and personal stories to explain how we have arrived at a point where antibiotics are failing and what we need to do to ‘save antibiotics in order to save ourselves’. Although the film was made in the US and focuses on US policies and case studies, the problem it describes is a global one and it would not have been difficult to find equivalent examples in the UK.

The producers weaved three case studies of patients who had suffered antibiotic-resistant infections engagingly through the footage. We were introduced to a teenage lad who had been exceptionally lucky to survive drug-resistant pneumonia with some disability; a fit, middle-aged man who picked up methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) while surfing and is now seriously disabled; and, most harrowingly, a mother whose 18-month-old baby picked up a new strain of MRSA and died within 24 hours.

The film’s narrators explained that all antibiotics are ‘poisons that kill bacteria but not us’; if they don’t kill the bacteria they make them stronger. Using antibiotics in such a way as to promote this rapidly sets up a ‘Darwinian battleground’ in which weak bacteria are knocked out but strong ones survive. This can happen very quickly because bacteria grow and divide so fast. In the words of scientist and author Maryn McKenna, we had the only effective way of killing bacterial pathogens and squandered it. And we have done this in three main ways: by over-use in the environment, in agriculture and in medicine.

The first two of these are particularly prevalent in the US and some Asian countries and less of a problem in Europe, where regulation is stronger. In the US, antimicrobials are used in everyday household products, sprayed on everything from fruit trees to kitchen counters. And once farmers had realised that constant small doses of antibiotics made livestock grow faster and fatter, even in crowded, unsanitary conditions, they were determined to keep doing so even though it ‘makes as much sense as sprinkling antibiotics on your children’s cereal’. Most US-produced meat and poultry is now contaminated with resistant bacteria, and occasionally this is multi-drug resistant. A Danish hog farmer, Kaj Munck, explained the sensible approach taken in Denmark where antibiotic growth promoters in animal feed were banned in 1995 following an extensive public debate. The Danish pig industry is still profitable, producing 28 million a year: about the same as the state of Iowa.

The beginning of the antibiotic era in human medicine coincided with World War II, when it was seen as a ‘miracle drug’ for curing infected wounds. Over-use, however, started very soon: penicillin was given to overseas sex workers, not to protect them from infection but to prevent their US military clients from becoming infected. The danger of resistance was known as early as 1945, when Sir Alexander Fleming told the New York Times that “in such cases the thoughtless person playing with penicillin is morally responsible for the death of the man who finally succumbs to infection.” Doctors who prescribe antibiotics inappropriately are often not morally wrong, or even thoughtless, but over-anxious to avoid mistakes when the chance of an infection being bacterial is low but not vanishingly so. Readily available, rapid diagnostic tests would go a long way towards preventing this type pf misuse.

It would not matter as much if antibiotics became ineffective if there were other molecules ready to take their places. However, the current antibiotic pipeline is weak, with few drugs coming through. Pharma companies can spend at least a decade and a billion dollars on developing a single drug, so it makes more sense to work on drugs like statins that patients must take every day. We must begin to encourage and reward companies that bring forward antibiotic ‘drugs of last resort’ rather than best-sellers. In short, the film concluded, the problem of antibiotic misuse is a classic example of ‘the tragedy of the commons’; one individual’s over-use of antibiotics may be neutral or even beneficial, but if everyone does it there will be a huge problem. To win the arms race against bacteria we may need to redesign all the processes through which we discover, use and protect antibiotics, and to ‘use our wits to keep up with their genes’.

Bhakta introduced the panel discussion with a short explanation of the molecular mechanisms through which bacteria acquire resistance to antibiotics. Bacteria evolve quickly, and almost all have acquired some resistance either intrinsically, through mutations, or by acquiring resistance genes directly from other species. This is an inevitable process but we have some control over how quickly it occurs: good antibiotic stewardship is as important as innovative science for winning the ‘arms race’ described in the film.

Bhakta’s group at Birkbeck is interested in tackling the problem of resistance through discovering new compounds with novel modes of action and by aiming to ‘re-purpose’ some over-the-counter medicines that are already in use for other indications. Drugs in this category will have already been shown to be safe and are therefore quicker and cheaper to develop. Keep summarised the role of structural biology in antibiotic discovery as one of determining the structure of bacterial proteins that might be vulnerable to attack by drugs and identifying compounds that can bind to and inhibit them. We are now often able to see directly how these structures are changed by mutations that increase (or decrease) resistance.

Bhakta chaired the discussion that followed, which was extensive and wide-ranging, taking in politics and economics as well as science and medicine. Several questions touched on the role and responsibilities of the pharmaceutical industry, which is reluctant to invest in drugs that will only be used for short periods. More drug discovery than ever before is taking place in academic labs and small companies, often working together; Maitra, whose Birkbeck Anniversary PhD studentship is part-funded by Wellcome, highlighted the role of the Trust in promoting links with industry. Re-purposing drugs that have already been used clinically is much cheaper than developing a molecule from scratch. MRes students in Bhakta’s lab, including Chrzastek, are testing common anti-inflammatory drugs against Mycobacterium tuberculosis and have found some potentially useful activity although the mechanism of action is still to be explored.

Other questions focused on the need for strict antibiotic control measures. In many European countries, including the UK, antibiotics are only available on prescription and cannot be used as growth promoters in animal feed. This ‘best practice’ needs to be replicated worldwide, but it will be an uphill struggle. Bhakta told the audience that he often visits countries in south and east Asia where resistance is prevalent and has seen antibiotics available over the counter there. In countries without strong, publicly-funded healthcare systems there are often incentives for doctors to over-prescribe drugs including antibiotics. And even where this is not an issue, patients need to be educated to think of antibiotics as drugs of last resort rather than demanding them for every upper respiratory tract infection.

It was perhaps inevitable that someone would ask the ‘Brexit question’: in this case, is there a danger that we would reverse some of our ‘best practices’ when we are no longer bound by EU regulations? Encouragingly, Bhakta doubted that anyone would want to get rid of rules with such clear benefits. He felt that the now inevitable move of the European Medicines Agency, which regulates all medicines marketed in the European Economic Area, from London – and the confusion about how the UK drug market will be regulated – does present a danger, to our strong research base. And however the politics develops the international collaborations that UK-based doctors, scientists and entrepreneurs have built up over decades must be maintained.

Other Science Week 2017 events:

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