Although most widely remembered as a filmmaker, Derek Jarman was in fact something of a Renaissance man. His films exist—and are best appreciated—within the context of equally important work as a painter, designer, gay and political polemicist, writer-cum-diarist, and inspirational gardener. Indeed, it was as the first of these—painter and designer—that he started his professional life, working with, among others, Frederick Ashton on the ballet Jazz Calendar, John Gielgud on an ill-fated production of Don Giovanni and then, of course, for Ken Russell on The Devils (1971) and Savage Messiah (1972), his first brushes with film.
At the time, Jarman lived in a series of semi-derelict studio warehouses alongside the Thames. It was here that he encountered his first Super-8 camera, an exciting toy that he loved to aim, in the spirit of experimentation and fun, at the bohemian friends, fellow artists, and lovers who passed in colorful profusion through his studio, making in the process a series of short “home” movies in which the “home” and the “family” filmed were defiantly unconventional—a London version of Warhol’s Factory. Then, in 1975, again working principally with this extended “family” and in a continued spirit of fun (although this time the fun was spiced with anger), he flew to Sardinia to make his first feature: the largely nude, entirely Latin Sebastiane.
The opening sequence of Sebastiane—shot last, in London—included a young woman Jarman had first seen stepping off a train at Victoria Station. Here’s how he described her in his diary: “White patent boots clattering down the platform, transparent plastic miniskirt revealing a hazy pudenda. Venus T-shirt. Smudged black eye paint, covered with a flaming blond beehive…the face that launched a thousand tabloids…art history as makeup.” Her name was Jordan, and she worked in the King’s Road boutique run by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, the duo behind the recently formed punk group, the Sex Pistols, one of whose earliest gigs Jarman was coincidentally to film, on Valentine’s Day 1976, in the studio he’d used for the opening sequence of Sebastiane.
The despairing and angry mood of Britain in the mid-seventies, of a country facing economic recession, virtual war with the IRA, and an uncertain post-imperial future—a mood epitomized by the subversive, ebullient energy and anger of punk and the Sex Pistols’ controversial rendition of “God Save the Queen” in Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee year—was a mood that Jarman, forever sensitive to changes in the fabric of society, was quick to seize on as one worth examining. Even if the classicist in him, the conservationist and cynic, had reservations about punk and could foresee the final irony—that while punk was gathering momentum, Margaret Thatcher was assuming leadership of the conservative party, thus paving the way for a very different decade to come.
Jarman’s original idea for Jubilee was simply to record Jordan’s milieu on Super-8, in more or less documentary fashion, as a record of the times. But when he mentioned this idea to his producers, they saw that cashing in on the burgeoning punk movement might mean box office. They suggested a feature—for which, in order to set his vision of the age within a potent historical perspective, Jarman cannibalized an earlier, unproduced script called The Angelic Conversation of John Dee.
Dee, eminent scientist and confidant of Queen Elizabeth 1, calls on the angel Ariel to show his queen the future of her kingdom: a future which stands in stark contrast to the Arcadian serenity of the Elizabethan framework, centering as it does on a gang of six wild girls (including Jordan in the role of Amyl Nitrate) and the forays they make from their chaotic headquarters in Southwark into the equally chaotic urban wasteland that surrounds them. Meanwhile, in the background, pulling the strings and laughing insanely at the extent of his power, lurks the media mogul Borgia Ginz, who holds the whole of this splintered, violent world in the palm of his hand. Ginz has turned Buckingham Palace into a recording studio, and Westminster Cathedral into a throbbing discotheque in which Christ and the twelve apostles perform orgiastically before a gyrating audience. Sleepy Dorset has become a separate country where blacks, homosexuals, and Jews are banned, and Ginz can retreat to the splendid seclusion of the home he shares with the retired Hitler to pronounce with cynical satisfaction: “They all sign up in the end one way or another.”
As with Sebastiane, the script was written extremely quickly, and there was minimal delay between ink drying on the page and the camera rolling in and around Southwark, Rotherhithe, and Victoria Docks—with occasional forays to the country for rural contrast. Jubilee also echoed Sebastiane in the familial—and familiar—composition of cast and crew. Again, Jarman used many more of the extended “family” with whom he preferred to work (from designer Christopher Hobbs to the mime artist Lindsay Kemp) than he did newcomers, though there were newcomers too, notably: David Haughton and The Great Orlando (Jack Birkett), both of whom came from Kemp’s troupe, as Ariel and Borgia Ginz; Jenny Runacre in the dual role of Elizabeth 1 and her antithesis, Bod, leader of the wild girls; Richard O’Brien, best known as the creator of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, as Dee; and, thanks to an introduction effected by Jordan after she had cut the word “fuck” into his back and Jarman had caught sight of her handiwork in the King’s Road, a young Adam Ant as the would-be singer, Kid.
The film opened in February 1978—exactly a year after Jarman had first put pen to paper—to decidedly mixed reviews. Its intensely private core (there is as much autobiography in the film as there is ostensible reportage) and somewhat uneasy mix of exuberance and bleakness—as Jarman himself put it in his book Dancing Ledge, “Just as it seems that it is settling down it’s off in another direction, like a yacht in a squall”—was too puzzling for all but the most entranced of viewers. Vivienne Westwood even went so far as to have a T-shirt printed, in which, at some length, she detailed why she despised the film. It was, she said, “the most boring and therefore disgusting film” she had ever seen. She could not “get off watching a gay boy jerk off through the titillation of his masochistic tremblings. You pointed your nose in the right direction then you wanked.”
The final word, though, would be Jarman’s, writing some six years later, again in Dancing Ledge: “Afterwards, the film turned prophetic. Dr Dee’s vision came true—the streets burned in Brixton and Toxteth, Adam [Ant] was on Top of the Pops and signed up with Margaret Thatcher to sing at the Falklands Ball. They all sign up in one way or another.”
Tony Peake is the author of Derek Jarman (The Overlook Press, 2000) and two novels: A Summer Tide (Abacus, 1993) and Son to the Father (Little, Brown, 1995). As a short story writer, his work has been widely anthologized, and he has also edited a collection of short stories on the theme of Seduction (Serpent's Tail, 1994). Further details at: www.tonypeake.com