Grieve The Capital: Derek Jarman’s Jubilee Turns 40

Derek Jarman's film of visionary alchemy and edgeland punks now tells of a time before the gentrification of the capital when occulture and subculture sat side-by-side, says Adam Scovell

Released in Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee year of 1978 as a provocation seemingly towards just about everyone, it’s little wonder Derek Jarman’s second feature film, Jubilee, caused such an uproar. The Queen herself is mugged and killed for her crown early on in a Deptford edgeland, the punk movement still then raging over London is unconsciously sent up by some of the very people who were part of it, and the raw mixture of violence, conservative nostalgia, swipes at Catholicism and copious nudity makes it as anarchic as anything the director made afterwards.

Amongst this incredibly heady concoction of both successful and failed attempts at creating a feasible narrative world, however, sits something far more essential; a time-capsule of a period in London’s history when subcultures grew overtly and naturally due to the city’s many affordable, derelict areas.

The film begins with Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre) and her alchemist, Dr. John Dee (Richard O’Brien), who conjures forth Ariel (David Brandon), William Shakespeare’s magical being from The Tempest. Thanks to Ariel’s powers imbued into a crystal, the trio travel forward through the cascading years, from the sixteenth-century to a brutal, dystopian vision of 1970s London. The city is ravaged but alive, the streets housing violent groups of punk girl-gangs who fend off police harassment and cause mayhem. Prams are burning and people are killed whilst bands, including Adam And The Ants and Siouxsie And The Banshees, play endlessly on television. Ritual violence is spreading as is this new form of music, ready to be co-opted by financial maniacs to sell to a brainwashed youth; providing further wealth to buy up the newly empty Buckingham Palace and turn it into a recording studio. The film is perhaps more famous for its string of cameos: Adam Ant, The Slits smashing up a car, Toyah Wilcox playing Mad and too many others to name. But it’s more than the sum of its pop-culture reference points.

Jubilee‘s narrative is knowingly pessimistic and even nihilistic. The youth are easily bought with new fads of music, society is earnestly owned by businessmen, and history is the only safe, albeit unobtainable, refuge. Even a simple maypole dance becomes a different kind of, murderous, symbol. A bloodied woman is tied to a lamppost and the ribbons she is wrapped with are replaced with barbed wire. It’s even childishly naive in its arguments, reflecting accurately the faux-outrage and hollowness of the more popular end of the punk movement. Many of those associated with punk hit out at the film, most famously Vivienne Westwood who turned her open (and homophobic) letter into a T-shirt. Nothing suggests genuine outrage at cultural appropriation quite like a new product to sell, especially with an OBE and a Damehood waiting a few decades down the line. Jarman was, however, nonplussed, writing earlier in his 1976 diary that:

"The instigators of punk are the same old petit bourgeois art students, who a few months ago were David Bowie and Bryan Ferry look-alikes – who’ve read a little art history and adopted some Dadaist typography and bad manners, and who are now in the business of reproducing a fake street credibility."

There was always to be a critique of punk in Jubilee alongside an admiration for its outspoken nature. Yet Jarman was always a surprisingly conservative nostalgist underneath his radical experiments with form and sexual bravado, especially when it came to portrayals of England. But he and many others from this period, even those who hated how his film had portrayed their subculture, are a product of a city that was still affordable, that still had space for living and working. This is the main point to highlight. There’s something essential for today behind the provocation and typical punkish ideals in Jarman’s film. Smuggled within this haphazard collection of ideas is a document as to the world that actually produced it. In spite of its pessimistic narrative streak, Jubilee today now seems a surprisingly optimistic product of sorts. For the film works as evidence of a previous London that sits in opposition to today’s increasingly bland, unaffordable metropolis. In a film that has Tudors time-travelling to a parallel future, it’s surprising to find its most surreal aspect to be the very possibility of young people affording to live in the city centre. London’s affordability is now arguably the film’s most fantastical premise.

Jarman himself was merely reflecting on his own experience as an artist who flitted over the same derelict London when rising as both a painter and set-designer. In 1976, the same year the director released his first feature film, Sebastian, Jarman was living in a friend’s apartment in Sloane Square. His friend passed away, leaving the filmmaker in a series of arrears, the court kicking him out and rendering the director briefly homeless. He even made a short super-8 film about the eviction, simply titled Sloane Square. Since the early 1970s, Jarman had used a huge studio space in Butler’s Wharf by Tower Bridge; the old dock warehouses that provided a vast floor space for working and partying as seen in many of his early super-8 films and photographs. This is where he lived on and off, returning to the studio once more after the Sloane Square incident. The film almost feels autobiographical in the ability of its characters to live in large properties in central London without virtually any income.

Jubilee was filmed chiefly around the empty streets and landscapes of Deptford, Bermondsey and Rotherhithe with St. Saviour’s Dock, just around the corner from Jarman’s space, being the main dockland where the characters live. According to an estate agent’s website, the average price of a one bedroom flat in the same wharf today is now over £500,000. This is even more ironic considering that the basin in the film is also where Bill Sykes of Oliver Twist had his hideout. The London of the film, with its subcultures festering in forgotten nooks and crannies, feels just as distant today as Elizabethan England probably felt in 1978. Even so, there is far more continuity between the London of those two periods than between Jarman’s docks and today’s investment property zone. The city is presented in its ruinous reality throughout the film; rubble, old bombsites, edgelands, empty buildings. But this screams of potential rather than melancholy, almost always met in history with genuine creative responses whether by Dickens, Jarman or countless others. In fact, the film seems to have only been made because so many locations were easily accessible, a cheap dystopian backdrop where the buddleia grew freely.

But what all of these Londons – Elizabethan, Dickensian, Jarmanian – have in common is people. They have yet to be shipped out to the suburbs, an area which Jarman in particular quite literally firebombs towards the end of his film. Even the most desolate of streets have people roaming and living in between the cracks. This is a city that has yet to be cleaned up, yet to have its land sanitised and moneyed. There’s no doubt that it was in the process of becoming the millionaire realm it is today even in the late 1970s (see the excellent documentary footage of Bob Hoskins exploring south of the river with Barry Norman from 1982), but there was still, in the film and in reality, some sense that living was possible. It’s a subtle link but essentially Jarman finds an easy bridge between such subculture communities and the messiness of the city. The two are symbiotic, a lived potential that the filmmaker himself knew all too well.

Alongside the fashionable element of punk stylings, Jarman explores the other rebellious spirit of the city. London has been a haven of occulture for centuries, the secret skulduggery of witchcraft, magic and alchemy. It’s there in the film, not simply in the presence of John Dee and Ariel but in other more subtle forms. In Westminster Cathedral, now turned into a gay disco club by the film’s arch moneyman, Borgia Ginz (Orlando), a punk-disco version of William Blake’s Jerusalem plays on the speakers. His words, no matter what the context, conjure images of this other London with its angels on Peckham Rye and visions of Jerusalem from Primrose Hill. These elements of the film feel more earnest, at least in terms of Jarman’s interests; the themes of olde England reoccurring throughout his filmmaking. It’s also worth noting how these elements continue to outlive the gentrification and developments today, perhaps suggesting themselves to be an antidote of sorts. A walk around Bloomsbury with its spate of still-thriving occult bookshops alongside a minor detour to the British Museum to see Dee’s actual obsidian mirror – used for communicating with the dead – showcases this wonderfully.

Yet it takes more than the rumblings of underground occulture to rekindle a city’s creative spark, its communities and its opportunities. This is especially the case in an era when the city seems to be trying its utmost to kill every essence of non-commercialised character and even the possibility of living there on a creative sector wage (or any wage for that matter). Only just this the year, The Guardian reported that 15,000 high-end properties were still empty in the city and with over 400 new luxury towers still earmarked to be built. The day before this was reported, the newspaper broke the news of the latest homeless figures, rising in the capital by 18% in a single year. London today is being simultaneously emptied of everything that has made its culture so vital in the previous centuries. As one character suggests in the film when viewing a pair of high-rises, "Everything in that block is regulated." Whereas Jarman was nostalgic for a past that was virtually nonexistent – the rose gardens of Elizabethan England pristine as only nostalgia can portray them – watching Jubilee today, all dated provocations aside, cannot help but induce a sense of loss. This isn’t a loss specifically of the punk movement at the heart of the film’s satire but the loss of people, culture and community; visual evidence that it once thrived in places now rendered as ghostly as Dee and Elizabeth I, fading away once more back to another time.

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