From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Derek Jarman, who died last month, was without doubt one of the most innovative British film makers of the past 20 years. The two central themes which reappear again and again in his work are his exploration of gay sexuality and his observations of British society in decline from the late 1970s onwards.
Jarman came to film making after abandoning an earlier career in theatre design. He worked as a set designer on Ken Russell’s The Devils in 1971, then took to making home movies on readily available super 8 equipment. His first feature film was an account of the life and martyrdom of St Sebastian, made in 1975.
Sebastiane is set in Roman times but is far from being a historical costume drama. The whole film is an examination of gay love and male sexuality. The positive portrayal of gay sex gave the film instant popularity and invoked the wrath of the moralistic right. The same amalgamation of past and present was used in his next film, Jubilee, in 1977. Here he has 17th century mathematician, John Dee, guiding Elizabeth I through an alienated London of the 1970s complete with punk music and nihilistic youth culture – the visual counterpart of the Sex Pistols’ song God Save the Queen.
Ten years later Jarman explicitly returned to the subject of the collapse of British society with The Last of England. He launched a sustained attack on Thatcherism and the yuppie values of the late 1980s through the film.
Jarman claimed that in satirising what the Tories were doing to Britain he was speaking up for a traditional England. This tradition encompassed Shakespeare, great literature and the English countryside.
At the same time as looking backwards to an idyllic past his films celebrated love free of repression and guilt.
As gay rights came under attack in the 1980s he became more and more outspoken against the bigotry fostered by the Tories in response to the Aids epidemic. His loathing of Tory hypocrisy is captured superbly in Edward II, in which he also uses gay activists as extras in a demonstration. He made his position even clearer when he publicly attacked gay actor Ian McKellen for accepting a knighthood from the Tory government.
However, the contradiction between his idealisation of the past and his commitment to sexual freedom also led to weaknesses. He could offer no coherent alternative society. His only positive theme was a celebration of gay sexuality, which tended to be described as ahistorical and unchanging. This also meant that he continued to be regarded as a gay film maker and his work remained largely ghettoised.
His concentration on homosexuality divorced from wider society led him to express himself obscurely. His films often became quite inpenetrable as ideas and images were thrown together in a sprawling, if stunning, mass.
Nevertheless, at his best Jarman made films that challenged both cinematic convention and repressive morality. He was forced to take a political stand as a result of the homophobia he faced. His response to his discovery that he was HIV positive reflected this. In his autobiography he wrote:
‘On 22 December 1986, finding I was body positive, I set myself a target: I would disclose my secret and survive Margaret Thatcher. I did. Now I have my sights on the millennium and a world where we are all equal before the law.’
Last updated: 8 March 2017