Derek Jarman became a filmmaker by accident. He was originally a painter, an artist who started making home movies with friends at his Bankside home in London. These Super-8 films slowly evolved into movies and one of the most exciting, original and provocative filmmakers since Ken Russell arrived. During a seventeen-year career, Jarman made eleven feature films—from the Latin and sand romp Sebastiane through his punk movie Jubilee (1978) to Caravaggio (1986) and the final one color movie Blue. During all of this time, the artist, director, writer, gardener and diarist painted.
Jarman was a student the Slade School of Art in the 1960s where he was taught—like everyone else—to be an “individual.” Jarman felt he was already managing that quite well in that department without being told how. He left art school and worked as a set designer with Ken Russell—most spectacularly on The Devils in 1971 and then Savage Messiah in 1973. His painting career splits into different sections; his early work reflected his interest in landscape, form, and color—something which would recur in his films—his later work reflecting his more personal experience. However, as he began making films Jarman shifted from using paint to creating pictures with celluloid.
His return to painting came after his HIV diagnosis in 1986, when he produced a series of Black Paintings—collages made from objects found on the beach at his cottage in Dungeness. He placed these objects on an oily black background—similar to the contrasting black of the tableaux he used in Caravaggio the same year.
As his condition worsened, Jarman painted larger, more abstract canvases. He was given a large room to paint in where he splashed the canvas with thick bright paints, scrolling words and statements across its surface. His influence came from his life, his own films and the work of Jackson Pollock. The brightness and color of the paintings were a defiance in the face of illness.
Today’s adventure in obscure video centers around an innocuous 85-second film shot by Antony Balch called William Buys a Parrot. In the movie, the “William” is William S. Burroughs and the parrot is actually a cockatoo. It’s in color and has no audio track—it resembles a home movie to some extent but it’s just a shade more orchestrated than that, although it might just have been something shot to test a new camera. In William Buys a Parrot we see Burroughs, wearing a white suit and a dark brown fedora, approach a door in some exotic desert setting—either Gibraltar or Tangier, it seems. He raps on the door knocker, a man from inside comes out and they chat for a moment or two. Cut to a some kind of a coastal veranda, where Burroughs confronts the bird. Then the fellow comes out and the two men sit at the table and enjoy an adult beverage. The last third of the movie is the bird jumping around in his cage with Burroughs in the background. End of movie.
William Buys a Parrot demonstrates that even when silence eliminates the specific word—the external word of mundane narrative interaction that is susceptible to technical reproduction and animal mimicry—it leaves intact the general, generic, internal Word—the structural Word of addictive subjectivity that allows the viewer to provide her own narration for this film.
Well… sure... Why not? To me, though, it just looks like a famous writer buying a bird and enjoying some daytime spirits with a chum…
William Buys a Parrot was probably shot in 1963, but edited in 1982 by Genesis P-Orridge who is said to have rescued it and many other films from a trash dumpster after Antony Balch’s death (including Balch’s other collaborations with Burroughs and painter Brion Gysin and some prints of Kenneth Anger’s films).
So I was searching YouTube, like one does, for interesting obscure music stuff to watch (and post to DM, of course), and lo, laid before mine eyes in the related videos column to the right of a Sylvain Sylvain video was “Sex Pistols - 1976 02 14 Butler’s Warph (sic) Earliest Known Footage,” shot by no less a luminary than the legendary underground filmmaker Derek Jarman! Now, for all I know, there may be earlier extant Pistols footage, but one way or the other, I don’t care, as the stuff is captivating. The young band is captured here in its initial burst of brash glory at a time when punk was still too young for its tropes to have become tedious clichés, and a technical happenstance rendered the footage absolutely lovely—as the captions will inform you when you watch it, Jarman shot this on Super-8 film at a nonstandard frame rate, rendering the footage soft, choppy, gauzy, and otherworldly.
When I muted the sound to answer a phone call, I noticed something—absent the Pistols’ music, it kind of reminded me a little of the video for “Here’s Where the Story Ends” by the Sundays. (If you don’t know it, click the link and take a few minutes to check it out, it’s a very pretty pop song that begins to border on shoegaze. It was popular among the 120 Minutes set in 1990, and it holds up quite well.) So suddenly, I was on a mission. I opened some new browser tabs and tried playing a couple dozen shoegaze, indie, dream-pop and post-rock songs along with the silenced Sex Pistols footage.
There are far worse ways to kill an evening.
I found something out rather quickly—there’s such a thing as too slow. Stuff I tried by Slowdive, Mogwai, and Godspeed You Black Emperor just didn’t work well at all. The music that seemed to work most satisfyingly was dense and trippy, but still uptempo. I encourage you to do some searching on your own—and please post your wins in the comments, of course, as I’d love to try them out—but I included some embeds that I liked in the hope that might start things rolling. Oh, and tiresome punk purist fogies getting ready to agonize at me about how HORRIBLY WRONG it is to play a Lush song over this precious heavenly golden dewdrop of rebel history? It’s a bit of fucking fun, lighten the hell up. I MEAN IT, MAAAAAN.
Here’s that Pistols film, to begin with, and a pile of alternate soundtrack options follows. I don’t even have to tell you to try playing them all at once, right?
In his latter years, the film-maker, artist, diarist and writer Derek Jarman bought a small cottage on the shingle beach at Dungeness, in south-east England. It was a place of respite, a studio where he could write and paint, and a setting in which he created a beautiful garden amid the harsh, sea-lashed landscape.
Jarman first saw Prospect Cottage “on a springtime drive through Kent for a bluebell wood to Super-8 for the film which would become The Garden” in 1986. His partner, Keith Collins (HB) described the discovery of the cottage in the preface to Derek Jarman’s Garden:
Derek suggested eating at the Pilot Inn, Dungeness—renowned for serving ‘Simply the finest fish and chips in all England’.
Charmed by the landscape, we decided to visit the old lighthouse. Derek said: ‘There’s a beautiful fisherman’s cottage here, and if ever it was for sale, I think I’d buy it.’ As we neared the cottage, black varnished with bright yellow window frames, we saw the green-and-white ‘For Sale’ sign—the improbability of it made the purchase inescapable.
Jarman described the cottage in his collected journals Modern Nature:
Prospect Cottage, its timbers black with pitch, stands on the shingle at Dungeness. Built eighty years ago at the sea’s edge—one stormy night many years ago waves roared up to the front door threatening to swallow it… Now the sea has retreated leaving bands of shingle. You can see these clearly from the air; they fan out from the lighthouse at the tip of the Ness like contours on a map.
Prospect faces the rising sun across a road sparkling silver with sea mist. One small clump of dark green broom breaks through the flat ochre shingle. Beyond, at the sea’s edge, are silhouetted a jumble of huts and fishing boats, and a brick kutch, long abandoned, which has sunk like a pillbox at a crazy angle; in it, many years ago, the fishermen’s nets were boiled in amber preserve.
There are no walls or fences. My garden’s boundaries are the horizon. In this desolate landscape the silence is only broken by the wind, and the gulls squabbling round the fishermen bringing in the afternoon catch.
There is more sunlight here than anywhere else in Britain; this and the constant wind turn the shingle into stony desert where only the toughest grasses take a hold—paving the way for sage-green sea kale, blue bugloss, red poppy, yellow sedum.
Inside: Prospect cottage had four rooms. Jarman called his writing room and bedroom the “Spring room” a 10-foot by 12-foot space of “polished tongue and groove with a single window facing the sea.”
In front of the window is my desk: a simple 18th century elm table. On it is a reading lamp of tarnished copper, two pewter mugs full of stamps, loose change, paper clips, several bottles of ink, and pens, envelopes, scraps of paper on which to make notes for this diary, an iron spittoon used as an ashtray; in the centre a lead tobacco box in the shape of a little Victorian cottage, in which I keep my chequebook and money.
The cottage was overlooked by Dungeness nuclear power station that loomed like “a great ocean liner moored in the firmament, ablaze with light: white, yellow, ruby.”
Jarman started work on his garden “accidentally” from the “beach-combed treasures” found on the shore at low-tide. With the arrival of his friend the photographer and “keen plantsman” Howard Sooley Jarman’s plans for his sea-sprayed, shingle garden progressed:
[Howard] gave up London weekends to chauffeur Derek—via the nurseries of the south of England—to Prospect Cottage. With his collaboration the garden entered its second phase: the unexpected success of new plants and bulbs, flint and scallop-shell edged beds, honey bees enclosed in a raised herb bed, and more seashore-rusted metal and wind-twisted wood.
In the mid-1980s, Jarman had been diagnosed as HIV-positive. As the illness took hold, Jarman’s work in the garden took on a new meaning:
...the plants struggling against the biting winds and Death Valley sun merged with Derek’s struggle with illness, then contrasted with it, as the flowers blossomed while Derek faded.
Howard Sooley photographed Derek Jarman’s garden from the first day he arrived at Prospect Cottage in 1989, when the land looked like the surface of the Moon. Sooley documented Jarman’s unstinting hard work that changed the garden from shingle shore to hardy burst of beauty and color. Most recently, Sooley made this film about Jarman’s garden for Nowness, and together with Keith Collins he continues to tend to Derek Jarman’s last great living artwork.
Derek Jarman was no slouch: he was a film-maker, writer, artist, set-designer, gardener, political campaigner and diarist. Jarman began his film career as a set designer working on Ken Russell’s The Devils and Savage Messiah. With the flamboyant Russell’s encouragement, Jarman picked up a Super 8 camera and started making his own personal short movies. These films enabled Jarman to “make rapprochement with [his] real world.”
“The world of painting was sterile empty… Although I didn’t believe it at the time because I didn’t have any confidence, I had been isolated by being gay in painting. Film restored that connection missing in my painting.”
Film also allowed Jarman to develop his “aesthetic explorations in a medium more amenable to [his] political concerns”. His early Super 8 films dealt with space, magic, light and sexuality.
Jarman’s 1976 film Sloane Square ironically subtitled “A Room of One’s Own” documented his eviction from a friend’s apartment, after the friend had died. Jarman lived a precarious existence during the early seventies, at times dependent on the kindness of his friends to keep a roof over his head. Jarman had been living in a vacant dockside warehouse, which had proved insufferable during the winter months. His friend and mentor, the writer Anthony Harwood, invited Jarman to live in his rent-controlled, two-bed apartment. Alas, Harwood was the kind of man who “sailed through life on unpaid bills,” as Jarman wrote in his memoir Dancing Ledge:
When [Harwood] received unpleasant-looking brown envelopes through the post he put them into the kitchen cupboard unopened. Every now and then he tripped up. This month [January 1976] has been overshadowed by the court case over a year’s unpaid rent at Sloane Square—which the landlords have refused to accept from me as they would be able to charge a fortune for this flat if they could get it back in their hands. It’s £15 a week and worth over a hundred.
With Harwood absent in New York, a notice of eviction was served, and Jarman attended court proceedings instigated by the landlords, where he offered to pay the outstanding back rent.
I put on my grey suit and sat through the afternoon in the magistrates’ court. Capital and County mounted a really mean attack through Bob the porter, accusing Anthony of everything in the book short of sodomy, but that was hinted at as well. I thought there was no chance but we won. The judge asked how many bedrooms there were—‘Two’—‘Well if that’s the case I see no reason for Mr. Jarman not to live there and take care of the place.’ The landlords brought up the lack of furniture, which Bob himself had helped to remove in the last onslaught when he let the bailiffs in. The judge smiled when I said Mr. Harwood, a writer, lived a Japanese lifestyle—‘It’s better with no shoes,’ he wrote, ‘no shoes at all.’
Not long after, Harwood died, and the landlords refused to recognize Jarman as tenant or accept his payment for rent arrears. At the age of thirty-four, and in the process of directing his first feature, Sebastiane, Jarman found himself homeless once again.
The apartment at Sloane Square was where Jarman cast for Sebastiane, where he spray-painted the walls, anticipating the set designs of his second feature Jubilee. It was also where he filmed and documented his life and friends, before the apartment was vandalized and abandoned.
Sloane Square was co-directed by Jarman and Guy Ford, and has been described as “the most Situationist of [Jarman’s] early films, in terms of both content and structure.” It’s a piece of personal, political and artistic filmmaking, which as the film switches from opening time-lapse to color film, Jarman presents himself as a filmmaker on the verge of his cinematic career, before returning to the apartment documenting the final leave-taking of a place (a past) he had once called home.
Jarman died of an AIDs-related illness in February 1994, days after his 52 birthday.
Like my DM colleague, Richard Metzger, I am a big fan of Alice Cooper, the band. But unlike Richard, I’m also a fan of Alice Cooper, the artiste, and have followed Vince Furnier’s solo career with a mixture of joy and frustration.
But back to Alice Cooper the band. In the early seventies they were utterly superb, and their albums from Love It To Death to Billion Dollar Babies were all near perfect.
My introduction to the band came in 1972, when Alice Cooper had conquered most of Europe, and their single “School’s Out” had spent the summer at the top of the UK charts. There followed the albums, the singles, the sell-out concerts, and the usual teenage hysteria, with some tut-tutting from TV news reports on the outrage caused.
Now an interesting footnote to all this excitement happened in November of that year, when Derek Jarman was introduced to Alice Cooper’s manager, who suggested to the young designer and filmmaker, “as he spooned cocaine like rat poison” that he stage Alice on Broadway.
As Jarman later explained in his memoir Dancing Ledge, he joined the band briefly on their tour of Europe.
I joined the band a couple of months later in Copenhagen. There were thirty or more of them, resembling a gang of Davy Crockett trappers. They travelled in a private jet, took over floors of an hotel, and played long-running table-tennis tournaments as they downed an infinite supply of Budweiser.
Jarman was rather prissy about all the anarchy, sex, drugs and drink, and after seeing the band perform in Germany, where “Alice, python and beer can, cavorted around the stage singing ‘School’s Out’ before hanging himself,” he took a plane back to England, to work on his ideas for Alice Cooper’s Broadway show.
I sent a letter explaining a staging for Alice, who was to arrive on a huge articulated black widow spider. It would crawl out of a steely web on to the Broadway stage with Alice at its helm holding a gold and leather harness, dressed in rubies from head to foot, like Heliogabalus entering Rome—and that was that. I never heard from them again.
December 1972, Alice Cooper played the Olympia Theater in Paris. A documentary crew were in tow, who filmed the band’s arrival in the City of Lights, and a selection of songs from the show, including “Public Animal #9,” “Eighteen,” “Is It My Body,” “Gutter Cats vs. The Jets,” “Killer,” and “Elected.”
Early one Saturday morning in September 1982, Genesis P-Orridge met filmmaker Derek Jarman at his apartment in central London. The pair then drove to Heathrow Airport, where they were to collect William S. Burroughs. Jarman brought his camera, and took a few “shy snaps” as Genesis welcomed Burroughs and then drove him to Chelsea, where he was booked into the Arts Club. A full itinerary of events had been organized for Burroughs during his visit, as Jarman later wrote in his journal.
During the next week Mr. B. was banqueted at the B2 Gallery, filmed and interviewed across London, and did four nights of readings at the Ritzy in Brixton and one night in Heaven.
Burroughs was publicizing his latest novel, Cities of the Red Night, as well as reading extracts from past works and his forthcoming book The Place of Dead Roads. Having made three critically successful art house films (Sebastiane, Jubilee, and The Tempest), Jarman was struggling to raise money for his next feature on the Baroque artist Caravaggio. Genesis, finished with Throbbing Gristle, had formed the video art and music group Psychic TV, who were working with Jarman on a film portrait of Burroughs.
Jarman “clicked away” with his Nizo Super 8 camera filming Burroughs, Brion Gysin, John Giorno and others. The results were edited together into a short film Pirate Tape, with a soundtrack by Psychic TV.
In his memoir Dancing Ledge, Jarman described a reading by Burroughs and Brion Gysin:
WSB emerges tortoise-like to greet his audience. He stoops like a cadavre in the catacombs of Palermo and talks of mummies and immortality. To speak to him is almost impossible, as he is always on the move in little erratic circles. At rest he retires into himself and puts out a signal, ‘Leave me alone.’ The only thing to do is to be photographed with him, and that is what everyone attempted to do. His readings are immensely funny. He drawls out his lines in a Southern monotone, punctuating it only for sips of water. What might give you the shivers on the page becomes the blackest of black comedy. Brion Gysin fights an old battle with him; but William’s junk vision has won out against Brion’s magic and the battle isn’t joined. Brion described William fishing for inspiration in the sewers of Paris. They do not share accommodation on this trip, and their friendship now seems cemented by the common platform that their young admirers have provided. Time has parted them: Brion the Parisian with his dream-machine and Bill in Kansas with his junk.
Sometimes the bare facts of history create a romantic notion that the participants in such culturally important events were happy, successful and generally financially secure. When usually, in truth, the opposite was often the case.
So it was for Jarman, who by January 1983 was broke, his bank account shut, and all his holiday change spent. He was reduced to selling clothes and books to pay the rent. Genesis P-Orridge, on hearing of Jarman’s financial plight, gave him £50 towards the cost of the Super 8 film he had shot for Pirate Tape.
Pirate Tape is an experimental portrait of William Burroughs, which features a loop of the writer’s voice cut to images of his visit to London. This film tends to disappear quickly, so watch it while you can.
Twenty years ago yesterday, Derek Jarman succumbed to AIDS. Around the time that he was first diagnosed of the illness, in 1986, Jarman starred in a student film by Julian Cole about the last days of Pier Paolo Pasolini. Pasolini, was one of the few homosexual cinema icons Jarman could look to for inspiration, his grotesque murder in Rome in 1975 was a blow for film lovers all over the world.
In 1985 Jarman published a movie treatment, never realized, with the title P.P.P. in the Garden of Earthly Delights that spanned Pasolini’s life from the shooting of the final scene of Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom through to his death. (Reminiscent of Jarman’s Caravaggio, the treatment apparently drew in the works of Hieronymus Bosch too.) The extent to which that treatment influenced the development of Ostia, Julian Cole’s 25-minute homage to Pasolini (named after the site of his death), is not entirely clear, but the fact is that Jarman agreed to appear in the movie as Pasolini. (According to John Houghton, Cole found Jarman’s acting to be at times so atrocious that it was a considerable challenge to edit around it. Oh, well.)
Last year Julian Cole asked me to play Pasolini in his graduate film Ostia. Getting murdered and buried in freezing mud at 4 am as an uncertain sun came up was gruelling, but there was compensation in a trip to Camber Sands where we filmed a desert sequence in the dunes. I took my Super 8 with me and one shot from that day, my shadow racing across the sand, ended up in The Last Of England.
London and the coastal stretch of Camber Sands were never going to pass comfortably for Rome, but to my eye Cole did a pretty good job pulling off the switcheroo. (The spiffy Alfa Romeo helps.) Ostia is purest experimental moviemaking of the mid-1980s, which means it ain’t the easiest thing to follow, but the final chunk depicting Pasolini’s death can’t help but be profoundly affecting.
As Jarman’s words [meaning the P.P.P. treatment] indicate, there are profound sympathies between the directors that go beyond the biographical similarities, and indeed, it’s difficult to name a film by Jarman that does not contain some echo of Pasolini, from Sebastiane, where Jarman comes closest to emulating Pasolini, to Blue, which calls to mind the all-blue painting made by the son in Teorema, after a homosexual affair has stripped away his bourgeois pretensions.
If you’ve seen any of Jarman’s movies, you won’t be surprised to learn that Ostia is also strictly NSFW.
I only recently learned that the singular British polymath artist Derek Jarman, director of Caravaggio, Blue, and Jubilee, directed a bunch of music videos in the 1980s, including several for The Smiths and Pet Shop Boys, which is a perfect fit when you think about it.
The Smiths, “Ask”
This 12-minute short movie, already tackled for DM by Paul Gallagher in 2012, is called The Queen Is Dead—basically it’s three videos strung together for the title track, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out,” and “Panic”:
Both of Jarman’s videos for Pet Shop Boys were for their second album, Actually.
This is probably the last TV interview Derek Jarman gave to the BBC. It was recorded in August 1993 for the series Edinburgh Nights, a magazine program that reviewed theatrical productions, movies and exhibitions from across the Festival. I’d worked on the show twice before, but this time I was back to direct only one item: an interview with Jarman.
On a quiet Sunday morning, in a small hotel situated at the end of a long Georgian terrace, we sat in a cramped front room with a view onto cobbled streets and lush green gardens hemmed in by a black iron fence. The room was cluttered, not an ideal location, but we were on quick-turn-around: shoot it, edit it, get it out.
I hadn’t seen Derek in four years. The last time was during a summer in Glasgow where he had been exhibiting at the Third Eye Center. He seemed happy, dressed in a blue boiler suit and we wandered around a park where we filmed an interview with Derek talking to Richard Jobson about The Pet Shops Boys, films, AIDs and sexual politics. Now it was heart-breaking to see him again, this beautiful, brilliant man dressed in orange and pink and yellow, in vibrant contrast to the ravaging effects of his illness.
Jarman was in Edinburgh to screen his latest film, Blue, a single-shot movie of saturated color (Yves Klein blue), over which actors read extracts from his diary detailing the weeks Derek had spent in hospital, blind as a result of an eye infection caused by HIV. The diary formed the backbone to Blue, from which stories branched out—a film he described as “a sort of Schererazade.” Though it was an intimate portrait of his illness, there was no self-pity for as usual, Jarman was only thinking of others:
”I wanted to convey some of what I’d seen, and the disaster of which I’ve been living through of the last few years. I mean for instance, last Thursday, I was in the hospital, and there was a mom with a two-year-old child who’s got the same infection in the eyes as I have, I couldn’t… I sat and watched as I waited, it was just quite terrible, honestly, you know, I was thinking of this child, you know, that’s all happening and people don’t see it, and they don’t think about it very often, and I hope the film sort of makes people think about that just for a moment.”
Blue was Derek Jarman’s twelfth and final feature film, for which he won the Michael Powell Award at that year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. It was a much deserved (if late) reward, but as I left to rush back to an edit, I still felt that we had all failed to truly appreciate the man’s genius.
Arguably experimental filmmaker/pioneering AIDS activist/general genius Derek Jarman’s best known feature length work (one could easily make a good case for Caravaggio), Jubilee transports Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre, The Passenger) 400 years into the future via the machinations of John Dee, played here by Rocky Horror creator Richard O’Brien - fittingly enough as he’s the one who taught us to do the Time Warp, after all - into a mid-‘70s Britain steeped in punk nihilism.
Era underground icons like Toyah Wilcox, Wayne County, Adam Ant, mime artist Lindsay Kemp, Jordan (AKA Pamela Rooke, one-time shop assistant at Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood’s SEX boutique and briefly Adam Ant’s manager), The Slits and O’Brien’s former Rocky Horror colleague “Little” Nell Campbell serve in the cast, and the soundtrack features most of the foregoing, plus Siouxsie and The Banshees and Brian Eno. The film has had a typically fantastic Criterion release, and as such, it’s available for viewing on HuluPlus. Or, if you like, just watch it here, thoughtfully subtitled en español. Or maybe it’s Portugese, what do I know?
‘Hello. I’m writing in my diary about James Anderton. What a ghastly man.’
‘He’s saying we’re living in a cesspit of our making. I mean, how absurd. What a horrid little man. How the supposed Chief Constable of Manchester can say such vile things. It just makes me more determined, you know what I mean? I want to make a film about it.’
Film was personal and political for Jarman. While most most cinema during the 1980s was vacuous, empty, full of sound and fury, Jarman made films that were infused with his life, his thoughts, his passions, his politics—even the biopic Caravaggio mixed-in elements from his life to that of the Renaissance artist.
Jarman was a painter who made movies.
In the Shadow of the Sun is an extraordinary collaboration between Derek Jarman and Throbbring Gristle. It is a more personal work for Jarman, which mixes elements from 3 of Jarman’s Super-8 movies: Journey to Avebury (1971), Tarot (aka The Magician) (1972) and Fire Island (1974), into a dream-like film, filled with magick and ritual, which Throbbing Gristle’s music matches perfectly.
In the Shadow of the Sun was premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 1980. It contains many of Jarman’s favorite leitmotifs—mirrors, fires, dance—which he returned to again in the more political, The Last of England.
When asked how he felt about the fact he’d received £400,000 to make Caravaggio in 1986, and the director of Chariots of Fire, Hugh Hudson had received 4 million to make his film, Derek Jarman replied, ‘Fortunately, I’m one hundred times more intelligent than Hugh Hudson, so it doesn’t matter.’
It certainly didn’t matter as Jarman’s output, during his 20-year career, pisses from a great height on Hudson’s work. What Jarman would have made of this year’s London Olympics, with its recurring reference to Chariots of Fire, would certainly have been interesting. Yet, Jarman was never fooled by his position as an outsider, he was well aware that there ‘is a complicity between the avant-garde and the establishment, it’s symbiotic, they need each other,’ as he explained to Peter Culshaw in the NME, April, 1986.
‘..all avant-garde gestures have been appropriated by just those people they sought to undermine. Dada was conceived as a full-scale assault and now Dada sells for millions. But what people never point out about me is that I’m probably the most conservative film-maker in the country. I’m not talking about Thatcherite-radical conservatives, who are anti-traditional and destructive, and who see progress as heaven, I mean more like the conservatism of groups like the Green Party.’
The artist Caravaggio fascinated Jarman, because ‘he was the most inspired religious painter of the Middle Ages and was also a murderer.’
‘Imagine if Shakespeare had been a murderer - it would completely alter the way we see his plays. [Caravaggio] was particularly taken to heart by the Romans because he painted real people. The girl next door was Mary Magdalen. Or in Death of a Virgin he painted a well-known prostitute as a virgin. It was the equivalent of Christine Keeler being put up over the high altar at Westminster Abbey.’
Jarman felt a tremendous parallel between Caravaggio and his own life, and he believed that ‘the cinema of the product precludes individual voices…’
‘...and I think unless one can put one’s own voice into a film, then there’s an element of dishonesty in it.’
In this short interview Derek Jarman talks about his life and films, Caravaggio, The Last of England and War Requiem, taken from Spanish TV’s Metropolis from 1989.
As Britain prepares for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations for Her Majesty, here is The Queen is Dead - Derek Jarman’s Super 8 film triptych (made in collaboration John Maybury, Richard Heslop and Chis Hughes) for 3 classic tracks by The Smiths: “The Queen is Dead,” “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” and “Panic.”
Inner city angst, urban decay, alienation, cute hairstyles, and lots of hand held camera work, well it was the eighties.
Curtain up on a starry night. Comets fire across the sky. Center stage, one star shines more brightly than the rest, its spotlight points towards a globe of the earth as it spins from a thread. Glitter falls, as a white screen rises, the lights glow brighter filling the stage.
Single spot tight on a woman’s face
We are unsure if she is in pain or ecstasy. No movement until, at last, she exhales, then pants quickly, rhythmically. Her face glistens. The spot widens, revealing two nurses, dressed in starched whites, symmetrically dabbing her face.
The woman is Mrs. Kemp, and she is about to give birth. Three mid-wives are guided by house lights through the audience to her bedside. Each carries a different gift: towels, a basin of hot water, and swaddling.
It’s May 3rd 1938, and Lindsay Kemp is about to be born.
Though this maybe a fiction, it is all too believable, for nothing is unbelievable when it comes to Lindsay Kemp.
Lindsay Kemp has agreed to give a telephone interview. He is to be called at his home in Italy, by Paul Gallagher from Dangerous Minds, who is based in Scotland. We never hear the interviewer’s questions, only Kemp’s answers and see his facial expressions as he listens to questions.
Photographs of Kemp’s career appear on screens. We hear a recording of his voice.
I began dancing the same as everybody does, at birth. The only difference was, unlike many other people, I never stopped. In other words, you know, I love movement. Movement gave me such a great pleasure, such a great joy.
Dance is really my life. I’ve always said for me ‘Dance is Life, Dance is Living, Dance is Life and Life is Dance’. I’ve never really differentiated between the two of them. It’s always been a way of life, a kind of celebration of living.
Kemp is an exquisite dancer, a fantastic artist, and a brilliant visual poet. No hyperbole can truly capture the scale of his talents.
In the 1960s and 1970s, his dance group revolutionized theater with its productions of Jean Genet’s The Maids, Flowers and Oscar Wilde’s Salome.
He shocked critics by working with non-dancers. At the Traverse Theater in Edinburgh, he often cast his productions by picking-up good-looking, young men he had spotted in the city’s Princes Street Gardens - good looks, an open mind and passion for life were more important than learned techniques, or a classical training. His most famous collaborator was the blind dancer, Jack Birkett, aka The Great Orlando – perhaps now best known for his role as Borgia Ginz in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee.
Kemp was the catalyst who inspired David Bowie towards cabaret and Ziggy Stardust. He taught him mime, and directed and performed in Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and was his lover. He also taught Kate Bush, and choreographed for her shows.
As an actor, he gave outrageous and scene-stealing performances in Jarman’s Sebastiane, Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man.
“I’ve never really differentiated between dance and mime and acting and singing. I’ve always loved all aspects of performing, though I still can’t play the trumpet, but I’d like too. Well, it’s never too late to learn.”
He has performed across the world, from department stores in Bradford, through the Edinburgh Festival, the streets and cafes of Italy, to London’s West End and Broadway.
Kemp is a poetic story-teller, and his performances engage and seduce as much as the words that spill from tell such incredible tales. His voice moves from Dame Edith Evans (“A handbag!”) to a lover sharing intimacies under the covers.
A house in Livorno. A desk with a telephone. A chaise longue. A deck chair and assorted items close at hand. Posters and photographs of Kemp in various productions are back-projected onto gauze screens.
Kemp makes his entrance via a trap door.
The phone rings once. Kemp looks at it.
Rings twice. Kemp considers it.
Rings three times. He answers it.
Lindsay Kemp is on the ‘phone.
Hello. (Pause.) Where are you in Scotland?
My grandparents are from Glasgow. I always pretend to be Scottish because I was born accidentally in Liverpool when my Mother was saying bye-bye to my Father, who was a sailor, and he was off to sea from Liverpool’s port, you see.
Well, I don’t quite know where that came from, unless I said it one drunken night, maybe when I chose to be more romantic than Birkenhead, where I was in fact born. I was born in Birkenhead on May the 3rd, 1938, but my family hailed form Scotland, between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and for many years I lived in Edinburgh, when I returned there for the first performance of Flowers, that show that put me on the map, you know.
I did so many of my productions, including the first version of Flowers and Salome, and Genet’s The Maids . I did many, many things in Edinburgh, I only left when I was doing a production of The Maids, incidentally with Tim Curry, this was just before Ziggy Stardust, late ’71. And that production we were doing at the Close, was scheduled to open at the Bush Theater, and at the very last, we were all there rehearsing, ready to go on, and we got a call from Jean Genet’s agent, who said.
Spotlight on Jean Genet’s Agent, stage right
Jean Genet’s Agent:
No, no. Non.
And we were refused permission to do the London version.
(Kemp examines some photographs on his desk, they appear projected on the screens behind him.)
I’ve got some pictures here of David Bowie at that performance, we gave just one performance, you see, which was a silver collection, we sold tickets for a collection. I don’t think David put anything in the hat. (Laughs.) Probably not, and I have some pictures here of David with his video camera, and he videoed that show, he videoed it, and sent his scouts out himself to find Genet, who he hoped might give us his permission. I’ve no idea what happened to the video, or if Genet got it, anyway, that was the end of that.
I played in The Maids myself at the Traverse for quite some time, playing Madame. But going back to Flowers, I’ll tell you how I began dancing in a minute, because we weren’t permitted to do The Maids that evening, we did Flowers instead, which was a production I’d recently done at the Traverse. So that production came to the Bush Theater, and it was there that it was seen by Larry Parnes, the pop music promoter, and he kind of restored an old cinema, which became the Regent’s Theater in Upper Regent’s Street, where Flowers began its West End run. From there it went to Broadway, and from there, you know, it went around the world.
I was…eh…I’d just rented a little cottage, a country retreat, in Hungerford in Berkshire, and my next door neighbor - it was one Sunday morning and we were listening to Round the Horne, we all did on those Sunday mornings - and my neighbor across the fence leaned over and said.
(Neighbor leans over a garden fence, Kemp is now sitting in a deckchair, still on the ‘phone.)
Spotlight up on Neighbor.
Oh hi, I think this book might interest you.
(Neighbor passes Kemp a book. Spotlight down on Neighbor.)
Holding up book.
And it was Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers. And I began to read it, and as soon as I began to read it I could already see it on the stage, and I could see myself as Divine, the central character. And two weeks later, we opened.
Dim lights, then back up to reveal gauze removed and a young Lindsay Kemp performing ‘Flowers’.
As the performance continues behind him.
I remember so vividly. I went back up to Edinburgh, and an aunt of mine had left me five hundred pounds and with that money, we put the show on. I collected the actors in those days from Princes Street Gardens, young guys who looked right. And we did this first, semi-improvised performance, not at the Traverse, but in the old Edinburgh Rock Factory, under the Castle, on very much the Fringe of the Festival. And from there it transferred to the Traverse, and then to the Citizens, and then into universities, then onto the Bush and the regions, and Broadway and around the world.
Lights up. Kemp stands center stage, he addresses the audience directly.
To begin with, I began dancing the same as everybody does, at birth. The only difference was, unlike many other people, I never stopped. In other words, you know, I love movement. Movement gave me such a great pleasure, such a great joy. Dance is really my life. I’ve always said for me Dance is Life, Dance is Living, Dance is Life and Life is Dance. I’ve never really differentiated between the two of them. It’s always been a way of life, a kind of celebration of living.
Well, being born dancing, in Birkenhead, my Father was killed at sea, I mean drowned when, at the beginning of the war, his ship was hit by a German submarine, my Mother took me back to her home town of South Shields, and she enrolled me, at the age of two-and-a-half, in dancing classes because I couldn’t stop dancing.
I just loved it so much, and of course, all the little girls in our street, at that time, all had dancing lessons and all would do this little dance in doorways, and so on, and I began tap-dancing as young as two-and-a-half. I continued dancing and dancing classes and entertaining the neighbor’s children, and during the war years when the bombs were dropping entertaining the neighbors in our air raid shelter.
Straight after the war, going straight up to the local hospital, where I entertained the recovering wounded soldiers, whether they liked it or not, they got my repertoire – all my little dances that had been inspired by movies I’d seen, Carmen Miranda and Marlene Deitrich, and I would sing “Lili Marlene”, I was always an entertainer.
When I reached the age of 10, my Mother thought well, you know, I’ve had enough of this, you know the dancing and theater had become such an incredible passion, I mean I couldn’t think about anything else. This passion fueled by trips to the theater and my Mother taking me to the Christmas pantomimes, where I was totally infatuated with the magic of the theater and its transformations and the theater is a way of life, a very different world form life in South Shields, and I wanted to be in that world.
I always knew what I wanted, you see, really from birth. However, come the age of ten, my Mother thought well he needs is education and I was sent to a boarding school near Reading, the Royal Merchant Navy School, where my mother had hopes for me following in my father’s footsteps and going to sea. But, of course, I didn’t.
Lindsay Kemp is on the telephone. Behind him and to the side, is a school dormitory. Large b&w photographic back projection with about six beds. Lying in the beds are school boys. They have pocket torches with which they use to light a young Kemp’s dance performance.
The young Kemp makes his appearance during Lindsay Kemp’s speech. The young Kemp is dressed in toilet paper, wrapped around his body.
At school I survived. It was a very tough school. I survived the bullying and the bullies’ blows by entertaining. You know, with my singing and my dancing, and so on, and putting on little plays.
And that’s when I gave my first performance of Salome.
Young Kemp begins to dance to the lights of the school boys’ torches.
For which I was going to be expelled. Not for the sinuousness of the dance, but for the waste of toilet paper, which I’d wrapped around myself.
Spotlight on the young Kemp. He freezes. Lights down. Lights still on Lindsay Kemp.
All through school I continued dancing, I danced every day, I danced to entertain, I had my own dancers. Incidentally, that first Salome was very influenced by Rita Hayworth’s Salome, which I’d seen, and also from reading Oscar Wilde, a lot of his fairy stories were an influence on me, but particularly Salome by Oscar Wilde. Years later it was put on the stage.
Lights up. Lindsay Kemp speaks directly to the audience.
I always wanted to be an entertainer, you see, I love all forms of theater. I loved variety and circus, and musicals and operetta. I loved it all. And of course now, I have become involved in all aspects of the theater, my dreams, my desires and my intentions, in fact all came true.
Linday Kemp goes back onto the ‘phone, talking to his interviewer.
But I was particularly attracted to the ballet, and at the age of sixteen, before leaving school, I auditioned at the Sadler’s Wells School, which is now the Royal Ballet School. And of course at the age of fifteen, sixteen, I thought I was God’s gift to dance. Of course, I was devastated when I received a letter from the principal saying:
(The words of the letter appear behind Lindsay Kemp, high on a screen. They are typed out word-by-word, as he reads the letter.)
‘Dear Master Kemp, Thank you very much for coming to the audition on September 14th, unfortunately we have to tell you that both I and my board find you both temperamentally and physically unsuited to a career as a dancer. Yours faithfully, Ursula Morton.’
I can see it as clearly now as on that day that I got that letter.
But what if I’d taken any notice? Think what the world would have lost? I’d could have given up and become a coalman…
(Blackout. The ‘phone cuts off. Lights up. Lindsay Kemp talks to the audience. Lights slowly fade during his speech.)
I was so determined to become a dancer there was nothing else for me. I did auditions for a load of other dance schools, and drama schools, as I wanted to be an actor as much as being a dancer, and so a painter, come to that, all of those things. I did get a scholarship with the Ballet Rambert School. That was great, but that scholarship didn’t take effect until after I’d had my National Service, you see, because in those days you couldn’t get into university or further education or any jobs until you had done your service for two years.
So, I had to hang around. My Mother moved to Bradford, and worked in a shop, very high class, and that’s where a young David Hockney met me, and David encouraged me to go back to London and try again, and to pursue my dream at all cost.
(Lights out. Lights up.
The telephone rings. Kemp answers it.)
Hello, I don’t know what’s the matter. (Pause.) Anyway, we better keep going before it happens again.
I walked into a recruiting office and signed-up for the Air Force on my seventeenth birthday. I couldn’t bear hanging around in Bradford anymore. I met a lot interesting people, the like of which I’ve never met before, very conservative, very right wing, kind of boarding school, very repressed, and I certainly didn’t allow myself to be repressed.
So, I began to do classes at the Rambert during weeks from the Air Force, they gave me special leave so I could train at the Rambert.
Going to the Rambert School was absolute heaven, I was in heaven there. And to meet such wonderful people dancing, other dancers I’d never met before, people with similar dreams and desires as myself, notably Jack Birkett, who later became the Incredible Orlando.
(Lindsay Kemp on Jack Birkett;)
”Jack was Judy to my Mr. Punch, Harlequin to my Pierrot, Titania to my Puck, Herodias to my Salomé, Queen of Hearts to my Lewis Carroll. We shared flats, dressing rooms, boyfriends, bills, good times and bad times, success and failure; a couple of extravagant young dreamers, a couple of aching elders, always entertainers.
And Jack said:
Jack Birkett, the Incredible Orlando, appears as an angel and is lowered on a wire from the wings. He is dressed as Eros, with bow and arrow.
Jack Birkett, the Incredible Orlando:
I had another year to do in the forces. Aside No more, because I’d signed on at seventeen for three years. Anyway, Jack said:
Jack Birkett, the Incredible Orlando:
Tell them you’re gay.
And I said, To Orlando ‘What’s gay?’
Jack Birkett, the Incredible Orlando:
Tell them you’re gay, dear.
Orlando flies upwards, firing an arrow.
Anyway, so, I went to the medical officer and said, ‘I’m gay.’ I had no experience at that time, but I’ve made up for it.
Anyway I was out, there and then, I mean discharged., suffering from what the medical report said was ‘temperamentally ….’
And from there straight back to the Rambert School.
(Kemp addresses the audience.)
I had always put on my own little shows since the age of five years old, and then at boarding school, cajoling other boys to join me and we would put on plays and shows together. And in the forces, during that one year also putting on a lot of plays and performances and so on. And we continued to perform in garages, in fields, in parks, in gardens, wherever we could get a gig in those days, myself and my friends. And bit by bit, that company took on a professional shape so by 1968 or ’69 or something like that, the company as such, the Lindsay Kemp Company made its debut at the Lyric Hammersmith.
(Lights down, then up. On stage the Lindsay Kemp Company performs.)
In the late 1960s, Lindsay Kemp met a young musician called David Bowie.
Bowie was on the verge of giving up his pop career, and becoming a Buddhist monk, when he met Kemp. The meeting would change Bowie’s life and career.
David Bowie on Lindsay Kemp:
”It was everything I thought Bohemia probably was. I joined the circus.”