Jubilee Quad Poster

Jubilee is no dreary slice of social realism, although the backdrop of the raw sprawl of dockland London, full of bombsites and crumbling buildings, would have been perfect for that. There’s no ‘straight’ political message either, Jarman even dedicated his script at one point to ‘all those who secretly work against the tyranny of marxists Fascists trade unionists maoists capitalists socialists etc’.

Instead, this is a tale of time travel with Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre), resident court astrologer John Dee (Richard O’Brien) and Lady in Waiting (Helen Wellington-Lloyd) being transported to a 1970s London by Ariel. The same Ariel who served Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

None are impressed by what they witness. This is a truly broken down Britain, where cops beat up or kill young people for fun and where homicidal girl gangs maraud around the streets. Jubilee comes across at times like a Kenneth Anger movie with a screenplay by Valerie Solanis. With a little John Waters style sick humour thrown in for good/bad measure.

The cast is of the ensemble variety. Five youngish women share a commune style warehouse squat. Bod – presumably short for Boadicea – is the unofficial leader and is played by Jenny Runacre. Amyl Nitrate (Jordan) is obsessed by history and likes to recreate Mondrian canvases with make-up on her face. Mad (Toyah Willcox) is a loudmouthed pyromaniac with bright orange hair; Crabs (Little Nell Campbell) a promiscuous and easily impressed actress; and finally there’s Chaos (Hermine Demoriane), a tightrope walker who looks good and says nothing.

They sometimes hang around with two bisexual and possibly incestuous brothers, Angel (Ian Charleson) and Sphinx (Karl Johnson), and an artist Viv (Linda Spurrier),the nearest thing to a sympathetic character that Jarman gives us.

The casting is odd. Jenny Runacre (who plays Queen Elizabeth I in addition to Bod) was already an experienced actor and had already worked with Tony Richardson, Pasolini and Antonioni; Richard O’Brien and Little Nell had recently been involved in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, while Toyah had just graduated from drama school.

Toyah Jubilee 1978

Many who took part, though, were picked on the whim of Jarman. Adam Ant (The Kid) was selected on the basis of the director spotting him walking through Chelsea with the word Fuck carved on his back by a razor blade. By a complete coincidence, Jordan, who’d performed the carving duties, had just been cast in a leading role. In fact, the first scene that Jarman chose to shoot for Jubilee involved Mad carving the word LOVE on Bod’s back, before sprinkling salt on to the wound.

The performances range from the professional to verging on the kind of thing you might see in a one-star student production at the Edinburgh Festival. If Tommy Wisseau has ever seen this, he might even find Orlando’s turn as Borgia Ginz, a megalomaniac impresario who inevitably breaks into cackling laughter after he has spoken, annoyingly hammy.

Jubilee is usually claimed to be a punk film but the former public schoolboy director Derek Jarman was no punk. In August 1976 he laid out his thoughts on the ‘King’s Road fashion anarchists’, deriding its instigators as ‘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.’ Ouch.

Despite this opinion, he did include a number of punkish tracks in Jubilee, with Jordan – then the manager of Adam and The Ants – advising him on which music to use.

Only three days after recording their debut single Plastic Surgery, The Ants filmed the track for Jubilee in the Drury Lane Theatre. Wayne/Jayne County supplied a track Paranoia Paradise, that was supposedly number one in Moscow, having sold 30 million copies in three days, while Siouxsie and The Banshees are briefly seen performing Love In A Void.

Gene October & Little Nell in Jubilee

There’s also a blast of Chelsea’s Right to Work, a song that verges on a dirge and which I’ve never been able to figure out – is it a protest against rising unemployment of the era or is the right to work for employees who believe that they should be able to put in a shift even when the trade unions insist otherwise? The band’s singer Gene October also plays Happy Days, who meets a grisly end, being asphyxiated in a red plastic sheet and then dumped into the mud of the Thames at low tide. A far from happy day.

Additionally, The Slits, like the younger sisters of Alex and his droog pals in A Clockwork Orange, destroy a car with great relish. The band quickly decided that they didn’t want to be portrayed as violent and become associated with mindless destruction. They pulled out of any further involvement with the project and asked Jarman to bin the footage already shot. But, of course, he didn’t. ‘Can’t blame him really,’ Viv Albertine noted in her autobiography Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.

Interestingly, the first music we hear in Jubilee is the other-worldly ambiance of Slow Water. Initially released in 1976 on a limited edition of Music for Films, which was sent out to directors in the hope that they might include some of it in their films, Jarman was the first to take him up on the opportunity.

Jordan with trident

The song with the most impact, though, has to be Jordan (miming to Suzi Pinn’s vocals) performing a discofied version of Rule Britannia while wearing suspenders and carrying a trident. This apparently being England’s entry for that year’s Eurovision Song Contest.

On its release, Jubilee polarised opinions. Punks might have enjoyed the nihilism but tended to resent the message that punk acts could be co-opted so easily by the capitalist world. The Banshees condemned it while Vivienne Westwood despised it to the extent that she designed an Open T-Shirt to Derek Jarman, denouncing it. Jenny Runacre got her hands on one and wore it with pride, while Jarman was shown photographed wearing one in one of the Criterion re-release extras, A Time Less Golden (2003). When Westwood accepted an OBE in 1992, he called her as a ‘dipsy bitch’.

Derek Jarman in Vivienne Westwood T-shirt

Conservatives meanwhile were likely even more pissed off with the nudity, castration, asphyxiation, murder, blasphemy and sex – especially the orgy sequence supposedly being carried out in the bowels of Westminster Cathedral.

Despite the controversy generated, Jubilee was never a big cinema attraction and by the time it made its debut on British television in 1986, punk was dead and tracks like Sleezy D’s I’ve Lost Control would soon signal a new musical revolution in acid house.

A true provocateur, Derek Jarman was uncompromising here and remained so throughout his career. He was referred to as the ‘English Andy Warhol’ by several critics and Bowie described him as a ‘black magician.’

Don’t expect a traditional narrative here. It’s very episodic, and Jarman made much of it up as he went along (and it tells). It can often be frustrating but equally, it is extraordinary in many ways and not one single scene is bland.

The artist/director/stage designer/writer/gardener believed Jubilee proved prescient. In Dancing Ledge, he wrote: ‘Dr Dee’s vision came true – the streets burned in Brixton and Toxteth, Adam 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.’

Ginz’s observation that ‘this is the generation who grew up and forgot to lead their lives’ and how ‘the media became their only reality’, struck me as far more prescient, albeit concerning many of today’s millennials, more interested in recording their lives on phones and social media rather than just leading their lives.