Derek Jarman

b. 31 January, 1942, Northwood, Middlesex, UK
d. 19 February, 1994, London, UK

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Derek Jarman: Radical Traditionalist

By the time of his death from AIDS related complications in February 1994, Derek Jarman had amassed a reputation as one of Britain’s most controversial filmmakers. Indeed, only Michael Powell, Ken Russell and Jarman’s more direct contemporary, Peter Greenaway, demonstrate a similar proclivity towards taboo-breaking, provocation and sheer bad taste. However, Jarman also belongs alongside these names as one of the truly distinctive, original and even idiosyncratic talents in British film. His debut, Sebastiane (1976), was shot in Latin, he was nominated for the 1986 Turner Prize “in recognition of the outstanding visual qualities of his films”, (1) yet his final film, Blue (1993), contained no images at all.

Critically problematic to a fault, to many he remains a marginal figure whose highly personal body of work is too experimental to be considered mainstream; yet his work is also ironically viewed as being too artistically conservative and conventional to be wholly accepted by the avant-garde. To his admirers, however, Jarman was at the centre of what Peter Wollen called “the Last New Wave”, (2) Britain’s belated answer to the great Modernist movements in post-war Continental art cinema. For others still, Jarman has a significance that goes beyond his contributions to his own national cinema. One of the fathers of international “New Queer Cinema”, Jarman’s sexuality had always been a significant part of his work, but after his diagnosis as HIV it became its “principal, determining factor”. (3)

Jarman saw himself as a queer artist following in the footsteps of Jean Cocteau and Pier Paolo Pasolini, and like his forebears, was an inveterate polymath – a notable painter, set-designer, writer, gardener and political activist – who nevertheless remains best remembered for his films. Jarman was, however, a Renaissance man in more than one sense. Indeed, five of his eleven feature films centre around the “interface between the Renaissance and the present”, (4) an historical space that Jarman made his own, and which is essential to one’s understanding of his work. It is in his fascinating, often original and at times controversial engagement with the past – the art, literature and cultural heritage of Britain and Europe – that Jarman proved himself to be the true successor to Pasolini. Indeed, Jarman felt a kinship with the Italian director not only as a fellow queer filmmaker, but also as another critically problematic director who had gained an unshakable, though partly undeserved, reputation for controversy, despite being largely drawn to “traditional” material. (5) Indeed, as Jarman himself noted of his own work, “Shakespeare, the Sonnets, Caravaggio, [Benjamin] Britten’s [War] Requiem, what more traditional subject matter could a film-maker take on? And yet I’m still seen by some as a menace.” (6)

This tension between radicalism and tradition stems from Jarman’s upbringing, a period Jarman stresses is “crucial to understanding the nature of his films”. (7) Michael Derek Elworthy Jarman was born on the 31st of January 1942 in Northwood, Middlesex, where his father, Lance Jarman, an RAF bomber pilot, was stationed. His mother, Elizabeth, was a warm, supportive and artistic woman with whom Jarman certainly identified more strongly than his father, who, by Jarman’s own admission, created his “aversion to all authority”. (8) However, their relationship nevertheless remained complex and Jarman’s attempts to reconcile himself to his father and gain his approval carried over into his work, a fact emphasised by the eroticism, as well as horror, associated with men in uniform in so many of Jarman’s films. However, Lance Jarman also certainly instilled in his son the belief in tradition that would be as much a part of Jarman’s art and personality as his proclivity towards provocation, and Jarman understood that “without men like my father the war would never have been won”. (9) Furthermore, Jarman’s father was an enthusiastic amateur filmmaker, whose colour home movie footage of young Derek, his sister and his mother plays such a crucial part in The Last of England (1987). Indeed, by 1987, when the film was being made, Jarman, who was righteously angered by the homophobia and authoritarianism of eight years of the Thatcher government, and who had recently learned of his own HIV positive status, began to empathise with his father, who “stared at disbelief at the society he had helped to save”. (10)

A gifted painter, Jarman was accepted to the Slade School of Art in 1960. However, his father was skeptical about this path and agreed to support his son at the Slade only if he first earned a “proper” qualification. Respecting his father’s wish, Jarman went up to King’s College, London, to read English, History and History of Art. This eclectic course of study facilitated Jarman’s development as a serious artist and gave him “a range of cultural and historical reference which is apparent in all his films”. (11) Indeed, it was during this first degree that Jarman would develop his love and understanding of Renaissance history, art and literature. Studious and seemingly chaste, Jarman was still uncomfortable with his sexuality and began to “read between the lines of history” searching for forebears to validate his existence. He did however, find “some heavyweight soulmates”, (12) not least Caravaggio, Shakespeare and Marlowe.


Upon graduation from King’s in 1963, Jarman took up his place at the Slade. Arriving at a time of great liberation, it was here that he truly came to terms with his sexuality and allowed it to inform his art. In addition to studying painting and theatre design, Jarman also enrolled on a course taught by Thorald Dickinson which enabled him to see the work of great European filmmakers including Sergei Eisenstein, Jean Cocteau, Federico Fellini and Pasolini, amongst many others, as well as screenings of American avant-garde films by the likes of Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol. Cinematically speaking, Jarman’s own work falls between these two categories, producing examples of European-style art cinema, such as Caravaggio (1986), and more radical, avant-garde work such as Blue, as well as films such as The Garden (1990), which combine elements of both in “an eclectic, hybrid manner”. (13)

After graduation, Jarman became a theatre designer, working on the sets for productions such as Jazz Calendar (1967) with Rudolph Nureyev. This led to Ken Russell inviting Jarman, then 28, to design the sets for The Devils (1971). His anachronistic, art deco designs for the walls and buildings of the town of Loudon were undeniably eye-catching and were frequently singled out for praise even by the many critics who were otherwise hostile to the film. Jarman however, was impressed by Russell and wrote that “there was no better director to learn from, as he would always take the more adventurous path, even at the expense of coherence”. (14) Jarman would also design Russell’s next film, Savage Messiah (1972), but it would be his last in that capacity. The experience of making The Devils had been a turning point. He had been given a taste of how a big-budget feature film was made and was in equal parts besotted and repelled by it. On one level, the collaborative nature of filmmaking made painting seem a solitary, solipsistic activity. Indeed, Jarman would later claim that he made films primarily for “the camaraderie”. (15) On the other hand, he found the film’s budget extravagant and the pressure put on Russell excessive. Therefore, while Jarman found his artistic ambitions began to shift towards directing, “he had no desire to become permanently part of the industrial system of production which characterises commercial cinema.” (16)

It was around this time that Jarman obtained his first Super-8 camera, a user-friendly updating of standard 8mm film cameras, commonly employed by “amateur filmmakers to make ‘home movies’”. (17) However, such amateur equipment is often preferred by avant-garde filmmakers as it offers a certain amount of financial and aesthetic liberty. This was certainly the case for Jarman. The Super-8 camera enabled Jarman to reconcile his ambitions to make films with his unwillingness to involve himself in big-budget filmmaking. Inspired by the work of American underground filmmakers such as Anger, whose work was “close to something one could actually do oneself, [and] didn’t adhere to all the technicalities and rules”, (18) Jarman began making a large number of short films

The Art of Mirrors

These shorts took on a number of different forms. Some, such as The Art of Mirrors (1973), were staged and designed. Others, such as A Journey to Avebury (1973), were films of landscapes. A third category, which included films such as Studio Bankside (1972), named for Jarman’s bohemian studio-cum-flat off the Thames, were “home movies” of friends and their surroundings. (19) Frequently, Jarman would also project his films onto a screen and re-film them at different camera speeds to distort the original images and “produce a strong painterly texture and pulsating rhythm”. (20) Although these short films, which often lasted no more than a few minutes, can be viewed as stand alone pieces, “whose brevity is integral to their effect”, (21) Jarman at times placed them, either in-part or as a whole, into longer, more ambitious works. Indeed, one gets a good sense of Jarman’s early short film work by watching the two hour-long “features” that were compiled from them. The first, In the Shadow of the Sun (1974-80), was originally put together by Jarman himself in 1974 from re-shot Super-8 material including footage from The Art of Mirrors and Journey to Avebury, amongst several others. The film was eventually blown-up to 35mm and premiered at the 1981 Berlin Film Festival. The focus on ritual, mysticism and obscure alchemical symbolism links it with the work of Anger. However, Jarman’s preference for the work of Carl Jung and the “white” magician John Dee, is quite distinct from Anger’s invocations of the “black” magician Alistair Crowley. The second, Glitterbug (1994), was a posthumously released compilation of Super-8 footage shot between 1972 and 1986, selected by Jarman himself before his death. Both films were produced by James Mackay, who, after their meeting in 1980, would nurture Jarman’s more experimental impulses as the producer of his four most radical features: The Angelic Conversation (1985), The Last of England (1987), The Garden and Blue, the first three of which were all also shot, at least in part, on Super-8. Indeed, in “a reversal of most director’s careers, Jarman’s film style became more radical as he grew older”, (22) whereas his earliest features were comparatively “conventionally shot and edited”. (23)

Stylistically speaking, Jarman’s debut, Sebastiane, finds him still looking for the distinctive directorial voice he would find in later films. (24) Yet Sebastiane is still assured of a place in film history, not least for the fact that it was the first film shot entirely in Latin. More than just an eccentric footnote however, Jarman’s retelling of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian was a pivotal British film for a number of other reasons. Perhaps most importantly, it was the first openly homoerotic British film. Indeed, the musician Holly Johnson saw the film as “an affirmation that homosexuality could be beautiful, shameless and out in the open”. (25) Tilda Swinton, the actress who became Jarman’s friend and muse after Caravaggio, echoes this, stating that “Sebastiane was, for so many, nothing short of a miracle”. (26) The film treated homosexual love with a strong sense of romanticism, lyricism and above all, seriousness. Despite a number of witty moments – the subtitle translation of the name Oedipus as “motherfucker” particularly stands out – it unquestionably sought to revise the representation of homosexuality in British cinema, particularly the camp portrayal of “queer” characters in comedies such as the Carry On films. Jarman even altered the standard Latin spelling of the Saint’s name, Sebastianus, to the vocative form, Sebastiane (O, Sebastian), to prevent the film’s title being subjected to crass innuendo.

Sebastiane also acted as an unlikely wake-up call to the ailing British film industry. Tony Rayns called it, “[t]he most promising sign of new film life in independent narrative cinema in [Britain] in many, many years” (27) and the film’s appearance “[in] the mid seventies, with British cinema at an all time low”, (28) could not have been more timely. On its opening night at The Gate cinema in Notting Hill it broke all the house records and continued to fair well throughout its London release. In its wake came an increasing number of independently funded, low budget features such as Ron Peck’s Nighthawks (1978) and Alan Clarke’s Scum (1979).


Jarman’s second feature, Jubilee (1978), like its predecessor, was a success de scandal. Commonly credited as “Britain’s first official punk movie”, (29) it was also Jarman’s first “Renaissance” film. It begins with the mystic John Dee summoning an angel to show Queen Elizabeth I the England of her namesake, Elizabeth II, which has been reduced to a near apocalyptic state of anarchy. However, there is little actual interaction between the past and present in the film, and the Renaissance sequences provide a framing device which serves to juxtapose this “golden age” with the decaying state of modern Britain. In this respect, Jubilee is ironically Jarman’s most nostalgic film, and his attitude towards the punk movement is more ambivalent than it at first seems. Rather than openly praise the tenets of punk, Jubilee seems to prefigure its eventual commercialisation and “selling out” to mass media. The figure of Borgia Ginz, the music impresario played by Jack Birkett, who has turned Buckingham Palace into a recording studio and whose motto is, “they all sign up in the end”, can be seen as an extreme parody of figures such as Malcolm McLaren.

The Tempest (1979), Jarman’s third film and the next in his Renaissance cycle, is the most confident and satisfying of his early films. Its opening, which crosscuts colour-tinted stock footage of boats and squalls with Prospero hearing lines such as “we split” echo in his sleep, is undeniably cinematic and establish Jarman’s film as one of the finer Shakespeare adaptations in English-language cinema. Jarman contended that the “settings of Shakespeare films always clash with the language” (30) and so located his film around Stoneleigh Abbey, off the coast of Devon, a rather unusual setting for the film which he thought would help to free the text. By emphasising the decaying and ruined nature of the house and shooting with low-key light, he achieved a certain visual starkness. This contributes enormously to Jarman’s reading of Shakespeare’s play, for here Prospero’s exile is hard. His surroundings are austere and he has lost everything except for his daughter and his magic. This makes the final scenes, where Miranda and Ferdinand are married and Prospero is reconciled to his brother and renounces his magic, all the more effective. These scenes, particularly the wedding masque, in which a group of sailors dance while the jazz-singer, Elizabeth Welsh, performs “Stormy Weather”, are in sharp contrast to all that has come before. The colours are bright and gaudy, the surroundings in the ballroom opulent, the tone joyous and extravagantly camp rather than dark and threatening. However, these vibrant scenes do not jar with the rest of the film, but rather compliment it perfectly. Indeed, it is:

one of the great scenes in British cinema, its majestic quality throwing into relief the other levels of representation within the film from nineteenth-century romanticism to Hollywood pastiche to high camp. The darkness that characterises some of Jarman’s other works is mitigated here – as in Shakespeare’s original – by reparation, young love and forgiveness. (31)

Although The Tempest was potentially the most accessible of Jarman’s first three films, and certainly the least likely to cause offence, Jarman found himself persona non grata and it would be six years before the release of his next “conventional” feature, Caravaggio, although more experimental works such as the excellent short, Imagining October (1984), and the Super-8 feature, The Angelic Conversation, structured partly around Shakespeare’s “Sonnets”, would be released in the interim.


The idea for a film based on the life of the renaissance painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio had originally been suggested to Jarman in 1978 by the art-dealer turned producer Andrew Ward Jackson, who saw Jarman as a worthy successor and substitute for his original choice, the late Pasolini. The project would dominate Jarman’s creative life over the next six years, and it is easy to see why. Firstly, Jarman thought that Caravaggio in his bold, revolutionary use of chiaroscuro, “had ‘invented’ cinematic light” (32) and the film offered an opportunity to examine the relationship between film and painting. Furthermore, Jarman saw Caravaggio as “the most homosexual of painters”. (33) However, the finished film does little to reflect this latter opinion. Indeed, the love triangle that forms the centre of the film’s narrative is more complex, playing out between the painter (played by Nigel Terry) and his model, Ranuccio Thomason (Sean Bean), and their mutual female lover, Lena (Tilda Swinton). Little is known for certain about the life of Caravaggio and Jarman chose to base the film on his own careful, but subjective, “biographical” readings of the paintings. For example, his interpretations see Ranuccio posing for Caravaggio as both a murderer, the executioner striking the death blow in “The Martyrdom of St. Matthew”, and also as a martyr, John the Baptist. This will be reflected in film as Ranuccio murders Lena only to be murdered in turn by Caravaggio. Similarly, the pregnant Lena poses as both Mary Magdalene and, after her murder, as the central figure in “Death of the Virgin”, in a faintly misogynist reference to the twofold nature of women as saints or whores.

The scene which depicts Ranuccio’s posing for “The Martyrdom of St. Matthew” is amongst the most memorable of Jarman’s career. It begins with Jerusaleme, Caravaggio’s assistant, holding a mirror up to the camera to reflect light onto the painter’s subject, Ranuccio, standing nearly naked with a sword in his hand. Lena, Ranuccio’s lover, looks on from the corner with a mixture of boredom, anger and amazement as Caravggio lowers his brush and throws a gold coin to Ranuccio, who places it in his mouth. This process is repeated several times until Caravaggio places one last coin between his lips and offers it to Ranucci, who takes it into his already full mouth. Wordlessly and with great economy, Jarman here establishes the central love-triangle of the plot, posits his homoerotic reading of the painting and examines the relationships between art and commerce; patron, artist and model; and painting and cinema.

Although Jarman was justifiably pleased with many elements of the film, not least the three excellent central performances and Gabriel Beristain’s remarkable cinematography, one cannot help but feel that he was also somewhat disappointed by Caravaggio. The project was perhaps too long-cherished and possibly there had been too many different ideas in the 18 drafts of the screenplay written between 1978 and 1985. Furthermore, Jarman perhaps realised that he had made an altogether more conventional film than he would have liked. The contractual obligation to shoot entirely in 35mm had resulted in an almost self-imposed visual austerity; because Jarman could not move the 35mm camera with the same ease and energy with which he could move its Super-8 equivalent, he chose not to move it at all and had the camera locked-off for almost the entire film. Secondly, the film was Jarman’s first to conform to a particular genre, namely the biopic, and more specifically the sub-genre of films about artist’s lives. Despite his best efforts, Caravaggio was not a radical enough departure from the generic format to prevent one critic calling it “a true successor to Lust for Life”. (34) Although one can only assume that Jarman would have been incensed by such comments, the generic elements visible in Caravaggio, coupled with the fact that it presents, uniquely for Jarman, psychologically complex characters, make it his most accessible film and the best introduction to his work.

The Last of England

Jarman’s next film marked a conscious return to the less formal films he had made before Caravaggio, and one could argue that the specific attributes of the Super-8 format dictated much of the form and content of The Last of England. The low-cost cameras made it possible for several operators to shoot simultaneously, thus recording scenes from a variety of different angles and perspectives without necessitating retakes or new camera set-ups. Furthermore, as the equipment was privately owned, rather than rented at great cost, Jarman was at liberty to film without a detailed shooting script. He instead “began to accumulate super-8 footage taken at various locations which could later be edited into a significant structure”. (35) There is also a crucial difference between the pace and tone of earlier Super-8 films such as The Angelic Conversation and The Last of England. This is most apparent than in the “Disco” sequence of the latter film which features no less than 1,600 cuts in only six minutes of finished film, making it one of the fastest and most aggressive montages in cinema. Jarman later admitted that this sequence was “cut like a pop promo”. (36) Indeed, some of the footage finally used in the film was in fact shot for other projects, including The Queen is Dead (1986), a pop-promo for The Smiths, which was one of many Jarman had made as a means of paying the rent during the hiatus between The Tempest and Caravaggio.

The final structures of The Last of England and subsequently, The Garden, take the form of “trance films”: a form of psychodrama established in such avant-garde films as Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon (1942) and Anger’s Fireworks (1947), in which, “the filmmaker himself plays out a drama of psychological revelation; it is cast in the form of a dream beginning and ending with images of its hero as a sleeper”. (37) Jarman indeed places himself at the beginning of both these films and can be seen to “dream” the action that follows. However, his role in The Last of England is somewhat peripheral. At the start of the film, Jarman is seen at his desk working on a painting and reading from his notebooks, and the film, in a manner typical of the trance film, takes the form of the director’s vision or dream. However, outside of the inclusion of some early home movie footage shot by his father, Jarman plays little part in the proceedings of the film. The central relationship in the film is in fact a heterosexual one between a man (Spencer Leigh) executed by the soldiers who terrorise the film’s desolate landscape and his bride (Tilda Swinton), who ends the film mutilating her wedding dress in a violent danse macabre. Indeed, it is tempting in the case of The Last of England to infer that the trance film structure was added retrospectively, like Shakespeare’s sonnets in The Angelic Conversation, as a belated means of imposing structure on an otherwise “improvised film”. (38)

However, Jarman is “squarely at the center” of The Garden. (39) He again begins the film at his desk, surrounded by Christian imagery, but this time he is asleep and clearly dreaming the film’s retelling of the Passion, with Christ re-imagined as two gay lovers. Jarman likened The Garden to Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1963), but his Passion notably lacks the power of Pasolini’s version. His rejection of conventional dialogue and psychologically complex characters makes it very difficult to empathise with the two Christ figures, making the central narrative of the film at times curiously uninvolving. Ironically, by far the most moving passages of the film are the ones involving Jarman himself. In one particularly memorable sequence, he is laid in his bed on the beach, surrounded by men and women, naked from the waist up, who carry torches and circle him. This sequence at once implies that the filmmaker is still dreaming the events of the film, but takes on further significance as the voiceover speaks of AIDS, death and the filmmaker’s own mortality. The Garden was indeed Jarman’s first explicit meditation on AIDS and his own HIV Positive status.

War Requiem

Jarman’s previous film, War Requiem (1989), based on the Benjamin Britten oratorio, had dealt with the virus in an indirect, if controversial way, allegorically linking it to the wasteful slaughter of so many young men in the Great War. But many, including Jarman himself, thought that The Garden would be his last film, and so he wanted to address the subject more directly. He would however continue to defy everyone’s expectations by making three more films: Edward II (1991), Wittgenstein (1993) and Blue. A comparatively minor work, Wittgenstein was commissioned by Tariq Ali as part of a series of programs on philosophers for Channel Four television. However, additional funds from the British Film Institute raised the budget to roughly £300,000, changing the nature of the project from a television work to a theatrical film. The budget was still tight however, but Jarman, with typical resourcefulness, worked this to his advantage. Shooting on an almost bare soundstage, with only simple props and costumes, Jarman used most of the budget on actors, which included Jarman regulars Michael Gough, Karl Johnson and, of course, Tilda Swinton. Jarman’s ability to make very little go a long way is justly celebrated, indeed Jarman could boast that his first six feature films were made for under one million pounds, less than the cost of the set Jarman had designed for The Devils.

This talent for low-budget filmmaking is also plainly in evidence in Edward II, the conclusion to apogee of his Renaissance cycle. Like Caravaggio, Edward II was an entirely studio bound production, and makes no attempts to disguise this fact. On the contrary, Jarman and long-time production designer Christopher Hobbs flaunt the artificiality of the surroundings, setting many scenes in austere rooms with stone-grey walls and single piece of furniture, such as a bed or the king’s throne. Furthermore, in a manner which again recalls Caravaggio, Jarman, Hobbs and costume designer Sandy Powell fill the film with anachronisms such as rifles, Coca-Cola cans, cigarettes and tuxedos. However, Edward II “triumphantly realises what was only hinted at in Caravaggio: a world which is always now and then (both twentieth and sixteenth century) but is always England”. (40) These anachronisms forge a direct link between Marlowe’s narrative and the true subject of the film: the struggle for gay rights, particularly in Thatcher’s Britain. Indeed, Jarman goes as far as to reimagine the battle between Mortimer and Edward as a Stonewall-like clash between riot police and gay rights protesters. Edward II is Jarman’s most angry film. In the introduction to the published screenplay he wrote that the only way to make a “film of a gay love affair” was to “[f]ind a dusty old play and violate it”. (41) However, for all its anger Jarman’s adaptation of Marlowe remains sensitive, intelligent and mature. The film’s final lines, “Come death, and with thy figures close my eyes, / Or if I live let me forget myself”, (42) spoken here by the dethroned king, could just as well have been spoken by Jarman himself. These lines are not spoken in anger however, but rather delivered with a mournful serenity which hints at the spiritual transcendence Jarman would later find and examine in Blue.


Blue is at once Jarman’s most moving film and his most experimental and idiosyncratic. Visually, the film comprises of nothing more than a blue matt screen, over which Nigel Terry, John Quentin, Swinton and Jarman himself read passages from his diaries that poetically trace his struggle with AIDS, his increasing blindness, the loss of friends and loved ones to the disease and his own impending death. Blue actually began as a proposed project about the painter Yves Klein, whose monochrome paintings, often contemplations of pure blue, Jarman greatly admired. (43) However, as Jarman’s health and sight deteriorated, the project began to evolve into something at once far more personal and universal. On one level, he simply lacked both the stamina and the eye-sight to shoot another film in the conventional manner; more importantly though, the format of Blue provided Jarman with a solution to the problems of effectively representing the nature of AIDS on film. As Jarman wrote, “[n]o ninety minutes could deal with the eight years HIV takes to get its host. Hollywood can only sentimentalise it […] the reality would drive the audience out of the cinema and no one viewpoint could mirror the 10,000 lives lost in San Francisco to date”. (44) For Jarman, AIDS was not a subject for entertainment and he thought that to depict the “progress” of AIDS through characters, narrative and even images would immediately cheapen and debase it. Therefore, “Blue‘s rejection of artifice is an aesthetic decision inspired by specific political and ethical criteria”. (45)

If the film is visually simple, the soundtrack however, involving music and a sound design by Simon Fisher Turner as well as the poetic voiceovers, is highly complex. This was a necessity, as in Blue the soundtrack at once has to provide the film’s narrative, its pictures and its emotional core. However, the diary entries read by the cast are both visually evocative and, at times, almost unbearably moving. By taking Jarman’s own experiences of AIDS as its subject, the film manages to be personal and autobiographical but also taps into the consciousness of the viewer, who could not possibly be untouched by this global epidemic. Furthermore, “each spectator’s experience of Blue is wholly unique”. (46) For this reason, Blue “is nothing less than a revolutionary cinematic achievement [which] redefined the notion of what is possible in cinema”, (47) as the intense, flickering blue screen becomes a blank canvas onto which the viewers, prompted by the evocative soundtrack, can impose their own images.

Jarman left behind a rich legacy. In addition to the films were the paintings, his frequently visited garden in Dungeness, and his writing. This not only included published screenplays for most of his films, which often differed wildly from the finished versions, but also several autobiographical volumes. All of these are written with an irrepressible passion but also contain so many contradictory statements as to compound the critically problematic nature of his work. His most lasting contribution however, was as an outspoken champion of gay rights, who, in his art and life, gave a face and voice to homosexuals and AIDS sufferers in Britain and beyond.

This article has been refereed.


  1. Tony Peake, Derek Jarman. Little, Brown and Company, London, 1999, p. 371.
  2. Peter Wollen, “The Last New Wave: Modernism in the British Films of the Thatcher Era” in Lester Friedman (ed.), Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993, pp. 35-51.
  3. Roger Wollen, “Chronology” in Roger Wollen (ed.), Derek Jarman: A Portrait, Thames and Hudson, London, 1996, p. 168.
  4. Colin MacCabe, “A Post-national European Cinema: A Consideration of Derek Jarman’s The Tempest and Edward II” in Andrew Higson (ed.), Disolving Views: Key Writings on British Cinema, Cassell, London, 1996, p. 196.
  5. See Peake, 1999, p. 453 and p. 467.
  6. Derek Jarman, Modern Nature, Vintage, London, 1992, p. 234.
  7. Jonathan Hacker and David Price, Take Ten: British Film Directors, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991, p. 331.
  8. Derek Jarman, The Last of England, Constable and Company Ltd, London, 1987, p. 179.
  9. Jarman, 1987, p.107.
  10. Derek Jarman, War Requiem: The Film, Faber and Faber, London, 1989, p. 9.
  11. Rowland Wymer, Derek Jarman, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2005, p. 21.
  12. Derek Jarman, At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament, Vintage, London, 1993, p. 46.
  13. Michael O’Pray, “The British Avant-Garde and Art Cinema from the 1970s to the 1990s” in Andrew Higson (ed.), Disolving Views: Key Writings on British Cinema, Cassell, London, 1996, p. 178.
  14. Derek Jarman, Dancing Ledge, Quartet Books, London, 1984, p. 105.
  15. Jarman, 1987, p. 163.
  16. Wymer, 2005, p. 25.
  17. Wymer, 2005, p. 25.
  18. Jarman, quoted in Hacker and Price, 1991, p. 249.
  19. Michael O’Pray, “Films of Art/Art of Films” in Roger Wollen (ed.), Derek Jarman: A Portrait, Thames and Hudson, London, 1996, p. 66.
  20. Michael O’Pray, “Derek Jarman’s Cinema: Eros and Thanatos” in Afterimage 12, Autumn 1985, p. 9.
  21. Wymer, 2005, p. 28.
  22. Michael O’Pray, Derek Jarman: Dreams of England, BFI Publishing, London, 1996, p. 9.
  23. O’Pray, Derek Jarman: Dreams of England, 1996, p. 156.
  24. Jarman’s lack of experience led the film’s producers, James Whaley and Howard Malin, to take the precaution of inviting Paul Humfress, a filmmaker for the BBC, to act as co-director and editor.
  25. Peake, 1999, p. 237.
  26. Tilda Swinton, “A Letter to a Boy from his Mother” in Vertigo Autumn 2006, vol 3 issue 3, p. 5.
  27. Tony Rayns, “Sebastiane”, Monthly Film Bulletin 43, 1976, no. 514, pp. 235–236.
  28. Peake, 1999, p. 236.
  29. Duncan Petrie, “Jubilee” available at http://www.timeout.com/film/77305.html
  30. Jarman, 1984, p. 186.
  31. O’Pray, Derek Jarman: Dreams of England, 1996, pp.117-8.
  32. Derek Jarman, Caravaggio, Thames and Hudson, London, 1986, p. 44.
  33. Jarman, 1984, p.21
  34. Waldemar Januszczak quoted in Walker, John A., Art and Artists on Screen, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1993, p.69.
  35. Wymer, 2005, p. 111.
  36. Jarman, 1987, p. 12.
  37. P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-2000, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002, p. 87.
  38. Jarman, 1987, p. 163.
  39. Tony Rayns, “The ‘I-Movie’”, The Garden Press Book, Artificial Eye, 1990, unnumbered.
  40. MacCabe, 1996, p. 197
  41. Jarman, 1991, unnumbered.
  42. Jarman, 1991, p. 168.
  43. See Peter Wollen, “Blue”, New Left Review, no. 6, November/December 2000, pp. 120-33.
  44. Derek Jarman, Smiling in Slow Motion, Century, London, 2000, p. 290.
  45. Richard Porton, “Language Games and Aesthetic Attitudes: Style and Ideology in Jarman’s Late Films” in Chris Lippard (ed.), By Angel’s Driven: The Films of Derek Jarman, Flick Books, Trowbridge, 1996, p. 140.
  46. Wymer, 2005, p. 174.
  47. David Garner, “Perverse Law: Jarman as Gay Criminal Hero” in Chris Lippard (ed.), By Angel’s Driven: The Films of Derek Jarman, Flick Books, Trowbridge, 1996, p. 57.

Derek Jarman


As Designer

The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)

Savage Messiah (Ken Russell, 1972)

As Director

Short Films *

* All short films shot in Super-8 unless stated

Studio Bankside (1972)
Tarot (The Magician) (1973)
Garden of Luxor (1973)
The Art of Mirrors (1973)
Burning of Pyramids (1973)
A Journey to Avebury (1973)
The Devils at the Elgin (Sister Jean of the Angles) (1974)
Fire Island (1974)
Sebastiane Wrap (1975)
Gerald’s Film (1975)
Ula’s Fête (Ula’s Chandelier) (1976)
Sloane Square (Removal Party) (1974-6);
Jordan’s Dance (1977) (sections blown up to 16mm for inclusion in Jubilee)
Every Woman for Herself and All for Art (1978, blown up to 16mm in 1981)
Broken English: Three Songs By Marianne Faithful (1979, Super-8 and 16mm)
In the Shadow of the Sun (1980) (Super-8 blown up to 35mm)
TG Psychic Rally in Heaven (1981)
Rakes Progress (1982)
Pontormo and Punks at Santa Croce (1982)
Pirate Tape (1982)
Diese Machine ist mein antihumanistisches Kunstwerk (1982)
Imagining October (1984) (Super-8 and video blown up to 16mm)
The Queen Is Dead: Three Songs by the Smiths (1986)
Ask (1986)
L’Ispirazione (1988) (Super-8 blown up to 16mm) Depuis le Jour(1987) segment in portmanteau film Aria, produced by Don Boyd Projections (1993) Glitterbug (1994) (8mm blown up to 35mm)

Feature Films

All films not shot in 35mm were blown up to 35mm for release

Sebastiane (1976) 16mm

Jubilee (1977) 16mm and Super-8

The Tempest (1979) 16mm

The Angelic Conversation (1985) 8mm

Caravaggio (1986) 35mm

The Last of England (1987) Super-8 and video

War Requiem (1989) Super-8 and 35mm

The Garden (1990) Super-8, video and 16mm

Edward II (1991) 35mm

Wittgenstein (1993) 35mm

Blue (1993) 35mm

Select Bibliography

Books by Derek Jarman

Dancing Ledge, Quartet Books, London, 1984.

Caravaggio, Thames and Hudson, London, 1986.

The Last of England, Constable and Company Ltd, London, 1987 (Reprinted as Kicking the Pricks in 1996).

War Requiem: The Film, Faber and Faber, London, 1989.

Queer Edward II, BFI Publishing, London, 1991.

Modern Nature, Vintage, London, 1992.

At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament, Vintage, London, 1993.

(with Terry Eagleton) Wittgenstein: The Terry Eagleton Script/The Derek Jarman Film, BFI Publishing, London, 1993.

Blue, Overlook Press, New York, 1994.

Chroma: A Book of Colour, Vintage, London, 1995.

Derek Jarman’s Garden, Thames and Hudson, London, 1995.

Up in the Air: Collected Film Scripts, Vintage, London, 1996.

Smiling in Slow Motion. Century, London, 2000.

Books about Jarman

Ken Butler, Derek Jarman, Absolute Press, NewYork, 1997.

Stephen Dillon, Derek Jarman and Lyric Film, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2004.

Chris Lippard (ed.), By Angels Driven: The Films of Derek Jarman, Flick Books, Trowbridge, 1996.

Michael O’Pray, Derek Jarman: Dreams of England, BFI Publishing, London, 1996.

Tony Peake, Derek Jarman, Little, Brown and Company, London, 1999.

William Pencak, The Films of Derek Jarman, MacFarland and Co., Jefferson, 2002.

Roger Wollen (ed.), Derek Jarman: A Portrait, Thames and Hudson, London, 1996.

Rowland Wymer, Derek Jarman, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2005.

Articles and Book Chapters about Jarman

Michael Almereyda, “Notes on Derek Jarma”in John Boorman and Walter Donohue (eds), Projections 4½, Faber and Faber, London, 1995, pp. 233-8.

Jim Ellis, “Strange Meeting: Wilfred Owen, Benjamin Britten, Derek Jarman and The War Requiem” in Richard Dellamora and Daniel Fischlin (eds), The Work of Opera: Genre, Nationhood and Sexual Difference, Columbia University Press, New York, 1997, pp. 277-96.

Jim Ellis, “Queer Period: Derek Jarman’s Renaissance” in Ellis Hanson (ed.), Outtakes: Essays On Queer Theory and Film, Duke University Press, Durham, 1999
pp. 228-315.

John Hill, “The Rise and Fall of British Art Cinema: A Short History of the 1980s and 1990s” in Aura 6 no.3, 2000, pp.18-32.

Colin MacCabe, “A Post-national European Cinema: A Consideration of Derek Jarman’s The Tempest and Edward II” in Andrew Higson (ed.), Disolving Views: Key Writings on British Cinema, Cassell, London, 1996, pp.191-201.

James Mackay, “Low-Budget British Production: A Producer’s Account” in Duncan Petrie (ed.), New Questions of British Cinema, BFI Publishing, London, 1992, pp. 52-64.

Michael O’Pray, “News from Home: An Interview with Derek Jarman” in Monthly Film Bulletin 51 no.605, 1984, pp. 189–190.

Michael O’Pray, “Derek Jarman’s Cinema: Eros and Thanatos” Afterimage, no. 12, 1985, pp. 6–21.

Michael O’Pray, “Britannia on Trial: An Interview with Derek Jarman” in Monthly Film Bulletin 53 no. 627, 1986, pp. 100–101.

Michael O’Pray, Tilda Swinton. Sight & Sound, 1 no. 6, 1991, pp. 26–29.

Michael O’Pray, “The Art of Films/Films of Art” in Roger Wollen (ed.), Derek Jarman: A Portrait, Thames and Hudson, London, 1996, pp. 65-76.

Michael O’Pray, “The British Avant-Garde and Art Cinema from the 1970s to the 1990s” in Andrew Higson (ed.), Disolving Views: Key Writings on British Cinema, Cassell, London, 1996, pp. 178-90.

John Orr, “The Art of National Identity: Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman” in Justine Ashby and Andrew Higson (eds), British Cinema: Past and Present, Routledge, London, 2000, pp.327-338.

Duncan Petrie, “Precis” in The Garden Press Book, Artificial Eye, 1990.

Michael J. Pinfold, “The Performance of Queer Masculinity in Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane” in Film Criticism, 23 no.1, 1998, pp.74-83.

Tony Rayns, “The ‘I-Movie’” in The Garden Press Book, Artificial Eye, 1990.

“New Queer Cinema”, Sight and Sound, 2 no.9, 1992, pp.18-22.

B. Ruby Rich, “Queer and Present Danger”, Sight and Sound, 10 no.3, 2000, pp. 22-5.

Gus Van Sant, “’Freewheelin’: Gus Van Sant Converses with Derek Jarman”, John Boorman and Walter Donohue (eds), Projections: A Forum for Filmmakers, Faber and Faber, London, 1993, pp. 89-99.

Peter Wollen, “The Last New Wave: Modernism in the British Films of the Thatcher Era” in Lester Friedman (ed.), Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993, pp. 35-51.

Peter Wollen, “Blue”, New Left Review, no.6, November/December 2000, pp. 120-33.

Web Resources

Screen Online
A career overview from the British Film Institute website, with additional links

A look at Jubilee and its place in the Punk phenomenon, from Bright Lights Film Journal.
A career overview from the British Film Institute website, with additional links

Two transcripts of the original press kit for Caravaggio:
Press Kit #1
Press Kit #2

A transcript of the text of Blue

A BBC news piece on Jarman’s cottage and garden in Dungeness, Kent

Jarman, and particularly his status as a queer icon and filmmaker is the subject of several well-maintained and illustrated fan sites, including:
Jim’s reviews – The films of Derek Jarman
Saint Dereck Jarman Shrine
Dereck Jarman Shrine


About The Author

Brian Hoyle is a Lecturer in Film Studies and English Literature at the University of Dundee. His PhD and main area of research centre on British art cinema from the 1970s to the present, including the films of Derek Jarman.

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