The fact that Jubilee is abidingly referred to as a ‘punk film’ might suggest to the uninitiated a celebration of that movement’s spirit and the vibrant personalities involved. It is, of course, nothing of the sort. Jarman’s film is a thumbed nose at the Queen’s 1977 Silver Jubilee, in which punk is employed to help depict her country as a dystopia. It does, in fact, serve to betray his personal views on the whole scene, as revealed both by his diaries and his biographer Tony Peake: that he found its fascination with fascism repulsive, and the faux-nihilism of punk youth rather silly. Punk’s queen, Vivienne Westwood, saw fit to produce a T-shirt criticising, in the style of an open letter, what she saw as Jarman’s misrepresentations. Ah well — at least the T-shirt is fabulous.
Jarman must have been a presence in Westwood’s orbit, particularly at 430 Kings Road, London W10, the address of the famous 1970s boutique that she ran with boyfriend Malcolm McLaren and which operated under various names such as Sex and Seditionaries. The shop’s clientele is now a roll-call of punk aristocracy. Sales assistant Pamela Rooke, known as Jordan, is Jarman’s warped punk historian ‘Amyl Nitrate’ in Jubilee, and some think that the character was inspired by Westwood herself.
School-children in England were handed decorative mugs in 1977 to commemorate the Jubilee. Jarman’s response to the event was less quaint, with a story in which the Queen’s predecessor Elizabeth I is taken for a peek into the future by court astrologer Dr John Dee (played by Richard O'Brien) and the magical spirit Ariel. Gloriana is distressed to find an England in turmoil. The streets are ruled by feral youth and an inhumanly vicious police force. Dorset, meanwhile, is a securely check-pointed state, a massive gated community where the rich can hide away in mansions. Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey are for sale, and the second Elizabeth is fatally mugged for her crown, while punk bands are incessantly beamed into the nation’s homes through a blizzard of TV interference. London, accurately for the 1970s, is half-bombed. A gang of ne’er-do-wells lurk under a daubed graffito that says “Post Modern.” You get the idea — though, narrative obviousness aside, Jubilee is a consistently magnificent visual piece of work.
Amyl Nitrate, Toyah Willcox as the orange-haired ‘Mad,’ two incestuous brothers, and a host of others with names like ‘Crabs’ and ‘Chaos’ spend most of their time in a bunker-like squat, a bohemian abode furnished with Adolf Hitler’s portrait, competing to see who can be the most outrageous. Amyl Nitrate, for example, reads aloud lessons from her self-penned history books and issues ponderous words of admiration for Myra Hindley. Like Peter Richardson directing Channel Four’s ground-breaking The Comic Strip Presents…, Jarman seems to have adopted an anti-thespian policy of engaging non-actors, or at least inappropriate actors, for certain leading roles. Where Richardson used the likes of “Big” Ron Tarr and Alan Pillay, here we have Willcox and Jordan, and the resulting performances have the same surreal vibe: Jubilee, at a number of points, feels like being privy to a particularly enthusiastic drama school audition.
Jubilee does have power, not only in its constant energy, but in the way that some of its ideas resonate today. Film writer Adam Scovell says that the film’s depiction of London “works as evidence of a previous London that sits in opposition to today's increasingly bland, unaffordable metropolis. In a film that has Tudors time-travelling to a parallel future, it's surprising to find its most surreal aspect to be the very possibility of young people affording to live in the city centre.” Dorset is pressed into service in Jubilee as a safe haven for people who want to pretend that modern England isn’t happening — and in 2016, all eight of that county’s districts voted in favour of Leave. As ‘Kid,’ the youthful Adam Ant refuses to listen to advice and gladly throws himself and his art into the gears of the corporate fame machine, personified by the film’s perpetually laughing media baron, Borgia Ginz. As we know, this phenomenon has been witnessed most weekends on English television for about the last twenty years.
It’s likely that Jarman took time to muse on the question of what, in the Jubilee year of 1977, would horrify the current monarch and the establishment that she represents? Westminster Abbey’s sale and conversion into a massive, anything-goes discotheque would probably be near the top of the list: this is one of Borgia Ginz’s achievements in his progress towards world domination. “As long as the music is loud enough,” he giggles, “we won’t hear the world falling apart.” Ginz is already in control of all the stock markets, by using his roster of puppet pop-stars, such as Kid, to score global number one hits. When life for those in the squat finally collapses into meaningless debauchery and murder, Ginz removes the four women to a Dorset mansion and promises them fame and fortune in the pop world. A retired, bemused Hitler looks on, babbling from his chair.
“They all sign up in the end!” hoots Ginz, providing Jarman’s verdict on punk: no matter how pure the movement might have seemed to begin with, those associated with it were ultimately co-opted by the establishment that they vilified. Adam Ant became a plastic pop-star, cosied up to Margaret Thatcher, and performed at a celebration of the Falklands War. Vivienne Westwood accepted an OBE and then a damehood. Jarman was 32 when he made Jubilee, too old to be a punk or to be much taken with the credo. A 1992 diary entry tells us all we need to know about his views on the movement: “our punk friends…sit in their vacuous salons and destroy the creative –- like the woodworm in my dresser, which I will paint with insecticide tomorrow.”--Neil Jackson