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Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman (January 31 1942 - February 19 1994) was a British film director, stage designer , artist, and writer.



Jarman was born in Northwood, Middlesex, and from 1960 studied at King's College London. This was followed by four years at the Slade School of Art in 1963. He had a studio at Butler's Wharf, London, and was part of the Andrew Logan social scene in the 1970s.

On December 22 1986 he was diagnosed HIV positive, and was notable for later discussing his condition in public. His illness prompted him to move to Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, near to the nuclear power station. In 1994 he died of AIDS.


Jarman's first films were experimental super 8mm shorts, a form he never entirely abandoned, and later developed further (in his films Imagining October (1984), The Angelic Conversation (1985), The Last Of England (1987) and The Garden (1990)) as a parallel to his narrative work.

Jarman first became known as a stage designer getting a break into the film industry as production designer for Ken Russell's "The Devils" (1970), and later made his debut in "overground" narrative filmmaking with the groundbreaking Sebastiane (1976), arguably the first British film to feature positive images of gay sexuality, and the first (and to date, only) film entirely in Latin.

He followed this with the film many regard as his first masterpiece, Jubilee (shot 1977, released 1978), in which Queen Elizabeth I of England is transported forward in time to a desolate and brutal wasteland ruled by her twentieth century namesake. Jubilee was arguably the first UK punk movie, and among its cast featured punk groups and figures such as Wayne County, Jordan , Toyah Wilcox , and Adam and the Ants.

After making the unconventional Shakespeare adaptation The Tempest in 1979 (a film praised by several Shakespeare scholars, but dismissed by some traditionalist critics), Jarman spent seven years making experimental super 8mm films and attempting to raise money for Caravaggio (he later claimed to have rewritten the script seventeen times during this period). Finally released in 1986, the film attracted a comparatively wide audience (and is still, barring the cult hit Jubilee, probably his most widely-known work), partly due to the involvement, for the first time, of the British television company Channel 4 in funding and distribution. This marked the beginning of a new phase in Jarman's filmmaking career: from now on all his films would be partly funded by television companies, often receiving their most prominent exhibition in TV screenings. "Caravaggio" also saw Jarman work with actress Tilda Swinton for the first time.

The conclusion of Caravaggio also marked the beginning of a temporary abandonment of traditional narrative in Jarman's work. Frustrated by the formality of 35mm film production, and the institutional dependence and resultant prolonged inactivity associated with it (which had already cost him seven years with Caravaggio, as well as derailing several long-term projects), Jarman returned to and expanded the super 8mm-based form he had previously worked in on Imagining October and The Angelic Conversation.

The first film to result from this new semi-narrative phase, The Last of England tolled the death of a country, ravaged by its own internal decay and Thatcher's economic restructuring. "Wrenchingly beautiful…the film is one of the few commanding works of personal cinema in the late 80's -- a call to open our eyes to a world violated by greed and repression, to see what irrevocable damage has been wrought on city, countryside and soul, how our skies, our bodies, have turned poisonous," wrote The Village Voice. During the 1980s Jarman was still one of the few openly gay public figures in Britain and so was a leading campaigner against "anti-gay" legislation and to raise awareness of AIDS.

During the making of The Garden, Jarman became seriously ill. Although he recovered sufficiently to complete the film, he never attempted anything on a comparable scale afterwards, returning to a more pared-down form for his concluding narrative films, Edward II (perhaps his most politically outspoken work, informed by his Queer activism) and the Brechtian biographical study Wittgenstein, a delicate tragicomedy. It was a later complaint of Jarman's that with the disappearance of the Independant Film sector it had become impossible for him to get finance. Jarman made a side income by directing music videos mostly for the Pet Shop Boys.

The film Blue was his last testament as a film-maker. At the time when he made the film, he was blind and dying of AIDS related complications. Blue consists of a single shot of saturated blue colour filling the screen, as background to a soundtrack composed by Simon Fisher Turner featuring original music by Coil and other artists, where Jarman describes his life and vision.

Other works

Jarman deserves significant credit for his work in creating and expanding the fledgling form of 'the pop video' in England, and as a forthright and prominent gay rights activist. Several volumes of his diaries have been published.

He is also remembered for his famous shingle cottage-garden, created in the latter years of his life, in the shadow of the Dungeness power station. At this time, he also began painting again (see the book: Evil Queen: The Last Paintings (1994).


Short and feature films

  • Sebastiane
  • Jubilee
  • The Tempest
  • Imagining October
  • The Angelic Conversation
  • Caravaggio
  • The Last of England
  • War Requiem
  • The Garden
  • Edward II
  • Wittgenstein
  • Blue (1993 movie)
  • Glitterbug

Jarman's early Super-8mm work has been included on some of the DVD releases of his films.

Music videos

Further reading

  • Tony Peake. Derek Jarman (Little, Brown & Co, 2000). 600-page biography.
  • Steven Dillon. Derek Jarman and Lyric Film: The Mirror and the Sea. (2004).
  • Howard Sooley. Derek Jarman's Garden. (Thames & Hudson, 1995).
  • Michael O'Pray. Derek Jarman: Dreams of England. (British Film Institute, 1996).

External links

Last updated: 05-07-2005 12:41:56
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04