Jarman’s Jubilee: Funeral Music for Elizabeth Windsor

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Original poster for a 1978 screening in Sydney, Australia.

The only direct reference in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee to the ongoing celebrations of the Queen’s twenty-fifth year on the British throne comes toward the end of the movie in a brightly lit lunch counter where a game of bingo is underway. Max, the macho man host, flourishes the first prize: a black dildo—“donated by Idi Amin, one of the privates got the chop last week.” Max puts it on top of the hopper which begins spitting out the bingo balls. When one of the two frumpy matrons (Sheila and Maureen) playing the game calls “Bingo” her prize is not the sex toy but “a three months supply of Jubilee knickers, red white and blue.” Max throws the package “to the lovely lady in the white hat,” but she isn’t exactly overjoyed to get it. Union Jack panties and post-colonial cock—an economical and hilarious way to take on British imperialism. The movie is made up of two hours of surreal scenes like this one putting the mace to the monarchy and to British history—or more accurately Britain’s refusal to face up to that history.

The Silver Jubilee of 1977—Jarman’s film was made that year but came out the next—was still a long way from the Diamond mark reached by Elizabeth II at the beginning of 2022.

Although the Silver Jubilee’s observances are absent from Jubilee, every scene crackles with scorn for the celebration and the queen.

Jarman’s idea was a simple: have the first Queen Elizabeth travel to the time of her namesake. The statuesque, white teethed Virgin Queen has her wizard John Dee, along with the fairy Ariel drafted into service from Shakespeare’s Tempest, transport the three of them to the Silver Jubilee year. The first Elizabeth speaks in eloquent pentameters that extoll nature. Back during her reign the island kingdom was, as William Blake would later put, “green and pleasant.” We first meet Elizabeth and her entourage of two in a renaissance pleasure garden. A garden is visited in 1977, too, but it is suburban and all of plastic. Max the bingo man sprays pesticide on the few signs of insect life that remain.

In the present of 1977 nature is dead. London is a wasteland of security walls and barbed wire; bleak rooftops ringed by grim tower blocks rather than trees; squats with only a mattress on the floor. Haunting these doomed places is an unruly and dissension-rent band of punks presided over by Bod, a sex-averse anarchist (“love snuffed it with the hippies”), whose virginity amongst the rampant couplings of her compatriots is a send-up up of the Virgin Queen then visiting the post-industrial city and trying to make sense of the senseless antics of Bod and her bunch. Bod has gotten her crown by robbing it from Elizabeth II then murdering her. Usurping the throne is as easy as snatching a purse. Jarman is not subtle with his trans-historical mirrorings: both Elizabeth I and Bod are played—with breathy poise and gruff dismissiveness respectively—by Jenny Runacre.

In the end the movie leaves London and heads back to nature. The punks and their millionaire host, Borgia Ginz—the pop culture capitalist who is the king of the present age—pile into his Rolls Royce and drive through the countryside of Dorset: “the only safe place to live these days.” The county has a border and passports are checked: “Blacks homosexuals, and jews are banned in Dorset.” Jarman was at boarding school in Dorset in the 1960s.

On a grass ledge above the English Channel, presumably not far from Borgia’s rural palace, Elizabeth I and her attendants walk a grassy ledge on the limestone cliffs above the blue sea as they return in time to a renaissance world that cohered in beauty and reason.

As that time portal opens up, the mystical, awestruck-by-nature worldview of the first Elizabethans is captured by the fragile, uncanny music of glass orbs. These closing sounds of the film are conjured by Brian Eno’s synthesizers and looped voices. The world was still a mystery to be discovered, a place of wonder. Eno’s ethereal effects are heard at much greater length on his Music for Airports, also from 1978. Listening to these ambient sounds as Jarman’s Elizabeth I embarks on her return flight to the renaissance, one can’t help but recall that among Elizabeth II’s Jubilee duties was taking the Concorde for the first time—from Barbados to Heathrow. There is nothing less mysterious and more violently modern than supersonic jet travel or an airport lounge. Eno’s soundscapes in Jubilee ring not with the harmony of the spheres but with irony.

By contrast, the Jubilee scenes with punks eschew musical commentary. There is no underscoring at the bingo counter. But even if Jarman withholds the covering garments of a soundtrack from his renegade rockers—and often strips them of clothes too—he does let them sing. And these moments make for some of the most viciously comic assaults on the jubilee.

As a character fittingly named Angel, the great Scottish actor Ian Charleson sings Robert Burns’ “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose.” Charleson sings this classic while he’s entangled on a mattress with his bisexual, incestuous brother (Sphinx) and a woman (Viv). Even while lying down, Charleson shifts effortlessly, evocatively between his lowest vocal register and a haunting falsetto. The Romance of Scotland—Balmoral was the late Queen’s favorite residence—rings through the Dockland squat. Fair lasses and pure love are made to confront what was then an abomination. The thrilling beauty of song is pure oxygen to the suffocating notions of sexual deviance.

The movie’s two choicest musical targets are pillars of the monarchy. Charleson’s Angel introduces one of them, Sir Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem,” the hymn setting of those same Blake’s lines about “England’s pleasant pastures.” Angel stands on a soapbox in front of the Victorian behemoth of Westminster Cathedral: “Save your souls. Welcome to the palace of heavenly delight.” Inside the church an electrocuted parody of Parry’s World War I hymn throbs in the incensed air as naked saints and apostles writhe in an unholy orgy. Charleson’s words are an irreverent prelude to those of the devout homily he utters as Scottish missionary to China and gold-medal Olympian, Eric Lidell, in Chariots of Fire (more synthesizer music, not by Eno but Vangelis). That film appeared three years later and a dozen years before Charleson’s death from AIDS. The disease claimed Jarman two years later in 1992.

Earlier in the film comes the most concerted attack on imperial song: “Rule Britannia.” The original number from the middle of the eighteenth century tacks effortlessly across the gusts of its central hypocrisy: bragging Britons “rule the waves” and “never will be slaves,” yet when Thomas Arne concocted the tune the nation was kidnapping, selling, and murdering Black Africans.

The square-rigged rhythm pitches and purls under the storm unleashed by punk rocker Amyl Nitrate (Toyah Wilcox), fetish-costumed as a Roman centurion wielding a trident in one hand a pink feather fan in the other, her lingerie-cum-armor fronted by a diaphanous union jack breastplate. “England’s entry for the Eurovision contest,” the slimy record producer Borgia informs us. The guitar riff gets stuck in the rut of its imperial routines, and Amyl gets hung up on that Latin name “Britannia” — singing it three times as if in a fit of scorn and self-cancelling pride.

The imperial ravings become those of a fascist lunatic as a Hitler speech is superimposed on the rock anthem. Amyl starts goose-stepping and raising the sex-kitten feather in the Nazi salute, as Brown Shirts spout “Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil” on the backing track. The “Rule Britannia” melody has been unchallenged over the two centuries since its invention, but now it gets a brick through the windshield, one of many hurled in the film. The heroic strains are reduced to farcical yodeling—Eurovisions of a British Beer Hall putsch.

By 1977 these two imperial hymns—“Jerusalem” and “Rule Britannia”—had for decades been sung by the crowds at the Last Night of the Proms, the culmination of the BBC’s summer festival that brings classical music to the people through cheap tickets and radio broadcasts. Flag-waving prommers inside the Royal Albert Hall and arrayed in front of simulcast screens across the United Kingdom— from to Cardiff to Glasgow to Manchester to London—sing along with great gusto, waving their Union Jacks.

It’s no coincidence, therefore, that Jubilee visits the Albert Hall with Adam Ant. He yearns for fame, consequences be damned. Angel and his brother try to dissuade him succumbing to such capitalist seductions. Ruminating on his future, Adam ascends the steps of the Albert Memorial, Victoria’s gilded architectural love letter in Hyde Park to her dead husband. Albert was a man of culture. As Ant regards the monument’s relief figures of the great European composers, the camera lingers on the individual names of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Haydn. This homage comes not long after all those German Sieg Heils. Here Jarman introduces a rare instance of underscoring—the instrumental introduction and first choral utterances of Berlioz’s Requiem. They’re dead, these composers of yore and everything they stand for. Adam’s ruddy, childlike face, even with its punk makeup, gazes down from the monument at the Albert Hall just beyond the park. In that great rotunda, “Rule Britannia” and “Jersalem” are sung by an adoring public. After “Jerusalem” comes “God Save the Queen.” The park is green. Maybe nature is not yet completely dead in the late-twentieth century city.

The Albert Memorial scene’s underscoring is respectful, but ominous: it is, after all, a mass for the dead. Adam is drinking a pint of milk. He drops the bottle and the glass shatters.

The Requiem is accorded the proper bourgeois dynamic: not overly intrusive. But in the sonic world of film itself the punk rockers shatter ear drums.

“As long as the music is loud enough, they won’t hear the world falling apart,” Borgia the music magnate cackles.

When Charles III is crowned sometime next year Parry and Handel and other musical monuments to the monarchy will resound through Westminster Abbey. But the music won’t be loud enough to distract those who are really listening.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com