Remembering the work of Derek Jarman

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In what would have been his 80th year, Manchester’s HOME is showcasing a major retrospective of Derek Jarman’s screen work.

Derek Jarman was as fearless as he was versatile. Best known as a film director, he was also an accomplished artist, a set designer for stage and screen, an author, and an activist. Open about his sexuality for most of his life, he tirelessly campaigned for gay rights. When diagnosed HIV positive in 1986, he worked to raise AIDS awareness at a time when homophobia and intolerance were mainstream in the UK.


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Jarman died of an AIDS-related illness in 1994, aged 52. In what would have been his 80th year, Manchester’s HOME is showcasing a major retrospective of his screen work. Running from Sunday 30th January to Thursday 10th March, ‘Jarman at HOME’ includes all 11 feature films he directed, plus his Super 8 shorts and more. Among those introducing the films will be God’s Own Country director Francis Lee and film guru Mark Cousins, while Jordan, the star of Jarman’s 1978 film Jubilee, will appear in a Q&A.

The season is partnering with Manchester Art Gallery’s Protest! exhibition. A free event currently running, it features Jarman’s paintings, sculptures, film and set design illustrations (including for Ken Russell’s The Devils), music video work and other pieces. As Rachel Hayward, Head of Film at HOME and co-curator of HOME’s retrospective says, “Jarman was a person who devoted himself to art and film and culture. His work could be divided into different sections, but it is all so intermeshed you can’t really pull one apart from another.”

Although witty, articulate and soft-spoken, Jarman was a confrontational filmmaker. As much as Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, he charted Britain’s (and particularly England’s) cultural and political landscape from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. But, unlike Leigh and Loach, his films embraced magical realism, flamboyant theatricality and provocative sexuality.

“He is one of the most distinctive filmmaking voices in British cinema,” says Hayward, continuing, “Also hugely important is his work in the LGBTQ+ canon as we’d now describe it, or ‘Queer Artist’ as it would have been described in the ‘80s. His work there can’t be underestimated, right from his first feature Sebastiane, in which the homoeroticism depicted onscreen was both shocking and hugely influential.”



1976’s Sebastiane is a queer retelling of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. Jubilee is an anarchic howl of punk fury that outraged both the establishment and punks. 1986’s Caravaggio is more conventional, but in its depiction of the 16th century painter are broad brushstrokes of Jarman’s own personality and relationship with religion. His final feature, 1993’s Blue, recounts his experiences living with HIV, and is famously an unchanging blue screen against a rich soundtrack of voices, sound effects and music. The static blue screen came from Jarman’s failing eyesight as the disease took hold, which caused sporadic flashes of blue light.

All of which might make his work sound like a big bowl of cinematic greens you should consume before moving onto the pudding of the latest blockbuster. But those fresh to Jarman may be surprised at how lively, enjoyable and accessible his movies are for all audiences.

Hayward agrees, saying, “’Fun’ is a word that should be included in the descriptions of Jarman’s films. On paper you could choose to describe them in non-accessible ways, but they are hugely exciting, capturing youth and zeitgeist movements before they really broke through.”

Jason Wood, Creative Director: Film and Culture at HOME and co-curator of the retrospective, says, “It’s very important to us that new audiences discover the work. Jarman remains incredibly relevant for his pioneering use of film technique and radical aesthetic. In an age of protest and dissatisfaction with government, he is also an inspiration for his sexual politics and campaign for equal rights in an age of intolerance regarding sexuality.”

“People might still be shocked at some of his films,” says Hayward, “and In some ways I think Jarman would be quite pleased with that. Younger audiences, those under 30, will really take to his multi-artform presentation of things. Nowadays we don’t think of people as just a writer or a filmmaker or one particular role.”

Which is why ‘Protest!’, presented by Manchester Art Gallery in partnership with the Irish Museum of Modern Art, is also a must-visit event. Featuring an extensive collection of Jarman’s work beyond cinema, it contains early paintings that will be new even to those familiar with the artist’s wider work.

Curator of Art and Design at MAG Fiona Corridan, who has co-curated the Manchester exhibition with Jon Savage, says, “Jarman would use any kind of medium available to him that was the right format to get an idea or message across. Even though there is a lot of work in the exhibition, it has a natural progression, from his portraits to large scale landscapes, to the Super 8s, his set designs and so on. He didn’t compartmentalise pieces of work; they all fed into each other.”



Corridan also mentions Jarman’s “generosity of spirit. He was such a collaborator, he encouraged creativity from people who were just starting out, and gave them amazing opportunities.” Behind the camera these collaborators include Love is the Devil director John Maybury and Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell, whose work includes Shakespeare in Love, Carol and The Favourite.

Audiences may be surprised at the number of famous faces who appear in Jarman’s movies. Caravaggio features Sean Bean and Tilda Swinton in their big screen debuts, along with Dexter Fletcher, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Gough and Nigel Terry. Bean and Swinton crop up again in Jarman’s 1989 film War Requiem.

Swinton became Jarman’s muse, appearing in seven of his movies, plus a segment he directed for the 1987 opera curio Aria. Steven Waddington, Jerome Flynn and Swinton are among the cast of 1991’s powerful Edward II, and Judi Dench narrates 1985’s The Angelic Conversation. Jumping back to 1978, Toyah Willcox made her debut in Jubilee along with Adam Ant, and the following year she appeared in Jarman’s adaptation of The Tempest.

A by-any-means-necessary director, it remains impressive that Jarman made 11 films in 17 years, at a time when the British film industry was gasping for air. One funding route was by making money as a pop promo director, and he proved prolific here, working with Marianne Faithfull, The Smiths, The Pet Shop Boys, Suede and others. ‘Protest!’ features a selection of his promos, while ‘Jarman at HOME’ is screening The Smith’s short film The Queen is Dead.

Jason Wood explains the choice: “The Queen is Dead seemed entirely appropriate given the association of The Smiths with Manchester. Jarman was transparent in his admission that the music videos were paid commissions, but his work on The Queen is Dead seems to replicate the energy, vision, boldness and innovation of his more personal projects and features.”

Jarman’s films and later artwork chronicled life in Thatcher’s Britain, and both the retrospective and the exhibition place his work in the context of the time. For HOME’s season, filmmakers, artists and Jarman collaborators will introduce or discuss nine of his movies. As mentioned, punk icon and Jubilee star Jordan will be in a Q&A at the film’s screening on 5th February.

“Having Jordan here is really important, and was the first event I locked in for the season,” says Rachel Hayward. “Along with James Mackay (Jarman’s regular producer who is working with HOME on the retrospective), she is a direct link to Jarman. So for her to talk about her experiences working with him is going to be really interesting, because Jarman’s own books have fantastic stories about meeting her.”

Among the other attendees, Francis Lee will introduce Caravaggio, and Mark Cousins will provide an audio introduction to The Angelic Conversation. Jarman scholar Andrew Moor will discuss the hard-hitting 1987 film The Last of England.



Although he died tragically young, both ‘Protest!’ and ‘Jarman at HOME’ are intended as celebrations of his life, work and legacy. Jarman was also a keen gardener, and ‘Protest!’ features a moving section on his garden at Prospect Cottage in Dungeness. The exhibition ends with a replica of a Jarman piece from the 1960s entitled ‘Light’, the word sculpted in illuminated neon tubing.

Fiona Corridan says, “I really loved that that work has been remade for the exhibition, and that it’s the final piece people see when they leave, as it does feel hopeful. Even though Jarman died so young and was very ill at the end, he never lost the fight or his sense of humour.”

For more information on ‘Jarman at HOME’ click here.

‘PROTEST!’ is a free event running until Sunday 10th April. Click here for information.

With special thanks to Fiona Corridan, Rachel Hayward, and Jason Wood.


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