Punks hail Britannia in their own peculiar way in this little-seen gem by the late queer auteur
Jubilee (1978), Britain’s only decent punk film, still isn’t respected at home as much as it should be, and it remains pretty obscure everywhere else. Instead, we had to wait for Trainspotting (1996) to represent some sort of renaissance in “cool” British cinema. Yet, even though it is almost 20 years older, Jubilee makes Trainspotting’s self-congratulatory, CD tie-in antics look like a polite Edinburgh garden party.
Jubilee is the most important British film of the late ’70s. Okay, it faced little competition at the time – just a weak trickle of ill-conceived co-productions, third-rate softcore, and the usual heritage and nostalgia. Next to those, Jubilee, then as now, stands out like a sore thumb. And although it strikes parallels with the earlier A Clockwork Orange, Jubilee is impulsive where that film is measured, raw where it is stylized, and unrestrained where Kubrick is exacting. What’s more, in a lethargic and conservative industry that had been defeated by tax and underfunding, Jubilee was the only British film of its time advancing an unabashed social critique.
Directed by the uncompromising Derek Jarman, Jubilee, however, seems less like Jarman’s vision than one of a punk cinema collective: it could have feasibly been made by Paul Morrissey on an Andy Warhol sabbatical (and would have been preferable to The Hound of the Baskervilles, the misfiring British romp he did make, for no apparent reason, the year before). Similarly, the film has echoes of John Waters, Russ Meyer, and, fittingly for Jarman (who designed The Devils), Ken Russell. As such, it is quite a unique experience.
From the 1950s, rock and pop music had impacted on film in Britain just as it had in the US. By the early 1970s, there was a plethora of British films either devoted to pop bands (Slade in Flame), derived from their work (Tommy), or fictionally charting the muddy waters of pop success (Stardust, That’ll Be the Day). It seemed odd, then, that by 1978 no other British film, mainstream or indie, had harnessed the anarchic and unsettling impact of the punk movement in a contemporary setting, despite the fact that punk was by then the most visible and provocative aspect of the British music scene. No doubt it was punk’s precisely anti-pop stance that dictated this; nevertheless, the movement’s sordid and defiant embrace of all things offensive, nihilistic, and anti-establishment was an area that was ripe for creative exploration, and should have been further mined.
Jubilee isn’t a punk music film, but music permeates it, albeit somewhat inconsequentially. Regardless of that, punk was about attitude more than anything else. The onus of representation of “British punk cinema,” then, largely rests on three projects: Jubilee; several feet of the potentially fascinating, abandoned Russ Meyer/Sex Pistols project Who Killed Bambi?; and the Sex Pistols’ self-satisfied but disappointing documentary The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle (1979). A few other low-budget films that celebrated punk music to varying degrees followed, from the limply pyrotechnical Breaking Glass (1980) to The Clash’s Rude Boy (1980), but, like a lot of British films, these seemed outdated even when they were released.
Responding to the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977 (it’s a shame it didn’t come out simultaneously), Jubilee takes customary punk anti-Royalism and anti-establishmentarianism to its extreme. It has a tasteless and dangerous vibrancy that would have been genuinely shocking to bourgeois sensibilities at the time. But there’s little chance it would have been seen by the audience it would have offended most. Not until 1986, on its late-night British TV premiere, did it start to upset its targets; by then it was too late.
As far as the film’s narrative can be explained, it follows Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre) as she is transported from the 16th century to observe a bleak, broken-down Britain of the near-future (a landscape that adequately, if conveniently, represents the declining Britain of the 1970s). There she finds Elizabeth II dead (mugged on some waste ground); violence and anarchy reigning on the streets; history being rewritten by subversive revisionists; and Buckingham Palace, now under the control of the blind megalomaniac Borgia Ginz (the unhinged Jack Birkett), serving as a recording studio for punk musicians.
A gang of misfits, with names like Crabs, Chaos, and Amyl Nitrate, teetering on the edge of this unstructured music scene and led by their own topless Monarch, Bod (Jenny Runacre again), take part in gang bangs, casual murder, and all sorts of nasty behaviour. They suffocate a postcoital lad with a polythene sheet for a laugh. They attack a waitress in her own café and cover her in ketchup. They walk around naked and tattoo each other with a carving knife, sealing the wounds with salt. It’s all decidedly un-British.
The film, however, is both much less and much more than a tale of violent, directionless, deviant misfits: it cannot be contextualised as a “story” with “characters” because it eschews any representation of human qualities in favour of a sexualised mass of violence and anarchy. It is stark, blunt, and looks increasingly unsophisticated in its attempts to shock. However, precisely for these reasons, Jubilee encapsulates the ethics of effective punk cinema. Like Morrissey’s Trash(1970) and most of John Waters’ 1970s films, there is an outrageous, permissive abandon that serves to upset and unnerve the conventional cinemagoer. The characters could have emerged from a contemporary Carrollesque nightmare: they are unrestrained, unpredictable, volatile. And the cast is fascinating. Like Waters’ repertory company – Divine, Mink Stole, et al. – they are uninhibited and often prefer shouting to acting. Jenny Runacre had appeared in Pasolini’s The Canterbury Tales (1971); Little Nell (aka Nell Campbell) was already something of a midnight icon from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975); a young Adam Ant, two years before British pop success, wanders amiably through the film; and Toyah Willcox, also two years before her short-lived postpunk, teenybop chart reign, scowls and swears as Mad, and is striking with a head of shaved ginger (she now presents religious and travel programmes on BBC TV). The late Ian Charleson, three years away from “respectability” and “prestige” in Chariots of Fire, is also here, shamelessly naked. He later tried to deny he’d ever been in the movie.
Where Jubilee differs from, say, John Waters’ films is in Jarman’s reluctance to play up the humour: like a confrontational BBC TV play, the film seems more concerned with shocking the serious-minded. Its moments of “political” satire are generally more nasty than funny and may have benefited from Waters’ more ironic approach. Still, punk in Britain was never as amusing as it was in the U.S.: perhaps Jarman thought jokes would have diminished the shocks.
Ultimately, Jubilee is not pure Jarman: it is riotous rather than deliberate in its subversiveness, and it celebrates bi- and heterosexual promiscuity rather than homoeroticism (which is significant, given the rest of Jarman’s oeuvre). Increasingly, the film seems like an anomaly in both Jarman’s career and in the history of British cinema. For that reason, though, it will always be important.