Jubilee and memories of punk


This blog post is based on a piece I was commissioned to write for the programme for a new theatrical production of Derek Jarman’s Jubilee adapted by Chris Goode. 

Jubilee in context

First released in 1978 the film Jubilee was a punk rock fantasy; it imagined a not too distant future, which is haunted by England’s past.  Jarman made the film in 1977 on the cheap, using social contacts to recruit a cast who subsequently went on to epitomise both punk rock and its aftermath.  It was also made against the backdrop of high youth unemployment, a break down in labour relations, and uneasy race relations at home and abroad.  On the verge of Thatcherism, this 1970s was payback time for the Sixties generation.  It was in this context that the arts became places of resistance, whether in terms of funding policies, challenging orthodoxies, or demanding spaces for new voices.  The benefits system, and increased access to art school and community resources provided excellent opportunities for the cultural resisters to bite the hand that fed them. Whilst their parents may have ‘never had it so good’, the punk rock generation had ‘no future’. While the nation held street parties to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the Sex Pistols were arrested performing ‘God Save the Queen’ on a boat on the Thames. When released as a single, the song sold enough copies of their irreverent image of Britain as a ‘fascist regime’ to earn, but apparently be denied a number 1 in the UK pop charts. Jubilee therefore came out in the wake of the ‘filth and the fury’ of punk rock which was already a fixation for the mainstream press.  Popular culture was, it seemed, at a cross roads.  Elvis was dead and the new generation of musicians, artists, designers and performers did not seem to be playing by the same rules.

Although Jubilee was the first to be released to cinemas, like a number of punk rock films which followed it, such as Don Lett’s documentary Punk Rock Movie (1978), or the Clash vehicle Rude Boy (1980), or Mclaren’s animated Pistols manifesto, The Great Rock n Roll Swindle (1980), it did more than record the punk rock scene. It explored ways of making punk film, as a style, process and aesthetic.  Jubilee wasn’t the only punk film, or rock folly, produced in the 1970s, but it certainly succeeded in bringing into sharp focus all the paradoxes around punk, and its connected cultures of resistance.  Just like punk, Jarman’s film got up a lot of people’s noses, even more than the other punk films.  In effect, Jubilee became shorthand for everything wrong with punk; depending on where you stood, it was offensive, indulgent or inauthentic.

The themes of sexuality, nation and violence are always likely to offend, still more so when they are used to kick over some well-respected historical statues and break down straight social norms. In Jarman’s account, the BBFC (the ‘C’ stood at that time for ‘Censor’ rather than ‘Classification’) originally called for five cuts to the film, apparently wary that Jubilee might inspire violence in the streets, fears that had been similarly attributed to  Stanley Kubrik’s adaptation of Clockwork Orange in 1971. But in his diary Jarman wrote that he was able to talk the censor down, and eventually it was agreed that only one cut was necessary; to equalise the balance between the different factions in the film. To ensure the film got a license in time for its premiere at the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill, Jarman therefore cut 7 seconds of the film. Cinema classification was one challenge, but when the film was later made accessible a wider public on television, Jubilee became a symbol of all things good, or bad, in contemporary broadcast cultures.  The film was broadcast as part of a short series on the director by the still controversial Channel 4. It became an emblem of the decline in morality associated with ‘minority programming’.  In fact, like punk, Jubilee’s broadcast became a bit of an obsession for journalists: there were letters in the industry and general press criticising Channel 4 for showing Jarman’s films. On the other hand, the actual public didn’t seem to mind very much. According to Jeremy Isaacs, the channel’s Chief Executive, only 20 complaints were actually received about the film. Nonetheless, Jubilee remained established shorthand for a decline in values. In 1988 the historian Norman Stone included Jarman’s work in his list of six films that exemplified ‘sick’ Britain. Jarman responded by justifying the importance of his work precisely because it was a sort of history work. Jubilee is indeed a piece about time, using punk’s paradoxes to shake up the stories we like to tell ourselves. Its impressive ability to annoy continues: the Daily Mail was still using it as an example of irresponsible broadcasting a decade later.


On the other hand, Jubilee was also derided by those from the punk side for its pretentious wielding of Shakespearian tales with a self-consciously post-modern twist – both pretty high end literary traditions. After all you need to know who the heroes are before you kick them out of the way, so Jarman used a tool box of a shared heritage, including Elizabeth 1, Renaissance science and Shakespeare. Weaving these lements together, Jarman created a history made up by the stories that are told about the past.  These historical touches, combined with his casting of establishment and punk rock idols was ridiculed as  “Chelsea on Ice”[1].  Jarman noted in his diaries that a punk rock audience had wanted action not intellectual analysis.  So whether Jubilee was seen as too explosive and base, or as too abstracted and highbrow, it managed to disrupt ideas of what our national heritage was for, how it should be used and where it should be seen.


Jubilee as a punk rock paradox

Ultimately, this is why Jubilee is such a perfect punk rock film.  It shows up all of punk’s contradictions. Punk was a paradox and so is Jubilee.  Punk was always messy and hard to pin down.  It was a mixture of street fighter, and art house, of DIY democracy and post-1968 French theory, of Xerox machines and of safety pins. The art house and the street punk were united at the very least by their distrust of the mass consumer culture pumped into society by multi-million media conglomerates.


Jarman relied on Jordan, McLaren and Westwood’s muse, and her network of connections to recruit performers from the epicentre of punk, the Kings Road. But punk always was, and still is, about much more than a few people in a few shops in London. Punk’s toxic infection spread from the suburbs to the centre and out to the provinces.


Like Jubilee, punk played with symbols and their status, often uncomfortably. The secret images of the pornographer were taken into the streets on punk rock T-shirts.  The formal images of the nation, like the Queen on the stamp, were taken down a peg or two with a safety pin. So if punk confounded the barriers between high culture and DIY street art, it seems particularly fitting that Jubilee could infect our family viewing on Channel 4, be shown at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, be available as an early home video, and now be reinvented as a piece of theatre. Jubilee doesn’t take borders seriously. It confounds fact and fiction. It is part memoir, part manifesto. It is like a punk fanzine, cut and paste, montage, a scrapbook.  Jubilee is an act of ‘graffiti on history’.[2]  Nothing about it is black and white.  Jarman queered binaries, by building continuums of sexual identities for example, or by creating layers of multiple points in time.

Jubilee and Punk Time

Jubilee therefore works in punk time, not just in terms of context and its use of key players, but in the way that punk sees time as a whole. There is no future in England’s dreaming. Punk negates progress, denies history, and told a generation to resist their inheritance. Punk was always out of time. As Simon Reynolds pointed out punk was dead by the time most provincial young people got their head around it. And it was certainly dead by the time Jubilee came out, certainly in a lot of accounts. But punk continued to toxify a generation and went on to haunt later scenes.  Young punks, ‘polymorphously perverse’, refused to grow up, living in the hinterlands between a childhood to be protected, and a responsible adulthood to be earned. Jubilee is similarly simultaneously backwards and forwards looking, reusing the past to haunt the present, and conjure up a nightmare future. Then, and now Jubilee has always been more than comforting nostalgia.


It is fitting therefore that Toyah’s performance in this adaptation of Jubilee embodies punk time and why it matters.  In the original film she played Mad, a driving force in the plot. Now she is Elizabeth – a fitting Jubilee queen. She brings with her the echoes of the original performance, inflected through her own journey; TV host, actress in ‘yoof TV’ and at the National Theatre, Royal Court and the ICA, campaigner, participant in It’s a Royal Knockout where our own royal family moved to shift the stories they tell about themselves by heading up teams in fancy dress at Alton Towers in 1987.

Image result for toyah royal its a knockout

She has travelled through celebrity culture, and always brought a bit of punk rock ethics with her. She travels through the different scenes in time.  Her list of credits carries Renaissance theatre with her, but she remains a punk icon, who also managed to star in a cult film for another subculture, the mod epic Quadrophenia.

Here we are then, at a different point in time, looking back to Jarman and punk’s looking forward.  The icons from our past can see into the future. And Jubilee certainly did seem to have more than a touch of prophesy about it. Looking back at the film in 1984, Jarman saw it as foretelling riots in Brixton and Toxteth, increased militarisation in Northern Ireland and the Falkland Islands, and the growing power of international media moguls. Most pointedly Adam Ant, who played Kid the exploited performer, ended up being the (exploited?) pop star of his generation.[3] The resonances between our time and Jubilee time are notable; unrest, unemployment, the growth of the right, powerful international media controlling the flow of news, disillusionment with traditional institutions, the apparent breakdown of a long-term political consensus, debates over what sort of history can unite the nation. So if we are going to be haunted by our past, let it be in a useful way.  This is what we need, a Jubilee for our times, that knows its past, carries its history with it, is high, low, pretentious, entertaining, musical, visual, disrupting and affirming. Let’s use this new version to re-animate our links with a disrupted past, and to help us imagine a different future.


Adams, R. (2008). “The Englishness of English Punk: Sex Pistols, Subcultures, and Nostalgia.” http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03007760802053104.

Glynn, S. (2017). Afterlife: The Historical Pop Music Film |. The British Pop Music Film, SpringerLink: 164-120.

Jarman, D. (2010). Dancing Ledge.

Monk, C. (2014). “”The shadow of this time”: Punk, Tradition, and History in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee (1978).” Shakespeare Bulletin 32(3): 359-373.

Morley, P. (1980). The Girl Who Would Be Kin. New Musical Express


[1]  Jarman, D. (2010). Dancing Ledge. 168, 180

[2] Monk, C. (2014). “”The shadow of this time”: Punk, Tradition, and History in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee (1978).” Shakespeare Bulletin 32(3): 359-373.

[3] Jarman, Dancing 172

Leave a Reply