Derek Jarman’s eulogy to punk is very much a product of the art school spirit of the time: incredibly pretentious and never dull.
In the year 1578, Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre) asks her court magician, Dr John Dee (Richard O’Brien), to give her a vision of “the shadow of her time.”
Dee invokes the angel Ariel, who transports the Queen and Dee forward in time to the England of the future – a post-punk post-Thatcherian wasteland where civilisation has come to a halt.
Bands of teenage girl punks live in a squat, make vague attempts at raping Adam Ant, swear at each other a lot, and roam the streets of London killing people because they get bored playing Monopoly. Equally dangerous are the fascistic police.
Buckingham Palace is a recording studio, the centre of an entertainment empire controlled by media baron, Borgia Ginz, who owns everything from the Church of England to the BBC.
The anti-heroes of the film are led by Elizabeth’s mirror image Bod (Runacre again), the murderous leader of a mad household that includes the historian ‘Amyl Nitrate’ (Jordan), the pyromaniac ‘Mad’ (Toyah Wilcox giving a performance which can most kindly be described as “energetic”), the sex-obsessed actress ‘Crabs’ (Nell Campbell), loving brothers ‘Sphinx’ and ‘Angel’, the artist ‘Viv’ and their French au pair, ‘Chaos’.
Britain’s first punk rock feature film also showed an orgy in Westminster Abbey and police terrorising the people with machine guns. But the plot isn’t really a concern here, with the time travel aspect largely a framing device for a violent rumination on the concerns of 1970s England and kitchen-sink anarchy.
Critics at the premier called the movie “sick” but claimed also that it was “a prophetic warning for sections of society that had ignored the youth rebellion”. . . . or not.
Edgy and shocking in 1977, whatever message director Derek Jarman was trying to convey has been long lost: all that’s left is a disturbing realisation of how swiftly punk was reduced to camp posturing. Punk designer Vivienne Westwood called it “the most boring film I’d ever seen”.
Queen Elizabeth I
Dr John Dee