As Derek Jarman makes his medieval debut on our Medievalism list, it seems fitting to ask what first drew you combining these two, seemingly diverse topics, of medievalism and the work of Derek Jarman?
I’ve always been fascinated by how this period we call ‘the Middle Ages’ gets received and portrayed in the modern world. Indeed, I don’t really think a sharp line can be drawn between medievalism and the Middle Ages: all views of the era are necessarily filtered through the prism of later centuries. So writing a book on a modern artist’s engagement with the medieval was a dream project. It allowed me to cut through some of the divisions scholars typically erect between historical periods.
I was drawn to Derek Jarman for several reasons. In 1992, when I was an undergraduate, I saw him introduce the pop band Pet Shop Boys at an AIDS benefit gig in Manchester. Jarman was regularly in the papers at the time, having gone public about his HIV diagnosis a few years earlier. So I already knew who he was. But short films by Jarman were used at the concert as backdrops to some of the songs and these sparked my interest. Afterwards I began working my way through some of his books and visited an exhibition of his paintings.
Jarman frequently engaged with Anglo-Saxon poetry, Chaucer, Dante and more. Are there any texts that particularly shaped his life and work?
The Old English poem The Wanderer was an especially important touchstone. Jarman first encountered the text when he was an undergraduate and kept returning to it later in life. The poem influenced some of his film projects and provided him with a framework for comprehending his experiences of HIV and AIDS. Jarman was particularly drawn to the theme of exile in The Wanderer. He also loved the language and copied out passages from the original Anglo-Saxon text in his diaries.
Moving onto the topic of filmmaking, how do you feel Jarman would have fared in today’s Indie filmmaking scene?
From the early 1970s Jarman experimented with using low-budget super 8-mm or ‘Super 8’ film. Celebrating Super 8’s painterly and poetic qualities, it’s easy to see why he was drawn to this format. I imagine Jarman would have liked the fact that today it’s again possible for artists to make film relatively cheaply, using a mobile phone and widely available editing software.
Jarman was an avid and inspiring activist for gay rights and one of the first public figures to openly discuss his HIV diagnosis. Could you say how this manifested in his work?
History was an important resource for Jarman in challenging homophobia. He railed against acts of sexual repression in the past, but he warned against assuming that the present is necessarily more liberated. Thirty years ago, in 1988, the British government passed ‘Section 28’, a clause in the Local Government Act that prohibited local authorities from ‘promoting homosexuality’ as a ‘pretended family relationship’. Jarman’s film of Marlowe’s Edward II was made against the backdrop of this notoriously anti-homosexual legislation. But sometimes he also conceived his films as a refuge from such horrors. He likened his 1987 masterpiece The Last of England to an Anglo-Saxon mead hall, offering temporary respite from the storm of history.