Looking Back At JUBILEE (1978) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At JUBILEE (1978)

Tony marks the Jubilee in his own way.
If you like films with understandable narratives – Jubilee is not for you.

If you like films with even a single praiseworthy character – erm… Jubilee is not for you.

If you’re not keen on punk music, nihilism, occasional orgies of sex, drugs and casual murder… y’know what, there’s a whole comedy section on Britbox, go have a rummage through that.

Jubilee is a movie that defies you to try to like it, only to headbutt you in any tender part it can reach.

It’s a movie which encapsulates a lot of the performative nihilism that characterised the British punk scene in 1978, while at least seeming to have pretensions to intellectual grandeur and historical ennui.

Looking for a premise? OK – Queen Elizabeth I and Doctor John Dee (Jenny Runacre and Richard O’Brien – yes, the guy from The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Crystal Maze) are bored and curious about love, life, the universe, God, and the future of the realm. Dee conjures up Ariel (the servant-spirit from The Tempest, by your actual Shakespeare, here played with impressive theatrical power by David Haughton), to show them – or better yet, transport them to – the future of England.

Bad move, Doctor Dee. Seriously, bad move.

The weird thing about this is that you absolutely don’t need the theatrical pretension or the Elizabethan setting – the bulk of Jubilee takes place in a post-apocalyptic but recognisable England – but Derek Jarman, the writer/director, couldn’t resist putting it in in any case. He had form when it came to mingling genres and source material, and his next film after Jubilee was a full-on adaptation of The Tempest.

The other weird thing about the Elizabethan sequences is that they’re more or less the best bits of the film.

Yyyyyes, it’s possible that’s just the view of someone who doesn’t get the vibe of 1978 punk, but it’s also a view based on the fact that these sequences prove beyond all shadow of doubt that Richard O’Brien can do dramatic, low-key acting as well as the next genius. Plus, as we mentioned, Haughton’s performance as Ariel is the most mesmerising thing in the film.

Runacre takes a double role in Jubilee, as a believable Elizabeth despite some slightly cod-Shakespearean dialogue, and as Bod, leader of a group of punky nihlists who are our main focus in the post-apocalyptic world.

Whether they’re writing a revisionist punk history of the world (Amyl Nitrate, played by Jordan – no, not that one), burning things…including Amyl’s revisionist punk history of the world (Mad, played by Toyah Wilcox, who would later have a career in mainstream pop-punk), getting some raunchy action and then killing the poor sap involved, or going out to inflict their own brand of ultraviolence on unsuspecting people just for the fun and the release of it, the antics of this group of highly-strung group fill up our screen for the majority of the movie’s run-time.

Beyond the Elizabethan peek into the future, trying to find an actual plot for Jubilee is absurd – it’s more a series of disturbing vignettes that may or may not be trying to prove something. It’s almost idiotic to try and say exactly what it might be trying to prove, because if you take a stab at it, there’s the sense that everyone involved will laugh at you having fallen into the trap of trying to find meaning in a world that has none.

It is punk, after all.

Where there is meaning, it’s usually dropped in like an over-performed anvil by the pronouncements of Borgia Ginz, played by the ever-disturbing Orlando. Ginz is a big cheese in the music industry, without, it seems, the slightest care for what music might actually be. He views the whole thing in terms of sellable aesthetic and profit, and for instance, has no qualms when our gang of punklets kill one of his established artists, because between them, they can bring him fresh income to compensate for the loss. He’s arguably Fascistic, and his pronouncements when they come are a twisted mixture of arch capitalism and punk brand nihilism.

The result is that he feels like the ringmaster of an ongoing cultural circus of devastation, decay and pointless murder. If you want to wander into that jungle of shifting perceptions, you might even say that that’s the sense that gives Jubilee any shred of artistic credibility. The idea of capitalism co-opting a nihilistic musical and aesthetic for its own ultimate benefit, while all the little people either self-combust or are pointlessly killed could be viewed as a punk prophecy of what happened to the movement and the music itself.

Ultimately, Jubilee is more interesting as a gathering in one place of a lot of people who were then, or would go on to be, better known for other things.

Jordan, who plays Amyl Nitrate, worked with Vivienne Westwood, and was actually one of a handful of people – alongside Johnny Rotten, Soo Catwoman, and Siouxsie Sioux – credited with creating the immortal London punk aesthetic.

Toyah Wilcox, as mentioned, went on to have a string of hit pop-punk records, and a four-decade career in acting and TV presenting.

Little Nell, who plays the sexually uninhibited Crabs, was already famous by the time she joined Jubilee, as Columbia in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (alongside Doctor Dee actor, Richard O’Brien).

Ian Charleson stars in the film as Angel, one of a pair of “brothers” who also seem either incredibly close or incestuously sexual. He would achieve international renown as Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, and as Charlie Andrews in Gandhi. He had a shining career at home too, including starring as Hamlet, before his untimely death in 1990 at the age of just 40.

Adam Ant is here as Kid, a wannabe-musician and low-level narcissist. This is Adam Ant in his Dirk Wears White Sox, more overtly punky period though – not a glimmer of Dandy Highwayman is on show here. You could legitimately make the case that his character is here as an avatar of all the wannabes that the music industry leads on and then spits out. With a more cynical eye though, you could also say that the character, like many in the film, appears to be there simply to get in a background performance of some music, in the hope that the audience might like it and want to know more.

If that sounds naïve, it’s worth noting that in Ant’s case, as well as Wilcox’s, it seems to have worked.

Ultimately, that’s the “point” of Jubilee. We can talk about the art school pretence and the performative nihilism of young people in the late Seventies till (like a couple of Bod’s victims), we’re blue in the face, but ultimately, the film combines these disjointed messages of the pointlessness of anything but self-expression, and the chance to get some up-and-coming punk bands on film and out into the world. It’s the reduction (or, depending on your point of view, the elevation) of art, aesthetic, philosophy, history, Elizabethan melodrama and anything else besides, to the status of background music for a promotional video – admittedly, ahead of its time.

Looked at one way, that’s actually not a bad encapsulation of the punk era, its ethos, and its ultimate self-disillusionment. The whole “No Future” battle cry of nihilism includes the demise of everything worth doing, and that includes punk itself. And Jubilee showed us that while ultimately answering Elizabeth I’s curiosity about the future of her realm. There is no future, and the past is a tissue of lies.

It's never exactly a cheery watch, but in the 2020s, this apocalyptic prophecy from 1978 feels about as relevant as it did any time during the 1980s, so why not give it a try on Britbox today – after all, it is a Jubilee year…

Watch Jubilee today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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