A Post-Apocalyptic Britain in 1987’s ‘The Last of England’

Here at Underground, we are celebrating thirty years since the release of our first original collection, which looked to contribute to our founding philosophy of unorthodox, renegade and subversive style. In homage to the year that started it all, we have started a series that will look back on the aura of 1987; exploring the sound, sights and feel of a year that is vital to our history.

A Post-Apocalyptic Britain in 1987’s ‘The Last of England’

‘Tomorrow has been cancelled due to lack of interest’ – The Last of England
Derek Jarman was the proto-queer film-maker of the late seventies, eighties and early nineties. Born in Middlesex in 1942, Derek studied at Kings College London before proceeding to UCL, where he studied at the Slade School of Art. He held residency in Soho whilst living in London, and often walked through Berwick Street – home to our flagship Underground store – market on his way home. Whilst Jarman was primarily known for his film-making, his artistic prowess did not lie merely in the virtuosity of cinema, for he was a living panorama of talent: poetry, painting, set-designing, strong gay-rights activism, and script and book-writing came under his spell, his idiosyncratic style in all fields defining him as a man who worked primarily against the norm. We take a look at Derek’s body of work – an experimental, queer, avant-garde cinematic collection that champions subversity and renegade film-making.
Derek’s first feature film was Sebastiane, released in 1976, and was his first ‘over ground’ exploration of homosexuality and eroticism. The film reworks the Roman legend of Saint Sebastian, a Roman guard who professed his Christianity and ended up exiled. Derek’s film is the tale on steroids: the ostracised guard succumbs to the homosexual desires of his keeper. Pleasure is pulled from pain.
Caravaggio is Derek’s most ‘mainstream’ piece of cinema. A pastiche period biopic about the love triangle between painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, a street fighter and a woman, the film explores the human conflict of personal and public lives. As with Sebastiane, Derek brought homoeroticism and homosexual relations the forefront; both were rebellious films that challenged societal norms and may have shocked audiences of the late ‘70s.

The post-modern apocalypse in Jubilee

Jarman then went on to release a myriad of films that challenged the establishment. His 1978 film Jubilee charts Queen Elizabeth I’s fall into a quasi-dystopic version of seventies Britain, where she is embraced by a group of local punk women that draw her into their world of debauchery. Jarman noted himself that he dedicated the film to: ‘all those who secretly work against the tyranny of Marxists fascists trade unionists Maoists capitalists socialists etc. who have conspired together to destroy the diversity and holiness of each life in the name of materialism’. Jubilee was a dramatization of, and a direct reaction to, his perception of the social and political disintegration of Britain during the seventies.

Derek’s 1987 contribution to his collection was The Last of England, and is perhaps one of his most poetic and personal films he created. At the time of filming, Derek had been diagnosed with AIDs, and the government had just passed a law under the section 28 Local Government Act, that warned anyone to not ‘intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’. The Last of England acts as an antagonistic antiphon to the state of Thatcherite Britain and the subsequent treatment of homosexuals and AIDs victims during the preceding decade.

Ford Maddox Brown’s 1855 painting, The Last of England

The film’s name comes from the Ford Maddox Brown painting of 1855. Throughout The Last of England, Derek parallel’s Ford’s juxtaposition of escape and entrapment, of the picturesque and the perverse that prevail in the painting. The result is a film that is an opulent and poetic portrayal of anti-establishment sentiments.

In the film, the apocalyptic landscape is depicted through a red, underworld-like haze. The setting that has been reduced to mere bricks, fire, and smoke acts as a pitiful playground for the male lead characters who stand upon – and rifle through – the ruins of a fallen city. Like the famous nursey rhyme ‘London Bridge is falling down’, Britain, has literally fallen down in The Last of England. The British National Anthem is corrupted into a catastrophe: stock footage of the empire is shown amongst images of fire and sin. The national song is pushed  through the extremes and into oblivion. The apocalyptic setting portrayed in the film appears like a reactionary response to Thatcherite Britain; an angry Jarman portraying the country in literal ruin.

Other images of power are also corrupted: the British flag, a symbolism of nationalism, acts as a debauched stage, strewn with empty alcohol bottles and guns for two men to engage in sexual intercourse on. The realist Caravaggio painting of Cupid ‘Amor Vincit Omnia’ is defiled with a naked man masturbating on top of it. Any symbols of British history, of power, of artistic integrity are perverted.

Derek also challenges the notions of cinematic convention. The film-maker does not attempt to make sense or create any sense of linearity. Images of a family dinner are incongruously matched with out-of-sync dinner plates tinkling away, the sequence being an uncanny echo of domesticity. A sequence of a bizarre, horned, celestial-esque ballet dancer is soundtracked by eighties disco and the fuzz of a TV show. The disparate bricolage of images, through their unconventionality, work towards producing a film that is ultimately a chaotic and disorientating vision of a post-apocalyptic British landscape: liminal, uncertain, corrupt and perverse.

It is only at the end of the film, when Derek’s and indie-film favourite, Tilda Swinton, performs a hypnotically angry dance, ripping her wedding dress to shreds, over a rippling soundtrack of wails. Derek describes her as “blown by a whirlwind of destruction, [becoming] a figure of strength…. the divinity who wipes out memory, all the elemental forces are unleashed in Tilda’s dance.” Tilda’s character re-ignites the beacon of hope, literally ripping the film open and becomes the subversive empress of the newly-awakened and transformed Britain.

In 1987, in a world where where homosexuality and AIDs victims were looked down upon, Derek Jarman acted as a filmic spokesperson for those who remained marginalised. The Last of England is an angrily poetic, personal portrayal of a country that he saw, was in ruins. Through the experimental form, through the post-apocalyptic depiction of the country, Derek’s film dismantles the establishment and highlights the horrors of modern-day Britain through a dream-like state.

Derek passed away in 1994 due to an AIDs-related illness. However, his renegade ethos still resonates today, and he can be regarded as one of the main catalysts in New Queer Cinema. New Queer Cinema is a movement which seeks to correct the negative and disproportonial representation of gay people in popular culture by bringing images of homosexuality into the mainstream. Perhaps without Jarman’s explicit references to homosexuality in his work, then this art form may not have blossomed as significantly as it has.