PETER TATCHELL ON DEREK JARMAN

Interviewed recorded 30TH July 2003

Andy Kimpton-Nye: CAN YOU RECALL WHEN AND WHERE YOU FIRST MET DEREK JARMAN?

Peter Tatchell: The first time I met Derek Jarman was when I invited him to speak at the Aids and Human Rights Conference at Central Hall, Westminster in 1988. I'd organised this conference to coincide with the world health summit in London. It was meeting in circumstances of extreme panic and hysteria around the HIV Aids epidemic. There were government demands for compulsory isolation of people with HIV, all kinds of discriminative proposals were on the table. This human rights conference was about trying to shift the agenda away from oppression to education support and care. Derek had not long come out as being HIV + so I wrote to him and asked him if he would speak and he immediately said, yes, and he gave a very powerful speech from the perspective of someone living with HIV, refuting the idea that AIDS equals a death sentence and very much challenging the orthodoxy that the way to deal with this pandemic was by repression and panic.

IT STRIKES ME FROM HIS DIARIES AND THE BIOGRAPHY THAT DEREK BECAME MORE OF A POLITICAL ANIMAL ONCE HE TESTED POSITIVE. DID YOU GET TO DISCUSS DEREK'S POLITICS BEFORE HE TESTED POSITIVE, WAS HE MUCH OF A POLITICAL ANIMAL THEN?

Derek had been sympathetic to the Gay Liberation Front in the early 1970s, but not involved in any big way. But I think there were 2 things that made him political in the 1980s in a very hands on way. First of all the Aids panic and secondly Section 28. Those two direct hits against the lesbian and gay community made him feel a responsibility to try to do something both through his film-making and also as a citizen, as part of a broader movement for human rights, for people with HIV and Aids and also for lesbian and gay people as well.

WHAT DID HIS CAMPAIGN AROUND SECTION 28 INVOLVE…?

Like the rest of us, Derek was absolutely horrified by Section 28. Here was this new bill which explicitly prohibited the so called promotion of homosexuality by local authorities. Like the rest of us, Derek was horrified by the passage of Section 28 in 1988. He saw this as a very explicit direct attack on the lesbian and gay community. It was after all the first new anti gay law in Britain for 100 yrs. It signalled part of a homophobic backlash inspired and motivated by the Conservative government and of course riding on the coat tails of the panic and hysteria of HIV and Aids. A lot of us saw Section 28 as being a direct attack on our community and something that had to be resisted and a lot of people who hadn't previously been much involved like Derek suddenly got very involved in those campaigns to oppose section 28 and to demand an end to all anti gay laws.

AT YOUR OWN RISK, THE BOOK DEREK WROTE IN THE LATE 80S, DID THAT COME ABOUT AS A RESULT OF HIM NOW BEING MORE OF A POLITICAL PERSON AROUND THESE ISSUES?

At Your Own Risk was in many ways Derek's political testament. It was a testament to his growing political awareness and his involvement in the Aids group ActUp and in the Queer Rights Direct Action Group, Outrage. Particularly with the birth of Outrage, Derek turned up at our weekly meetings at the London lesbian and gay centre. He joined our protests, he was fired up and passionately inspired in many ways I suspect by a great deal of pent up frustration that for much of his life he'd been branded a criminal and that here we were in the late 80s early 90s with the Thatcher government legislating Section 28, a new and uniquely homophobic law at a time when the trend in society was towards greater equality and human rights for everyone. He was outraged, we were outraged and Derek was determined to get involved and do something about it.

DID HE EVER TELL YOU HOW DIFFICULT IT WAS FOR HIM TO COME OUT AS YOUNG MAN...?

On a number of occasions Derek talked about growing up in a very different era, in a much more narrow minded, straight laced, puritanical and of course homophobic era, so for him coming out was not of the same, relative ease to people today. He came out in a period when homosexuality was still totally illegal and for certain gay sexual acts you could still be sentenced to life imprisonment. That was a shocking thing for a young man to be confronted with and like a lot of gay men, Derek was not initially motivated to political involvement because after all at that time there were no political campaigns. There was the campaign for homosexual equality. There was the homosexual law reform society, but it was very low key, extremely respectable, wouldn't say boo to a fly. I don't think that would have been Derek's style. He had to wait to the beginning of the 1970s with the formation of the Gay Liberation Front to get any connection with a movement that was out, proud, very angry and very determined to change things for the better.

HE SAID, IF I HADN'T HAD TO STRUGGLE FOR MY SEXUALITY AND MY RESPECT THEN I WOULDN'T HAVE BEEN THE FILM-MAKER THAT I WAS? IS THAT FAIR TO SAY IN TERMS OF THE FILM-MAKER HE TURNED OUT TO BE?

I think there's no doubt that for certain gay people the angst, the victimisation, the ostracism, the oppression they feel does have a big impact on their creative drive and direction. We can think of many celebrated gay artists whose tortured existence has led to the production of works of great magnificence, almost as an antidote to their own personal traumas and suffering. So I think in some ways perhaps Derek's own difficulties in coming out and accepting his homosexuality may have fed into a creative drive which pushed him in certain directions, led him to explore certain areas, produced a sensitivity that had a profound positive impact on the films that he made.

DID HE EVER DISCUSS HIS PARTY POLITICS WITH YOU AND IF SO WHAT WERE THEY?

Derek never discussed his party politics, I don't know if he had any. I know that he was broadly committed to ideals of social justice and human rights, not just on lesbian and gay issues, but broader issues. But in the period that I knew and worked with him from the late 80s, nearly all his energies were focused around the issue of HIV and Aids and gay and lesbian emancipation.

WAS CLASS AN ISSUE FOR HIM?

He certainly never spoke about it.

I ASK BECAUSE HE SEEMED TO HAVE A STRONG ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT STRAIN IN HIS FILMS. WE CERTAINLY KNEW HIS VIEWS ON SEXUALITY. BUT I DON'T KNOW WHAT HIS VIEWS WERE ON CLASS, DO YOU?

No.

But can I say something else. Derek was in many ways a sexual and political outlaw. He had a knee jerk reaction against social conventions and the way things were. He didn't like the idea of business as usual, he had a knee jerk reaction against the establishment, the ruling elite. I remember when Sir Ian McKellen accepted a knighthood, he was apoplectic with rage, not simply because it was from a Tory prime minister, but because it was a knighthood that came from the establishment and even if it had been a Labour prime minister, I'm sure that he would have been equally resentful, angry and downright furious really and his standpoint was, why should we accept anything from an establishment which refuses to accept us queers and treat us with respect and give us human rights? Until we are full and equal citizens, until there is genuine queer liberation, the establishment can go to hell.

IN THE FILMS, HOW DOES THE POLITICS MANIFEST ITSELF…?

Derek had an instinctive gut reaction against everything establishment, he saw the establishment as part of the problem. The people who were responsible for treating and maintaining lesbian and gay people as second class citizens. So when Ian McKellen went to tea with John Major in Downing St, Derek was apoplectic with rage. He was furious that Ian was prepared to go and sit down with a Tory prime minister representing a party that had introduced Section 28, that had stoked the fires and flames of Aids panic and hysteria. His view was that knighthoods and wining and dining by the establishment were all just baubles dangled to try and seduce us to deflect criticism and dissent, but he would have nothing to do with it ever.

DID YOU FIND OUT IF THERE WERE ANY OTHER REASONS FOR HIM BEING ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT… HIS BACKGROUND…?

We didn't discuss it in great detail, no

HOW EASY WAS IT TO GET TO KNOW DEREK AS A PERSON?

I always found Derek very approachable and very sociable. He had a little circle of people around him, but he was always open to embracing new people into that circle and I was one of them. Through his involvement with Outrage I got invited round to his flat and went out for dinner with him, as did quite a few other people from Outrage. I always found him very down to earth, very open and very accessible.

Very soon after Outrage was formed in 1990, Derek turned up at our meetings and became a very regular attendee. He didn't stride in like the queen bee with an entourage, he just slipped in and mingled with everyone else, contributed, he was just a very regular ordinary member, but obviously with some very creative ideas and he began to quite frequently turn up at our protests to support our campaign for an equal age of consent, against Section 28 and for new laws to protect lesbian and gay people against discrimination in housing and employment.

Derek's involvement with Outrage was quite low-key, he didn't act like the star even though he was very famous by comparison to the rest of us. He was just an ordinary member, he contributed some ideas, some very creative, imaginative ideas into the melting pot which later got translated into various direct action campaigns. He also turned up and his presence, although he just came along as a regular member to support, or course his presence was very helpful because it gave the media a focus, a name..... Because of Derek's presence on many of our protests, it meant that those protests got a lot more media coverage, he was a very famous well known film-maker, he was a bit of a celebrity and so the media honed in on that and through that gave the protests and campaigns we were organising a much higher profile than perhaps we would have otherwise achieved. So in terms of helping our PR and media profile, Derek was very important and there were several big, high profile events like the Turn-in at Bow St police station and the march on parliament for lesbian and gay human rights, which Derek's presence made into big media events with lots of coverage and that of course got our message across to an audience of millions and millions of people.

As well as sitting in on the Outrage meetings and helping plan our campaigns and of course joining many of our protests, Derek also had a practical hands on help, you know sometimes when he came into a bit of money he would bung a few hundred quid Outrage's way. There was a moment when we desperately needed a new fax machine and Derek went out into the high street in the West End and got a new one and brought it back to the office and presented it to us. He was very practical and helpful in those ways. When we had a need, if Derek could help, he was always willing.

HOW DID OUTRAGE THEN COME TO BE FEATURED AND INVOLVED IN EDWARD II?

In many ways the film Edward II was Derek's cinematic challenge to the homophobia and authoritarianism of the Thatcher /Major era. It was his way of using film to make a broader political point. Of course, the implicit homophobia in Edward II was not irrelevant to the very real life homophobia that existed in Britain in the late 80s early 90s. This was a period when dozens of gay men were being queer bashed and murdered and the police were doing virtually nothing about it. At the same time they were going out and setting up entrapment operations in parks and public toilets to arrest gay men for completely consenting victimless behaviour. So Edward II's themes and some of the scenes had a great contemporary resonance and he just thought, let's make this film very explicitly a film about not just past history, but also a bit about now. Let's have the mob scene, let's have the protest scene, not with actors, but with members of Outrage and so in the middle of this play we suddenly have a scene where the players are contemporary queer activists challenging police victimisation, demanding an end to homophobic violence which of course matches, or mirrors exactly some of the themes of Edward II's tragic demise.

DO YOU THINK THAT GOT IN THE WAY OR DETRACTED FROM THE STORY OF ONE MAN'S LOVE FOR ANOTHER?

I think Derek made Edward II a film that wasn't just an historical epic, but a genuinely contemporary, relevant one, because he linked the homophobia of Edward II's tragic demise with the contemporary homophobia where many gay and lesbian people are victimised by the law, murdered, abused by the forces of law and order and by putting Outrage into that scene, he made that very explicit point, that very upfront in your face political point which is of course, precisely what Outrage's style of politics is all about.

HOW IMPORTANT WERE DEREK JARMAN'S FILMS?

I think if you looked at the range of films that Derek did, the anti-establishment, non-conformist, social dissident theme is recurrent throughout all of them, from Sebastian to Jubilee to Edward II. All these films in different ways challenge unorthodoxy, or give a new perspective on something that many people perhaps have taken for granted or looked at in a very conventional orthodox way. Sebastian was very important, because it gave a very explicit rendering of that story of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, it cut through all the religious tosh and nonsense, it brought to life the homo-erotisism of Saint Sebastian and of course that dovetailed precisely into a particular moment in British society when homosexuality was still being very heavily repressed. Although we'd had the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1967, in the years afterwards the number of arrests of gay and bisexual men for consenting victimless behaviour actually rose and police raids on public toilets, parks even gay bars and clubs increased rather than decreased. So in those kind of circumstances a film which positively celebrates, affirms and makes explicit gay sexuality is a political statement, an artistic political statement for sure, but nevertheless a political one.

WHAT DID THE RELEASE OF SEBASTIAN MEAN TO THE GAY COMMUNITY?

The film Sebastian was a real milestone, a watershed in both British cinematic history and in cultural representations of gay sexuality. It was a very beautiful film, a very artistic film, a very fine film, but it also had a very clear and powerful political message which is about celebrating and affirming gay sexuality, rebutting the religious myths surrounding Saint Sebastian and bringing to the fore the suppressed sexuality of that story. In those circumstances it struck a real chord among gay people in Britain and indeed around the world. It was one of the first films that really explicitly and very defiantly celebrated queer sexuality and in that sense felt incredibly inspired and empowered by it. This was an affirmation, it wasn't a half measure , it wasn't you know some mealymouthed liberal assertion, or portrayal, it was a full on, in your face celebration of queer sexuality. And people loved it and that's why people queued around and around the block for weeks and months to see it.

JUBILEE WAS A VERY ANGRY FILM DID DEREK TAKE A PARTICULAR GLEE IN SHOCKING AN AUDIENCE?

I think there was a part of Derek that enjoyed to shock. He liked to shake people out of their quiet suburban sensibilities. I think like all good artists, or political activists, challenging convention is not something you do by writing a polite letter to the prime minister.

I think Derek saw his films as a process of artistic catharsis. His idea was to create films that threw a visual fire-cracker into established conventions, to shake people up to jolt them out of their complacency. I think he enjoyed that, not for its own sake, but for the sake of making a point, promoting a new perspective, a new way of looking at things and debunking some of the hypocrisy and authoritarianism and sexual purism of the political and religious establishment.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE BEING ON SET ON A DEREK JARMAN SHOOT?

It was absolutely fascinating to be on the set of Edward II to see the way Derek worked as a director. His method was like most of his life, extremely unconventional. He had a script, but it was ad-lib all the way. Sometimes the script would be more or less kept to, other times departed from quite radically, on a spur of the moment impulse, either from Derek or from someone, one of the actors, or one of the extras, or one of the film crew. He was always open to new ideas even if he had a very fixed view about his particular film and the way it would go. I remember there were certain elements of the scenes we shot for Edward II where we departed quite radically from what was originally intended and I think that gave the film an incredible spontaneity. It also gave it a sense of you know… it was a living thing, it wasn't just putting down celluloid on a pre-defined script. It was a living, on going creative process, which wasn't over until the film was actually shot.

DEREK FEATURES HIMSELF A LOT IN HIS WORK – OBVIOUSLY HIS DIARIES, LESS OBVIOUSLY HIS FILMS, WHY DO YOU THINK HE NEEDED TO MAKE THE PRIVATE SO PUBLIC?

Derek's approach to the artistic process was very much about involving the artist in a process of revelation about himself. He wanted to do that I think to break down barriers between the artist and the viewer. He wanted to try and draw on his own experiences and put them into the film and to do that he had to be prepared to reveal bits about himself that perhaps many other artists would rather, or prefer, to keep private. So I think his openness and his self-revelation is intrinsically linked to his process of painting, film making whatever. And I think those artistic processes were strengthened by breaking down that traditional barrier.

WHAT WERE HIS QUALITIES AS A MAN?

If I was asked to sum up Derek Jarman's qualities as a person, I would say they were passion, he was passionate about his art and passionate about his politics and of course innovation. He had an incredibly fertile creative mind, again both politically and artistically. He had an incredibly inventive, innovative, creative streak, which enabled him to challenge both political and artistic convention and to bring a new perspective on contemporary political struggles and the process of making art.

THERE’S A NOTICEABLE LACK OF THE LIKES OF DEREK JARMAN WORKING IN BRITISH FILM INDUSTRY TODAY, WHY DO YOU THINK THAT IS?

Derek was unique, one of a kind, he explored new issues in new creative ways. I think we can say that he was a true pioneer, a trail-blazer. Not everyone may like every single one of his films, but just look at them, the way they were executed, the issues they dealt with. He pioneered where others had never dared to tread. And for that we all owe him a great and huge debt.

WHAT DO YOU THINK IS HAPPENING THAT STOPS FILM-MAKERS MAKING THOSE SORTS OF FILMS TODAY? IS IT CULTURAL? IS IT TOO BLAND NOW TO CREATE PEOPLE WITH SOMETHING RADICAL TO SAY?

We're now living in an era which has been massively depoliticised. It's not fashionable to be radical, it's not fashionable to be politically engaged. So we've lost that kind of momentum that Derek worked with and developed. There is still potential, but I look around me and I find very few people in the artistic field who are making the kind of powerful political statements that Derek dared to make.

BUT THERE ARE RADICAL OR EXPERIMENTAL GAY FILM MAKERS OUT THERE, JOHN MAYBURY, ISAAC JULIEN,BUT THEIR VOICES ARE NOT BEING HEARD, OR DO YOU THINK THEY’VE BEEN ABSORBED BY THE SYSTEM…?

Whatever people say about Derek, he was never seduced by commercialism. He never cut his cloth to suit financial benefactors. He made films that he believed in, he did them in his own indomitable way and thank heavens he did so, because he's left us a treasure trove of films that will last, that will be seen as pioneering and will be loved and enjoyed by generations to come.

FINALLY, WHAT ARE YOUR ABIDING MEMORIES OF DEREK?

In 1992, Outrage launched its Equality Now campaign which was a 6 month rolling programme of protests to demand the repeal of various anti gay laws. The campaign began with a big march on parliament in February 1992, beginning at Bow St Police station which was led by Derek Jarman. And of course, his presence ensured massive media coverage which was what we needed to communicate our demands for lesbian and gay human rights. We set off to march to parliament in defiance of a ban on protests within half a mile of the House of Commons while MPs are sitting. When we reached that half mile barrier in Charing Cross Rd the police halted our way and Derek led the sit down protest and in total I think about 70 of us were arrested. It was a great day, a very defiant day, it made sure that our issues got into the national media and people got talking. People who previously had not been aware suddenly became aware of the huge scale of homophobic discrimination and that is in large part thanks to Derek.

Also, In the early 1990s we saw the beginnings of the formation of the gay village around Old Compton St, Soho, London. Outrage hit on the idea of making a big thing of this by re-christening that part of Soho as Queer Town and re-naming Old Compton St as Queer St. So to make this a big fabulous event, we organised in 1993 on Valentine's Eve the Outrage Queer Valentine's carnival which was a Brazilian style carnival parade through the streets of Soho. Amazingly that day in February was beautiful, glorious warm sunshine, so people were there as queer gods and goddess's of love, in carnival style semi nakedness and very Bacchanalian sort of atmosphere. We went through the streets with a big entourage of Brazilian samba bands, led by St Derek Jarman who had been not long previously canonised by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in tribute to his work for lesbian and gay human rights. When we got to Old Compton St, Derek led the unveiling ceremony where we re-named Old Compton St Queer St.I remember him standing there in his resplendent robes from Edward II, looking absolutely magnificent. It was a really joyful occasion and his presence and that costume made it a fantastic moment.

400Blows Productions, July 2003.


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