Joseph Summers wasn’t born when Derek Jarman’s film, The Last of England, was premiered at Edinburgh International Film Festival in 1987. Once the Berlin-based artist, musician and instrument builder saw Jarman’s impressionistic guerrilla-style portrait of Margaret Thatcher’s broken Britain, however, he was struck by how pertinent it seemed to today. Jarman’s backdrop of burning buildings, masked men with guns and young men seeking respite in the rubble gave way to one of the film’s most memorable scenes, in which regular Jarman collaborator Tilda Swinton claws at the wedding dress she’s wearing while rubbish burns beside her.
All of this inspired Summers to compose a new live soundtrack for Jarman’s film following a commission from the Bristol-based Palace International Film Festival of queer cinema. Performed by Summers with his brother Thomas and fellow composer/musician Rosa Irwin-Clark, this aural reimagining of The Last of England can be heard accompanying a screening in Glasgow tomorrow.
“It seems so timely,” Summers says of the film. “When we’ve done it before, the feedback has always been people saying it could have been made right now, and it’s almost like prophecy in a way. It really seems to predict the future. It’s so stripped back, and for me feels really punkish, the way it puts people in situations in really evocative locations and lets the narrative emerge.”
Jarman made The Last of England in the throes of Thatcher’s second term as Prime Minister, following his more formally realised feature, Caravaggio. The grainy Super 8 footage of this new film depicted a stark dystopian landscape where wordless scenes projected hallucinatory images of an increasingly totalitarian state that reflected what was happening in the real world beyond.
This included the notorious Section 28 clause of the Local Government Act, designed to ‘not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’, which was about to become law. The rise of AIDS saw its casualties demonised, with Jarman himself diagnosed the year before. A post-Falklands War jingoism encouraged delusions of empire, and Northern Ireland remained a tinderbox that exploded on a daily basis.
The Last of England takes its title from a 19th century painting by Ford Maddox Brown, which depicted a young couple departing with their baby for a new life in Australia. In its defiantly DIY way, the film is a brutal but beautiful visual tone-poem which defines its volatile and turbulent era.
“By referencing the painting, it feels like Jarman was taking something from the distant past and making it relevant to him,” says Summers. “Thirty years on, the film is from the past, but it’s become this really painful expression of what’s going on now.”
Summers’ score sees the trio use violin, guitar, bass and amplified objects alongside some of the composer’s home-made flutes to create a loose-knit arrangement that draws from British folk music to create a sound as personal as the film.
“It’s not a traditional score,” says Summers. “There’s no actual notation. It’s essentially a guide for improvisation, that tells people how to play rather than what to play. It takes some ideas from the visuals on screen, and tries to translate that into sound.”
The film’s original soundtrack was composed in part by Simon Fisher-Turner, and featured a string section that included fellow composers Jocelyn Pook and Sally Herbert. There were original works too by former Magazine bassist turned noir sound-scaper Barry Adamson, mercurial singer Diamanda Galas and one-time in-house producer at Rough Trade Records and founder of 1960s pre-punks, The Red Crayola, Mayo Thompson, an associate producer on the film.
The only music from the original soundtrack left in Summers’ presentation is Marianne Faithfull’s mournful version of The Skye Boat Song. The track doesn’t appear on the film’s soundtrack album, and remains unreleased.
“It’s such a beautiful rendition,” says Summers, “and it’s a really incredible soundtrack, but I don’t want to be influenced by it. If I took too much on board then what we did would end up being a response to the score rather than the film. But The Skye Boat Song is too perfect, and it would be a crime to separate it. It also functions as a nice thread that attaches us to the original in a good way.”
Summers and co aren’t alone in recognising the prescience of Jarman’s film. An exhibition, also called The Last of England, is currently running at Void gallery in Derry, and showcases Jarman’s films and paintings. A much bigger exhibition, Protest!, is a major retrospective of Jarman’s work currently running at the Irish Museum of Modern Art to mark the 25th anniversary of his death. The exhibition transfers to Manchester in 2020.
“The Last of England is a film that people care about quite deeply,” says Summers, “and we have to reassure people that by doing what we’re doing, we care as well. It’s not an easy film, and because the visual imagery is so striking, it’s open to interpretation. There’s no one definitive version of what we do.”
With a UK General Election looming on the back of the ongoing chaos of Brexit, Summers again stresses the film’s foresight.
“Essentially it only gets more poignant as time goes on,” he says. “Every time we think we’ve reached rock bottom, it goes further. When we showed the film in March we were on a precipice. Now we are where we are, and The Last of England keeps on getting more relevant every day.”
The Last of England is screened with a live soundtrack by Joseph Summers, Rosa Irwin-Clark and Thomas Summers at the CCA, Glasgow tomorrow at 8.30pm.
The Herald, November 23rd 2019