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Derek Jarman’s King’s Cross

By Ben Campkin.

In 1987 Derek Jarman filmed a promo in King’s Cross, creating footage that would be used by the dance music duo the Pet Shop Boys in the video for their song ‘Rent’ (released October 1987). The film features Rupert Adley (aka ‘Spring’, who also played in The Last of England) alongside an angelic-looking Pet Shop Boy, Chris Lowe. The shoot took place in the summer, in and around the underground station ticket hall – before the same station was devastated by fire in the evening rush hour on the 18th November 1987, killing 31 people; an event later commemorated with a humble plaque on the ticket hall wall.

‘King’s Cross’ was also the subject of a Pet Shop Boys’ song, from their album Actually, released in September 1987, and also therefore written before the fatal fire. The Pet Shop Boys had begun collaborating with Jarman in June 1987 for the video for their number one hit ‘It’s a Sin’. Jarman and his collaborators – including James Mackay – later returned and shot more footage around the streets of King’s Cross as part of a series of 8 films using mainly Super 8 and blown up to 70mm for back-projection during the Pet Shop Boys’ 1989 tour, stage directed by Jarman. The footage of King’s Cross filmed on these two occasions provided the backdrop for the track ‘King’s Cross’ during the tour, which travelled around Britain and to Hong Kong and Japan. With the Pet Shop Boys ‘live’ is just a technical term: the footage was shot and edited to the track and then played back with the duo on stage.

The song ‘King’s Cross’, described by its writer Neil Tennant as an ‘epic nightmare’, evokes the social anxiety and the sense of political impotence among the disaffected in Thatcher’s Britain. In a later interpretation of the lyrics, Tennant explained how the area was an emblem of downbeat London, of a city and country in crisis:

King’s Cross is the station you come to when you come down to London looking for opportunity from the Northeast, then the most depressed part of England. And there’s lots of crime around King’s Cross – prostitution, drug addicts, and a lot of tramps come up to you there. I just thought that was a metaphor for Britain – people arriving at this place, waiting for an opportunity that doesn’t happen, waiting for the dole queue or some documentation for the NHS. It’s about hopes being dashed… it’s an angry song about Thatcherism.

The bleak imagery finds a parallel in other cultural and official documents of King’s Cross in this period such as Neil Jordan’s film noir, Mona Lisa of 1986, in which the area’s red-light status is caricatured, and the sense of it being the locus of a dangerous criminal underworld is emphasised. Through a car windscreen, from the perspective of a male driver, we see smoky night scenes of a bridge behind a station, busy with streetwalkers and kerb crawlers. The film returns to this space, and the haunting, murmuring figures that occupy it, several times. This is presumably meant to be Goods Way, running east-west across the railwaylands, a street notorious for kerb crawling in the 1980s and 1990s, and in particular following the displacement of sex workers from residential locations in King’s Cross.

Such representations conceal how vital the area had been as a central node in modern London, as important to the functioning of the city in the mid-twentieth century as it had been to the Victorian metropolis. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, however, industry and freight declined. The dense web of roads, canals and railway tracks, punctuated by goods sheds, rolling stock, water towers, coal drops, signal points and other industrial structures became obsolete. Describing London in 1977, the architectural historian, Joe Kerr, writes in London: from Punk to Blair (2003) of:

‘strange pockets of silence and stillness, the spaces vacated by unwanted trades and industries … contributing to the general atmosphere of slow decline that pervades so much of the metropolis’ (p. 19).

In King’s Cross, this general decline was concentrated, just as it was in the Docklands. Markets and goods depots closed, and were either demolished, abandoned or turned over to new, low-grade uses. New council housing estates were built on the western and northern parts of the railwaylands, but many of these soon fell into disrepair. As we see in Mona Lisa, by the 1980s, the area had also gained a reputation as a socially blighted place, associated with street prostitution and drug-dealing. In the mid-1980s there was already a national public debate about the need for investment, and a call for an intensive social and physical ‘clean up’ campaign.

Fascinating documentary photographs of the railway lands were commissioned by British Rail Property Board (BRPB), the arm of British Rail responsible for its land, in 1987. The image the Board wanted to construct was one of an industrial wasteland, left to ruin. Taken on an overcast day, in black and white film, the photographs shows the area as a derelict landscape, where crumbling structures lie prone to rust and weeds. Precarious brick chimneys, broken fragments of timber and masonry rubble, sodden earth, all suggest a long-term piling up of detritus: an archaeological site in the making.

With a greatly expanded parliamentary majority following the general election of 1983, in her second term Margaret Thatcher had the mandate she needed to implement her government’s privatisation agenda. This resulted in the gradual selling off of public utilities and infrastructure, including land owned by British Rail.

BRPB’s photographs of King’s Cross were displayed at a press conference during which the Board invited bids for the sale of the railwaylands. Later that same year, a House of Lords Committee made a surprise announcement that King’s Cross was the ideal terminus for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (at that time the Committee favoured King’s Cross, rather than neighbouring St Pancras, for this purpose). King’s Cross was therefore viewed as a place of ruin, but also of potential.

Only last night I found myself lost
By the station called King’s Cross
Dead and wounded on either side
You know it’s only a matter of time

The Pet Shop Boys ‘King’s Cross’ captures the downbeat imaginary of the place and the mood of crisis in the late 1980s. The atmosphere of the dole queue is expressed through images of space and time in lyrics that refer to lingering, ‘hanging around’, ‘waiting in a line’ and ‘walking around the block’, all set to a sombre melody.

In the ambiguous narrative a detective hunts a murderer, but is unable to resolve the crime because of the multitude of ‘dead and wounded on either side’. Neil Tennant has subsequently identified this image – as we might guess – as a reference to the AIDS crisis, media hysteria around which peaked in 1987. Jarman might have been particularly attuned to these images in the lyrics having been diagnosed HIV+ in December 1986. They also seem appropriate to the area’s longer history as a place of battle (Battle Bridge), and of illness (the station sits where a large Smallpox Hospital was formerly located).

It is uncanny that, as I mentioned earlier, the song predates the King’s Cross Fire. Started by a discarded cigarette which ignited detritus in the mechanism of the wooden escalator the Fennel Inquiry into the disaster pointed poor maintenance and the station’s poor emergency procedures as contributing factors. Through this event the area came to epitomise the collapse of the public realm, highlighting the resources and manpower necessary to make a modern technologically sophisticated city work. It became the focus of mawkish tabloid stories about an unidentified victim and forensic inquiries into every nook, cranny and air flow of the station.

As well as a place of evident crisis, part of the attraction of King’s Cross for the Pet Shop Boys and other queer artists must have been that, at the time the song was written, like other run-down ‘inner-city’ areas in the ring of ex-industrial zones around London’s West End, the area was a place of gay nightlife and activism. It was the location of late-night gay venues including The Bell, and later Central Station; artists such as Leigh Bowery performed in former industrial warehouses; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists, and organisations such as the Lesbian and Gay Switchboard and the Camden Lesbian Centre, met in the area and operated from cheaply rented offices. In 1987, the first and only National Black Gay Men’s Conference was held in the area – a landmark event.

We might also note that in 1989, Isaac Julien filmed Looking for Langston in St Pancras chambers and around the King’s Cross gas holders in 1989, drawing a parallel between King’s Cross in the 1980s and Harlem in the 1920s via the life of the poet Langston Hughes. Shot at night, in 35mm film, the area is presented as a territory of possibilty in a wider world of racial and sexual oppression.

The haunting black and white footage of King’s Cross produced ’87 and ’89 by Jarman and his collaborators echoes the elegiac atmosphere of the Pet Shop Boys’ song, and the sense of suspension and disorientation. We follow the unpredictable handheld camera as it judders and sways from the iconic mid-nineteenth-century gasworks, enclosed by a barbed-wire fence, through a street filled with market stalls and litter, into the crowded underground foyer, ending on a train leaving London. Different scenes are superimposed, distorting time and space through montage. The screen is bleached white, then dark and obscure. Traces leak from one scene to the next as one vignette folds into another. 1987 and 1989 collapse into one.

The dreamlike portrayal of the gasworks as a brooding presence in the railwaylands resonates with the treatment of industrial forms, ruins and landscapes in the Docklands in The Last of England (1987, filmed in 1986). In contrast with the Docklands – King’s Cross is presented as a busy, functional part of the city rather than a ruin or wasteland. The footage suggests the impressionistic and distracted way that we experience everyday urban spaces, the ebbs and flows, arrivals and departures, pauses and glances. But as a place of quotidian, mechanical order it is unsettled, its circulation systems disrupted: an inconclusive journey of multiple routes, long tracking shots as well as fractured images. The people we see are presented as part of the same discontinuous narrative but also alienated in the microcosms of their own lives. Are they inhabiting the same moment? The same city?

Produced both before and after the fire these scenes seem to contain both a sense of looming danger and retrospective mourning. King’s Cross as a place of crisis, on the verge of a fatal disaster but also looking back and asking ‘what went wrong?’

Where is Jarman in this footage? Does the at times panic-stricken movement reflect his own state of mind or emotion, or the sense of finality that his diagnosis presumably engendered. With hindsight we might read the city captured here as the claustrophobic crisis-ridden environment to which Dungeness would provide an escape or antidote of sorts.

The piece seems in the spirit of his angry writings against Thatcherite ideology but also more subtle and vulnerable. In retrospect, one cannot help but be moved by this footage and the Pet Shop Boys’ track as a document of the late 1980s in which Jarman’s personal sense of crisis, the collective crisis of AIDS, and the city in crisis, appear inextricably entangled.

With thanks to Andrew Stevens 

Part of our ‘Jarman at 3am’ series to coincide with the BFI’s 2014 Derek Jarman season, this was originally given as a talk at the UCL Urban Lab event ‘Derek Jarman: Sites and Spaces’ in February 2014. @BenCampkin is Director of the UCL Urban Laboratory and Senior Lecturer in Architectural History and Theory at the Bartlett School of Architecture. He is the author of Remaking London: Decline and Regeneration in Urban Culture (IB Tauris, 2013) and co-editor of Dirt: New Geographies of Cleanliness and Contamination (IB Tauris, 2007, paperback 2012).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 2nd, 2014.