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What Colour is Time? Derek Jarman’s Soho

By Jeremy Reed.

What colour is time when you try to remember it? In 1984, the year when Derek Jarman took a lease on a studio flat in Phoenix House, above the Phoenix Theatre off Charing Cross Road, a compactly minuscule, but functional base, the uncurtained window set like a grid framing the Soho skyline, I associate time then with aqueous white rain skies over Leicester Square, and as candy coloured stripes: pink and white, maroon and grey, pistachio and russet bands according to my abstract notation of big city seasons.

Jarman’s studio, reached by an anonymous door, with a clunky semi-industrial lift ascending to his fourth floor flat choked with his paintings, books, a fold-up bed, a metal office desk and looking out at the sky-reflecting windows of St Martin’s School of Art, was to become the epicentre for a decade of electrifying creativity, AIDS agitprop as Jarman went public about his HIV status, and intense kamikaze forays into the West End club scene. Jarman regularly visited Bang directly opposite his building, Blitz, Pink Panther, Flamingo, Heaven and the Sanctuary, as well as his favourite back room at the Subway in Leicester Square. Jarman’s club topology also extended north of Soho to the Catacombs and The Bell beside King’s Cross, to which he travelled by cab, always asking the driver to drop him wide of his destination and walking the remaining distance there. There was also the teeming pub circuit he pursued that took in The Salisbury, Global Village, Brief Encounter, and of course the pyramidically stacked leather crush of expectant bodies in Compton’s on Old Compton Street.

Jarman’s last full feature film had been the critically acclaimed The Tempest in 1979, a homoerotic reworking of myths that continued to resonate with his filmic obsessions. In 1984 he found himself in something of a creative hiatus – lacking the finance to commit to the Caravaggio project he was researching, and taking advantage of the interlude to review his past through a comprehensive retrospective of his paintings at the ICA and the publication of Dancing Ledge, the first of his experimental and intransigently outspoken autobiographies. And in need of space in which to paint and put up a wall of his books, he rented a small room from Christopher Hobbs at 20 Hanway Works, one of the gun-barrel narrow alleyways just off the Phoenix House complex.

At the same time as Jarman was considering shooting pop videos to provide some necessary income, the singer Marc Almond, living less than a quarter of a mile away on Brewer Street at the heart of Soho’s lugubrious red light district, was planning to release his first solo album, appropriately called Vermin in Ermine. The exotic, epic-voiced Almond, who had risen to fame with the Northern Soul dance hit ‘Tainted Love’ and who had quickly grown disaffected with Soft Cell’s winning electro-pop formula and angry at the commercial failure of Marc and the Mambas as a serious sideline, had for his first solo project embraced his true identity as a torch singer. He was living in a one bedroom flat on the third floor of a red-brick mansion-block facing out over Madame JoJo’s cabaret bar in Brewer Street and the Raymond Revuebar Theatre with its jumpy chilli-red neon illuminating his windows. Almond’s infatuation with sleaze had brought him to live in it as a reality. From the safety of his unlit living room, his voyeuristic eye monitored nocturnal Soho, finding in its fugitive characters the inspiration for many of the finely crafted songs included on Vermin in Ermine.

That the two artists were linked by a shared neighbourhood, as well as elective affinities extending to the use of dramatic camp as an expression incorporated into their art, led to Almond suggesting that Jarman shoot the low-budget video for the third single lifted from his album ‘Tenderness is a Weakness’. Jarman, who referred to pop videos as ‘a cinema of small gestures’, was attracted to the form largely as a means of helping finance his more serious artistic projects. That he brought imagination to the work and could earn £1,000 for a few days’ filming encouraged him to apply his characteristic theatre-skills to the medium. In 1983-84, in rapid succession, he made videos of ‘Touch the Radio, ‘Dance!’ by Steve Hale, ‘Dance with Me’ by Lords of the New Church, ‘Willow Weep for Me’ by Carmel, ‘Dance Hall Days’ by Wang Chung, ‘Wide Boy Awake’ by Billy Hyena, ‘Catalan’ by Jordi Vall, ‘What Presence’ by Orange Juice, as well as Almond’s ‘Tenderness is a Weakness’.

Jarman’s dramatic stage-set for the video of ‘Tenderness is a Weakness’ poses Almond in a full-length black sequinned gown, alternated with shots of him with glittering devil’s horns woven into his hair against an urban landscape featuring dustbins and a blank-faced city backdrop, under a blue night sky painted with splashy gold stars and an imposing yellow crescent moon. Almond’s sequinned costumes were indigenous to Soho too, and John Carter – who was living at Almond’s Brewer Street flat at the time – remembers the singer returning from one of the fabric shops on Berwick Street with bolts of pink and black sequins to be made up for stage clothes worn on Almond’s extensive tour of the UK in the autumn of 1984. The bolts were in fact purchased from Aladdin’s Cave, one of the shops that gives on to the heckling bustle of Berwick Street market and which continues to this day to have sequinned material on display in ripples of scintillating emerald, cerise, scarlet and ultramarine.

Almond’s song – divisively split in gender between she and he, two characters who form a composite in Jarman’s portrayal of the girl as indeterminately androgynous, a Weimar cabaret figure with raked back hair complemented by a sandy-haired rent-boy reading at a café table – is a dichotomy continued by Jarman’s depiction of Almond as alternately a devil with horns and bright red lipstick, and a naturally-posed torch singer in a black sequinned gown. The song’s theme, which is essentially one of vulnerability and of the access that provides to a manipulative lover, is taken up by Jarman’s ascending and descending screens, in which Almond – in his endeavour to keep a torch burning for disappointed love – is cast as the rejected outlaw, standing under a streetlamp in the night beside a flaming dustbin.

Working with quickly assembled props and employing archetypes recognisably his own – like a scorching red heart, two teenaged girls dressed all in white who appear to be torch-bearing angels, red theatre curtains, a sky full of stars, characters who are sexually ambiguous, and a city on the edge of apocalypse – Jarman added his own torchy signature and theatrical ensemble to Almond’s histrionically flavoured pop.

The Soho of Marc Almond’s imagination, one in which rent boys crowded on the black railings at Piccadilly Circus and mini-skirted hookers trafficked in the alleys, had almost disappeared by 1984, airbrushed by omniscient CCTV cameras and the ubiquitous politics of totalitarianism. Soho’s disaffected bohemians still convened in cafés along Old Compton Street, at Maison Bertaux in Greek Street almost opposite Oscar Wilde’s old nightspot Kettners, and of course in its landmark bars and drinking-clubs such as The Colony, made famous by Francis Bacon.

I asked what colour time was in 1984. It was pearl grey; the skies were consistently opalescent as they so often are over the West End. I associate time with the colours memory constellates. Pearl banded with charcoal and dark blue. When Vermine in Ermine was released I bought my copy from the HMV store in Oxford Street and cut into Soho on a simmering autumn day, nitrogen dioxide air quality 40ppb, and caught sight of Marc Almond’s alertly paranoid, wiry, harassed figure cutting it along Berwick Street as though he was being pursued. He was hurrying back home and I to meet a friend in a precinct that always seems to me a starting point for London’s imagination.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The first in our ‘Jarman at 3am’ series to coincide with the BFI’s 2014 Derek Jarman season, this originally appeared in London Eyes: Reflections in Text and Image (2007), co-edited by Stephen Barber and reproduced here with kind permission and encouragement. A poet, novelist and biographer, Jeremy Reed was interviewed by Richard Marshall for 3:AM here, with his review of Reed’s The Grid here, while Piccadilly Bongo is reviewed here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, January 12th, 2014.