Blue at 30: remembering Derek Jarman’s final film

Thirty years on from the landmark broadcast of Derek Jarman’s Blue, BFI curator Simon McCallum retraces the extraordinary creative journey behind the queer artist’s testament to life and love in the time of AIDS.

14 September 2023

By Simon McCallum

Blue (1993), Derek Jarman © Basilisk Communications Ltd. Photo Liam Daniel

Derek Jarman was diagnosed HIV-positive in December 1986, shortly before the launch of the UK government’s infamous “Don’t Die of Ignorance” campaign with its crashing tombstones and ominous John Hurt voiceover. “The young doctor who told me this morning I was a carrier of the AIDS virus was visibly distressed,” Jarman recalled in his memoir Kicking the Pricks. “I smiled and told her not to worry, I had never liked Christmas.”

Quickly deciding to go public with his HIV status – an unheard-of act for a prominent cultural figure in Thatcher’s Britain – Jarman immersed himself in his next film project The Last of England, a bleak allegorical vision freighted with portents of catastrophe. But 1987 would also see the inception of its calmer cinematic counterpoint, intended to summon “a world to which refugees from that dark space might journey”. Blue, as it came to be known, would take some six years to bring to the screen. 

As Jarman’s life and work is discovered and embraced by a new generation of politically engaged queer artists and filmmakers, and histories of the early HIV/AIDS crisis in Britain make belated inroads into the mainstream public consciousness, revisiting his personal papers offers valuable insights into his artistic process and collaborative, anti-hierarchical working methods. 

Among the BFI National Archive’s extensive Special Collections relating to Jarman, some donated to the nation after he first became seriously ill, is his original workbook for Blue. Somewhere between mood board, storyboard and confessional, Jarman’s beautiful customised notebooks trace the evolution of his film projects, realised and unrealised, sometimes across multiple volumes. 

Signed and dated 1987, its cover hand-painted and decorated with gold leaf, the Blue volume was adapted from a favourite line of Italian photograph albums, and through a collage of script treatments, character sketches, poetry and Polaroids details the early stages of development in the aftermath of Jarman’s diagnosis. 

The core inspiration for Blue was the work of French painter and performance artist Yves Klein (1928 to 1962). Klein’s concept of ‘The Void’ was expressed in part via large-scale monochromes in a shade and pigment eventually known as International Klein Blue (IKB). The seductive uniformity of these pieces invites the spectator to step into an inner world of their own interpretation, and Jarman imagined a similar effect on a screen filled with IKB

In one of several progress updates, later typed up by his partner Keith Collins (aka ‘H.B.’) and pasted into the workbook alongside Jarman’s distinctive calligraphy, Jarman laments the possibility of having to make some kind of conventional biopic of Klein to appease financiers; one was enough after 1986’s Caravaggio, though by biopic standards conventional that film was not. Jarman saw more interest in artists’ conceptual ideas than their lives, commenting mischievously:

“If I was to make a bio-pic I would completely invent Yves Klein’s life and change his sexuality, just as Hollywood did with pictures about Michaelangelo, turning [Klein] into a narcissistic character like Mishima, with an ending like Pasolini and a sexuality to match.”

This proved to be a moot point, however. After considering several more elaborate treatments, one involving a studio set dubbed ‘the blue room’, the filmmaker would circle back to his original, unembellished concept, stripping back unnecessary layers as his health deteriorated. The soundscape and narrative, meanwhile, shifted away from Klein to foreground Jarman’s own reflections on life, as AIDS wreaked havoc on his community and his body. 

From 1990 onwards, periods of serious ill-health and hospitalisation became the new normal. Most concerning to Jarman was the arrival of CMV (cytomegalovirus), complications of which threatened his eyesight: “If I lose half my sight will my vision be halved?”

His stays in St Bartholomew’s Hospital prompted extensive diary entries and a fresh, far more personal window into Klein’s theories as blindness encroached. The drab institutional detail and everyday minutiae of gruelling treatment contrasts with meditations and poetry on blueness, and commentary on queer activism in the face of the rampant institutional homophobia that had taken hold in Britain – manifested in the disgraceful Section 28 legislation introduced in 1988.

The ever-present demands and frustrations of raising the necessary finance is laid bare in both Jarman’s notes in the workbook itself and extensive correspondence between his producer James Mackay – who produced the feature through his production company Basilisk Communications – and potential funders.

The modest £90,000 budget was eventually sourced from Channel 4, the Arts Council of Great Britain, British Council and the Japanese distributor and sales agent Uplink. Brian Eno, who scored Jarman’s first feature Sebastiane (1976), contributed in kind by donating use of his recording studio, where a team led by composer and frequent collaborator Simon Fisher Turner would record the film’s immersive soundscape, including readings from actors John Quentin, Nigel Terry and Tilda Swinton – also Jarman regulars.

Production still from Blue (1993)
© Basilisk Communications Ltd. Photo Liam Daniel

By late 1992 Jarman had completed two drafts of the script, under the title Blueprint (a title which remained into production in early 1993). As he saw it this was to be “the first film made by someone with AIDS as opposed to one made about the situation.” In a foreword to his first draft, preserved by BFI Special Collections, he writes:

“To make a film about illness is dangerous because the parameters of any epidemic change rapidly. So far the films we have seen articulate from outside. Since the virus is essentially invisible, the Blue reflects it more accurately.”

This lateral thinking extended to the film’s innovative release strategy. In a rare collaboration with Channel 4, BBC Radio 3 would broadcast the film’s soundtrack simultaneous to its television premiere on 19 September 1993; a postcard in IKB was included with that week’s Radio Times for listeners. Jarman died exactly six months later.

Time and distance has enabled a more 360-degree perspective on Jarman’s oeuvre as painter, poet, diarist and gardener; all of which informed his roles as activist and filmmaker. He found renewed vigour as a painter following his diagnosis, often during stays at Prospect Cottage, snapped up after a chance visit to Dungeness with Swinton around the time he began development work on Blue. The workbook includes Polaroids of some of his distinctive, small, pitch-black pieces, incorporating found objects from the shingle beach around the cottage and its soon to be world-famous garden.

In the years since Jarman’s death, Blue has enjoyed a shimmering second life as an art installation, screening in prestigious galleries around the world and acquired by major institutions, including Tate. Echoing live performances in the UK and Japan in the 1990s, some held to raise funds for the film, a 2023 touring production, Blue Now, was directed by Neil Bartlett, performed by Travis Alabanza, Jay Bernard, Joelle Taylor and Russell Tovey, and with a new score by Fisher Turner.

What started as “the Yves Klein Film” evolved into something appropriately meditative but somehow even more powerful, resonating with successive generations of viewers in the LGBTQIA+ community and well beyond. Klein’s importance to the film should not be understated, but in the end Jarman chose to dedicate Blue to his beloved H.B. – “and all true lovers”.

With thanks to the BFI National Archive Special Collections team.

A BBC Radio 3 documentary, Forever Blue, made in collaboration with Just Radio and the BFI, will be on Radio 3 on 17 September at 18:45 and BBC Sounds.

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