As part of the BFI’s current celebration of the cinema of Powell and Pressburger, a potentially risky but brilliant intervention at Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage has shown how inspired curation can create a dialogue between different creators.
Prospect Cottage, Derek Jarman’s internationally renowned retreat, workshop and garden at Dungeness, is a delicate environment contained in a former fisherman’s cottage. It was saved for the nation by an Art Fund campaign conceived by the late Keith Collins, Jarman’s companion and last resident of the cottage. It is preserved as a shrine to Jarman and his work, small in scale but deeply moving to visit for its evidence all around of Jarman’s visionary approach to creativity. But it is not a museum, and Collins’ intention was that the space should carry on functioning in the way that it did for Jarman: as a continuing space of inspiration for others. Visitors in small numbers are encouraged and a programme of residencies is now in its second year, orchestrated by Creative Folkestone.
The catalyst for the exhibition is the fact that Michael Powell, in common with Jarman, shared a fascination with the magic of the English pastoral and a love of the fantastical. Powell worked for over 15 years on trying to make a film based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Jarman, who shared Powell’s frustrations at unproduced film projects, did manage to make his own groundbreaking version of The Tempest in 1979. Ian Christie’s 1985 interview with Jarman includes the filmmaker’s acknowledgment: “I’ve never met Michael Powell, but when I was making The Tempest, I knew he had long wanted to film the play and I kept saying to my producer, ‘Michael Powell should be making this – I’ve stolen it from him.’” Jarman had also been an enthusiastic attendee at a National Film Theatre retrospective of Powell and Pressburger’s work in 1978.
The BFI National Archive holds substantial collections relating to both Powell and Jarman. A few deft loans of copies of production designs by Ivor Beddoes for Powell’s unmade Tempest have an extra resonance when seen in the context of Jarman’s space. At the heart of The Tempest is the character of Prospero, and in some deeply felt way both Jarman and Powell were inspired by the figure of the Magus. The metaphorical, alchemical resonances of the filmmaker as magician feel surprisingly real in Jarman’s home. Pages of Jarman’s writing on magical things are part of the exhibition, given added impact by the presence of books on John Dee and magick, alongside glass globes reputedly once owned by Aleister Crowley and Jarman’s shamanic totems of wood and beach-stones. Copies of production designs for The Tempest including Christopher Hobbs’ “room of conjuration” sit alongside costume sketches.
Several rooms have moving-image work on display on subtly mounted screens. In Jarman’s bedroom there is a powerful short work of found footage by Adebukola Bodunrin entitled Even When Life Is Sad, People Still Have a Good Time (2005). It is a dream-like montage of decaying and fading-to-yellow Technicolor elements patched together from a discarded print of Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). In the living room, a comfy sofa is the perfect viewing position for a screening of the newly restored version of the opera film Bluebeard’s Castle (1963), a rare work by Powell, unseen for decades, made for German television. And here again the magic happens as Jarman’s paintings on the walls seem to be as one with the production design of Bluebeard, which also has a strangely Jarman-esque air, avant la lettre.
Victor Burgin’s high-concept video work Listen to Britain (2001) is another deliciously apt inclusion screening in Jarman’s office; its meditation on Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944) explores the relationship between images, words and memory in the post-9/11 world.
On the evidence here, curator Rhidian Davis and the team at Prospect Cottage have conjured up an enchantment that enhances and enlarges our appreciation of both Powell and Pressburger and Jarman, revealing interlocking influences and inspirations without destroying the precious fabric of Prospect Cottage.
Jarman was a huge enthusiast for ephemeral spectacle and one can imagine that he would wholeheartedly approve of this current venture. But perhaps he, like us, would wish that it might endure longer than the handful of days it has been allotted here.
In Prospero’s Room: in pictures
Powell + Pressburger: In Prospero’s Room at Prospect Cottage ran 2 to 3 December 2023 as part of Cinema Unbound: The Creative Worlds of Powell + Pressburger.
The Cinema Unbound season runs from 16 October to 31 December on the big screen at venues across the country, on BFI Player and with the free, major exhibition The Red Shoes: Behind the Mirror (from 10 November, BFI Southbank).
The Red Shoes is back in cinemas from 8 December.
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