Potter, Cobain, Jarman, Hicks, Anderson – 20 Years Gone and who Fills Their Boots?

I went over my word count earlier than I had hoped. This is really a starter blog post, it will continue. Tired mind means plenty of typos for you to enjoy. 

This is the twentieth anniversary of the deaths of five artists who fascinated me in my youth, and still intrigue, maybe even inspire me, now. All of them were both counter cultural and culturally visible too. Some were even mainstream, not just cult figures extemporised about by the few. I was thinking about them after a conversation I had with an audience member last night. She told me of how her university educated daughter was becoming disillusioned because she couldn’t find people who wanted to talk about anything beyond the broad mainstream, they didn’t want to watch anything that vaguely smelt of the idiosyncratic, or read books that weren’t front and centre in the Railway station newsstand display. In world of so many TV and radio stations, have we never had more of the same, while the specialist shrivels into a ghetto, eventually to dry up and die, crushed by an analysis show of an analysis show of a panel show that analyses what has happened to a glamorous weather presenter who is learning to skate with ducks on primetime. Hopefully, these are just the usual grumblings of anyone on the cusp of 45. 

I wish to be proved wrong. 

Derek Jarman, Dennis Potter, Kurt Cobain, Bill Hicks and Lindsay Anderson all died in 1994.

I can’t remember how I first became aware of Derek Jarman. As a child movie buff, I got hold of any movie magazines I could. Though I wouldn’t have been aware it was his work, I would have come face to face with his design work with images of Ken Russell’s The Devils in one of my many horror film books. As for films he directed, I vividly remember leafing through a sunday colour supplement and being surprised to see an image from his version of The Tempest. It stayed in my mind because this peculiar photograph included an actress who, until then, I had only known as Dick Emery’s lead harridan of choice (and I think she was topless too – I was a 12 year old shocked). I was intrigued by what I read of his “punk” film, Jubilee. While other boys made do with listening to Friggin’ in the Riggin’ as they imagined the day they would access The Great Rock n Roll Swindle, Jubilee was the one on my list. I eventually saw it on a carry round TV with a one inch screen. I am not sure it did it justice. (I think this was part of the film critic David Robinson’s film season on Channel 4, such arthouse is unlikely to be terrestrial again). If I am honest, I found some of the films a little boring, but amongst them, there were always moments of striking imagery and lighting the ugly to the point of beautiful and vice versa. His writing struck me most. His books are laden with passion, conviction and vision. For someone whose work was arthouse and challenging, he was surprisingly visible in the mainstream, and he disturbed it too. He would be interviewed on Jonathan Ross’s The Last Resort, he would be vilified by Garry Bushell in his column in The Sun (I am sure this deterred his core audience from seeing both Caravaggio and Wittgenstein), and he was front page of The Sunday Times News Review section when Thatcherite history pundit Norman Stone lambasted The Last of England for not being The Lavender Hill Mob.

Do such alternative visionaries bother the mainstream now?

 I was also aware of Dennis Potter long before I saw anything he had written. Just 9 years old in 1978, I wasn’t permitted into the disturbing landscape of sexual repression and sheet music that was Pennies From Heaven, but I knew it existed. It was TV that filled the air around it, a conversation that must be had, even though the children should not hear what Mr Potter had dreamt up now. Before then, I remember overhearing Bouquet of Barbed Wire, on those nights where the smoke and chatter of a parental gathering would keep a child half awake with wonderment at what forbidden television existed beyond their reach. Follow the Yellow Brick Road was my first Potter – shame, guilt, impotence, consumerism and dog food commercials – I remember I liked it, but I wish I could know what my 15 year old self really thought it was about, because I am sure he missed the point. Once a year, I watch The Singing Detective, and perhaps a few single plays, The Beast with Two Backs or Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton. Who is 2014’s Potter? Shane Meadows seems unafraid to question ugliness and what motivates it. But who is permitted to be so fecund and disturbing at prime time? 


Lindsay Anderson’s Mick Travis trilogy, even the frequently maligned Britannia Hospital, remain annoyingly pertinent. You’ll still find If… has some perfect images for Bullingdon boys and their Britain (see Boba Fett as a pig mutation too). I went to the school where If… was filmed (as did Anderson), so imagine the joy of those fantasies of machine gun rebellion made celluloid on the very roof of the building you were being bullied or bored in. 

And you know Bill Hicks and Kurt Cobain. 

Was my youth in the final heartbeats of a time where anti-establishment figures were not all co-opted immediately into consumer items or discarded or annoyed. There are plenty of thrilling artists out there, but do the broadsheet mainstream and major TV channels focus so much time and energy on the glitz that there is little room for the oddballs? 

Though I rue the lack of shows like John Peel’s which had such a gregarious approach to noise, maybe the radio is the wrong place to look. Do all the bands that would have once found a session or two in Maida Vale, now do such things on the internet, and find an audience just as big (not always that big, but big enough to keep performing and recording)? I hope so.

I am off to Falmouth, Leicester, Norwich, Salford, Sheffield, Bristol and a town near you with my new tour show. Details HERE

New Art/Comedy/Fury gang show – Your Culture is Ailing, Your Art is Dead, starts in London next week (Brighton and Northampton soon). Details HERE

As I mentioned in a previous post, the awareness of people like Hicks, Jarman and Potter is the the threat of a good example, an example to the next generation of other possibilities of what you you can do with art. Reduce the variety of visible art, do you reduce that potential of another generation.

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8 Responses to Potter, Cobain, Jarman, Hicks, Anderson – 20 Years Gone and who Fills Their Boots?

  1. Matt Whitby says:

    Doug Stanhope is testing out Bill Hicks’ shoes.

  2. Nick says:

    And Frank Zappa. (Yes, I know, he died in ’93)

  3. Ben says:

    I suspect the internet has a big part to play. Not only does it provide a platform away from mainstream media for more challenging material, it also makes it easier for reactionaries to manufacture outrage if such things make it onto primetime. Hyped up campaigns to ban this sick filth can be whipped up overnight and result in someone having to resign, so no-one takes risks any more.
    The proliferation of channels exacerbates this as well I feel; controversial or niche material gets tucked away on BBC 3/4 or Sky Arts where it’s less likely to offend anyone’s delicate sensibilities wheb confronted with something more

  4. Mark Baker says:

    Guy Debord also died in 1994. As a founder of the Situationist International, I’d argue he was far more important that the people you mention – not that they weren’t influential

  5. robinince says:

    the point was about these individuals being included in the mainstream too. Guy Debord never got on Pebble Mill at One. That does not mean he wasn’t important.

  6. David Peschek says:

    Hey Robin, hope you’re well. I worked with Derek, and was his friend through the last three years of his life. I edited the Garden book. It was wonderful to read such passionate advocacy on his behalf. You’re right: a magus of the avant grade, he disturbed the mainstream – and his death felt like the end of an era. Stupidly, I never thought about it in this context – but you’re right – such a terrible cavalcade of loss. And the rest is…? Quite. I loved him dearly, and knowing him changed me deeply. He’s always around somewhere, glad he’s there for you too. Thank you. xD

  7. Enjoyed reading this, thank you.

    I discovered Derek Jarman when I was in my teens, I think, and that was because they put his films on the telly – oddly, I also watched them on a tiny portable black and white TV. Maybe it just felt too subversive for the living room, where my parents were. I was an art student when Jarman died, and I read and reread Modern Nature, and then his other books – I don’t think any other artist has had such a huge impact on me, before or since. His voice was so clear, so powerful and it just resonated with me. I find little snippets of it come back to me at odd moments, even now. My favourite of his films is Blue. I would probably consider it one of the most accessible, which is perhaps a strange thing to say of a film with no images. But it’s that voice again – I think it’s an utterly beautiful piece of work.

    What David says above, about Derek always being around somewhere, is true for me too. Something about his sensibility – it got me when I was young, and I imagine it will stay with me till I die. And that’s really all because he was so very visible, as you say, bothering the mainstream.

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