Mister Jarman, Mister Moore and Doctor Dee


Prospero (Heathcote Williams) and Miranda (Toyah Willcox), The Tempest (1979).

The Shakespeare who spun The Tempest must have known John Dee; and perhaps through Philip Sidney he met Giordano Bruno in the year when he was writing the Cena di Ceneri—the Ash Wednesday supper in the French Ambassador’s house in the Strand. Prospero’s character and predicament certainly reflect these figures, each of whom in his own way fell victim to reaction. John Dee, with the greatest library in England, skrying for the angels Madimi and Uriel (so nearly Ariel)—all of which is recorded in the Angelic Conversations—ended up, in his old age, penniless in Manchester. Bruno was burnt for heresy.

Ten years of reading in these forgotten writers, together with a study of Jung and his disciples proved vital in my approach to both Jubilee and The Tempest. As for the black magic which David Bowie thought I dabbled in like Kenneth Anger, I’ve never been interested in it. I find Crowley’s work dull and rather tedious. Alchemy, the approach of Marcel Duchamp, interests me much more.

Derek Jarman, Dancing Ledge (1991).

Damon Albarn’s opera Doctor Dee has been all over the news this week following its premier as part of the Manchester International Festival. Last weekend one of the press ads was announcing this as an “untold story”, as though no one had given much thought to the Elizabethan magus prior to Mr Albarn’s arrival. Neither the ads nor anyone associated with the production will be in a hurry to tell you that the idea for the opera came from Alan Moore who’s had a fascination with John Dee’s life and work for many years. Albarn and fellow Gorillaz cohort Jamie Hewlett approached Alan about a collaboration a couple of years ago; Alan agreed to write something on the condition that Gorillaz provide a contribution to Alan’s magazine, Dodgem Logic. They agreed, Alan set to work, having suggested John Dee as a good subject then the whole thing fell apart: Gorillaz said they were too busy to accommodate themselves to the magazine’s generous deadlines so Alan told the pair that he was now too busy to have anything further to do with their opera. This is all old news (and being a Dodgem Logic contributor I have a partisan interest in the story) but it’s worth noting since the opera will be playing elsewhere once it’s finished its Manchester run so we’ll continue to hear about it. The point is that the subject matter was Alan Moore’s choice, not Damon Albarn’s; if Alan had decided to write something about Madame Blavatsky (say) we’d now be reading reviews of Blavatsky: The Opera. Albarn can at least be commended for staying with the subject. Despite John Dee’s exile in Manchester being part of the city’s history (among other things he helped organise the first survey of the streets) you can bet the apes from Oasis have never heard of him.


Richard O’Brien as John Dee in Jubilee (1978).

All of which had me thinking how John Dee, a maverick intelligence of the Elizabethan era, has a tendency to attract equally maverick intelligences in later eras. Derek Jarman’s work returns to John Dee often enough to make the magus a recurrent theme in his films, from the scenes in Jubilee (1978) (part of an earlier script) where he’s portrayed by Richard O’Brien showing Elizabeth I the future of her kingdom, to The Tempest (1979) where Prospero’s wand is modelled on Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica, to The Angelic Conversation (1987) which borrows its title from Dee’s scrying experiments and finds via the sonnets another connection between John Dee and Shakespeare (Ariel being the contrary spirit whose magic allows a vision of the future in Jubilee). By one of those coincidences which make you think there must have been something in the air during the mid-70s, Michael Moorcock’s novel Gloriana, or The Unfulfill’d Queen was published the year Jubilee premiered, a fantasy in which the Elizabethan court is blended with its fictional counterpart from Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, and which features a Doctor John Dee as the queen’s Councillor of Philosophy. (If you want to stretch the connections further, Jenny Runacre who plays Elizabeth in Jubilee had earlier portrayed Miss Brunner in the film of Moorcock’s The Final Programme.)


My 2009 poster design for The Mindscape of Alan Moore, a documentary by Dez Vylenz. John Dee’s Sigillum Dei Aemeth appears in the film so I used this as the principal motif for the packaging design and DVD interface.

Reading the reviews it’s impossible to tell how Alan’s libretto might have fared on stage compared to the work which is now showing, the content of which draws on Benjamin Woolley’s excellent biography, The Queen’s Conjuror. Alan and Benjamin Woolley can both be found among the interviewees in a Channel 4 documentary about John Dee broadcast in the Masters of Darkness (sic) series in 2001. For those keen to delve beyond the stage show, Derek Jarman’s films are all on DVD, of course, while fragments of Alan’s libretto can be found in the fourth edition of Strange Attractor along with his notes for the rest of the opera. Charlotte Fell Smith’s life of Dee from 1909, for many years the standard study of the man, can be found online here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Tempest illustrated
Robert Anning Bell’s Tempest
In the Shadow of the Sun by Derek Jarman
Designs on Doctor Dee
Derek Jarman at the Serpentine
The Angelic Conversation
The life and work of Derek Jarman

8 thoughts on “Mister Jarman, Mister Moore and Doctor Dee”

  1. Blavatsky: The Opera!!! Oh, John, that absolutely made my day.

    I did once see a production of The Mesmerist, about HPB, at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. It wasn’t a great play, and the lead performance was a bit shrill, but I liked it anyway by virtue of it’s subject matter.

    As for Dee, well, he probably deserves better. Jarman’s always a good start, though!

  2. Thanks, Thom. Many of these people led such colourful lives you’d think there’d be more stage or film works about them. John Dee does better in novels, Peter Ackroyd and Gustav Meyrink being among the other authors who’ve written about him.

    LCP: As it happens, Alan’s libretto piece is entitled “Between the Apes and the Angels”.

  3. Many of these people led such colourful lives you’d think there’d be more stage or film works about them.

    Where’s Ken Russell when you need him???


  4. Aleister Crowley would have been an ideal subject for Ken but his Catholicism might be a stumbling block for dealing with the occult.

  5. I just purchased a new monitor so the fourth Strange Attractor will have to wait for now, though its definitely on the ‘to purchase’ list. More importantly though, I’d no idea such a well-rounded, informative, ‘relatively’ non-judgemental TV program about John Dee had ever been made. Nice to hear bits from Coil being used as background music. For as different as he may have been, Dee was hardly insignificant as a historical figure. The only documentaries I’ve seen which referenced him though have basically painted him as such.

    I once saw such a documentary on one of the History Channels. Its main focus was the Philosopher’s Stone, though it actually spent more time talking about Harry Potter and other popular tripe than any historically significant figures tied to alchemical mythology. It also spent a good deal of the small amount of time it allotted to them more or less christianizing Dee’s and Kelley’s ‘angels’ and made no mention of an ‘Enochian language’, most likely for the alleged greater good of watering down an otherwise interesting character and making him more presentable to a mentally and emotionally handicapped public.

    I saw a bit of the Crowley piece, but was rather dismayed by how much more biased and damning it was in comparison, not that I believe everything he said, I’d say I disagree with at least half of it, but he’s far more interesting than the bogeyman he’s made out to be. Perhaps I should have watched more, but the video quality was very poor.

    I didn’t bother watching the de Sade pieces. An interesting one, but he’s been done to death. The only other one I was very curious to see was the one on Rasputin, but I can’t find it anywhere.

    Back to Dee though, if they ever release a set of Jarman’s work collecting his some these mystically-inclined films I’ve oft-heard of him making, that will be another thing to add to my ever-growing list. I have all of Gustav Meyrink’s novels and one of his short story collections, but have thus far only read ‘The Golem’, ‘The Green Face’, and ‘The Opal and Others’ in their entirety. Perhaps the next one I should try is ‘The Angel of the West Window’- also deeply related to Dee and his life and pursuits, though I am all but certain you already know this. I’ve heard though, its far more challenging, layered, and cryptic than his other works.

    I typically like music that’s layered and cryptic, the problem with literature is that it is, by nature, time-consuming, especially so if the previous adjectives apply.

  6. The Dee documentary was definitely the best of the four. As I recall, the Crowley one concentrated more on the sensational aspects of his life, and they also didn’t have very authoritative interviewees.

    Some of Jarman’s dreamy, mystical films were available for a while at Ubuweb but they seem to have vanished. A couple of the short Super-8 films are extras on The Tempest.

    I’ve had the Meyrink novel for years but still haven’t read it. Now would probably be a good time. I have read Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee which was okay but not a patch on his Hawksmoor which is a lot better for its conjuring of occult mystery.

  7. A trip to the Wayback Machine reveals that the Jarman films seem to have been taken down at the request of the copyright holder:


    A shame. You can view (and download) a 5 minute super 8 video (not quite sure if it’s a whole short or a collage) courtesy of the Tate at the moment, in support of a 2007 exhibition:


    Of course there’s the usual mixture of success searching video in Google, though the ubuweb takedown suggests success there may be fleeting. Dailymotion had a few shorts among the results (varying visual quality, but Avebury and Art of Mirrors are there in their entirety):


    And Lux have a couple of interesting DVD collections, but they’re pricey:


    Watching A Journey to Avebury made all that research worthwhile. It’s on Youtube too, in fact, but it’s not usefully tagged (which may help its chances):


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