To those of us who remember the bitter end of many of Britain’s industries, the strikes and battles, and the mass unemployment and social problems that followed, it is hard to believe that these changes occurred nearly forty years ago. What have the years since meant, with their more tenuous hold on the authentic? Echoing the engineer George Bidder, pioneers who saw the potential of this unwanted wilderness were quick to exploit the landscape. In a short time, three very different cult films were shot here: Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) saw the CWS Mill transformed into a dystopian mega-bureau, while the nearby Beckton Gas Works, a genuinely dangerous location of scattered asbestos and seeping heavy metals, doubled as Hue, Vietnam, in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, shot in September 1986. Perhaps most iconic was the production two months later of The Last of England, Derek Jarman’s lo-fi dream allegory of social apocalypse, with a soundtrack by Simon Fisher Turner, Andy Gill, and Barry Adamson among others. Partly filmed against the backdrop of a now-derelict Millennium Mills, its non-narrative and anti-historical assemblage of staged tableaux and found footage disturbed any sense of closed meaning: this ambiguity, rather than the film’s post-punk aesthetic, was perhaps the greatest challenge to the cool logic underlying the Royal Docks next metamorphosis into an outpost of ‘London Docklands’.
A very different kind of artistic intervention was staged in 1988, with Jean Michel Jarre’s spectacular son et lumière mega concerts. ‘Destination Docklands’ consciously embraced the redevelopment agenda, a floating stage in the Victoria Dock anticipating more permanent spectacles. Projected images – again focussed on Millennium Mills – World War Two searchlights, and a firework display (which cost more than Jarman’s entire budget for The Last of England) offered a neatly prepackaged recollection of the Industrial Revolution and the War (apparently the only stories worth telling about the area), culminating in a utopian vision of the coming decade. Thirty-two years on, it remains substantially unrealised. While the idea of spectacle was dusted down and rehashed in similar vein at the 2012 Olympic ceremonies nearby, the only tangible connection with the concerts today is the brooding hulk of the mill.
It is too easy to dismiss Jarre’s concert as corporate and superficial compared to Jarman’s vision (its worth remembering that he was not above popular culture himself: that autumn he had directed the music video for The Smiths’ song Ask, on the same stretch of quayside). If the latter is now judged to have greater artistic integrity, neither has a greater claim to authenticity. In fact, the ‘real’ musical and cultural life of the Royal Docks is little documented and hard to pin down. And whose culture are we talking about? That of white working-class dockers? Women in the munition factories? Sugar refiners and their families relaxing at Tate’s Institute? Lascars with a local heritage dating back centuries?