30 years on: Franco Rosso on why Babylon's burning

30 years ago this month the cult movie Babylon was released - giving a brutal insight into south London's West Indian community in the late 70s. Ahead of a planned sequel, Miguel Cullen speaks to director Franco Rosso to see how the city has changed in the subsequent years.

Junior Byles – Beat Down Babylon (B), Label: Upsetter, Released: 1971. This is the record that Lord Koos, a local sound system operator, played when police raided a sound clash at the Carib night club in Cricklewood Broadway in the infamous ‘Battle of Burtons’ in 1974. Dennis Bovell, the UK reggae punk legend was also playing that night and later remembered, in Lloyd Bradley’s book Bass Culture: “[The police were] all wearing coats so you can’t see their numbers, and there was two on each step all the way down...they beat the shit out of the clientele as they were going down. They arrested forty-two people, and all those who didn’t have visible bruises they let go.”

Bovell was convicted at the Old Bailey of causing an affray and lost over a year of his life behind bars before his case was thrown out on appeal. However out of that real siege a more permanent image of the black struggle in the UK emerged: the final scene of Babylon. Here Aswad’s Brinsley Forde, fleeing justice after stabbing a Deptford racist, chants vexed redemptions songs to a hiving party as the boys in blue batter down the front door.

The November 7 1980 issue of Time Out featured Trevor Laird and Brinsley Forde staring bleak out from the cover. They were stars in revolutionary new film which charted a week in the life of a crew of south London kids following a sound system and was to prove a crucial piece of documentary evidence as to how Afro-Caribbean communities in London lived beneath the media radar. The film benefitted from actors and a screenplay [Martin Stellman] from the Quadrophenia stable and future Oscar-winner in the bud Chris Menges [The Killing Fields, The Mission] as director of photography.

Its opening scene has been sampled by Dizzee Rascal and Shy FX and the film generally in Jungle, Dancehall and even Big Beat [hey this film is 30 years old].

One particular anecdote reveals how unlensed life in Babylon life really was – the scene when Forde’s character Blue is chased by police onto Deptford High Street - which had to be re-shot when a pony bolted down the street mid-scene. A pony! Standard practice in Deptford in the 1970s, apparently,[and even now] where rag-and-bone trade totters would leave their nags grazing outside their tower blocks.

The totters controlled Deptford and had to be paid off for use of the alleys where the crew filmed. The film was sensation to the black community in south London, were kids from Streatham, Lewisham and Brixton would clamour to be part of the extended sound clash scenes, where Jah Shaka, the real-life internationally notorious sound system was to ‘clash’ against incumbent Ital Lion.

Speaking to me from his home near Canterbury, the film’s director Franco Rosso, 68, is mellowing at a comfortable remove from the Streatham badlands where he conceived Babylon. He was brought to London aged eight by his parents, Fiat workers from Turin, and soon felt the rough edge of London’s immigrant welcome mat. Regular fights in his Battersea comprehensive [at the time the Messina brothers provoked regular headlines with their Soho prostitution rings – hence every Italian’s mother was a prostitute] lead to an increased empathy with black immigrants, the next to cop grief in London’s post-war palette.

He soon fell into making black culture films – one about the Mangrove Nine case about police harassment in Notting Hill in 1970, in which Darcus Howe was a defendant, and other films for Horace Ové [director of a predecessor of Babylon – Pressure].

Speaking of where his empathies lie, Rosso says: “It was a lot easier for us than West Indians or Indians or any people of colour, because we were white so you could in fact hide and disappear into the background. If you kept quiet, nobody knew. Whereas of course when West Indians came along they were very easily picked off because of their colour. Because of that there was a lot of identification with characters in the film.”

I mention a recent article in Prospect magazine entitled Master Class in Victimhood, where a black journalist claims cites victim-casting and self-pity are the most corrosive elements in low black school grades, and he agrees: “I saw something similar with The Archbishop of York [Dr John Sentamu] who made a speech for Black History Month, and it really struck a chord with me. He was telling black kids not to use their colour as an excuse, as so often happens these days, and to get on with their lives and focus.”

The line between documentary and film was often blurry in Babylon, never more, remember Rosso, when they were filming the sound clash scenes: “ Jah Shaka didn’t want to do it at first – we kept having to remind him – you know, it’s not for real you know, this is a drama – ‘cause he wanted to win. “Nah...I cyan’t do it man...” and all this nonsense – but he was business man at the end of the day, he knew that if he didn’t do it he would miss out on something that would give him quite a lot of exposure. I used to bump into him quite a lot afterwards, and even a couple of years ago in Soho. And he’s always convinced that you’ve made money on it and he’s missed his cut!”

Arguably the film is made by Menges’s photography, from the Taxi Driver jaded kitsch of the Soho arcade scenes [shot through an Old Compton Street letter box while the prostitute upstairs was paid off for the hour] to the roving camera of the sensitive engagement party scene, to a post-dance lilac dawn over Deptford set against a piss-darkened tower block walkway.

But it was the real-life inspired closer that killed it. The tested strategy of casting a musician as lead in reggae films - Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace in Rockers, Jimmy Cliff in The Harder They Come [which Rosso cites as Babylon’s main inspiration] – comes correct again with Forde’s thrumming song and its content, with the added percussion of the police sledge hammer, mezzo piano.

Beginning the interview, Rosso can barely suppress a splutter when I tell him that I wasn’t born when the film came out, back at that premiere where the kids in Bristol slashed the seats. Three decades later, Rosso is planning a sequel. The picture will have black writers, a black director, and a black DOP [unless Menges comes back]. The music, this time round, will be grime.

Last week Rosso had arranged to see his son, a Goldsmiths art student. “He couldn’t make it – he was going to a talk by Linton Kwesi Johnson...” says Rosso, himself a graduate of south London art school and documentarist of that taciturn dub poet. Full circle.

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...