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
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003