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.

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