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
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

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.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital