Babylon RevisitedWritten by Paolo Sedazzari
It’s powerful, resonant ending is up there with the classic Jimmy Cagney‘s “Made It Make top of the world” finale in White Heat. But Babylon is not available in any British Video store. It has been not been shown on British TV, neither terrestrial or satellite, for many years. What is the meaning of this outrage?
Released nearly thirty years ago, Babylon stands up today as a well crafted, convincingly acted, hard hitting piece of realistic drama.
Because the film’s release in 1980 was not shrouded in anonymity. Far from it, it had a bona fide theatrical release and received many a great review – notably from The Times, Time Out and the NME.
Two years later Babylon was shown on British TV and became available on VHS. At the dawn of the video age, it was not uncommon to see Babylon rubbing shoulders with Taxi Driver and The Godfather in discerning video collections.
Babylon revolves around the lives of a group of young black people in inner London, focusing on Blue, played by Brinsley Forde, car mechanic by day and toaster for a reggae sound system by night.
The film grew out of the school of social realism prevalent in Britain in the seventies. Its roots can be traced back to Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Royal in Stratford, which in turn influenced television productions like the Play For Today series, from where writers like Dennis Potter and Mike Leigh emerged.
In Islington Anna Scher’s acting school encouraged the homegrown working class kids to act in their own accents, improvise with their own slang, and bring something of themselves to the roles that they play. It was this methodology that gave us feature films like Scum, Quadrophenia and Babylon.
Director Franco Rosso wrote the script with Martin Stellman (who also co-wrote Quadrophenia) but much of the script was developed, and written in Patois with the involvement of the young black people whose lives was the source material for the film. Right from the start the mission of Babylon was to show what life was really like for poor young black people in inner London.
Initially the BBC were to fund the project. Shooting began, but the plugs got pulled, apparently for fear that the film would spark a race war. It was around about this time the BBC also shelved the TV film Scum.
Not to be defeated Franco Rosso went on a long drawn out process that took the best part of five years to raise the cash to make Babylon into an independent movie.
Babylon may have been a low budget movie, but there is nothing cheap about it. The Cinematography was handled by Chris Menges – a man with a very impressive filmography before and after Babylon. From Kes to TheKiling Fields, to The Mission right up to Notes On A Scandal. Menges gives the film a classy but gritty portrayal of London, his shots of night-time and on the tube are especially vivid. His work on Babylon set the benchmark for other British films that want to give you hard realism, from Naked to Nil By Mouth right up to This Is England.
Finale aside, there a number of other epic scenes in Babylon that jump up and stay long in the memory.
In an early scene we have Blue (Brinsley Forde) being ordered by his mother to take his truanting younger brother to school. The young kid tries to run away and Blue catches up with him. A passing white woman intervenes, assuming that Blue is terrorizing the young kid. It’s dealing with day to day racism, but hilariously with the young brother flicking the Vs at his elder brother as the woman escorts him away, supposedly to safety.
Later in the film – all laughter has gone when the boys return to the garage to find their sound system has been “mash up” by local racists. The smouldering Beefy Man, (brilliantly played by Trevor Laird also Ferdy in Quadrophenia) lets his anger take over him. Right now he hates all white people, including his friend Ronnie (Karl Howman familiar to British TV viewers as Jacko in Brush Strokes). This is jaw dropping heart-breaking cinema as Beefy takes it out on his white friend.
And then we come to the finale. And what a finale – without wanting to be a spoiler-merchant it involves Blue toasting at a warehouse party with the police (Babylon) about to crash through the door. Everyone else seems to be fleeing but Blue remains – “We kwan take no more of that.”
It’s still breath-taking - 28 years later.
Linking social commentary with drama as entertainment is a delicate balancing act and with Babylon a few plates fall to the ground. A number of sub-stories don’t come quite come off, including the anniversary party in the middle of the film which seems rather inconsequential.
The sound system rivalry storyline perhaps should have been developed and expanded instead. In subsequent years it’s become clear that the destructive and often fatal rivalries between rival gangs has become a major problem for young black people. Like so many British films – then and now – Babylon feels that the script should have been given a rigorous re-write before the director called “Action”. But I am being picky – when this films rolls it really does roll. For the best part there is a very real clarity and self-assurance about what the film wants to say, what it wants to show, and where it is going.
Babylon is not quite in the same league as Taxi Driver, but it’s tugging heavily at it’s sleeve. And Remember Taxi Driver, was Scorsese’s fifth feature. What could have director Franco Rosso achieved had he’d been given a shot at a decent budget fifth feature?
Like so many of his contemporaries Franco Rosso struggled to make follow up films in the eighties. The era became a cultural dessert for British film – kept alive only by Handmade and Film Four.
The dominant reactionary politics of Thatcher, and the video boom and video piracy created an atmosphere of negative caution and a lack of investment.
So let’s celebrate a film that came through against the odds. Because the end result is that Babylon chronicles life for young black people in the early eighties in the same way Charles Dickens did for Victorian Britain.
So what’s going on? How can the British film industry expect to make great films in the 21st Century – when we bury our legacy of excellence?
Babylon should be in every store in the land that stocks DVDs, it should get regular airings on Sky or Film4 – available on Love Film.Babylon must not become a forgotten film. Get mad damn it! Get Mad.
Or alternatively “Peace to the I. Rastafari. One Love!”
© Words Paolo Sedazzari