The film is centred around the lives of those involved with a South London reggae sound system struggling in the face of racism from the police, employers and neighbours. What gave the film showing at the Albany a particular charge was not just that much of it was filmed in surrounding streets in Deptford with many local people as actors. The whole idea of the film grew out of the Albany (then it's earlier Creek Road location), as Rosso recalled in this interview:
'At the time both Martin Stellman [the film's co-writer with Rosso] and I worked at Albany Empire where they had a youth theatre for kids who were seen as really hopeless, but were in fact terrific. The hall was being hired by black kids who had their own soundsystem and they had to have a staff member because everyone was terrified to leave them on their own, and they asked us "would you sit in with us?". So we volunteered and Babylon really grew out of that because virtually the story of the kids was there, the fights and everything - it was very educational.
There was also a church at the bottom of the garden that had a soundsystem every Friday night. It was all coming together, the soundsystems, the kids, it was all really multi-racial. It was more by accident that people were mixing, than by design, but it was the atmosphere of the time and we were really just observing it and being there. As we were writing the story for Babylon, two guys from the soundsystem would come in and we would say "OK, this is it", and they would say "Oh I like that", or "No, that wouldn't happen", and then they would actually speak it to us, so the whole script was written in patois - it was very much done with them.
In another interview, Martin Stellman recalled:
The stories behind Babylon came from the kids we were working with and also from Franco and I going out separately or together with sound systems. Dennis Bovell, for instance, was busted and ended up in prison. The original script was longer, and had a whole second half that was set in a borstal.
Local people were recruited to take part in the film from the Albany's Combination Theatre group (which I believe Stellman was involved with), its Basement Youth Theatre group as well as other local venues such as the Moonshot Club in New Cross.
Thirty years later - Babylon was filmed in early 1979 and released the following year - it has become a time capsule of period clothes, cars and street scenes. The director was clearly looking for some suitable scenes of urban decay - alleyways, estates, boarded up buildings - and Deptford seems to have had plenty to offer. The whole area of 1980s housing immediately near to the Albany today (Vaughan Williams Close etc.) was, at the time of filming, empty Victorian terraces and bomb sites, surrounded by corrugated iron and awaiting demolition.
This has vanished completely, but other locations in the film are still to be seen and after the showing David Aylward took us on a short tour pointing out some of the surviving places featured in Babylon. These include:
- the railway arch used by the sound system, round the back of Deptford rail station in Ffinch Street, now part of the Titan Business Centre.
- the crypt of St Pauls Church, used for the soundclash scenes with the real Jah Shaka versus the fictional Ital Lion (the latter's music supplied by Aswad).
- the garage on Watson's Street where Blue (Brinsley Forde's car mechanic character) is sacked by his racist boss (played by Mel Smith) - still there today as Watson's Garage and Tyres.
- Deptford High Street - the (now closed) Windsor Castle pub is among the buildings seen in the film.
Other places visible in the film include Brixton market, the Silwood and Pepys estates in Deptford, the Dacre Arms (Blackheath) and the Venue in New Cross - there's a scene of people flyposting on the latter, putting their posters over others advertising the opening night of Cheeks nightclub, 18 Deptford Broadway.
In Babylon, the racist brutality of the streets is contrasted with the (intimately shot) spaces of respite where black people come together - sound system nights, engagement parties, churches and Rastafarian gatherings. In all of these sanctuaries music is central. It may not offer magical protection - the tensions of survival still explode along the competitive edge of the soundclash - but it inspires and acts as a rallying point. The film ends with the sound systems hastily packing up as the police raid, leaving Blue standing firm and chanting over the closing credits; 'Babylon brutality, We can't take no more of that.'
Babylon is an important social document, but it would be a mistake to view it as a straightforward representation of reality. It is after all a story, and just as the sharp eyed will spot some of the editing tricks (people skipping between locations shot in Brixton and Deptford in the course of a single scene) those who were there at the time will no doubt have their own take on the accuracy of the film's characters and dialogue.
But at the very least it directly connects, via the real people and places it includes, with the lived histories of the period. A time when the National Front was confronted as it marched through New Cross (1977), and when both the Moonshot (1977) and the Albany (1978) were set ablaze in suspected fascist arson attacks.
Babylon was remastered and released on DVD last year - so you've got no excuse for not watching it. Franco Rosso, the director, comes from a London Italian family and spent his youth in the Brixton/Streatham area before going to Camberwell art college. He also directed Dread Beat an' Blood, a documentary about Linton Kwesi Johnson. Martin Stellman also wrote the screenplay for Quadrophenia and wrote and directed For Queen and Country.