The release of Franco Rosso’s
Babylon in the US earlier this year
triggered a series of memories for me of cinema in the UK in the 80s. The film received rave review in The New
Yorker, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The LA Times and elsewhere. They spoke
of it not only as a piece of compelling entertainment but also as a social and
political document, as relevant today as it was four decades ago. British reviewers
and critics have chosen to ignore the phenomenon.
For a time now, the term
‘social realism’ as applied to British cinema has been one of dismissal or even
contempt. It was just about OK if you added a prefix of ‘poetic’ or ‘neo’
before ‘realism’ – or, of course, if the film was foreign. We seem too caught up with stories of murderous
psychotics and their multi-various and exotic ways of slaughter, and endless
series of the lives of our dysfunctional Royals Through The Ages.
Meanwhile Babylon and much
else is falling apart.…
The British Film Institute Southbank is screening:
PRESSURE Dir Horace Ove
Friday 19 July 2019 18.10 NFT3 GA
Intro by Dr Elizabeth M Wiliams Goldsmiths University of London
Kino Lorber Repertory and new distributor Seventy Seven are
releasing BABYLON in the US next month. The film opens at the BAM Theatre in
Brooklyn on 8 March, in Los Angeles on 15 March, and more widely after that.
Forty years ago I backed my first film as managing director of the National Film Finance Corporation [NFFC]: that film was BABYLON. The Board members were invited to take a leap in the dark. The BBC had developed the script but had passed on it; the British Film Institute Production Board under Peter Sainsbury had rejected it. BABYLON was a first film for the director; it had no stars, a wholly unfamiliar cast, dialogue and accents that required subtitles in parts, as if it were a foreign film – which of course it was to most people; it was violent, and it had no distribution guarantee or co-investor. I recommended we invest 83% of the budget: anything less would not get the film made. It was unheard of. Historically, the NFFC offered 30% at most. Further, a couple of years earlier the NFFC had invested in Anthony Simmons’s BLACK JOY, described by a critic as a ‘lightly ironic clash of cultures comedy’. The auguries were not good.
The script of BABYLON was co-written by Martin Stellman and Franco
Rosso. There was no producer attached, but Franco and Martin had Stephen Frears
in mind as director. I knew Stephen and admired his work, but the script was
uniquely authentic, born out of Martin’s and Franco’s direct experience of the
lives of black youth in south London. I thought Stephen would make a fine film,
but it would perforce be a foreign correspondent’s view. Although neither of
the two scriptwriters had directed a feature before, I suggested that one of them
should direct it. Franco became the director and Martin the associate producer.
Chris Menges agreed to shoot the film and Gavrik Losey joined as producer. The
Board finally agreed my proposal.
The first five minutes of the film will tell you why I backed
In May 1973, just after the release of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man, London University Audio Visual (LUAV) filmed a conversation/interview with Lindsay Anderson and me. O Lucky Man was the focus of the interview, which was part of an LUAV planned series of interviews with leading figures of the time. The results would be kept in a kind of time capsule and would not be released until fifty or a hundred years later. The project was abandoned early on.