BABYLON was the first film that I backed as managing director of the National Film Finance Corporation (NFFC). Prior to that there had been two other features on black life: Horace Ove’s PRESSURE (1975) and Anthony Simmons’s BLACK JOY (1977). I backed PRESSURE when I was Head of Production at the British Film Institute (BFI); the NFFC was one of the investors in BLACK JOY. PRESSURE is a fine, hard-hitting polemical film made for next to nothing whose scale and approach perhaps limited it for a general audience. BLACK JOY is not as soft as the title suggests. Simmons was no slouch and its American producer, Elliot Kastner, went on to make some of Hollywood’s best. But BLACK JOY has its omissions. Hate, violence, rage, stupidity and defiance are missing. BABYLON, in contrast, has all this and humour – and joy too, real joy. The joy of being alive despite living in a ’country that’s always been a fucking tip’.
When the script came in, there was neither producer nor director attached. The two writers Franco Rosso and Martin Stellman had been hawking it around for a while. The BFI had pronounced it ‘too conventional’; the industry saw it as problematic. Here was a combustible and vigorous work, by about and for the young. The characters are blood brothers to Albert Finney’s in SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING: ‘What I’m after is a good time. All the rest is propaganda’. Good time was making and playing music, buying and selling Ganja, smoking spiffs and generally exploiting girl friends. Had they been alienated young whites, the industry might have listened. For me the fact that they were black was a bonus. British cinema was tired and dying – yet again. One major, EMI, was looking to Hollywood, the other, Rank, was slowly fading. British cinema desperately needed new stories and new characters. Stories about and by the new Brits would enrich the blood.
The first draft of BABYLON was in two parts: the first in the streets, the second in prison. I suggested to Franco and Martin that they make it consistently one or the other. I preferred the streets but I would back them regardless. They chose the streets. When it came to proposing a director, they tentatively suggested Stephen Frears. I admired Stephen as much as they did but I thought Stephen would be a foreign correspondent flying in. Who then, they asked? One of you two, I said. I could sense both shock and excitement. They chose Franco. It would be his first feature.
The choice of cinematographer was crucial. They got Chris Menges. It was before his two Oscars, but Chris had already shot KES and worked with Stephen Frears, Lindsay Anderson, Roland Joffe and so on. Chris can do just about anything with a camera and he can create magic with natural light, a pup or banks of lamps. He can shoot news, sponsored documentary (I did a couple with him), verité, low-budget films and large Hollywood extravaganzas. He was a big catch. With Chris on board, and later, Tom Schwalm as editor, I knew we would get a very good film, and I thought we stood a chance of getting our money back. At worst the film would be, in the words of Samuel Beckett, ‘a pregnant failure’. There would be issue; it would lead to something.
I would have preferred it if the director of BABYLON had been black. S/he would have brought some insight that would be new and unexpected. But I have never believed in positive prejudice; every commission, every gig would be suspect; getting rid of negative prejudice is enough to be going on with. I backed Franco because I thought he could bring that script to life. Franco and Martin knew the estates; they lived the life. The film’s authenticity runs deep. From a marketing view it was sometimes troubling: the dialogue between the black characters is often hardly understandable. The first coherent lines more than ten minutes into the film are from a black parent. This was not just a detail; it was part of the drama. The older generation wanted to fit in; these youngsters want to stand apart, speak their own lingo, play their own music and get into their own kind of trouble. Of course they pay the price. (After BABYLON, I backed GREGORY’S GIRL and my chairman, Geoffrey Williams who was a merchant banker, asked me with a wry smile if I was ever going to back a film that did not need subtitles in the UK.)
There is a particular zest and freshness to the characters and not a whiff of sentimentality. They may charm us but they are all to some degree delinquent. The central character, Blue, played by Brinsley Forde of Aswad, is breathlessly running to and from trouble. The well-named Beefy (not so much played as embodied by Trevor Laird), is only a step away from violence throughout. At one point he turns on Blue’s white friend, played by Karl Howman, and nuts him in the face saying, ‘Don’t talk black’. The racism they are subjected to provokes not so much a retaliation in kind as an over-awareness of one’s own race.
Gavrick Losey joined as producer and he found two interested parties but despite his efforts no major investor materialised. It was decision time. I had first, however, to confront the history and practices of the NFFC, which was established in 1951 by Harold Wilson when he was at the Board of Trade as a film bank to take on the hegemony of Hollywood. It invested 30% of the budget with 70% coming from distributors. In the early years it invested in some 50 films a year and was making a profit. By the time I joined in January 1979, the number had trickled to less than a handful but the investment was still around 30%. It was also still operating with a commercial brief. It was patently absurd. No bank can survive on making two or three loans a year. (Although at the time of writing it seems that no bank can survive without government funding). My predecessor, Sir John Terry, increased the NFFC’s share but not by very much and not very often. For a start it was too risky and secondly he had very little money. In the extreme situation that I found myself, when co-investors were thin on the ground or non-existent for the films that I wanted to back (this was before Film Four) I decided early on that we would invest whatever was necessary to get a film made. I kicked off by persuading my Board to invest 83% of the budget for BABYLON. I was breaking all the rules at one go. I backed a first-time director to film a subject that was considered a no-goer and took nearly all the financial risk. They backed me. I have learnt one thing about management. Boards will let you have your way at the beginning and end of your tenure. At the start, they think it is just possible that you may be right but if you’re wrong then you’ll have shot yourself in the head and that’s that. At the end they just want see the back of you and will agree out of weariness. It’s the middle period that’s sticky.
BABYLON was invited to Cannes to participate in the Critics Week. When the film opened in Bristol the audience, mostly young and black, slashed the seats. Martin and Franco had been prescient. The film ends with Blue singing “We can’t take no more of that’ as black youngsters put up barricades, including sound systems, against the police who use a sledge hammer to break into the dance hall looking for Blue. Amazingly, an event very much like that had taken place in St Paul’ s in Bristol some weeks before the screening. Life was imitating art. Exhibitors became reluctant to play the film in their cinemas. There is such a thing as being too timely.
Have things changed in the nearly thirty years since BABYLON was made? Yes and no. Black talent is expressing itself in all the media and can be seen on the big and small screens every night. However the Film Council has reverted to the NFFC original model, rarely investing more than 30% and insisting on guaranteed distribution (which Babylon did not have). However there are many more funding sources than in my day. In other ways, everything has got more complicated. Racism has diversified. The targets are now: Afro-Carribeans, Semites (both Jews and Arabs), Muslims, Pakistanis, Indians, Central Europeans, mainly poles and East Europeans, particularly Albanians or is it Bulgarians or Rumanians? The counter to racism has also strengthened.
When I backed BABYLON, my Films Minister was Michael Meacher and the Prime Minister was James Callaghan. When it went into production, my Films Minister was Norman Tebbitt and the Prime Minister was Mrs Thatcher. Within a few months, I had gone from leading a charge to being under siege. But that’s another story.
Mamoun Hassan September 2008