Remembering Babylon and Franco Rosso with Dennis Bovell by Les Back

Franco Rosso director and co-writer of Babylon (1980) passed away on 9th December, 2016 aged 75. The film’s soundtack was written by UK reggae legend Dennis Bovell. On the Sunday the 22nd January, 2017 Dennis will dedicate his entire Dub on Air radio show on Soho Radio as a tribute to Franco.

Set in New Cross and Deptford the film centres on the trials and tribulations of a group of young black men who run the Ital Lion reggae sound system. Starring Trevor Laird, Brinsley Forde and Karl Howman it also featured many local young people and the mighty Jah Shaka who plays himself features the most vivid portrayal of his soundsystem on film.

Babylon captured the brutal institutional racism young black people experienced from the police at the time in a way that has never been surpassed but it also portrayed the complex divisions and bridges being built between young people in multi-racial London in the alternative public world of the dance and music.

One of the achievements of Babylon was it represented the rhythm and language of young black experience in a way that rang true. When Martin Stellman and Franco Rosso were writing the screenplay for the film they were working at the Albany Empire in Deptford on a youth theatre project. Franco told journalist Dave Phillips that they would check their dialogue with young people they met at the Albany: “As we were writing the story for Babylon, two guys from the [local] soundsystem would come and say ‘Ok, this is it’, 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.”

Franco Rosso born in Turin on August 29th 1941 and he moved with his parents to Streatham, south west London after World War II.   He had an Italian accent and at school was called names like ‘eye-tie.’ As a young man he developed fierce hostility to post-war racism as well as an affinity with London’s multicultural outsiders. In the sixties at Camberwell Art School he was a sharply dressed mod. He was an assistant on feature film Kes directed by Ken Loach and was the editor of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s promo film for Give Peace a Chance. Dennis Bovell points out this personal history is encoded in the name of the soundsystem at the centre of the Babylon story – “Ital Lion” a word play on Italian.

Dennis summed it up: “he was a very, very creative man but he kind of liked to stay back and I think it stemmed back from him being an editor at the BBC… he made people on screen look good. There was a lot of credit that he didn’t get. The man was a giant… Franco rest in peace.”

Dennis and Les at Soho Radio

The tribute to Franco Rosso is broadcast on Sunday 22nd January, 2017 5-7pm. Dennis Bovell’s ‘Dub on Air’ on Soho Radio also features Les Back.

For more on Franco Rosso :

. Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.


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