Franco Rosso 1942-2016

I was very sad to hear of the death of Franco Rosso, director and co-writer of Babylon via a friend who saw it on Facebook:

When I first set up this site in the early noughties both the film and Franco were elusive. The only way to watch the film was via 3rd generation VHS dubs or occasional late night cinema showings. Rumours abounded of a DVD release being barred because of a dispute about royalties from the soundtrack. A whole generation of people came to the site because they’d heard about the film through it being sampled on records but had never seen it.

Occasionally someone would get in touch with me hoping to rerelease the film or to mention some strange tale about what Franco Rosso was supposed to be doing these days. All of these rumours turned out to be nonsense in 2007 when Rarovideo finally released the first DVD. Franco emailed me out of the blue and was very kind and gracious about the site keeping the film in people’s minds. Unfortunately we never met.

Franco Rosso 1942-2016

Franco Rosso was born in 1942 in Turin to Italian parents who worked for Fiat. The family moved to London when Franco was eight. He attended school at Battersea before completing his education at the Camberwell Art School and the Royal College of Art. Rosso later cited his Italian heritage and immigrant status as one reason for the focus on minorities in his films:

“It was a lot easier for us than West Indians or Indians or any people of colour, because we were white so you could in fact hide and disappear into the background. If you kept quiet, nobody knew. Whereas of course when West Indians came along they were very easily picked off because of their colour. Because of that there was a lot of identification with characters in the film.” (The Independent)

The first major film he worked on was Kes (1970) – Ken Loach’s gritty take on northern working class youth.

Rosso edited Horace Ove’s film Reggae (1970) which interspersed footage from the Caribbean Music Festival at Wembley with interviews, footage of the London black community, conversations with black and white reggae fans as well as excerpts from a speech by Enoch Powell. (Ove also directed the other 1970s classic black British film – Pressure (1976)).

Rosso’s proper directorial debut was The Mangrove Nine (1973), a documentary about police harassment of a black restaurant in Notting Hill – and the resistance to it.

The Mangrove restaurant was raided by the cops 12 times between January 1969 and July 1970. A protest march by the black community in August of that year was broken up by the police, who arrested nine participants including the owner Frank Critchlow and young activist Darcus Howe. All nine were acquitted of the most serious charges of incitement to riot. Five of the defendants were acquitted of all charges.

“The presiding magistrate viewed the case for what it was, and ruled that parts of the statements of 12 officers were inadmissible, as they clearly equated black radicalism with criminal intent.” (Guardian)

The ten week trial was one of the longest in British legal history at that point. It is also said to be the first instance of proven racism in the Metropolitan Police (the judge said that the trial had “regrettably shown evidence of racial hatred on both sides”.)

Franco never shied away from controversy. His film House on the Hill, the story of a black borstal boy was banned by ATV. Dread Beat and Blood (1979) his Omnibus documentary about dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson gained the attention of the national press when its showing was postponed until after that year’s general election. Apparently, the BBC felt the film was politically biased.

Throughout the seventies, Rosso edited films about subjects including the Trinidad carnival, Italian anarchist Robert Mander, breastfeeding, a “right to work” march and even a promo film for John Lennon.

All of this experience and his everyday life in London culminated in the film which he will be remembered for: Babylon (1980). In 2008 Franco was interviewed by Robert Elms on BBC London about the making of Babylon and the obstacles that had to be overcome:

In 1981 Rosso won the Evening Standard’s Award for Most Promising Film-Maker. After Babylon, Rosso’s output continued in a similar but lower profile vein. Some of the synopses of his eighties films are quite tantalising, for example:

Salt on the Snake’s Tail (1983). Play by Farrukh Dhondy. Jolil is a Kung Fu student. Despite his father’s warnings about staying out of trouble on the estate where he lives, Jolil simply puts his trust in Bruce Lee.

Struggle for Stonebridge (1987). Documentary on the Harlesden People’s Community Council, formed by the people of the Stonebridge estate in Harlesden, Brent, and their struggle to develop a disused London Transport bus terminus into a community complex.

Rosso’s next feature film was The Nature of the Beast (1988). As the reviewer for Time Out noted, the theme of youth unemployment in Lancashire has resonances with both Babylon and Kes. The Nature of the Beast was produced by his wife, Joanna Smith.

His 1990s work included Lucha Libre (1991) (on Mexican wrestler Father Storm, who wrestled to raise funds for his orphanage) and Money Drugs Lock-up (1995).

All in all a fine legacy – and if you are reading this you will probably already be aware of the importance of Babylon alone!

John Eden, December 2016

Here are some more links which let the man speak in his own words:

Franco and Brinsley Forde interviewed by the NME

Interview by New Britain zine

Interview on BBC Radio 4’s “Today Programme” (audio)