Actor Brinsley Forde on ‘Babylon’ and Its Long-Lasting Impact
Franco Rosso’s reggae sound system film Babylon will be streaming exclusively in North America on TIDAL for the month of June. We caught up with the film’s lead actor, reggae legend Brinsley Forde, to chat about his role in the movie, which tells the tale of a young reggae DJ in late ’70s London named Blue and his Ital Lion sound system crew. Ital Lion are locked in a battle against rival crews — and against the racism inherent in their city.
Up until the early ‘00s, Forde was also the front man for British reggae legends, Aswad. And before becoming a musician and Rastafarian, in the ‘60s/early ‘70s Forde was a child actor, appearing in the James Bond movie Diamonds are Forever, John Boorman’s Leo the Last, as well as famed children’s show Here Come the Double Deckers. He then started playing music, releasing Aswad’s self-titled debut album in 1976 and jumpstarting a multi-decade career that garnered international top ten hits (including “Don’t Turn Around”) and multiple Grammy nominations. Forde brought his own experiences as a young black man to the lead character, a performance embodying Blue’s anger and melancholy — but also his humor.
TIDAL spoke with Forde about his experiences on the film’s production, British reggae’s tightknit scene, how an inside joke on the set became the title of a sitcom and more…
What are your earliest memories of Babylon? Did the filmmakers have you in mind for the role of Blue?
I got a call asking if I could attend an audition. There, I met Franco Rosso, the co-writer and director, and Martin Stellman, the co-writer, and we had a good conversation. They were aware of what I’d done as an actor and foremost they were aware of me as a member and lead singer of Aswad.
I had a feeling before I left that it was a sealed deal and I think they were hoping I’d be interested in doing it — and I obviously was. I think I was probably the most known young black actor at that time in the U.K. And obviously when you meet someone you get a vibe, but nothing is ever a done deal.
It was something that really interested me: a chance to portray a character that I could really understand and find a different vibe with from other roles I was used to doing.
What are your memories of the shoot?
There are loads — memories from even before the shoot. We had a few days to read the script together and we all got together and got to know each other. We were joking and laughing and having a good time at the read-through, so by the time we got to actually film, a lot of us had broken that ice.
I remember we were reading through the part where the police come in at the end of the movie, and Karl Howman who played Ronnie, my good friend [in the movie], found it absolutely not believable. He could not accept that police would go into a party and take dogs with them. He was just like, ‘No this couldn’t happen!’ And he made himself heard. He said, ‘No, this is a bit far fetched. You can’t really have that… How can you…’
But I think at that time he wasn’t aware of the situation in the black community. He wasn’t aware of police coming in to a dance with dogs and breaking it down. So we learned a lot about each other through the read-through.
It made him aware of your experiences.
Put it this way: if you grew up going to blues dances or going to house parties you were aware. If you were not accustomed to that scene, you don’t know what could happen, what situations could arise.
If it was a film about young Italians or young Jewish people, there are situations that I probably would think ‘That can’t happen’ and they would tell me ‘That does happen!’ And I think this is the strength of the movie: that it reflects the life in the ’70s and beyond, of what it was like for a community that a lot of people were not aware of.
As the young actors, we were aware because we lived that life. But others, even people watching it today in the United States can go, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that could happen!’ So we, upon reflection, understood it, and we knew what was possible and what wasn’t possible. And [we’d put our own experiences in it].
And I think this is the difference now: in America they couldn’t understand that situation in the 1970s when it was supposed to be released. Now I think people are far more aware of what goes on in other lives and communities.
Also, in the early ’70s, you probably had a lot of people who were not familiar in general. You could’ve said the words ‘reggae music’ and people probably didn’t know what it was! Apart from ‘My Boy Lollipop.’ [1964’s “My Boy Lollipop” by Millie Small was the first ska hit: #2 on the singles chart in both the U.K. and the U.S.] And remember, Bob Marley really first broke in 1972-73. At that time the ‘King of Reggae’ was Johnny Nash!
And the shoot was a laugh a minute. Everyone was humorous; everyone had jokes. It was just a great time. We filmed in Deptford [in London] and I remember that Aswad had just come back from Africa… There, every time we’d ask someone a question, they’d answer [imitates accent] ‘No problem! No problem!’ And so we kept saying that throughout the shoot. And it actually went on to be a television series! [Starring Victor Romero Evans who plays Lover in Babylon.] and that’s where the name sprung from, No Problem! It was a successful black sitcom!
Yes, it really feels like there was camaraderie amongst the Ital Lion crew — like you were friends in real life.
Yes, during the actual shoot there was really great humor, really great camaraderie. We were in a situation where we were doing something that we all loved. It was a chance to be doing a movie about life as we understood it. We could be in character one moment or we could be joking and laughing as ourselves the other moment, especially with Trevor Laird who played Beefy — he also was in Quadrophenia.
So, it was a great situation and I think that comes across in the film. Although the film is very heavy, it’s social commentary. But, like life, what happens is, the community lightens up and has that humor that helps it to get through [its difficult times]. You feel that in the film.
Were there a lot of ‘Ronnies’ e.g. young white reggaeheads in crews at that time? Martin told me that the Ronnie character was essentially a proxy for him as a white guy in that scene.
There were loads… so many. I think what happened was that in the black community people welcomed it. People who love the music are welcomed into the scene. I know many who were the Ronnie characters and started that way: Ali Campbell [lead singer of UB40], Suggs [lead singer of Madness]… And George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley [of Wham!] had a ska band in the early days.
We had moved from the mods and rockers in England to what were called the skinheads. It was the time of the rude boys and the mods coming together with music like Prince Buster and ‘Wreck A Pum Pum’ [a Prince Buster single] and tracks like that. They brought these two young communities together.
So you would’ve had a situation where a group of kids would be riding scooters, wearing parkas, wearing crombies, wearing porkpie hats… That was the blending of the young white and black community in the ’70s.
And that’s how the Two-tone scene started later.
Yes — this is where Two-tone ska came from. The rude boys were a blend of the black guys having these really low haircuts and then suddenly the mods came in, and that really was the outbreak of the skinheads, because they were following that style.
Was there competition between you guys in the reggae scene at that time? In Aswad, Matumbi, Steel Pulse…?
Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but we got on with what we had to do, and there were friendships. I remember Aswad going to Birmingham and we had a faulty bass cabinet and David Hinds [of Steel Pulse] took me to their rehearsal room and we used their bass cabinet for the show.
And when they came to London, I saw them walking around Island Music and I took them and introduced them to Leslie Palmer [community organizer turned Island Record executive/manager for Aswad, Steel Pulse, etc.] Dennis [Bovell] worked a lot with Drummie [Zeb] and Tony [Gad, both from Aswad], and the first time I appeared on top of the pops, the main English music TV program, was with [lovers rock singer] Janet Kay and Dennis and invited me on to play guitar on that. So I think for a lot of people there could’ve been competition but I found we were just friends.
And the first time Dennis met Steel Pulse he was judging a competition, and they won and he took them to record their album Handsworth Revolution. It was a small music community: Steel Pulse lived a hundred miles from where we were in London. But we were all singing about unity, we were singing about our beliefs, we were singing about building a situation up, working together. Obviously competition is a human element, but, on the whole, in my experience we worked together and we were friends.
Was Aswad ever tapped to do the soundtrack or was Dennis Bovell always in mind?
Dennis was the first choice for the soundtrack of the movie, absolutely. Franco and Dennis were friends before the movie and obviously a part of Dennis’ history gave rise to ideas for the movie from Franco and Martin. And because of the role I had in the movie there was a bit of ‘Hold on, why aren’t we doing something!’ playing out, and to probably appease me, they said ‘OK then, you do the dub for the movie!’
We were very fortunate, and the track itself [Aswad’s ‘Warrior Charge’] became big in reality: Shaka went on to win competitions with it! Shaka heard it and was like ‘Wow what’s this?!’ And so the dub as it was presented in the film actually was a big tune in real life!
What are your thoughts of the reaction the movie has gotten since its re-release, decades later? Have you been surprised of its warm reception?
It’s one of those things — when you do something you never really know what’s going to happen. You can make a record and you never know if it’s going to take off. I was really satisfied. The audiences were far more understanding, even when it was released previously.
Even in the U.K. in the ‘70s?
Yes — in the U.K. it came out but not to great fanfare, and the distribution would’ve been completely different then. Now you have the Internet. It’s taken years to become a classic in the U.K., but now it has that status: friends will recite the lines. And it’s been shown several times on TV.
Maybe if it was released now in the cinemas, as it was in America, I think it still would be quite big, so it really is like a time capsule of the ‘70s/’80s and a lot of people who know those times. They are amazed of how the film just captured that. We have to thank Chris Menges who captured those dancehall scenes. You can see it and you feel like you’re there.
Yes, everyone loves the grittiness of the film, and additionally it also reminded some older New Yorkers of the way it was in the city back then. They become nostalgic for how their city was.
I think that’s what it does to those who remember those years. It just captures that. People can identify with it. Even if you’re not from the U.K., you kind of go, ‘That reminds of what it was like in New York…’ maybe the early hip-hop shows. And if they’re saying that in America, that’s the beauty of it.
Brinsley Forde has released a new single, “Chillin’” alongside David Hinds of Steel Pulse, recorded at Tuff Gong in Kingston, Jamaica for his upcoming album. And along with Dennis Bovell, the trio are the British reggae supergroup Three The Hard Way touring worldwide Summer 2019.
(Photo credit: Worldwide Entertainment Management)
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