Babymother (1998) is widely considered to be the first truly Black British musical.
Babymother’s authentic feel exudes throughout the film through the vibrant energy of Black British youth culture found in London’s NW10.
Grounded in the late 1990s Harlesden Black Dancehall scene (the hardcore of British reggae) the film follows Anita (Anjela Lauren Smith) – a stylish and energetic young Black woman whose ambition is to become the local dancehall deejay star. Along with her ‘rude girl’ friends Yvette (Jocelyn Esien) and Sharon (Caroline Chikezie), Anita has to prove herself capable in the masculinist world of reggae and as a mother bringing up two kids on a Harlesden housing estate. She has some growing up to do, and the film follows her navigating her relationships with her mum (Corinne Skinner-Carter), sister Rose (Suzette Llewellyn), and her babyfather, Byron (Wil Johnson) – a singer with his own ambitions. Don Warrington plays ruthless promoter Luther.
Newly remastered in 2K by the BFI, Babymother is released on Blu-ray for the first time on July 26th. Extras include director Julian Henriques’ We the Ragamuffin (1992), a musical short set in Peckham that formed the inspiration and was expanded on for Babymother. As well as newly filmed interviews with Julian Henriques and producer Parminder Vir (2021), actress Anjela Lauren Smith in conversation with Corrina Antrobus (2021), and music consultant Carroll Thompson in conversation with Rōgan Graham (2021).
We talked to the film’s director Julian Henriques and producer Parminder Vir to hear more about this release …
Please introduce yourselves?
Julian Henriques: I’m a filmmaker, researcher, writer, and work in the area of sound and reggae music, and sound systems in particular.
Parminder Vir OBE: I am of Indian heritage, an award-winning film and television producer, an expert on African entrepreneurship, and an advocate for arts and culture. For five years I served as Tony Elumelu Foundation’s CEO (2014-’19), and launched Africa’s largest start-up programme, committing $100m to fund 10,000 founders over 10 years. Since stepping down, I continue supporting African entrepreneurs and advocating for the development of the entrepreneurship ecosystem across the continent, serving on several boards, and executive producing a feature-length documentary with a Nigerian-based director.
Share a word or sentence which best describes your lives right now?
Julian: One way of putting it is trying to find new ways of telling our stories and recognising the stories that are all around us that need to be told.
Parminder: I’m enjoying the time to consolidate a 40-year multifaceted career through writing a book, reflecting over lessons learned, how they shaped me, taking inspiration, connecting the dots to understand the present.
Could you tell us more about Babymother and your reasons for making it?
Julian: Babymother is a reggae musical set in Harlesden about a woman’s home life and her professional life as an artist. I wanted to tell an inside story from the Caribbean community in London.
What was the general mood for Black creatives when you were immersed in building the world of Babymother and how, if at all, was that infused into the film?
Julian: Building the world of Babymother involved me making a commitment to doing precisely that and leaving a full-time secure job in the BBC. I suppose that says that my feelings, then, were that it wasn’t possible within the institution to make the kind of work that I wanted to make, which is perhaps not a surprise. It was in partnership with Parminder and with our own film-production company Formation Films, that we set out to tell the stories that we wanted to tell, which we felt weren’t being told, and needed to be told – in my case, in terms of Jamaica and the Jamaican culture in this country; in Parminder’s case across the world.
Parminder: For me, it was basically that I had moved out of arts and culture in the Greater London Council in 1986 when it was abolished, and moved into filmmaking, starting at the BBC. By 1993 when we pitched Babymother for script development, I was working as a Series Producer in the BBC on Developing Stories with directors from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, making films about the Gulf War in the Middle East, as well as producing films through our own independent production company, Formation Films.
The time during which Babymother was developed and into production (1993-1998) also coincided with an economic boom in this country. There was political will to support arts, culture, and creativity, and there were a huge number of independent Black creative, arts, and cultural institutions, many of which have their roots in the ’70s and ’80s were thriving.
The film displays women’s experiences against the backdrop of the dancehall scene and how they continue to thrive even when obstacles come their way. What was the reasoning behind this angle?
Julian: The reasoning behind having women protagonists; a woman’s story, was a story that had certainly been less told than the one with the guys on the street. That work, in terms of the male perspective, was already clichéd. The stereotype of the Jamaican gangster, the Jamaican posses, at that time, was very much in the popular imagination. I wanted to go beside that, or behind that, or instead of that by concentrating on the woman’s story and the home life, as much as the street life.
Parminder: What attracted me, as a producer, to take on the production of Babymother was precisely that it was a female-centric story. We’re all very familiar with The Harder They Come, Pressure, and a lot of other films that had come out of the Jamaican dancehall world, but very much centred on men and the male world outside of the home. The only black film that I’d seen which was female-centric was Menelik Shabazz’s Burning an Illusion in 1982. Babymother was an opportunity to be part of a production that was going to tell the story of Afro-Caribbean women, three generations, set in London.
Julian: There was the film Dancehall Queen, which, in one sense, had a similar setting, but that was Jamaica rather than Harlesden. I wanted to do something that was local to the scenes that we have here.
How did Babymother impact your career as a filmmaker?
Julian: Well, it was just brilliant. It started it and it stopped it all at once. Any feature film takes several years to develop, as Babymother did, and at the end of the challenging process in so many ways, I still wanted to make my next film. Indeed, I spent several years after writing a script, and several years after that, taking it around. Whatever the qualities of the script, I found there wasn’t an appetite, then, for Black British reggae-related material. In a way, that made me recognise what a fluke or what an exceptional chance that we had with Babymother for it ever to be made, because it didn’t open up for me, as a filmmaker, any offers, and it didn’t open up in terms of the filmmaking culture any interest in the kinds of scenes and lives that we wanted to talk about. A beginning and an end.
Parminder: By the time Babymother was released in the UK in 1998, and the US and the Caribbean in early 2000, the tide, had turned against supporting Black creativity from within the mainstream media institutions. Whether it was BBC, Channel 4, ITV, all these institutions were becoming more risk-averse. They had taken a huge risk in backing two first-timers as writer-director and producer, certainly first-time in terms of a feature film production.
After the release, I did continue to produce films. In 1999, I joined Carlton Television as a producer and as their Cultural Diversity Advisor and made a series of films for television. In 2000, I was invited, ironically, to join the board of the newly founded UK Film Council, and used my position, for five years, to really push for the inclusion of Black, Asian, and other minorities in terms of funding, as well as in terms of policies and strategies. In 2000, UK ethnic audiences were deserting mainstream television and I co-founded the Cultural Diversity Network, an alliance of UK broadcasters and film industry committed to increasing the range and diversity of talent on and behind the screen. Two years later in 2002, I was awarded an OBE for my work in the film and television industry.
Okay, let’s talk fashion. The vibrant style of dancehall is of course prevalent in the film, with Anita and her ‘rude girl’ friends displaying great looks throughout. Could you tell us why this was a huge component of the film?
Julian: Film, in a way, a bit like opera, is operating with all media and all the sensory modalities. So, the visual look of the film and the way that costume can tell you so much about character and can tell you so much about a scene became very important. We had a brilliant costume designer, one of the many good choices, that was with Annie Curtis Jones who very sadly died quite recently. The thing about being a director is appointing the right people, and Annie was absolutely the right person. Annie really took it on, really took inspiration and gave inspiration, and so the richness of the costumes was an absolute delight.
The dancehall scene is a very rich culture. There’s a lot going on there, and so there’s a lot of things that you can pick up and amplify for the big screen, as it were. For example, the fact that the dancehall artists and patrons were going down to Southall, to the Punjabi-owned shops in Southall to buy jewellery and to buy fabrics to make their costumes, that was true.
Parminder: I loved how much of a Bollywood influence found its way through the costumes, in particular, those worn by women, onto the screen in this film.
What was it like filming in 1990s Harlesden for both of you and have you ever taken a memory lane walk to Harlesden in recent times?
Julian: Harlesden was a community, it still is. It’s yet to be gentrified like Brixton was many years ago, and Peckham is currently. In order to film in a community like that, which is absolutely essential to keep the vibes of the film true to life, you have to negotiate your way in there for the safety and for just being in touch with, specifically, the local musical talent, many of whom were commissioned to work on the film, on the songs. That was the reason for going to Harlesden. You go to a community, not just for how it looks, but, actually, its creative life, and we certainly did that. In fact, we did walk around Harlesden just last week and, in many ways, it hasn’t changed. One of the things we noticed is the way that, previously, there were literally rows of record shops there, on the high street, one of which we filmed a scene in. Now, we counted exactly two record shops, which have been squeezed into saving their lease money by renting out the other two-thirds of their shop.
Parminder: The biggest attraction of Harlesden was the Stonebridge Estate, where the film is set, but not a lot of brick of that estate exists today. The estate was notorious for gangs, drugs, and gun violence. Today, it is a remodelled, beautiful, new-build estate. In the 1990s, Stonebridge Estate was also predominantly Jamaican and Afro Caribbean, but as we walked around it recently, I noted that there was a really huge African presence and an African influence. There’s been attempts to change other bits of Harlesden for example, the clock tower, the “Eros of Harlesden” where we filmed the opening scene, now has very nice brick seating where you can sit, and it’s been pedestrianised. All the key locations, the Mean Fiddler, the church hall where we had our auditions, and the grocery shop where we also filmed one of our scenes are still there. What’s beautiful is that Harlesden had a very strong community spirit, and walking through Harlesden, 23 years later, that community spirit of the African, the Caribbean, Eastern Europeans, and Brazilians, in fact, is very strong today.
Now, 20 years later, Babymother has been released on Blu-ray by the BFI. Could you tell us a bit more about this release and the extras included?
Julian: The re-release was really a nice surprise, we had nothing to do with it. We were just contacted by Channel Four and BFI. It was a surprise that Babymother was now part of a “canon” in terms of the tradition of British filmmaking, of which I’m very happy and proud to be a part. The actual Blu-ray itself does have a lot of extras. It has my earlier short film, We the Ragamuffin, which was, in fact, the stepping stone to making the feature film.
The Blu-ray includes really amazing interviews with Carroll Thompson, for example, the Music Director, with Anjela, the star, and a whole lot of filmmaking materials. The storyboards, the costume designs, the flyer for the auditions, and a whole lot of stills of the cast, and the polaroids from continuity, and all kinds of stuff like that, which, I think if you wanted to dig into this Black filmmaking production, gives you quite a lot of resources with which to do that.
Parminder: It is a joy to see that a film made 23 years ago is finding a whole new audience in a different technological age. The film is being streamed on Amazon Prime and BFI Player. It has been a pleasure to listen to young people and hear their reflections on a story set within the Black community long before they were born. Babymother is part of a history of Black British filmmaking in this country, and it is good to know that the younger generation, who aspire to be filmmakers, to tell stories that come from within their communities, will be inspired by this film again.
You’ve written and talked a lot about the Jamaican sound system and its relationship with Black knowledge. Babymother highlights just how much goes into dancehall music as we can see the stage as a rich medium of expression informed by this Black knowledge production. Could you tell us more about this?
Julian: This is the knowledge that comes from the street or comes from the popular culture, comes from the bass and the base of society. Black knowledge embodies a lot of skills, wisdom, and understanding that is neither formalised, in terms of textbooks, nor recognised by the society at large. Just the nuance, the subtleties of understanding how a sound system has to be tuned to really appeal to the hearts and souls of the crowd to get them dancing, is both a science and an art – quite magical.
I’ve been fascinated, for many years, in finding ways to understand, through the sound system engineers in Jamaica and in this country, how they do that, and getting them, in fact, to participate in the research and thinking about their practices, and bringing into consciousness what they’ve been doing intuitively.
My ongoing research project, funded by the European Research Council, is precisely to look at these Black knowledge systems. These sound systems and other street technologies around the entire world, and see that as a reservoir of knowledge and understanding that might actually be useful outside those particular popular scenes in terms of how we can have a constructive and fruitful relationship with technology, rather than being oppressed by it.
Parminder: Jamaican dancehall has a very deep and long tradition, which stretches back to its roots in the Caribbean. What I also found amazing was how much the cast themselves brought that black knowledge and experience to the production from the three leads: Anjela, Jocelyn, and Caroline, who themselves were teenagers. Anjela, in fact, had just had a baby who was five months old, and they lived, breathed, and consumed that dancehall culture. They came from that, so they brought a lot of that knowledge. The other more established actors, like Wil Johnson, Don Warrington, and Corinne Skinner-Carter all have their roots in the Caribbean. They too brought the Caribbean, but also their own unique Black British experience to the film. Then, of course, as you’ll see in the film, there are hundreds of extras, and they all came from within the local community.
Julian: Absolutely. Although it wasn’t an improvised drama in the way that Ragamuffin had been, it was in the process – by setting it in that particular community, by having open auditions, by basically being open, as the director and the writer, to the feedback of the cast, I think basically that was an asset to the filmmaking process. Yes, that was fantastic.
Parminder: The other very strong element of Black knowledge being brought into the production were obviously the local musicians and the local studios where we recorded a lot of the music. Musicians like Thriller Jenna, Cinderella, Superflex, who wrote NW10, and Carroll Thompson, the music director, and a renowned musician. They were all drawing on their own Black knowledge and experience and contributed immensely to the production of this film.
What do you think the re-release of Babymother means for the younger generation who may not have seen the film in the 1990s, but are involved with today’s evolution of dancehall?
Julian: I think it’s quite interesting for them. This is the feedback that we’ve got basically from its Blu-ray release and to listen to the response of younger generations in the plural. Today’s young people have a real big ear, to put it like that for musical sounds and they are very open to the kind of sounds, the kind of styles, the kind of historical genres. The actual music of the film seems to have an appeal for those who weren’t even born when Ragamuffin music was being made. Also, in terms of the film tradition that the younger generation tends to think of the archives being African American. So, one of the refreshing things that they said about the film was to find that in fact, there is an archive of Black British filmmaking that they could refer to and from which they could have gained strength. It’s been absolutely great to hear that.
Parminder: What I would like to talk about is the evolution of Black Independent Cinema and for the younger generation who are making films, like our own daughter Anuradha Henriques who is the associate director on Rocks, it’s fantastic for them to be able to see that there is a history to Black Independent Cinema. That there is a history that there were other filmmakers before them, storytellers, writers, directors, producers, who were also trying against all odds to bring Black stories to the screen.
As we enjoy somewhat of a British Black creative renaissance when you reflect on your journeys as creatives through a time when opportunities were there, and then disappeared – what do you hope for the new generation and for those who’ve managed to stick it out and are still working today?
Julian: I think we are in a good moment now, and we have to exploit it in the best sense of the word to go forward. It is not as if the black creativity ebbs and flows and rises and falls, it’s always there. Really what we’re talking about is the appeal that it has for wider audiences which of course creates opportunities and financial investment and backing and so on. I saw the ITV Drama Stephen, it was a delight to find, I didn’t know that it had been directed by Alrick Riley.
Basically, a certain number of us have, if you like started out in the industry and are still working in the mainstream and that’s fantastic. Black creativity, look at drill music, look at the way that that’s come up just in the wake of grime to go to number one in the British charts. The creativity is there and it is pushing through. It’s never easy, because of what it’s got to say and because of how it expresses the realities of life not just for black people, but the realities of life full stop. There is a power and energy to it.
Parminder: There’s always been a continuity because Black artists have never stopped creating. What has been not continuous is the resources, the funding, and the support for that creativity. Despite those obstacles, Black and Asian creativity continues to thrive supported by the community. Post the uprising of 1981, the Greater London Council where I worked as the Head of Race Equality Unit (1982 – 1986), for the first time, made available funding to Black and minority artists. The Black Lives Matter Movement of 2020 is the 1981 moment in terms of my generation. If I was mapping the Black and Ethnic Minority Arts today, the impact of African arts and creativity, particularly the artists from West Africa and Nigeria would be at the forefront. Another fundamental difference between now and then is that the audience for Black creativity and Black arts is much wider to some extent facilitated by technology and the emergence of the arts markets in those countries as well. There is a very direct link between what’s happening here in the diaspora and countries of origin.
If we were making the Babymother today and releasing it today, it would immediately have such a wide audience across the world. Because we were making it in 1997 and released it in 1998 and the distributors didn’t have a clue how to market an all-Black reggae musical, the audience for it was very limited. That’s why the re-release of the film as a Blu-ray DVD is so important and such a welcome.
If you were to remake Babymother in 2021, what would the film look like?
Julian: First of all, I wouldn’t want to remake Babymother. I made it and it seems to have stood the test of time. There are so many more stories, there are lots of different ways to tell the stories that need to be told from those estates. The obvious topics are knife crime and police harassment, those issues haven’t gone away.
What I would do again is source it, the stories, and perhaps the talent from a particular area from a particular community. The aim is to get recognition and respect for the energies that in all kinds of ways form from that creativity. The music scene has gone from strength to strength, I think it’s just absolutely incredible that basically, Caribbean and now African heritage, young people can find ever more inventive ways of mining their cultures and finding new forms of expression that can appeal way outside the communities of origin.
Parminder: It’s not so much the remake of Babymother, but I know that it certainly inspired a story around a film that we wanted to make around Hard Kaur, a rap artist of Punjabi origin from Handsworth, Birmingham. I’ve already made a radio documentary for BBC Radio 4 about her young life this was in 2000 and it was virtually impossible. It’s not about remaking films that you’ve done, but to go on to make new films and to tell different stories, and really apply the lessons that you’ve learned from making that first film.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU…
A book you have to have in your collection?
Julian: Nicole Dennis-Benn’s, Here Comes the Sun. A hard life Jamaican woman’s story. Parminder: Maybe I Don’t Belong Here, A Memoir of Race, Identity, Breakdown, and Recovery by David Harewood
A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date?
Julian: Jimmy Cliff’s The Harder They Come.
Parminder: Bob Marley and the Wailers Get Up Stand Up
A film / TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly?
Julian: None, I don’t repeat views, but Deutschland 83, if I did.
Parminder: Sholay (1975) directed by Ramesh Sippy
The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you?
Julian: Euripides’ Heracles, PTSS in ancient times, a production at the Bush Theatre many years ago.
Parminder: Lata Mangeshkar, Live at The Royal Albert Hall, London 1979 and then meeting her.
What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week?
Julian: Afghans trying to escape by clinging onto the undercarriage of an American plane.
Parminder: The passing of 37 years old Mavis Nduchuwa, founder & CEO of Kalahari Honey in Botswana. I will forever remember her for her courage, inspiration, passion and generosity.
Babymother is released on Blu-ray, iTunes, Amazon Prime, and BFI Player Rentals from 26 July 2021