A Hole in Babylon

UK 1975, 125 mins
Director: Horace Ové

A Hole in Babylon
Based on the real-life Spaghetti House siege, this was a hugely controversial BBC production, with some seeing its mix of drama and real archive footage as a distortion of the truth. However, the debate missed the brilliance of what Ové and co-writer Jim Hawkins achieved, weaving together a complex tapestry of flashbacks that gives those at the centre of the siege hope, dignity and motives that resonate far wider than the events that took place.

The controversial Play for Today, A Hole in Babylon builds powerfully on director Horace Ové’s earlier Pressure (1975) in both subject matter and style. Ové continued his exploration of racism and the fight-back of the second generation of black youth, and further developed his highly experimental style of storytelling. Here, he employed a pioneering form of drama-documentary, involving multiple dramatic flashbacks interspersed with archive footage.

A Hole in Babylon dramatises the botched 1975 Spaghetti House Siege in Knightsbridge. Middle-aged petty criminal Frank Davies, accompanied by two young men, Wesley Dick and Anthony Monroe, prepare to rob the restaurant. The younger men want out but Frank keeps them focused. As the three cross the point of no return, things immediately go wrong. The police are called and the siege is on. What began as a means to an end is now repackaged as a political and revolutionary act. Frank Davis assumes command of the quickly improvised Black Liberation Army.

As police negotiations begin, Ové winds back in a series of flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, to explain how we got here. He intersperses the back stories of the three characters with developments at the siege, without once losing the immediacy of the moment. First, Frank, recently released from prison, is haunted by mental problems; Wesley, a poet, stuck in a dead-end job, is wishing for paid community work; Anthony, a middle-class medical student drop-out, is dreaming of going to Nigeria’s Ibadan University to escape ‘Babylon’s education’.

Ové sensitively captures the way the unfolding siege provides the opportunity for a different kind of glory as black liberators. This grandiose scheming is intercut with real news archive from the time, which shows the reverse – the siege descending into farce and defeat. Ové’s dignified treatment of the pressures facing the men led to widespread outrage. The BBC refused to sell on rights to US broadcasters, stating, ‘we are not going to sell a film… about a group of black hooligans.’

But Ové’s film is more subtle than this. Despite the racist provocations which provide motivation, ‘Black Revolution’ is shown to be ultimately just another hustle for Frank, the supreme opportunist. For the younger men, having reluctantly come this far, the glory of martyrdom appears a good way of advancing the cause. Frank’s views nevertheless prevail, despite the disgust of the youngsters and his own personal humiliation.
Onyekachi Wambu, BFI Screenonline, www.screenonline.org.uk

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away the film’s ending.

The Garland
When Raji moves with his wife to a new more upmarket area, they are forced to confront prejudices surrounding their mixed-race marriage. Meanwhile, their son tries to escape his own crisis of identity by retreating into the fantasy world of the Bollywood movie. Ové demonstrates an ability to empathise with the concerns of the South Asian community living in the UK on a par with his own Black British experience. Aided by H.O. Nazareth’s script, this production from BBC Birmingham has a real sense of authenticity and remains all too relevant.

The Bollywood opening of Horace Ové’s Play for Today: The Garland is unexpected but shapes the rest of this play, which, with its unconventional plotting, tears, comedy and tragedy, unfolds like standard Bollywood fare.

Engineering professional Raji (Tariq Yunus) has taken his middle-class English wife, Leela (Patricia Garwwood), to see the film in question. She hates such films but tolerates them because of her love for Raji – in much the same way as she tolerates his culture. He hates the genteel English suburb they have moved to, which he tolerates because of his love for her. She thinks he is oversensitive about racism, he can’t understand why she doesn’t see the obvious.

A burglary at their house finally puts paid to their evasions, forcing both to confront the issues of institutional racism. Against Raji’s wishes, Leela involves the police. She is shocked when they treat Raji as thief, not victim, and racially abuse their 17 year-old son, Roy (Lyndam Gregory), also suspected of being the thief.

Leela’s growing confusion and Raji’s anger create tension at home, which impacts on Roy, who is already experiencing nightmares and questioning his own mixed identity.

Into this brew comes Mohammed Huq (Albert Moses), an old Handsworth friend of Raji’s. Following a Muslim divorce of his first wife, Huq is expecting his new bride from Bangladesh. To sort out Huq’s immigration problems, Raji connects him with an unscrupulous but rising Asian bigwig. At Huq’s wedding, Roy falls for Amina (Shreela Ghosh), the daughter of a Muslim notable. Roy begins to live a dangerous life – dodging Amina’s strict parents and a group of skinheads who have already attacked his mother. With his life becoming unbearable, Roy lashes out at his parents for marrying across the colour line, and creating a life-long crisis of identity for him.

The catalyst for a family reconciliation is the arrest of Huq’s newly pregnant wife by immigration officials. Raji and Leela join forces in a futile campaign against her deportation. The tears of Huq and his wife, as they are separated at the airport, bring Leela to a deeper understanding of her country.

Made at a time Britain’s inner-cities were exploding in anger, Horace Ové’s warm and engaging film, and his use of the humane Leela as a way of allowing middle-class England to directly experience the horrors of racism, could hardly have been bettered.
Onyekachi Wambu, BFI Screenonline, screenonline.org.uk

Directed by: Horace Ové
©/Production Company: BBC
Producer: Graham Benson
Assistant Floor Manager: Jeremy Ancock
Production Unit Manager: Carol Robertson
Production Assistants: John E. Norton, Jerry Desmonde, Romey Allison
Director’s Assistant: Lydia Morris
Script Editor: Terry Coles
[Written] By: Jim Hawkins, Horace Ové
Photography: Kenneth Macmillan
Film Editor: Tony Woollard
Designer: Geoff Powell
Costume: George Ward
Make-up: Marianne Ford
Theme Song Composed by: Sammy Abu
Lyrics by: Horace Ové
Film Recordist: Geoff Tookey
Dubbing Mixer: Andrew Nelson
Dubbing Editor: Danny Nissim

T-Bone Wilson (Frank Davies)
Trevor Thomas (Bonsu Monroe)
Archie Pool (Wes Dick)
Victor Baring, Franco Derosa, Carlos Douglas, Leonard Fenton, Peter Laird, Louis Mansi, Ray Marioni, Alfred Maron, Colin Starkey (hostages)
Carmen Monroe (Mrs Munroe)
Helen Webb (Sheila)
Shope Shodeinde (Lena)
Floella Benjamin (Norma)
Johnny Shannon (gambler)
Eric Kent (Baron)
Max Harvey (Termine)
Michael Chesden (Costas)
Stefan Kalipha (Peter)
Astley Harvey (Rabby)
Mellan Mitchell (Ram)
Jeannie Fisher (Brenda)
Michael Sheard (prison officer)
Patrick McAlliney (foreman)
Peter Marinker, Peter Davidson (policemen)
Le’mar N. Haynes (Winston)
Larrington Walker (deskman)

UK 1979
BBC1 tx 29.11.1979
66 mins Digital

Director: Horace Ové
©: BBC
Production Company: BBC Birmingham
Producer: Peter Ansorge
Production Unit Manager: Carol Park
Assistant Floor Managers: William Hartley, Dick Teague
Production Assistant: Ian Fraser
Director’s Assistant: Kate Salmon
Written by: H.O. Nazareth, Horace Ové
Photography: Michael Williams
Film Editor: Oliver White
Designer: Jim Hatchard
Costume Designer: Gill Hardie
Make-Up Artist: Carol Ganniclifft
Film Recordist: John Parker
Dubbing Mixer: David Baumber
Bangladeshi Adviser: Nurunessa Chowdhury

Tariq Yunus (Raji)
Patricia Garwood (Leela)
Albert Moses (Huq)
Katy Mirza (Nadira)
Lyndham Gregory (Roy)
Shreela Ghosh (Amina)
Ishaq Bux (Amina’s father)
Sahat Qizilbash (Amina’s mother)
Olegario Frank (wedding lawyer)
Paul Anil, Ranjit Nakara (Huq’s assistants)
Sneh Gupta (Fatima, woman at funeral)
Veronique Choolhun (Zareen, woman at funeral)
Charu Bala Chokshi (lawyer’s wife, woman at funeral)
Patricia Gallimore (Margaret Leela’s guest)
Terry Molloy (Clarence, Leela’s guest)
Leon Tanner (Greg, Leela’s guest)
Anita Love (Rita, Leela’s guest)
Gurdial Sira (Anand)
Moti Makan, Paul Satvender (Raji’s friends)
Bhasker Patel (Vijay)
Anand Versani (Rahim)
Seva Dhalivaal (Kumar)
Johannah Heaney (Sandra)
Julian Ronnie (Mike)
Andrew Schofield (skinhead leader)
Dev Sagoo (community worker)
Adrian Bracken, John Cashmore (policemen)
Marian Kemmer (policewoman)
Terry Pearson (immigration officer)
Esmail Sheikh, A.K. Durvesh,
Mohammed Kassam (musicians at wedding)

BBC1 tx 10.3.1981
UK 1981
88 mins

Horace Ové: Reflecting the People – A Career Retrospective + panel and Q&A with actor Lennie James, producers Annabelle Alcazar, Peter Ansorge, Tara Prem and Marcus Ryder, chaired by Samira Ahmed
Mon 23 Oct 18:00
Playing Away
Tue 24 Oct 18:10 (+ intro by writer Caryl Phillips); Tue 21 Nov 20:45
The Black Safari + intro by director Colin Luke + Skateboard Kings
Sat 28 Oct 15:15
James Baldwin and the ‘N’ Word: Baldwin’s N*** + Q&A with author Colin Grant and additional guests (tbc)
Sat 4 Nov 14:10
**King Carnival
+ intro by Michael La Rose, George Padmore Institute + Reggae
Tue 7 Nov 18:00
Play for Today: A Hole in Babylon + Play for Today: The Garland Shai Mala Khani
Sun 12 Nov 15:00
Dabbawallahs + pre-recorded intro by producer Annabelle Alcazar + Who Shall We Tell?
Fri 24 Nov 18:00

Pather Panchali
Wed 18 Oct 20:35; Mon 30 Oct 17:50; Tue 14 Nov 14:30
Seniors’ Free Matinee: La dolce vita + intro
Mon 23 Oct 14:00
Bicycle Thieves Ladri di biciclette
Tue 14 Nov 18:20; Sun 19 Nov 18:40; Fri 24 Nov 20:45

With special thanks to the Ové family for all their guidance and support for this season

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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