London Lockdown Circa 1980: ‘Babylon’ & ‘Breaking Glass’

One of the few positives of this lockdown may be investigating your local area more than usual.

And if London is your manor, the mostly-silent, near-empty streets may just take you back to the city of your youth, when car ownership was relatively rare and there was plenty of room to kick a football or swing a cricket bat – mainly for sporting purposes, you understand…

Joking aside, London felt pretty edgy at the turn of the ’80s. Youth subcultures fought each other, and the police fought them. Some parts of the city had barely moved on from the Victorian era. There were great swathes of wasteland, still reeling from World War 2 bombs. Tube trains and stations were often deserted and you might even get a slap (there didn’t seem to be many knives around) if you wandered into the ‘wrong’ neighbourhood (hello Gary Bates…).

It was a world accurately captured by feature films like ‘Babylon’, ‘Rude Boy‘, ‘DOA‘, ‘The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle‘ and ‘Breaking Glass’, all released 40 years ago. ‘Babylon’ was illuminated by sumptuous photography by legendary Brit cinematographer Chris Menges (‘Kes’, ‘The Mission’, ‘The Killing Fields’), capturing rundown, turn-of-the-decade Lewisham, south-east London, site of a notorious August 1977 battle between the National Front and 10,000 protestors.

All of these films accurately capture the energy of inner-city life during the late-’70s and early-’80s, and the pressures of young people living at the sharp end of recession, racism and unemployment. Also ever-present is the constant theme of music-business skullduggery and police brutality. But it’s all shot through with healthy doses of humour and humanity, particularly throughout ‘Babylon’.

For all the benefits of ‘gentrification’ and the corporate restructuring of the capital, true Londoners of a certain age probably feel a tinge of nostalgia about the time when they seemed to own the streets, when there were many secrets to be found in the city’s nooks and crannies – for better or worse.