Fire in Babylon

Chin music

This nostalgic documentary by Stevan Riley tells the story of the West Indian cricket team who dominated the world stage from the mid-1970s all the way to when I remember watching them at the end of the century. Spearheaded by talismanic batsman Viv Richards and a fast bowling attack which struck the fear of god into all who faced it, they went unbeaten in Test series for 15 years – a record which, according to Riley, helped bring about a wider shift in cultural confidence for African-Caribbean society at large.

After a slew of recent documentaries all-too preoccupied with their own precarious genre status, it felt unusual to watch a film which was so comparatively straight-laced. Indeed nothing about Fire in Babylon is especially innovative, either in style or substance: it is heavily reliant on talking headings and archive clips, predictably full of reggae music and includes a ‘graffiti’-style green and yellow font for credits and captions that might best be described as unimaginative.

Thankfully, those talking heads are more than charismatic enough to keep things interesting. Riley’s interviewees include local musicians, eccentric groundsmen and an eager social historian, alongside the players themselves. The pick of the bunch is former bowler Andy Roberts, whose deadpan remarks are often cut cleverly with the older recordings (notably England captain Tony Grieg’s infamous use of the word ‘grovel’) to great comic effect.

The match footage too is skilfully presented, leaving no room for doubt as to the full brutality of the West Indian bowling. Six feet and eight inches of Joel Garner striding towards the crease is a genuinely frightening screen presence – and clip after clip of his and others’ short-pitched firecrackers leave you astonished that batsmen of the time were happy not to wear helmets. The audience around me were wincing audibly at every bruising blow.

So we watch as the team’s success steadily grows – and whilst the narrative may be relatively straightforward, it was interesting to learn in the Q&A afterwards of the inevitable manipulation that goes into making it. Riley was happy to admit, for instance, that the West Indies’ 1975 World Cup victory was omitted because it ‘did not fit into the arc of the story’, and that the same was true of a number of ambiguities involving a rebels’ tour to apartheid South Africa.

This tour is in fact touched on in the film; it’s the only real switch in tone, as suddenly a conflict arises between the interviewed ex-players and their smiles begin to wane. But the moment is fleeting, and you leave feeling that it’s a potentially intriguing subject for another interrogation entirely. This film is all about celebration – and undeniably enjoyable for it.

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