Anjela Lauren Smith, Wil Johnson, Caroline Chikezie, Jocelyn Jee Esien, Don Warrington, Tameka Empson, Diane Bailey, Vas Blackwood, Andrea Francis, Anton Rice, Saffron Lashley, Corinne Skinner-Carter, Suzette Llewellyn, Buckley Ranks
|Musical, Drama, TV Movie
| 6 (from 1 vote)
Anita (Anjela Lauren Smith) is the mother to two young children by their professional singer father Byron (Wil Johnson), but he is not always around as he has to go on tour and has other motives for wandering from her. She harbours a desire to join him on the stage, or even strike out on her own and become an artist herself, but when he invites her to do so she is hampered by nerves and refuses. However, at one big concert for Byron where he is going down a storm, Anita decides, yes, she could do this just as well as her partner does - but will he be her partner for much longer when she realises how friendly he is with his female fans?
Babymother was a television movie designed to be shown on Channel 4, which in 1998 was not mostly reality TV and people commenting on reality TV, but produced its fair share of drama as well. This was proudly proclaimed as Britain's first black musical, cast as it was with an entirely black group of actors, some of whom went on to very respectable careers – Caroline Chikezie and Jocelyn Jee Esien did very well on the small screen, for instance, after appearing here as Anita's pals, as did Tameka Empson as her rival. EastEnders may be looked down on by some of the potential audience, but it did provide regular gigs for many performers.
Indeed, Babymother was looked down on as well, from a great height, at that, perhaps predictably as it took as its heroine a black single mother who seems to be more engaged with her potential showbiz career than she is looking after her kids. Couple that to a very basic rags to riches narrative that had been done to death down the decades, and still is to this day for that matter, and it was as if director and co-writer Julian Henriques was setting himself up for a fall, victim to all sorts of prejudices from the audience who would dismiss the project out of hand. For that reason it is possible to feel protective towards Babymother, at least for what it did differently.
Fair enough, you would not see the fashions the characters wear on many London streets, or anywhere outside of some Afrofuturist alien planet, with its emphasis on material like waterproof plastic or spangly bra tops apparently just the thing to go down the shops in this parallel world, but it did give the proceedings a distinction in its imagery that on a low budget was not such an outrageous idea. Sure, some of the scenes were purely in the kitchen sink tradition, but how far would that apply when your protagonist is stuck in domestic drudgery while sporting shiny turquoise slacks? Again, some found this ridiculous, but it was a visual reminder that Anita regarded herself as a celebrity even before she had attained that level in society.
Every so often, the characters would mime to nineties reggae and dancehall on the soundtrack, and if the dancing was not exactly In the Heights, there was a similar style of placing a spring of colour and music against the backdrop of grey, urban cityscape in a contrast that told us anywhere can be the source of brightness and exuberance, all you needed were the right personalities to create that atmosphere. True, Anita was not always great company, she is selfish and petulant when events do not go her way, and we wonder if she is neglecting her children in favour of some self-important quest to follow an idealistic goal experience teaches us will more likely not finish in fame and fortune. But if the tunes were too polished to be believable as live, they were well-produced, and would have appealed to viewers of her age at the time, if now more of a nostalgia piece. This was at least as notable as the Streetdance movies of the following decade. Music by John Lunn.
[The BFI release Babymother on Blu-ray with these special features:
Presented in High Definiton
We the Ragamuffin (1992, 26 mins): Julian Henriques' urban musical shot and set in Peckham
Julian Henriques and Parminder Vir on Babymother (2021, 44 mins): the director and producer talk about the film's genesis and production history
Anjela Lauren Smith in conversation with Corrina Antrobus (2021, 49 mins): the actress discusses her part as Anita
Carroll Thompson in conversation with Rogan Graham (2021, 32mins): the singer and songwriter discusses her role as music consultant on the film
Archive Q&A / Babymother gallery (2021, 28 mins: an archive Q&A with the filmmakers from 1998 which plays over a selection of images
We the Ragamuffin gallery