(The BBFC logo as we see it today)
For the majority of the 20th century, the BBFC – the British Board of Film Classification – was, and still is, the major organization in Britain that classifies and censors Television Programs, Movies and, in some cases, Video Games for the viewing pleasure of the general public. Their most familiar counterpart, for those who don’t know about the BBFC, is the MPAA in America, as both are non-governmental bodies whose sole purpose for existing is the classification and censoring of media. However, whereas the MPAA is a non-profit organization which is also dedicated to anti-piracy measures to try and protect the film industry, the BBFC’s sole purpose is just the classification and censorship of media, and the BBFC makes money off the films that it classifies.
The BBFC have a requirement by government law to classify all video works released on VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray, there are no exceptions to this rule. As a result, the United Kingdom is the only country that cannot release any film to DVD unrated. In many other parts of the world, such as America, Spain and Germany, a graphic film can be released unrated, however the selling of such works is limited to specialized retailers and sex shops. In Britain, the selling of unrated material not passed by the BBFC in British high street stores is illegal due to the 1984 Video Recordings Act. That being said, however, there is a consideration by the BBFC about the importing of unclassified material from elsewhere in the world:
You may therefore purchase unclassified videos or DVDs whilst abroad, provided they contain no illegal material and are solely for personal use.
(From the BBFC Website FAQs page)
In this context, illegal material concerns criminal pornography such as pedophilic imagery, bestiality and ‘snuff’ material, all of which is already illegal under U.K law.
Before I begin to cover the history of the BBFC in detail, it is important to note that the BBFC are not infallible. Ratings and classifications are liable to change with the turning of the times and the changing of social acceptances. For example, many films that are banned today could see a release in the years to come, and many films that were banned in the past have seen a release in recent years.
The story of the BBFC begins in 1909. In 1909, motion pictures were becoming the new thing in the theater markets, and in Britain, many businesses tried to accommodate this new form of artistic storytelling that was blowing people away in other parts of the world. Many existing theaters and shops began remodeling themselves in order to accommodate film screenings. These renovations would usually happen very hastily, and without any concern for safety. Unprofessional entrepreneurs would run films at these dowdy cinemas on cheap, poorly made projectors in order to cash in on this new business opportunity. Unfortunately, due to the poor upkeep of the film reels and the poor quality of the projectors, the heat of the bulbs within the projectors would react with the high nitrate concentration in the film itself, causing a violent reaction resulting in small explosions and fire. As a result, many hastily put together cinemas would become subject to fatal fires caused by these unprofessional practices, and the poor state that these cinemas were in only made the situation worse.
As a result, the Cinematograph Act 1909 was brought unto the film industry in Britain. This Act required cinemas to have licenses from local authorities in order to screen movies. The intention was to reduce the risk of random fires from poorly handled film reels, or at least, that’s what the public was told. The license also came with it’s own set of limitations put there by the Local Authority based on the very religious, very conservative ideas of the time. For example, in 1910, there was a legal dispute between London Bridge Picture Palace Theatre and the London County Council because the theater opened on a Sunday. London County Council won that lawsuit, and that showed everyone that the licenses that the government granted unto cinema owners contained restrictions that had nothing to do with fire safety.
Once this case was brought into the public eye, local council authorities began to realize how much power they actually had, and they proceeded to push their restrictions upon the films themselves by censoring content that they didn’t want shown as a mandatory condition when handing licenses out to cinema owners. Needless to say, this caused concern for the film industry, as each council would censor a film differently. For example, a film shown in London may be completely different to a film shown in Leeds due to the different council’s different ideas of what should and should not be shown. Thus, the film industry feared that this inconsistent censoring would be detrimental to the industry, as cinemas in heavily censored areas would suffer diminishing returns, and there was no way a film-maker could know the size of his possible market due to the uncertainty of whether his film would be shown or banned in certain areas.
This uncertainty was brought to the attention of the local councils and the need for countrywide regulation of censorship was addressed. It was determined that there was a need to create an organization dedicated to the censoring of unwanted material in film. After the controversy which surrounded the film From The Manger To The Cross – a film about the life of Jesus Christ which offended the right wing, conservative journalists of the Daily Mail and yet was found to be inoffensive by the clergy – the BBFC (British Board of Film Censorship) opened their doors on the 1st of January 1913 in Oxford Street, London. It was determined that their word would be final, and their regulation would be uncontested in order to remove the inconsistencies of censoring films in different districts differently.
The BBFC is an independent body, which was originally established by the film industry in 1912. Local Authorities were made responsible for what was shown in cinemas and from early on accepted the decisions of the BBFC. There are obvious benefits to both Local Authorities and the film industry in having a central but independent body bring consistency to the age rating process and accept responsibility for decisions.
(From the BBFC Website)
However, even back then, the BBFC was not a government body, and therefore would have to rely on it’s own method of moneymaking. Therefore, the BBFC charged film-makers £2 (£223.96 in current currency) in order to have their film screened by the BBFC in order to be shown in British cinemas in agreement with licensing conditions. The viewings would be attended by a panel of viewers with absolutely zero interest in the film industry, nor any connection to film and cinema as a whole in order to keep the censorship decision completely impartial.
For the next three years, the BBFC worked on the censorship of numerous films without disclosure of the censorship policies that they followed, which were numerous and wordy, and led to a lot of discussion. However, in 1916, T. P. O’Connor, a journalist, Irish Nationalist and Member of Parliament, became the second president of the BBFC. During his presidency, he summarized the BBFC’s policy into 43 rules for censorship or what he called the ’43 grounds for deletion’. The ‘43 grounds for deletion’ was a list of 43 inappropriate topics, which would be immediately censored.
- Indecorous, ambiguous and irreverent titles and subtitles
2. Cruelty to animals
3. The irreverent treatment of sacred subjects
4. Drunken scenes carried to excess
5. Vulgar accessories in the staging
6. The modus operandi of criminals
7. Cruelty to young infants and excessive cruelty and torture to adults, especially women
8. Unnecessary exhibition of under-clothing
9. The exhibition of profuse bleeding
10. Nude figures
11. Offensive vulgarity, and impropriety in conduct and dress
12. Indecorous dancing
13. Excessively passionate love scenes
14. Bathing scenes passing the limits of propriety
15. References to controversial politics
16. Relations of capital and labour
17. Scenes tending to disparage public characters and institutions
18. Realistic horrors of warfare
19. Scenes and incidents calculated to afford information to the enemy
20. Incidents having a tendency to disparage our Allies
21. Scenes holding up the King’s uniform to contempt or ridicule
22. Subjects dealing with India, in which British Officers are seen in an odious light, and otherwise attempting to suggest the disloyalty of British Officers, Native States or bringing into disrepute British prestige in the Empire
23. The exploitation of tragic incidents of the war
24. Gruesome murders and strangulation scenes
26. The effects of vitriol throwing
27. The drug habit. e.g. opium, morphia, cocaine, etc
28. Subjects dealing with White Slave traffic
29. Subjects dealing with premeditated seduction of girls
30. ‘First Night’ scenes
31. Scenes suggestive of immorality
32. Indelicate sexual situations
33. Situations accentuating delicate marital relations
34. Men and women in bed together
35. Illicit relationships
36. Prostitution and procuration
37. Incidents indicating the actual perpetration of criminal assaults on women
38. Scenes depicting the effect of venereal disease, inherited or acquired
39. Incidents suggestive of incestuous relations
40. Themes and references relative to ‘race suicide’
42. Scenes laid in disorderly houses
43. Materialization of the conventional figure of Christ
(From The BBFC Website: Student Guide)
Upon reflection of the original rules, one can see that they are incredibly varied. There’s no real theme or focus. There are some rules that are easy to understand, such as the cruelty to animals (No. 2) and the cruelty to infants and torture of women (No. 7) laws. However, other rules seem very silly in comparison, such as the rule about scenes being set in messy houses (No. 42) and the rule about scenes holding up the king’s uniform in ridicule (No. 21). However, what one has to understand about these sets of rules are two particular facts:
The first is that the BBFC were not only against obscenity in film, but they also had to reflect the incredibly conservative society of 1910’s England. The second is the fact that as of yet, films were not rated. In this day and age, films were a solely family experience. There weren’t any strict rules about classification and age related products, so the censorship was put there to protect children as well. At the time, there were two certificates of classification given, a U signifying Universal, and an A signifying a film more suitable to adults, but there was no restrictions given to cinemas about letting children watch any type of film. I guess, in today’s age, the equivalent of U and A would be a U and PG accordingly.
The only part of the country that was strict about who could and could not see a film was the London County Council. In 1921, 5 years after the 42 grounds for deletion was introduced, London County Council would put forth a restriction stating that young children cannot go and watch an A rated film without the presence of a parent or guardian; a rule which is still enforced to this day with the PG rating.
However, by the 1930’s cinema was booming. More and more films were coming from America’s Universal studios. However, during this time came the Universal horror boom. Films like Frankenstein, The Mummy, Dracula and The Invisible Man came out around this time and progressively made their way to the shores of England in due course. This boom of horror movies caused great concern for the BBFC, who worried about the children who would go and watch these types of films. Sure, the BBFC would cut out more ‘risky’ scenes, such as the scene in Frankenstein where Frankenstein’s monster throws a young girl into a lake, drowning her. However, London County Council and Manchester County Council would enforce the A rating and completely ban minors from watching such films. This caused the BBFC to release the legendary H rating, which stands for ‘Horrific’, in order to convey the fact that children should not be watching such films.
This concern over children and the effect that films may have on their psyche is something that has been pondered throughout the history of the BBFC, and it’s still something that’s talked about to this day, although, as one can imagine, this concern was taken more seriously in 1938 than in today’s culture. For example, in 1938, Walt Disney’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, one of the first ever feature length animated movies, was released and it caused a bit of discussion with those in the chairs of the BBFC. Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs was a cartoon fantasy movie, so of course it was made for children, but other members of the BBFC were concerned about the more disturbing moments of the film, such as the legendary transformation scene. As a result, the BBFC vetoed against the film being okay for children and passed it as an A rating with multiple cuts. In fact, it wouldn’t be passed uncut in England until it was released on VHS in the 1980’s, where it was given the U rating.
In my opinion, this era of the BBFC was incredibly strict, far too strict, in fact. I understand that during this time period the BBFC tried to make cinema accessible for those of all ages, but the fact remains that some movies were targeted towards older audiences whilst some movies were targeted towards younger audiences, and the BBFC should have acted appropriately instead of lumping films like Dante’s Inferno in the same category as Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs (they both received an A rating) because one film was clearly made for grown-ups and the other was clearly made for children. Also, I find the ‘43 grounds for deletion’ far too demanding. I understand that they had to reflect the social ideology of the time, but some rules were clearly idiotic and others wouldn’t be applicable because cinema had not yet ‘pushed the boundaries’ of human limitation like they would with the rise of Pornography and Extreme Cinema in the 1960s.
It is very clear to me that the BBFC had to evolve for the sake of the industry. It had to evolve its method of censorship and classification in order to benefit the film industry. This came, or at least got the ball rolling, in 1948 when Arthur Watkins, a successful playwright, was appointed Secretary to the BBFC. Alongside the then president of the BBFC, Sir Sidney Harris, Arthur Watkins formulated a new guideline for the BBFC, one that would change the shape of censorship. This new guideline only consisted of three questions:
- Was the story, incident or dialogue likely to impair the moral standards of the public by extenuating vice or crime or depreciating moral standards?
- Was it likely to give offense to reasonably minded cinema audiences?
- What effect would it have on children?
(From The BBFC Website: Student guide)
That’s all that was needed. However, there still was a consideration about children and some Local Authorities brought it upon themselves to completely ban children from watching an H rated film, but an ‘adult’s only’ category was seen as more than needed in order to both protect children from harmful material and extend freedoms to film-makers who wish to make more adult focused films, ones that display mature subject matter in a mature way.
In 1951, these demands were met with the release of the famous X category of film, a category solely given to adult only films. The X category determined that only those of age 16 and over would be allowed to watch the film in question. As a result, any film that was declared to be an H rating was now rated X in order to stop children from watching such material, and film-makers now had a new audience to exploit, an audience that comprises of solely adult viewers. This new rating was supposed to give the BBFC a lot more freedom from their censorship duties, as they no longer had to play the moral guide, and instead, they would just let a film play to an intended audience. However, the BBFC were still playing judge and juror over a film’s content, and many films meant for an older audience were still cut before being shown in cinemas, such as Max Olphuls’ La Ronde in 1951 and Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles Of A Summer Night in 1956 which were cut because of ‘sexualized dialogue’, despite the lack of any sex scenes whatsoever. The BBFC were still very hard on new and envelope pushing films about drugs, capital punishment and the state of changing society in the 1950s, and most films that contained such material would gain the legendary X rating with substantial cuts to its content.
However, in the 1950’s, there was a new audience emerging; an audience with a new agenda, new technology, who would listen to vinyl records, dance to rock & roll music, ride around on bikes all day and hang out all night with their friends on a weekend: the teenagers. The 1950’s saw the emergence of teen culture and counter-culture rebellion, and the film industry would go on to make movies that reflected the more extreme depictions of those times. Certainly 1955’s Rebel Without A Cause caused concern among the BBFC for it’s depiction of anti-social behaviour and the effect that depiction may have on teen violence, but no film caused more controversy and fear in the 1950’s than 1954’s The Wild One.
The Wild One, a film starring Marlon Brando about a biker gang causing mayhem in a small American town, was described as ‘a spectacle of unbridled hooliganism’ by the BBFC, and subsequently rejected for classification. Over the coming month and years, repeated attempts were made to try and secure a rating for The Wild One, and even some local authorities defied the BBFC’s rejection of the film and allowed The Wild One to be played in their cinemas. This back and forth between The Wild One and the BBFC continued for 13 years. It wasn’t until 1967 that the BBFC judged the film fit for certification, as the supposed ‘dangers’ that surrounded the film’s content were apparently over. The Wild One is rated PG today, and, in all honesty, the controversy that surrounded the film was farcical at best.
At this period of time, in fact, even today, the BBFC has an overburdening obsession about films ‘causing violence’; despite there being no actual evidence that inherently links a film’s content with public disorder. Every act of violence that has been attributed to violent depictions in movies has always been the effect of a very disturbed individual with a cruel imagination who already suffered from a ‘criminal mind-set’, and the result of the crime they committed may have been inspired by, not directly attributed to, a piece of film or media. I believe that mass panic that has been attributed to works of film or media is nonsensical, idiotic and completely unjustified. I believe that the character Billy Loomis from the movie Scream said it best:
Now Sid, don’t you blame the movies. Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!
1959 saw a new change in Legislation a new attitude in British culture that would affect the BBFCs opinion of film content. 1959 brought about the Obscene Publications Act, an act that would drastically limit what the UK Parliament called ‘obscene material’. This act would mainly affect novella and art more than the film industry; nonetheless, it was an act of legislation that was brought out at the wrong time. The 1960’s were one of the most revolutionary time periods in British history: new fashions, new technology, new music, new ideas, and new people. British society was becoming freer and less restricted by authoritarian ideals and new media was being released that reflected that social change. Even though the 1959 Obscene Publications Act was in effect, many challenged the rules and regulation put there to “protect the masses”, such as D. H. Lawrence with his novel Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Stass Paraskos with his art exhibition titled Lovers And Romance. This new liberalism that spread throughout British society dictated that the BBFC had to change with the times. In response, BBFC secretary John Trevelyan stated:
‘The British Board of Film Censors cannot assume responsibility for the guardianship of public morality. It cannot refuse for exhibition to adults films that show behaviour that contravenes the accepted moral code, and it does not demand that ‘the wicked’ should also be punished. It cannot legitimately refuse to pass films which criticise ‘the Establishment’ and films which express minority opinions’
(From the BBFC website, Student guide)
This new ideology that the BBFC adopted was quickly tested by Michael Powell’s disturbing horror/thriller Peeping Tom. Even though John Trevelyan himself remarked on the film’s “morbid concentration on fear”, the BBFC released the film anyway, with an X rating and cuts to its content. This caused a huge societal uproar. Critics absolutely loathed the movie due to its disturbing content, and public opinion was equally negative. Michael Powell never recovered from this incredible punch to his career. He was labelled as a ‘Marquis Du Sade’ by local media and the film itself was certificated X/18 until 2007, where it was re-released uncut with a 15 certificate. What’s interesting to note, is how the BBFC was never blamed for allowing the film to be released to the British public, thus showing how the BBFC had kept its word about separating itself from being the moral guardians of the movie industry.
The rest of the 1960s continued on this trend of ‘liberal’ classification, or at least what can be perceived as liberal in comparison to the very conservative censorship of the previous decades. Although violent and controversial films were still being cut for their X certificate, such as The Wild Bunch, Bonnie And Clyde and The Silence, it’s important to note that only 2 films were actually rejected throughout this decade, despite the incredible amount of movies that contain violent and sexual images that were released in the 1960s.
1964’s Lady In A Cage, a psychological thriller about a woman who becomes trapped in a lift in her home, was rejected by the BBFC on the grounds that, like The Wild One, it could “invite and stimulate juvenile violence and anti-social behaviour by young people”. The London County Council, however, being surprisingly liberal for a change, granted a cut version of the film an X certificate so it can be played in cinemas.
Roger Corman’s The Trip, a 1967 film about the effects of LSD, wouldn’t be rated for another 35 years. That being said, I find it understandable to see why a film about the delights and drawbacks of an illegal drug would become very controversial in the late 1960’s, a time where the drug business was flourishing among proto-hippie communities, even if I don’t agree with it’s rejection.
Nonetheless, the 1960’s were a very liberal time, and it’s happy to see that, although they still censored films (which I’m never going to be happy about) the BBFC were beginning to allow the film industry a lot more freedoms when it came to a film’s content. They were beginning to relax and give the British film industry the space it needed to flourish.
However, it was decided in 1970 that things still had to change. Teenagers were becoming recognized as a legitimate audience and the influx of adult based content was continuously on the rise. As a result, the A rating was split into an A and an AA rating, -the A meaning that children had to be accompanied by an adult, and the AA rating meaning that no child under 14 should be granted permission to see the movie – and the age rating of the X certificate was increased from 16 to 18. This new rating system was a step in a new direction. Now, each audience had films that catered to them and the separation between the ratings was crystal clear. This rating system is still active today, albeit with different icons, and the BBFC had more options and less censorship duties because of it; because now each classification came with it’s own expectations. An audience would know that an X rating would mean the films was strictly for adults, an A would mean that the film may not be suitable for younger children, and an AA would mean that the film would be targeted more towards teenagers more than any other audience. However, during the dark times of the 1970’s, this system of classification, and indeed the BBFC as a whole, would find themselves being tested by a whole host of incredibly violent, incredibly disturbing and increasingly extreme movies.
In America, the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) had announced their version of the X rating: a rating given to uncensored films. As a result, American filmmakers no longer had to censor themselves. They could go as far and as extreme as they wish because, although their films may be controversial and may get pulled by law, they had no fear that the films they were going to make were going to be heavily censored by the MPAA. The BBFC, however, did not share this ideology. John Trevelyan even said in a statement:
“We are afraid that this will have the effect of giving certain film-makers the opportunity of going much further than they have done in scenes of sex and sexual perversion, since with the protection of an X rating, they can shed personal responsibility”
(From The BBFC Website, Students Guide)
The fears of John Trevelyan may have been confirmed because the 1970s brought the cinema audience violent, sexually charged, envelope pushing movies such as A Clockwork Orange, Last Tango In Paris, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Salo.
A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick’s graphic adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel, kicked up a storm in England and America upon its original release in 1971. In America it was passed uncut, although this didn’t stop the Roman Catholic Church from condemning it. However, in Britain, the film was passed uncut by the BBFC, yet local authorities took it upon themselves to seize and prosecute the movie. In 1972, A Clockwork Orange was referenced in a court case against a 14-year-old boy who has killed his classmate. The film was also reportedly ‘linked’ to the murder of an elderly homeless man not soon after, as the boy who was prosecuted mentioned recreating the first moments of the film where Alex and his ‘droogs’ beat up an old homeless man for being homeless. The film also wormed its way into a case involving the rape of a 17-year-old Dutch girl because the men who committed the awful act were singing ‘Singing In The Rain’ as they did so. The media frenzy got so bad that Stanley Kubrick’s family were receiving death threats and protesters at their family home about the movie’s ‘influence’ on real crime.
As a result, Stanley Kubrick contacted Warner Bros in 1973 and requested the withdrawal of A Clockwork Orange from British release. When asked about the effect that A Clockwork Orange had on British general public, Kubrick replied with:
“To try and fasten any responsibility on art as the cause of life seems to me to put the case the wrong way around. Art consists of reshaping life, but it does not create life, nor cause life. Furthermore, to attribute powerful suggestive qualities to a film is at odds with the scientifically accepted view that, even after deep hypnosis in a posthypnotic state, people cannot be made to do things which are at odds with their natures.”
(Paul Duncan, Stanley Kubrick The Complete Films, Page 136)
A Clockwork Orange was only re-released uncut in British cinemas in the year 2000, after Kubrick’s death, and was released on VHS and DVD shortly thereafter.
Tobe Hooper’s 1974 opus The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was brought to the BBFC’s consideration twice. The first time was after it’s original release and ended up with the film being rejected by the BBFC, the second time was in 1975 when the BBFC Secretary had changed from Stephen Murphy to James Ferman. James Ferman was already aware of Stephen Murphy’s stance on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and James Ferman agreed with the points that Murphy made about the film’s violence and terrorisation of women, and stated that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was completely unacceptable. As a result, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was banned from cinema for 25 years, only gaining a release in 1999. Also, the word ‘chainsaw’ was completely barred from movie titles.
During his time as Secretary of the BBFC, despite the The Texas Chainsaw Massacre hiccup, James Ferman was actually quite liberal in the review and censoring of movies. He reflected more on the Obscene Publications Act when it came to cinema instead of allowing the film to be judged on ‘indecency’, despite what the context of the scene may be. James Ferman allowed a lot more sexual content to be allowed in mainstream cinema, but he clamped down on sadistic and sexual violence. He responded less to the scenes themselves and more about the inferred ‘implicitness’ of such scenes. For example:
– Is the graphic violence of a film such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre just there for shock value?
– Or is it glorifying the violent act?
– Is it sadistic?
– Or is it more contextually relevant?
– Is the viewer meant to enjoy watching the pain and torture shown onscreen?
In my opinion, these are all very good points, however, this was really the wrong decade to ask about these questions. A lot of films that were made in the 1970s, or at least the ones that came to the BBFC’s attention, weren’t what can be called ‘sadistically violent’, nor were they meant to showcase the perverted pleasure of watching such violence. Films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and A Clockwork Orange are more akin to morality tales than the BBFC suggested. A viewer isn’t supposed to enjoy the terrorisation of Sally Hardesty; they’re supposed to be scared with her. Leatherface isn’t supposed to be a hero; he’s a frightening villain. A viewer isn’t supposed to congratulate Alex or the Government that effectively castrates his violent tendencies, it’s supposed to show the harmful effects of both extremes; both sides are supposed to be disturbingly graphic. In a way, I would say that the BBFC and the public definitely got the wrong end of the stick on that one.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and A Clockwork Orange are nothing compared to the shocking films released later like Faces Of Death, August Underground and Flowers Of Flesh And Blood. With these movies you can definitely make the argument that they glorify sadistic violence and exist only for perverted titillation. Granted, sadistic and perverted movies films did exist in the 1970s, such as ‘shockumentary’ Mondo Cane which was released in 1962, but they weren’t part of the mainstream cinema and were never brought to the BBFC’s attention. As such, I do believe that the BBFC overreacted a lot when it came to supposedly ‘extreme’ movies of the 1970s. However, after the controversy that surrounded A Clockwork Orange, I completely understand that the BBFC would like to be very careful when reviewing a movie, lest they provoke a similar situation from the British public.
However, compared to the 1980s, the controversy of the 1970’s was nothing but a little blip for the BBFC, as the 1980s would end up being the most testing decade for the BBFC, the film industry, the VHS market and even the conservative government. The decade started off with the controversy behind Tinto Brass’ Caligula in 1979. Members of the BBFC and a handful of lawyers reviewed the film in order to see whether or not Caligula contained any illegal material, as the film had already caused uproar from American soil. After six months of review and deliberation, the BBFC issued that a lot of cuts were to be made necessary in order to turn the sexploitation classic into an X rated film fit for public. The cuts made were so bad that extra dialogue had to be added in post-production because the cuts interfered with the film’s plot. Despite the overzealous amount of cuts, the local authorities and members of the British public objected the BBFC’s decision to release Caligula, and a few local authorities took it upon themselves to ban the film entirely with groups of ‘concerned citizens’ protesting the movies release. However, the BBFC assured the British public that they had taken due care to ensure that Caligula was rated and censored according to British law, and the controversy surrounding the movie quickly died down. It wasn’t until 2008, when three different versions of Caligula were shown to the BBFC for approval for a release on DVD – a cinematic release, an original release and 1990’s greatly reduced release – that Caligula was finally passed uncut. In fact, all three versions of the film were released uncut.
Caligula was one of many controversies that tested the BBFC in the 1980’s. Many of the controversies surrounding films sent for review in 1981/1982 were miniscule and dealt with accordingly. Films such as McVicar, The Long Good Friday, Halloween 2, and First Blood all garnered the BBFC’s attention and concern. However, every film was released uncut with an X rating. It seemed that, for a while, the BBFC had grown to fully appreciate the X rating and applied it accordingly with the knowledge that it had the firm connotation that only adults should watch such movies. However, under the surface, behind the backs of the BBFC, the VHS market was growing and growing.
But first, I should address a very vocal figure in the demand for moral standards in the early 1980s: Mary Whitehouse. Mary Whitehouse was a demanding, strict social activist who was active from 1963 to 1988. She was firmly opposed to the apparent ‘social liberalism’ that, in her mind, plagued mainstream media. She was the founder of the National Viewers and Listeners Association (NVALA) and through that association; she led a longstanding campaign against the programming of the BBC. She completely opposed any and all war coverage on the BBC, especially the coverage of the liberation of the Belson concentration camp, as she found the images to be “filth” that was “bound to shock and offend”. She was against the apparent ‘foul language’ that was ‘rife’ in the British sitcom Till Death Do Us Part, and incredibly critical of famous British comedian Benny Hill.
Mary Whitehouse’s continued battles against the BBC’s programming and her firm stance on ‘high moral standards’ caused her to find a good deal of allies in the Conservative government, and her demands and concerns earned her the attention of the Iron lady herself Margaret Thatcher during the height of Thatcher’s power. With Margaret Thatcher in her corner, Mary Whitehouse had more power than ever to police the moral standards of the public. She brought about new legislation such as the Protection Of Children Act 1978 and the Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981. In 1982, she became increasingly aware of a new moral panic, a moral panic that was just starting to reach the tabloid newspapers at the time, a moral panic of the VHS market, the moral panic concerning a new wave of extreme cinema coming from Europe and America. Mary Whitehouse became outraged and used her influence on the Conservative government to bring about an act that would revolutionise the British film distribution industry as a whole: the 1984 Video Recordings Act.
See, the BBFC never had any say about the films that were being released on video. The BBFC were there to screen and review films intended for cinema and cinema only. Unbeknownst to the BBFC, many films that the BBFC had not seen were making their way onto the shelves of VHS retailers. No legislation or law had been made about the release of VHS tapes, and not a single VHS tape had a rating on it. People like Mary Whitehouse, Conservative politicians and right-wing tabloid writers were overly scared that these films would get into the hands of children, which would lead to a massive descent in public morals. They were scared of children being manipulated and becoming ‘evil’ because they watched these films, and thus it would cause a large dissonance between the youth and authority figures of the 1980. (However, what’s important to note is that there was already a dissonance between the youth and the authority at the time, because the working class British youth were very opposed to the authoritarian Conservative government).
In the early 1980s, Mary Whitehouse and the Conservative government set out to campaign against these extreme horror movies that were increasingly becoming coined as ‘Video Nasties’ by the tabloid press. However, at this time, no one, not even Mary Whitehouse or Margaret Thatcher, knew what a ‘Video Nasty’ actually was. A ‘Video Nasty’ was more of an idea at this point, and not an actual label. In reaction to this, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) drew up a list of 72 movies that they believed had ‘the potential to harm the mental health of the public’. These movies were to be called the ‘Video Nasties’ and shortly afterwards the local authorities brought it upon themselves to seize as many of these films as possible and throw them into industrial sized incinerators so they couldn’t ‘hurt’ anyone ever again.
Of course, the notion of burning films because they could potentially ‘harm’ people is absolutely preposterous. It shames the film industry as a whole and spreads the absolutely ridiculous notion that horror films could permanently scar kids and turn them into rapists or serial killers. What the Conservative government didn’t seem to understand is that children have a limited degree of common sense. They can understand the difference between fantasy and reality as well as the difference between right and wrong. Children aren’t delicate little flowers, they’re adaptable and hardy human beings, much like all of us, regardless of age and intelligence.
Nonetheless, inflated evidence about how many children were watching ‘Video Nasties’ were given to the tabloid press to poke the fires of moral panic. Movies were seized, shop-owners were prosecuted and distributers were imprisoned, sometimes for as long as 18 months. However, it didn’t really affect the sale of such movies. After the intense public campaign against them, ‘Video Nasties’ were subsequently treated like porno movies in local shops and shifted into boxes underneath the counter out of public view, or put in the back until someone specifically requested to buy one; it didn’t stop the sale of such movies, it just pulled them underground. The best thing that this campaign did was highlight 72 movies that every Gorehound needed to see. It wasn’t a list of avoidance at all; it was a list of recommendations for those wanting a bit more kick out of their horror movies.
Section 1: Prosecuted films
Anthropophagous: The Beast
A Bay of Blood
The Beast in Heat
The Cannibal Man
Don’t Go in the Woods
The Driller Killer
Faces of Death
Fight for Your Life
Flesh for Frankenstein
Forest of Fear
Gestapo’s Last Orgy
The House by the Cemetery
The House on the Edge of the Park
I Spit on Your Grave
Island of Death
The Last House on the Left
Love Camp 7
Mardi Gras Massacre
Nightmares in a Damaged Brain
Night of the Bloody Apes
Night of the Demon
SS Experiment Camp
The Werewolf and the Yeti
Zombie Flesh Eaters
Section 2: Non Prosecuted films
The Bogey Man
Dead & Buried
Deep River Savages
Don’t Go in the House
Don’t Go Near the Park
Don’t Look in the Basement
The Evil Dead
I Miss You, Hugs and Kisses
Late Night Trains
The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue
Prisoner of the Cannibal God
Revenge of the Bogey Man
The Toolbox Murders
The Witch Who Came From the Sea
Zombie Creeping Flesh
(The Complete List of ‘Video Nasties’ as chosen by the DPP. From Wikipedia.org page “Video Nasty”)
In 1984, the Video Recordings Act was put into place thanks to Conservative MP Graham Bright and the House of Commons. The Act mandated that every single video that was to be sold In Britain had to be reviewed and classified by an independent organization. That organization was, of course, the BBFC. As a result, the BBFC changed its name to the British Board Of Film Classification because they now had a job to classify every single film that was about to be released on video as mandated by law. Also, the BBFC brought in new age ratings in response to the Video revolution and the ‘Video Nasty’ craze. These ratings are the same ones we see today in DVD shops all around Britain: Uc (Films for younger children), U (Films for the whole family), PG (Films for the whole family with a sprinkling of adult material), 15 (Films targeted at teenagers), 18 (Films targeted at adults) and the rare R-18 category, which was given solely to pornography films sold in licenced sex shops.
This rating system continued up until 1989 with the release of Tim Burton’s Batman. In response to the movie’s dark tone, but relatively tame content for a 15 rated film, the BBFC brought in the 12 rating which was intended to bridge the gap between PG and 15 and open up a whole new audience for films like Jaws, Goldeneye, Goldfinger and Killer Klowns From Outer Space which weren’t as content heavy as other films that garnered the 15 rating.
However, the controversies would not stop in the 1990s. Despite the “Video Nasty” movement being six years old, the public were still very concerned about the link between cinematic violence and real world violence. The James Bulgar case didn’t help, and it whipped the public into an intense frenzy. When two ten year old English boys were prosecuted over the torture and murder of a toddler – James Bulgar – the film Child’s Play 3 was brought up in court, and people’s fears over the ink between real life violence and fantasy violence was once again realised in an incredibly hard-hitting fashion. Even though subsequent inquiries and investigations proved this so called ‘link’ nothing more than a crazed hypothesis, the public were in arms and they called out for stricter regulation on violent movies. In response, there would be an amendment to the Video Recordings Act which required the BBFC to thoroughly consider the potential for harm when making rating decisions. As a result, the BBFC became much stricter on DVD and VHS because of ‘the potential harm that can come from violent scenes being shown out of context and replayed infinitely’.
In my opinion, this need for stricter regulation because of a hypothetical circumstance is absolutely nonsensical. These stricter measures only needed to be put into place when undeniable evidence proves the link between fantasy violence and real world violence. Hypothesis and speculation should not be the defining factors that cause an amendment to an existing act of legislation, especially an amendment which forces authoritarian rules upon a culturally important art medium.
Nonetheless, it happened, and to this day, Child’s Play 3 is the only entry into the original Child’s Play series that’s rated 18 despite it being neither more violent nor more sexually explicit than the previous entries into the series. However, it’s not only Child’s Play 3 that garnered intense controversy during the 1990s. The 1990s saw an increase in sexual content as well from Larry Clark’s Kids and David Cronenberg’s Crash. Both films were targeted by conservative individuals who wanted the films to be banned, however, this time the BBFC took it upon themselves to research the individuals involved in these films to find out the age of the actors (Kids) and to research whether the film itself would incite offense towards a particular group (Crash). In the end, both films were released with 18 ratings because it seemed that the public’s fears were once again unfounded and nonsensical.
1999 brought another huge change to the BBFC as James Ferman, after spending 24 years in the role of Director at the BBFC, finally retired and Robin Duval, the head of the Central Office of Information at the time, took the role as Director. Like James Ferman before him, Robin Duval also brought about new changes for the BBFC, such as rejecting any cuts for R18 Pornography films (unless they broke criminal law) as those films would be in the hands of adults only as, as stated before, only licenced sex shops could sell an R18 rated movie. However, the most important change that Robin Duval brought about was the removal of the BBFC’s bizarre policy on ‘far east weaponry’ that was upheld by James Ferman. This policy, first introduced in the 1970’s, banned the showing of Asian weaponry such as Nunchaku, Ninja Star, Kame, Tonfa in films. Even Katanas were banned from being seen in movies. As a result, many Asian Kung-Fu flicks and Bruce Lee movies were always heavily cut when they ended up on British soil. Robin Duval helped change that policy as he believed that the cutting of such material no longer seemed necessary or in any way constructive to British society as these weapons are less popular now than they were in the 1970’s when martial arts shops had begun to crop up around Britain. As a result, Bruce Lee films were finally released uncut and many British kung-fu film fans (such as myself) were happy to see that change come about.
After the dawn of the millennium, the BBFC began to change their opinions on films both past and present. Their opinions on scenes of un-simulated sex in films changed. Films like Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots and Catherin Breillat’s Romance were released uncut whereas in earlier decades any scene of un-simulated sex would be cut without question. After a consultation exercise in 2000 revealed that the general public would like the BBFC to relax its guidelines on sexual content in movies rated 15-18, the BBFC wrote up new guidelines that determined that images of real sex may be permitted in an 18 rated movie if it was appropriate by context and didn’t classify as purely for pornographic purposes. As a result, films like Intimacy, Dog Days and The Piano Teacher were all passed fully uncut with an 18 rating.
However, it wasn’t long before the issue of sexual violence was back to cause concern with the BBFC. 2001’s Baise-Moi (English translation: Rape Me), is a brutal, sexually explicit thriller movie, and it was released by the BBFC with only a single cut despite it being such a sexually charged, violent movie. This led to the re-review of Wes Cravens Last House On The Left in 2001 after public appeal as the film had been sent for review twice, and was twice rejected: once in 1974, the other in 2000. In the 2001 re-review, the BBFC requested numerous cuts before the film would be released due to the film’s sexually violent and sadistic nature. Needless to say, this didn’t please the distributer who probably used the release of Baise-Moi as an example as to why Last House On The Left shouldn’t be cut to shreds. In response to the BBFC’s unwavering decision, the distributer went over the heads of the BBFC and went straight to the Video Appeals Committee (VAC) in order to have the decision changed. The VAC, however, firmly agreed with the BBFC’s decision to cut the film, and Last House On the Left was finally released, albeit in a heavily cut form. It wasn’t until after seven years had passed that Last House On the Left was finally passed uncut in 2008.
Robin Duval’s final, major change in the rating system came about in 2002 when the 12 rating was removed for cinema only and replaced with a 12A rating, allowing children under twelve to see those movies when accompanied by an adult, much like a PG movie now that PG movies had become tamer and tamer over the years. The 12A rating meant that the film would be suitable for those over the age of 12, but it was up to parents whether to bring a child younger than 12 to see a 12A movie. This change came from research into public reaction in order to bring about positive changes for the BBFC, and the first film to hold this 12A rating in cinemas was 2002’s The Bourne Identity.
Robin Duval retired in 2004 and David Cooke was set to replace him. David Cooke, unlike those who came before him, didn’t radically change the BBFC’s policies and decisions in any way, and instead, kept up the liberal ideas about censorship that the previous directors had before him. In 2005, the BBFC had brought about new guidelines based on the contributions of over 11,000 people, and public support for the BBFC increased from 59% to 63%. After this event, controversies surrounding the BBFC slowed down as work went on as usual with barely any backlash by the public or any outstanding case studies where a film caused too much concern for the BBFC. Sure, films would still be cut and some would be rejected, but times had changed so much that the people had just accepted the BBFC’s decisions, the people were slowly given the films that they wanted to see uncut thanks to the BBFC’s changing opinions on movies.
The only kink in the system, as far as I know, was Koji Shiraishi’s Grotesque released in 2009. Koji Shiraishi was pretty optimistic about the film being given an 18 rating and that being that. However, for the first time in a long time, the BBFC came down hard on the film and banned the film in Britain because of the film’s rampant, sexually sadistic violence. In response to the BBFC’s decision to reject Grotesque, David Cooke stated:
“Unlike other recent ‘torture’ themed horror works, such as the Saw and Hostel series, Grotesque features minimal narrative or character development and presents the audience with little more than an unrelenting and escalating scenario of humiliation, brutality and sadism. In spite of a vestigial attempt to ‘explain’ the killer’s motivations at the very end of the film, the chief pleasure on offer is not related to understanding the motivations of any of the central characters. Rather, the chief pleasure on offer seems to be wallowing in the spectacle of sadism (including sexual sadism) for its own sake”.
(From a BBFC Press Release, August 19, 2009)
However, surprisingly, Koji Shiraishi wasn’t unhappy with this decision:
“(I’m) delighted and flattered by this most expected reaction from the faraway country, since the film is an honest conscientious work, made sure to upset the so-called moralists.”
(From the Gigazine website article ‘Japanese Horror Flick “Grotesque” Banned In Britain – What The Director Has To Say’, August 21, 2009)
Now, it’s 2018, and where are we with the BBFC? Well, Grotesque is still banned by British Law and owning a copy is illegal, but otherwise the BBFC appear to keep changing and keep evolving, releasing more and more movies uncut. Even films that were banned and burnt in previous years have earned themselves uncut releases in this day and age, such as Anthropophagus, Absurd, SS Experiment Camp and Nightmares In A Damaged Brain. Even I Spit On Your Grave was re-reviewed in 2010 and had so many previous cuts removed. So it’s quite pleasing to see the BBFC moving in what I see to be the right direction when it comes to censorship, and respecting the public to make its own decisions and mistakes.
Of course, extreme movies such as Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox, Fight For Your Life and SS Hell Camp will probably never be released uncut in my lifetime, but due to the BBFC’s loophole on owning imported, uncut versions of those movies, it’s not like the option to watch uncut versions of these movies isn’t given to the public.
Even though I’m completely against censorship, I’m completely for classification and I believe that, in this day and age, the BBFC is doing a good job at classifying films appropriately. Although there are a few hiccups, such as Footprints On the Moon being an 18 rated movie despite a lack of gore or sex, there hasn’t been a film that I believe was grossly mishandled. I only hope for the future that more and more of the banned films from years past earn themselves a re-review and subsequent re-release, as it’s very interesting, at least for me, to look at these forgotten films from time gone by and experience them for the first time.
In conclusion, although the BBFC has had quite a questionable past with being dictated by a very conservative British society and also enforcing the overzealous censoring of a valuable art medium, I believe that the ideas behind the BBFC were quite noble and the fact that they’ve changed their beliefs throughout the years has been nothing but beneficial to the film industry and home-video market in Britain.
Also, I believe they’re doing a better job than their American cousin the MPAA, a classification body with rules so confusing they had to make a full documentary about it in order to explain it.