Censorship in the United Kingdom

At present, film and video are regulated (and in some cases censored) by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) - an independent, non-governmental body, funded by charging for the service it provides to the film industry. Although the BBFC gives the certificate for a film, any local authority has statutory power to overrule its decisions. Local authorities generally accept the Board's decisions, except on rare occasions such as when Westminster Council, for example, refused to allow the screening of Crash (Cronenberg, 1996) in its cinemas, or when Camden showed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper, 1974) without approaching the Board. Several local authorities also banned the screening of Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) on grounds of blasphemy, with the result that in 1979/80 one could see the film in Leeds but not in Harrogate. All films normally require a certificate, which must be clearly displayed in advertising, at the cinema entrance and on the screen immediately before the film is shown. Local authorities can, however, allow an uncertificated film to be screened, but face the possibility of legal action, for example under the Obscene Publications Act. Cinemas have to be licensed before they can screen films and are thus unlikely to risk losing an exhibition licence (see Figure 3.1) by screening a film which a local authority is likely to object to.

Initially, it was the responsibility of local authorities to censor films, but this led to confusion as widely differing standards were applied. Among the first councils to ban a film outright was London County Council, which took objection to a film of the recently contested world heavyweight boxing championship, in which a white man had been beaten by a black opponent (see Richards, 1997, p. 167). In 1912 the British Board of Film Censors was established by the film industry to provide uniform national standards of censorship. The Board has never had a written code of practice although it has published its classification guidelines. The history of regulation and censorship shows, however, that the Board's standards have changed as society has changed. In 1913 there were two certificates: 'U' (universal) and 'A' (more suitable for adults). In 1916, BBFC President T.P. O'Connor compiled a list of 43 rules that covered censorship. At that time, Britain was involved in the First World War and Russia was close to a revolution. These concerns were reflected in his guidelines that films should not depict 'realistic horrors of warfare' or 'relations of capital and labour'. The rules also exhibited a fear of immorality, particularly sex, and outlawed items such as 'nudity' and 'indelicate sexual situations'. The rules governing cinema were strict at this time, not least because the audience was perceived by the very paternalistic and morally old-fashioned Board as an immature, working-class mass, susceptible to corrupting influences. A notable example of censorship after the war was the banning of the Soviet film, Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925), in 1926 because of its violent and revolutionary aspects. These were seen as particularly relevant in Britain at that time as the General Strike held the possibility of striking workers overthrowing the government.

Between the two world wars, the BBFC was mainly concerned with horror and gangster films and those that dealt with sexuality. In 1932 the category 'H' was introduced to indicate potential unsuitability for children. By 1951, the emergence of the 'teenager' as an economic force and a major part of cinema audiences, coupled with fears of teenage gangs and crimes, prompted the introduction of a new category: 'X' excluded children under 16. Rebel without a Cause (1955) was heavily cut so that it could be screened, and The Wild One (1954) was banned altogether, as it was seen as a threat to traditional family values. Over the next two decades, partly in response to growing numbers of serious 'adult' films with sexual themes from mainland Europe, the Board were obliged to accept directorial intention and artistic merit as valid criteria; the standards changed once again partly also to incorporate teenagers' specific concerns: 'X' was raised from 16 to 18, 'A' allowed the admission of 5 year olds whether accompanied or not, 'AA' allowed in those aged 14-17 if accompanied by an adult, and 'U' was wholly suitable for children of all ages.

In 1982 these categories were again changed when the BBFC modified its classifications to correspond with the American system: 'A' became 'PG', 'AA' became '15', 'X' became '18', and a new category of 'R18' for material of a sexually explicit nature was introduced. The category of '12' was added in 1989 to bridge the gap between 'PG' and '15' and the category of 'Uc' (particularly suitable for children) exists solely for video. Reflecting concerns over the rise of so-called 'video nasties', in 1984 the Video Recordings Act was passed and a year later the BBFC was empowered to classify all videos for sale and rental. The Board changed its named to the British Board of Film Classification to reflect its new role. In 1994 the Criminal Justice and Public Order Amendment to the Video Recordings Act of 1994 required the BBFC to consider if a video can cause 'harm to potential viewers' or 'harm to society through the viewers' behaviour' in its treatment of 'criminal behaviour', 'illegal drugs', 'violent behaviour and incidents', 'horrific behaviour and incidents' and 'human sexual activity'. The standards applied to videos have always been much stricter, as access to them is much easier than to a cinema, which is required to operate an age bar and can lose its licence for not doing so. The Board's video classification also has more direct legal force.

The BBFC only censors/cuts about 7 per cent of the films submitted for classification. The current BBFC President, Andreas Whittam Smith, recognizes that cutting is not easy to do without the audience realizing that the film has been censored: 'I originally thought "Oh well, if there's a problem, we can cut our way out of it." That's not really an option. Anything good is too intricately made to cut' (quoted in Pendreigh, 1999, p. 7).

In terms of classification the BBFC has three main areas of concern: language, sex and violence. It must also apply legislation to films and videos before they can be classified, and its guidelines have changed as new laws have been passed. These include the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937, the Protection of Children Act 1978, the Obscene Publications Act 1959 and 1964, the Race Relations Act 1976, Blasphemy, the Hypnotism Act 1954 and the Human Rights Act 1988. Now, the BBFC also has to take into account the right to free expression under the European Convention of Human Rights.

Changing Times: the 1990s

As a sign of changing times, the BBFC has passed uncut several films which have featured explicit sex scenes that seem to have crossed over the line of what was previously thought in good taste, particularly Romance (1999) and Idiots (1999); but Happiness (1998), American Pie (1999) and There's Something About Mary (1998) have also tested the boundaries. Furthermore, the Board has classified films that had caused controversy on their original release in the 1970s. Straw Dogs (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) received video classifications for the first time; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) - the latter withdrawn by Stanley Kubrick himself - were both passed for cinema screening, while The Driller Killer (1979), demon of the 'video nasties' hysteria of the 1980s, was passed and screened after the distributing company itself made cuts. In 1998 the proportion of '18' films dropped to 16 per cent and cuts were required in only 14 films, 3.6 per cent of the total. Both statistics represent the lowest recorded proportions on record. In 2000, following a six-month consultation period involving the public, the BBFC relaxed its guidelines, saying that it would 'only rarely' cut explicit sex scenes, thus reflecting a mood that the public would rather make up its own mind about what was acceptable. Does this indicate that the BBFC is becoming more liberal in its decisions, reflecting contemporary circumstances, or that film-makers are treating adult subject matter in what some may consider to be a more responsible and socially acceptable fashion?

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