Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The BBFC History: 1990s

Since the regulation of video in 1984, there was since public concern about the influence of videos in the 90's
Key Film

The Jamie Bulger case. The trial judge linked this murder of a two year-old by two ten year-old boys to the viewing of violent videos, with the media singling out the horror video Child's Play 3 (1991).

Though subsequent enquiries refuted this connection, public opinion rallied behind calls for stricter regulation. Parliament supported an amendment to the Video Recordings Act, contained in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which requires the Board to consider specific issues, and the potential for harm, when making video classification decisions.

The Board has always been stricter on video than on film. This is partly because younger people are more likely to gain access to videos with restrictive categories than such films at the cinema (where admissions can be screened).  But it is also because, on video, scenes can be taken out of context, and particular moments can be replayed.

The BBFC was being asked to look at a number of extremely violent and drug-filled films, which further fuelled the debate about media effects 

In 1997 the BBFC's President, Lord Harewood, stepped down after 12 years in the job.  His replacement, Andreas Whittam Smith, announced his intention to steer the BBFC towards a greater 'openness and accountability'.  This included the publication of the BBFC's first set of classification guidelines in 1998, following a series of public 'roadshows' in which public views were canvassed and the launching of a BBFC website.

Digital Media 

The 1990s also saw rapid developments in the world of computer games, which seemed to become more realistic and sophisticated with each passing year.  Although the majority of video games were automatically exempt from classification, those that featured realistic violence against humans or animals, or human sexual activity, did come under the scope of the Video Recordings Act.  From 1994 the BBFC started to receive some of the stronger video games for formal classification, which necessitated a different way of examining (because it was impossible to see everything that might happen in a game).  1999 also saw the removal of the BBFC's controversial policy on oriental weaponry

The BBFC History: 1980s

The decade started in dramatic fashion for the BBFC with the submission of Tinto Brass' Caligula.  The film has respectable antecedents, being based on The Lives of the Twelve  Caesars by Suetonius, and a screenplay by Gore Vidal.  Original producer Franco Rossellini approached Penthouse mogul Bob Guccione for financial support.  Tinto Brass was hired as director.  The stars were familiar and respected names - Sir John Guilgud, Peter O'Toole, Helen Mirren.  Problems occured after shooting, with Brass being fired and Vidal protesting that his screen play bore little relationship to what was on screen.  He dissociated himself from the film and attempted to have his name removed from the credits.  Guccione then added some material of his own, some of it hard-core pornography.

The film achieved notoreity in the USA and arrived in the UK with the reputation of being 'the most controversial film of the eighties'. It was seized by Customs and Excise officials when it came into the UK and then seen by the BBFC together with lawyers and Customs officials so that any footage that was in danger of breaching UK laws could be removed.  At this stage all sexually explicit material was removed in order to conform with Customs regulations (specifically the Customs Act 1876), and further cuts made to material which was potentially actionable under the Obscene Publications Act - the later including sexually violent material.

The cut film was then viewed again by the Board, who had already indicated that further cuts to sex and violence would be necessary in order to secure a nation-wide release under BBFC 'X' category standards.  Some innocuous material was added to restore some dialogue which had been lost when the cuts were made.

After six months the film was finally released in the UK with an 'X' certificate, and while the majority of local authorities were content with the certificate, it was banned in some areas. Inevitably, there was some orchestrated protest from concerned citizens who had not seen the film, but because the Board had taken every precaution to ensure that the classification was within the law, the fuss died down. The video was classified '18' when it was submitted in 1990 in a greatly reduced version, having been cut by a further 50 minutes by its distributors in addition to the cuts made for cinema release. In 2008, three versions of the work were submitted for classification, including the original version. All were passed '18' uncut after lengthy consideration.

Throughout the decade there were a number of films involving gangland characters.  1981 saw the release of Tom Clegg's McVicar, a criminal biopic passed 'X'; and John Mackenzie's The Long Good Friday, the story of a criminal determined to preserve his manor against incursions by the IRA, also passed 'X'.  This has remained '18' on video since 1987, with the most recent classification in 2008. Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa, was passed '18' in 1986, with Bob Hoskins playing the role of chauffeur to a prostitute.  David Green's Buster, passed '15' in 1988, told the story of Great Train Robber 'Buster' Edwards on the run from the law.  The decade concluded with Peter Medak's tale of infamous twin gangland figures, The Krays, passed '18', after cuts to an horrific mutilation scene.

 Another film based on real-life was Michael Caton-Jones' Scandal, an account of the Profumo affair, a political scandal of the 1960s.  Although for some the events were considered too recent for comfort, the problem for the BBFC was of a different kind.  An orgy scene revealed the presence of an erect penis in the backgound of the shot.  The image was obscured by soft-focus lighting and the film released with an '18' certificate.

The first of the Rambo series, First Blood (Ted Kotcheff), was passed '15' uncut in 1982, and the second, George Pan Cosmatos' Rambo - First Blood Part II was passed '15' uncut in 1985.  However, Rambo III was cut in 1988 to obtain an '18' certificate.  In addition to a horse-fall removed under the terms of the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937, the violence was reduced by the excision of spatter shots, and cuts were made to counteract the glamorisation of weapons which constituted a significant classification issue. 

Paul Verhoeven's film Robocop was passed '18' without cuts in 1987, and the same on video a year later.  The 2001 video version was submitted with additional material that had been removed by the MPAA before the film was submitted in the UK. 

However, the Conan films did not have the same easy passage.  John Milius' Conan The Barbarian required cuts to a sex scene between Conan and a serpent-woman, and to remove horse-falls, for an 'AA' category in 1982.  The second Conan film, Richard Fleischer's Conan The Destroyer also required horse-fall and animal cruelty cuts in 1984.

The decade also saw the establishment of the 'stalk and slash' genre with the Friday 13th series of films, with parts I and II passed 'X' uncut on film in 1980 and 1981 respectively. Part III was also passed 'X' uncut on film in 1982, but with two cuts to violence/horror to obtain an '18' on video in 1987.

1981 saw the second in the Halloween series passed 'X' uncut on film, but a scene where a woman was scalded to death in a jacuzzi was reduced for an '18' video release in 1990.  The cuts have since been restored. 

1982 - Review of the category system

In 1982 'A' was changed to 'PG', 'AA' was changed to '15' and 'X' became '18'. A new category 'R18' was introduced which permitted more explicit sex films to be shown in members-only  clubs.  Previously, such clubs had shown material unclassified by the BBFC, but a change in the law closed this loophole.  Since the mid 1980s most 'R18' material is released on video, only available from a limited number of sex shops which must be specially licensed by local authorities.  

Further changes to the category system in the 80s

In 1985, at the request of the industry, the 'Uc' was introduced for video only, to identify works specifically suitable for very young children to watch alone.

In 1989 the BBFC introduced the '12' certificate on film, to bridge the huge gap between 'PG' and '15'. This was extended to video in 1994. The first film to be given a '12' rating was Batman.

The BBFC History: 1970s

  • During the sixties it was recognised that teenagers had specific concerns of their own which ought to be reflected in the category system.
  • The introduction of the 'AA' was finally approved by local authorities and the industry in 1970.
  • The principal changes to the category system were the raising of the minimum age for 'X' certificate films from 16 to 18. 
  • The old 'A' (advisory) category was split to create a new advisory 'A' which permitted the admission of children of five years or over whether accompanied or not, but which warned parents that a film in this category would contain some material that parents might prefer their children under fourteen not to see, and a new 'AA' certificate which allowed the admission of those over 14, but not under 14, whether accompanied or not.
  • The idea was that this would protect adolescents from material of a specifically adult nature and would permit more adult films to be passed uncut for an older, more mature audience.  It recognised the earlier maturity of many teenagers by giving them access to certain films at the age of 14, without being accompanied by an adult.  It also indicated to parents the difference between films wholly suitable for children of all ages, which would continue to be classified 'U', and those which, while not generally unsuitable, might contain some material which some parents might prefer their children not to see.  

A new ratings system in the United States included an uncensored 'X' category, left to the sole control of the criminal law. John Trevelyan, the Secretary at the time, was concerned by this: “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' category, they can shed personal responsibility”. The seventies did indeed see the release of a number of provocative films, in particular those that linked sex and violence, for example Straw Dogs (1971), and A Clockwork Orange (1971), both of which contained controversial rape scenes. There were a number of other controversies during the seventies, for example Ken Russell’s The Devils(1971), which was accused of blasphemy, Last Tango in Paris (1972), which was accused of being 'obscene' and The Exorcist (1973), which was accused of having a psychologically damaging effect on young people. In the case of each of these films, the decision of the BBFC to award an 'X' was overturned by a number of local authorities. Pressure groups such as The Festival of Light, and Lord Longford’s Committee on Pornography also placed immense pressure on the BBFC, in a backlash against what was perceived as liberalisation having gone too far. The Festival of Light took out an unsuccessful private prosecution against Last Tango in Paris and mounted a campaign against alleged links between teenage suicide and screenings of The Exorcist. Meanwhile anti-censorship campaigners also continued to criticise the Board, defending cause celebre films such as Andy Warhol’s Trash (1970), which the BBFC had passed only after several cuts.

Stephen Murphy, who became Secretary of the Board in July 1971, resigned in 1975 and was succeeded by James Ferman.  One of the first films Ferman looked at was The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which his predecessor had already refused to classify shortly before his departure.  Ferman agreed with Murphy that the violence and terrorisation in the film (directed largely towards a woman over a sustained period) was unacceptable.  In an early interview, Ferman remarked that it wasn't the sex that worried him but the violence and, in particular sexual violence.  During his time at the BBFC, Ferman permitted increasingly explicit sexual material whilst clamping down on sadistic violence (especially when perpetrated by heros) and sexual violence (particularly where it seemed that the portrayal of rapes and assaults were intended as a 'turn on' to viewers).  

The BBFC History: 1960s

Challenges to the Obscene Publications Act (1959), in cases such as the successful defence in 1960 of D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, suggested a strong shift in public opinion, when a jury acquitted this work. John Trevelyan, as Secretary to the Board, responded to the new spirit of liberalism by stating: "The BBFC 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".

However, the decade began with a challenge in the form of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, which had been seen by the Board at the script stage and provoked a remark from Trevelyan about its 'morbid concentration on fear'. Various cuts had been suggested at script stage, and the film was passed 'X' in 1960 with cuts. Critics greeted the film with a torrent of abuse and it failed to please the public, damaging Powell's reputation. The video remained an '18' work until 2007 when it was reclassified and passed '15'.

New realism took hold in British films, with the submission of a number of 'kitchen sink' dramas from the British New Wave directors - Karel Reisz's Saturday Night And Sunday Morning in 1960, Tony Richardson's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner in 1962, both passed 'X', the latter with cuts. Saturday Night... had been submitted to the Board at script stage. Concerns were expressed about the language, violence and the theme of abortion, and the script was modified to meet these concerns This might have been the 'swinging Sixties', but in spite of the film's BBFC uncut release at 'X', Warwickshire Council deemed it too strong and demanded that cuts be made for a local certificate. The film was passed 'PG' on video in 1990.

By 1966, Lewis Gilbert's Alfie was passed uncut, with the remark  that it contained a 'basically moral theme' in spite of some misgivings at the Board about the abortion theme. Attitiudes to sexuality were on the change in the wake of the 1957 Wolfenden Report which recommended a relaxation of the laws concerning homosexuality, although no new legislation was to appear for another ten years. Trevelyan claimed that the BBFC had never banned the subject of homosexuality from the screen but 'the subject was one that would probably not be acceptable to the British audience'. Basil Dearden's Victim contributed to the debate in 1961, containing the line 'they call the law against homosexuality the blackmailer's charter'. The film was passed 'X' with a brief cut. It was then passed '15' on video in 1986 and reclassified to '12' in 2003. When the film version was submitted for a modern classification in 2005, it was passed 'PG'.

The BBFC History: 1950s

The Fifties saw the end of rationing and a gradual increase in prosperity for those who, as Prime Minister MacMillan stated, “have never had it so good”. One development that stemmed from this apparent affluence was the emergence of 'youth' as a group with a defined identity and as a target for consumer goods, as young people with disposable income became an attractive proposition for those selling records, clothes and all the trappings of the teenager.

Controversial subjects on film were accommodated in the UK under the new 'X' category, introduced in 1951and incorporating the former advisory 'H' category given to horror films.

As the growth of television ownership eroded the adult/family cinema audience, films like Rock Around The Clock(1956) drew teenage audiences. Cut for U, this film caused rioting in cinemas and fuelled increasing concern about teenage criminality, although there was in fact no evidence of a teenage crime wave as suggested by the popular Press.

A new 'X' category was introduced which excluded children under 16

Concerns about what were then known as juvenile delinquents delayed the classification of Laslo Benedek's 1954 film, The Wild One, for thirteen years because the Board described the contents as 'a spectacle of unbridled hooliganism'. Marlon Brando stars as the leader of a biker gang who rides into a small American town and creates mayhem, fighting with a rival gang leader and defying adult authority. Repeated attempts were made to secure a classification, and eventually some local authorities overturned the Board's rejection, allowing local releases. The riots in English seaside towns involving Mods and Rockers, (Margate and Clacton in 1964), were cited as providing justification for the Board's continuing objections to the film. The Board maintained its stance until 1967, when the dangers associated with the film's release were judged to be over.

Nicholas Ray's 1955 Rebel Without A Cause also ran into trouble because of its depiction of what the Board considered to be anti-social behaviour and teen violence, but substantial cuts were agreed for the film's release at 'X'.

At the end of the decade came Beat Girl, a sort of UK equivalent of Rebel Without A Cause, starring Adam Faith. The Board was not impressed with the script for this film about a teenage girl who seeks to rebel against her father by hanging around with a bad crowd in Soho and considers becoming a stripper. The script was judged to be 'the product of squalid and illiterate minds' and several amendments were made before it was cut for 'X'. It is now classified '12' on video, having lost its appeal to shock.

The BBFC History: 1912-1949

In the past, the BBFC did not have any written rules or code of practice. Policy evolved along practical lines, whilst seeking to reflect public attitudes. Since 2000, the BBFC has operated under a series of published Guidelines, these Guidelines are flexible and stress the importance of taking into consideration the context of each individual work. They are reviewed on a regular basis, which entails a period of extensive public consultation, the most recent of which took place in 2008.

Standards have evolved throughout the Board’s ninety seven year history, and current concerns and practices can be found in the sections on the classification process and classification issues.This section will focus on key moments in the evolution of current standards and the development of the category system.
1916 - T. P. O’CONNOR

When T. P. O’Connor was appointed President of the BBFC, one of his first tasks was to give evidence to the Cinema Commission of Inquiry, set up by the National Council of Public Morals in 1916. He summarised the Board's Policy by listing forty-three grounds for deletion laid down for the guidance of examiners. This list was drawn from the Board’s annual reports for 1913-1915. The list shows the strictness felt necessary if the Board was to earn the trust of the public and relevant bodies.
1. 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
25. Executions
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'
41. Confinements
42. Scenes laid in disorderly houses
43. Materialization of the conventional figure of Christ


During this period the kind of material that caused concern included horror and gangster films, as well as those that dealt with aspects of sexuality. Some councils were beginning to bar children from films classified 'A', even when they had been cut by the BBFC to achieve a certificate. For example, the London County Council (LCC) and Manchester City Council (MCC) banned children from Frankenstein (1931), although a sequence in which the monster drowns a small girl had already been cut. In response to such material, the advisory category 'H' (for horror) was agreed in 1932, to indicate the potential unsuitability for children of the horror theme.


Arthur Watkins was appointed Secretary to the Board in 1948, under the Presidency of Sir Sidney Harris. Both men had come from the Home Office, and Watkins was also a successful playwright. Many film-makers sought the Board's advice on scripts before films went into production. Watkins and Harris formulated new terms of reference for the Board based on three principles:
• 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 offence to reasonably minded cinema audiences?
• What effect would it have on children?

The effect on children was of major importance since, apart from the advisory 'H' category, from which some councils already chose to bar children, there was no category that excluded children. An 'adults only' category was increasingly seen as desirable, not only to protect children, but as an extension of the freedom of film-makers to treat adult subjects in an adult fashion.

Friday, 18 March 2011

BBFC Seminar

On Wednesday 9th March in the afternoon, one of the commissioners from the BBFC came in to school to give us a talk about the BBFC, what they do and the process they go through to classify films.  Although we knew a lot about the BBFC guidelines already, it was very interesting to hear from someone who works there about the different guidelines at each age category.  It was also very interesting to hear about a typical day at the BBFC office, they have to watch 5 and a half hours of works ranging from kids cartoons to porn.  It was fun looking through all the different case studies and debating what we would rate the film and then hearing from her what the film was actually classified as and why.  I also learnt that in order to classify games they have to sit there and play them, 8 of the 15 commissioners play the games but they are given ‘cheats’ and ‘god-modes’ to help get them through the game quickly, although from now on the BBFC won’t classify games which was disappointing for them.  It was interesting when she talked about how the BBFC had classified some films wrong, eg. ‘Juno’ they classified to low at a 15 and ‘Dark Knight’ they classified too low at ‘12A’ and they only realised by the amount of complaints.  We learnt that the chief commissioner can overrule all the other commissioners and change the rating if they feel its wrong.  Overall, I learnt a lot about the BBFC from the talk and I’ll find the information very useful.