Thursday, 3 November 2011

Dear Censor: The Secret Archive of the British Board of Film Classification

This new documentary screened on BBC4 in September was a welcome look into the notoriously clandestine British Board of Film Classification and the business of film censorship, but I couldn't quite escape the nagging feeling that it was a calculated PR stunt by an ever sensitive BBFC, weary of being seen as overbearing buttoned-down nanny staters after the recent high profile rejections by the Board of The Bunny Game, and The Human Centipede II (now passed with cuts).

Dear Censor focuses on the Board's most controversial epochs beginning with John Trevelyan's reign from 1958 to 1971 which coincided with the emergence of Exploitation Cinema and a number of edgy, confrontational art films from Europe. After Trevelyan stepped down to write his memoirs, Stephen Murphy took up the post of chief censor from '71 to '75 and was often at the receiving end of public fury over the new wave of violent and sexually explicit films like A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, Death Wish, The Devils, and Last Tango In Paris. Finally and perhaps most notoriously of all, James Ferman's tenure as head censor from 1975 to 1999, saw the Board emerge into the era of home video and the moral panics of the Video Nasties controversy of 1984, and the Hungerford Massacre and James Bulger murder, two tragedies which the media blamed on violent videos.

Passed uncut by the BBFC but A Clockwork Orange went unseen on British screens for almost 30 years, due to Stanley Kubrick's self-imposed ban of the film
Where the documentary really scores is the extraordinary correspondence collected in the Board's somewhat elaborate and impenetrable vaults between the Board and film distributors and directors, such as Columbia's cringe-worthy letters to censor Arthur Watkins pleading with the Board not to ban The Wild One (which fell on deaf ears), or Warners' lobbying for the lower certificate for Rebel Without A Cause, the Board seemingly unmoved, awarding the film a restrictive adult X certificate. Some film makers fostered a relationship with the Board, like Ken Russell who submitted the screenplay for Women In Love to John Trevelyan and sought advice before production began, later reaching an agreeable compromise over the famous homoerotic nude wrestling scene by darkening the negative. Russell was not so successful however with his 1971 film The Devils which deeply troubled the Board with it's depiction of sexuallly crazed possessed nuns. Despite Russell's best efforts to appease the Board - "I have cleared up the shit on the altar, slashed the whipping and cut the orgy" wrote Russell in a letter to Trevelyan, the Board insisted that the so called Rape of Christ sequence had to be removed.

A shot from the Rape of Christ sequence. Mark Kermode who was instrumental in restoring this sequence back into The Devils likened seeing the film to being "run over by a truck"
If film makers like Ken Russell thought it better to have the Board onside, others were less inclined. Michael Winner who had something of a censor-baiting reputation from his early nudie film Some Like it Cool and the explicit bad language of I'll Never Forget What's 'Isname, brazenly refused to accept cuts to Death Wish. Interviewed for the documentary Winner remained unapologetic - "He was crazy this idiot... crazy", referring to Stephen Murphy. "He doesn't represent society, he's some individual moron who happened to get a job". Winner held fast in the face of Murphy's list of proposed cuts and won the battle, securing an uncut release for Death Wish - "Well he didn't stand on any of this, he collapsed on all of it", Winner defiantly declared. Ultimately, Murphy resigned from the Board after much criticism for passing a number of contentious films, his short-lived career at the Board summed up by Christopher Frayling as being "the right man at the wrong time"

Jeff Goldbum as Freak #1 in Death Wish. The BBFC would take their revenge on Michael Winner when they refused to grant the film a certificate for video release
Following Stephen Murphy's departure in 1975, James Ferman, a soft-spoken New York born television film maker became the BBFC's next head censor, and contrary to his own belief that he would remain with the Board a mere 5 years, Ferman remained in the job until 1999, becoming one of the most dominant forces in British film censorship. Ferman's early defense of Pasolini's Salo might have marked him as a liberal but Ferman became increasingly conservative, preoccupied by various cinematic trends like violence against women and weapons fetishism. Ferman also introduced a more stringent code of silence regarding cuts and decisions the Board applied to films that passed through their offices in Soho square. In this final section of Dear Censor, the documentary is less satisfying, focusing on Ferman's predicament with what he perceived as the weapons worship of Rambo III, and instead skipping over Ferman's more notorious decisions, like his refusal to grant a video certificate to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - even after the distributor had submitted a cut version of what is essentially a bloodless film, Ferman decided that it had not reduced the psychological torture of the film and declared the film "censor-proof". Texas Chainsaw Massacre would remain unavailable in Britain until Ferman's departure.

A scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which James Ferman described as "the pornograpy of terror"
Probably Ferman's most well known bête noire is The Exorcist. The film had been available on VHS in stores across Britain up until the BBFC began classifying tapes. Warners eventually submitted the film for video certification some years after the Video Nasties furore died down but Ferman refused to pass The Exorcist, one of Warners' biggest selling titles, explaining that the film had the potential to disturb and even damage younger viewers. Legend has it, Warners would contact Ferman annually to inquire about The Exorcist but Ferman time and time again would tell Warners that the time just wasn't right. Another significant film that goes unmentioned in the documentary is John McNaughton's powerful drama Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a bleak look at a sociopath which was so troubling to the BBFC that the film languished with the Board for quite some time before it was passed with cuts. What was noteworthy about Henry was that Ferman not only cut the film in accordance with his wishes but made quite a deliberate modification to one sequence in the film where Henry and his sidekick Otis are seen watching a VHS recording of their latest murder. McNaughton has quite brilliantly structured the scene so that VHS tape plays out without any cutaways, but Ferman, worried that the scene would be used as a masturbatory aid, inserted a shot of the Henry and Otis seen watching the tape, in the middle of the sequence, thus diminishing the power of McNaughton's original intention. This modification was done without McNaughton's permission, Ferman himself felt he was the better film maker.

The infamous insert shot from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which James Ferman insisted you see his way.
Omissions aside Dear Censor is a worthwhile whistle-stop tour through almost 50 years of BBFC history, the record of cuts and rejections reveal a fascinating index of the shifting moods, attitudes and opinions of the day. It's a shame that the documentary was only granted access to files over 20 years - a senior examiner at the Board teasingly mentions some very interesting correspondence between Oliver Stone and James Ferman regarding Natural Born Killers, but this remains closely guarded such is the Board's strict policy. In 1999, a definite line in the sand was drawn when James Ferman left the Board, and an unprecedented period of liberalization followed in his wake. Much of the power of the BBFC has been diluted since the advent of DVD, films that have been cut by the Board are relatively easy to get hold of in their original versions, and perhaps it’s a sign of the times that film critic Kim Newman had this to say about the late James Ferman, "Now I have actually a great deal of sympathy with James Ferman, I think that at least he was trying to do an extremely difficult job".


  1. Great post Wes, Now I really must watch that documentary. I have visited the BBFC a couple of times (they do seminar sessions at their Soho Square offices). I think they are quite a different organisation now after Ferman - in the sense that they are more concerned nowadays with video games and kids films (a worry about 'imitable techniques')
    Did you track down that Trevelyan book?

  2. Thanks Jon. I must look for that Trevelyan book. I saw a used copy on Amazon Marketplace so must investigate that further - I'll definitely pick it up if I can. Very true about video games - it's a world I know nothing about, but what is interesting is that my 10yr old nephew has a few 18-rated shoot 'em ups, even though his parents would never allow him to see Alien.

  3. Great post Wes, I still have this sitting on my Sky box, I was leaning towards not bothering but you've made it sound more interesting. I'm in agreement regarding video games, as technology has improved the level of immersion in the games has increased dramatically, something I don't think many parents understand.

  4. It quite an interesting programme... there was nothing massively revealing but the Pooterish tone of the letters was fantastic and really cut to the patronising and petty core of our betters protecting us simple folk from Ken Russell and Michael Winner.

    To be honest they would probably make for better drama than documentary as they are just dying to be had fun with.

  5. I completely agree Wynter, and one of the other disappointing aspects of the doc was that it never touched upon the snobbery of the Board - the long held belief that a factory worker would be driven to rape after seeing Straw Dogs, while a professional person would remain unaffected.

  6. Great article Wes, very informative in itself. I'd like to track this down as well as that doc about the MPAA that came out a while ago, cant remember the name of it right now. And those quotes from Winner are priceless. Our classification board down here is notoriously prudish, but also wildly inconsistent. They freaked out about L.A. Zombie, but seem to have passed Hum. Cent. II with no cuts. Doesn't make much sense to me.

  7. Many thanks Aylmer. Yeah, I've heard about some of the AUS Censor Board making inconsistant decisions, but they seem to get it right more often than not - you guys had the only uncut DVD of Death Wish II (besides a hard-to-find Brazilian edition), and I believe Something Weird put out a DVD of Love Camp 7 which despite its vintage remains a strong film to this day...

  8. It sounds like an incredible documentary to me - and a chance to see a little more in to a level of censorship we seem to have escaped during my lifetime in America.