Celebrating The Censor

Friday 2 November 2012, 15:48

Mark Kermode Mark Kermode

The British Board Of Film Classification is celebrating its centenary this month. I believe it's come a long way from the bad old days of cutting, damaging and controlling the films that we see - what do you think?

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    Comment number 1.

    Hi Mark,
    Just in relation to this post,i am a film student in Hartlepool, and we are planning a visit to London in January 2013. I am writing a report on funding of independent horror within the film industry and wondered , if possible, that you could spare some time for an interview. I am a mature student in my thirties, and like yourself have been a horror fan since i was a child and every time i go to a store or online, there seems to be an abundance of independent horror rubbish on the shelves, mostly something of the dead, or nazi stripper zombie builders from hell, im sure your familiar.
    My report will be constructive, and im planning to contact Kim Newman, and Alan Jones , as im a huge fan of the Italian genre also, as well as hoping to get a few comments from the master John Carpenter.
    If you are busy i appreciate it and thank you for your time.
    All the best
    Kev Harte

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    Comment number 2.

    The B.B.F.C. have gone from being an archaic body on a self defined crusade to protect the morals of the country and its populace to being a forward thinking and progressive organisation in a little over a decade. Where once they were a thing for all people enthralled by cinema to loathe they are now something we should proudly hold up as the model for all national film boards to follow. Just a shame it took so long!

    Sadly however their traditional underhanded mechanisms for deciding what we should or should not watch have simply been replaced by the actions of publishers who think nothing of hacking a film to pieces simply to get it a rating that they want or to protect their image as an upstanding member of the industry.

    Strange how we now have to look to the B.B.F.C. to lead the way!

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    Comment number 3.

    I think they're part of the solution, especially compared to the MPAA, whose rating system is quite badly flawed. For example, films with real visceral edge and power like 'Killer Joe' are condemned to financial failure in the US with the dreaded NC-17 certificate. The R rating is also flawed, it's regularly handed out undeservedly. Take 'The King's Speech', a 12 rated film in England, but R rated in the US for a bit of swearing. It seems the MPAA disregards context and just keeps a tally of the offending articles.

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    Comment number 4.

    The last ten years have been a welcomed change, but the nature of the role that the BBFC is involved in is enough to keep one on their guard. Currently, they seem to be doing a good and fair job, and I generally agree with you that they're protecting rather than censoring, unlike in the past, but how long that lasts is really up to us remaining vigilant. What will happen when they're seriously leant on by the government and busybodies? In the end, it'll be up to us to protect cinema. Still, for now, the BBFC is doing a relatively good job.

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    Comment number 5.

    Dear Dr. K

    I very much agree with Floundering's comment. Its amazing to think that the BBFC have changed so much in little over a decade. Finally we film lovers can watch what was once deemed scandalous... only to be controlled by none other then the studios and distibutors of film. Its ironic that the censor has now become the film studios who couldn't care less about morals and more about the revenue they can rake in. Censorship for financial gain.

    Which leads me onto the respectability for certification.The BBFC's classification system is still one of the best; I mean no matter whether a film is a '15' or an '18' certificate it can still achieve critical and commercial respectablility. However at the sametime, the certification has become a strange beast of its own. Take for example Prometheus, when there was news that the spiritual prequel to Alien was going for a 12 rating (PG-13 in the States) then fans became annoyed and wrote off the film as tame and hampered by studio interference. Thankfully the film got the 15 rating it deserved and we all could see the explicit scenes intacked.

    I wish to end this comment by stating that whilst the BBFC have grown up and moved with the times, the MPAA hasn't. I'm absolutely disgusted by their approach to violence and sex, you can show all the violence in the world and still get the 'R' rating. However show a scene involving strong sex and nudity, and its the NC-17 rating. So in the US of A its fine to show scenes of bloody decapitation, and its not alright to show something that is a common occurence to people? God bless America!

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    Comment number 6.

    I agree they are mostly right on the money. However when they strive to accommodate US audience certificates and choose to cut scenes (twilight) or have laughable issues with strong language regardless of context (Made in Dagenham) they can still fail to serve the role that intelligent cinema lovers expect.

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    Comment number 7.

    In my 40 odd years of watching films the BBFC has come on leaps and bounds and does a very difficult job well now.
    My only tiny gripe with them is the same one that I have always had - why is the portrayal of normal human behaviour (sex) treated much more strictly than grossly abnormal human behaviour (violence)?
    I also wonder sometimes whether there should be a bit more advice around the 15 certificate along the lines of "it's a 15 verging on an 18 or a 15 verging on a 12". At the moment 15 seems to be "widest" of the rankings. I know they do provide consumer advice on their website but that's often more than I want to see!
    Otherwise I have no real complaints.

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    Comment number 8.

    Whether or not one approves of it, what the BBFC does *is* as good as censorship. "Classifying" in the knowledge that their classification will restrict certain groups' legitimate access to something is essentially censorship. The alternative for producers is self-censorship – altering their product to make it legitimately accessible by those certain groups. Censorship or self-censorship: not much of a choice!

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    Comment number 9.

    I think the idea of classification rather than censorship has improved the opportunities for 'grown up' film making. I agree that it has made the process much more open and helpful to the filmakers wanting to show their films in this country.
    Certainly Kirby Dick, director of "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" felt that it was a much better system than the one in the USA. At an interview after a screening of his film in the UK, he said he found the BBFC approachable, open and fair.
    I agree with other comments about the problem of film producers hacking their films into a version that gives them a better chance at garnering the bigger audiences and therefore more money rather than making a film that honours it's original vision. I think this happens with film versions of books in particular. That is a feeling not a quantifiable study so it's open to being shot down in flames!

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    Comment number 10.

    Overall, I think you’re right.

    Film classification enables and forewarns casual film-goers, parents and those of a delicate or easily offended disposition. It tells people – in very general terms - what they’re likely to see. The BBFC labels movies like traffic-light tagging tins of food; fat, thin, scary or cuddly. This undoubtedly helps keep people informed, and distributors out of the firing line of the tabloid press (see Appendix A: ‘Evil Dead’). There’s less chance of two little old ladies being duped in to watching Ash chainsaw his hand off in the fruit cellar. Or was it the shed?...

    But there’s also an argument against classification too; because of certification, filmmakers are strong-armed into weakening, adjusting or removing scenes altogether to produce lowest common denominator ‘products’ that are as universally watchable as possible, boosting audience numbers and ticket sales. PG-13 ratings appear to be the most lucrative ratings and some films and filmmakers suffer because of this. For example, the next portrayal of Batman on film could tell the gruesome, horrific story of a sociopath dressed as a nocturnal winged beastie. But as long as toy sales and cereal sponsorship remain profitable, Batman will remain child friendly.

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    Comment number 11.

    While I agree with your main argument, it cannot be denied that the BBFC still manages to make films inaccessible to those that they are meant for and I am referring of course to Made in Dagenham, one of the great films of recent years but in which the only problem was that there was too much swearing going on. same with the King's Speech. I fear that there is still too much infantilization going on and most of it has to do with our fear of children being rebellious or standing up to authority be it in actions or words. Most of our kids hear far worse language in everyday situations and eventually are using it anyway as they grow older. So i think that the BBFC is still too conservative and afraid of pressure groups in that department to be considered completely rehabilitated. That being said, it's a real improvement from 30 years ago.

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    Comment number 12.

    To illustrate just how far the BBFC have come over the years, depictions of Jesus Christ on screen were banned by the censor, to the present day where cuts are only demanded for scenes which "eroticise violence". Although i think this new attitude came about because the internet made it so easy for people to circumvent the censor. Mark, i remember you introducing Maitress on Channel 4 and saying that all the scenes we can't show you are available on our web site. "If" i wanted to watch Grotesque or the uncut version of Human Centipede 2, a quick Google search would find it.

    My one criticism of the BBFC would be that they've become overly cautious when applying the 12A. Films like The Dark Knight and Casino Royale absolutely 12A, but does anyone really think that Spiderman or Pirates of the Caribbean merit anything higher PG. For years the PG certificate was good enough for Bond and Indiana Jones and the law states that children under 8 have to be accompanied by an adult, doesn't putting everything into the 12A bracket just make it harder to differentiate between family friendly and grown up films.

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    Comment number 13.

    The BBFC changed when James Ferman retired (and sadly passed away soon after). This Jeckyl and Hyde of movie censorship was a prime example of a one man band, an autocrat in other words. What he said, went, and hardly any other examiner got a look in much to the detriment of board morale.

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    Comment number 14.

    In recent years it's the film companies themselves who have been doing the censoring. They have particular audiences in mind and they take their films to the BBFC and ask them to tell them what can stay in to allow them to have the rating they need to reach that audience. Money and the desire to maximise it has become a more effective censor than the BBFC ever was.

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    Comment number 15.

    As someone who has a fairly liberal sensibility and a distrust of censorship bodies in general, I actually don't mind the BBFC in its current form at all. Most of the time it gives clear and concise rulings on film content and usually classifies them in an appropriate manner. Although I'm not myself a parent, I do feel however that protecting younger audiences from subject matter or imagery they may not be equipped to deal with is important and more often than not the BBFC performs this function adequately. It is a far less worrying organisation than their American counterpart, the infamous secret cabal of conservative censors known as the MPAA who are very much accountable to no one.

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    Comment number 16.

    'Won't someone think of the children?!'

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    Comment number 17.

    When talking of the BBFC I think it is important to make the point that often controversial cuts to films are made not by the BBFC but by the film-makers themselves. Mark's talked about cuts to get a lower age rating, but I would mention The Shining. On its original release in the UK, and subsequent releases on home media, we've been given a butchered 'European Cut' which eliminates quite a bit of back story about Jack and his relationship with his son. I know this is drifting away from the topic of the BBFC but if we can also talk about censorship in general, I think we should talk about why directors do things like this to their own work.

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    Comment number 18.

    I'm extremely glad the BBFC is no longer what it was under Ferman; I like the way it has changed and I think it does a decent job now.

    I do however have one thing I'd like them to do: rate based not on appearance of swearing in a script (particularly not in the "one use of strong language" way - are you seriously tallying this all up? Why? What is the critical mass point for any given word?), but on what is actually being said when people swear or do not swear.

    It's perfectly possible to be unbelievably foul and offensive or disturbing without actually swearing. You can suggest things that are really nasty or controversial through so-called 'clean' language, but would that earn a higher rating?

    Conversely, to safeguard precious little darlings who almost certainly know not only the meaning of pretty much every swear word out there but probably use them - or at the very least hear them - at school daily, and like as not have their own words for those ideas that mum and dad don't know: that's a hangover from fifty or sixty years ago. Swearing is not inherently harmful, to kids or anyone, and it's a fool who believes otherwise. It's a valuable part of natural language, rich, creative and full of cultural information. What is actually important about swearing is showing what effect it has in the wrong (or indeed right) circumstances, and why saying such things in such a way is taboo. Swearing and taboo language is part of life, and learning about breaking that taboo is part of understanding how to communicate effectively. Films can help illustrate that very well - if they are allowed to.

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    Comment number 19.

    The day Robin Duval replaced James Ferman as head of the BBFC was a great day. It seemed we transformed overnight from an autocratic, lily-livered, patronising, censoring dictatorship to a place where the sensible, stable, non-violent adult film viewer (or 99.9% of the UK population) was finally treated with the respect, trust and faith he and she finally deserved.

    But now look, less than a decade since the end of Mr Duval's short tenure, films are again being chopped and banned for apparently no other reason than for a desire to uphold our good taste and common decency. We're going backwards, folks.

    What about A SERBIAN FILM and the BBFC-banned THE BUNNY GAME? Though the former, in all its tame, overblown, uncut glory, may have been occasional titillation for the likes of Jimmy Savile in his final days, it's hardly a realistic snuff movie. As for the latter, its only crime appears to be nothing more than they forgot to write a script in order to justify the torture scenes. Of course, one can say THE BUNNY GAME should be banned because it's utter tripe - and it is (no amount of stylish B&W cinematography can hide that) - but to ban it because of its concentration on pain and suffering so as to be potentially damaging to the viewer....... please!! What about the head-in-a-vice scene in CASINO? Or the baseball bat head-crunch in THE UNTOUCHABLES? Or the fellatio in THE BROWN BUNNY? Or the jaw break in AMERICAN HISTORY X? Are these less disturbing, violent or explicit moments than what we see in THE BUNNY GAME, THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE or A SERBIAN FILM? I still cannot watch Robert De Niro's use of a baseball bat in THE UNTOUCHABLES without cupping my hands to my ears, just as I still can't listen to the moment after Ed Norton props the guy's jaw around the kerbstone in AHX. To me, these are two far worse moments of gruesome violence than anything I saw in the poorly-acted THE BUNNY GAME or the cynically exploitative A SERBIAN FILM. But that's okay, folks, because my two examples' power lay mainly in their audio than their visuals. But they're still gruesome, Mr BBFC. A sound can be disturbing as any image! But we don't ban sounds, do we? So, why then, do we ban images?

    I actually wonder what would happen at the BBFC if a director, making a drama on the Moors Murders, shot a brilliantly voice-acted scene of the playing of the tape recording of little Lesley Ann Downey being murdered by Brady & Hindley. If you've read that transcript, you'll never want to hear the tape, but as it would be a straight voiceover scene mimicking pain, suffering and torture, would the BBFC come down hard on it the same as if it had been performed visually before a camera?

    Happy 100th Birthday, BBFC!

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I've always liked the BBFC, even when they went around banning video nasties. I thank them for creating the sense of anticipation i had when I got my hands on a VHS copy of The Evil Dead or The Exorcist. The 'forbidden' element was a key part of my growing fascination with horror.

    Today, I see classification as a necessary part of responsible parenting. I don't think anybody is under the illusion that young people can't see inapproriate material if they want to, but a family trip to the cinema needs some simple parameters. I'm glad the BBFC have changed with the times so they'll still be relevant in another 100 years.


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