Film Classification and the BBFC

The British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) began operating on 1st January 1913. It later became the British Board of Film Classification. Established by the British film industry as an independent body, the aim was to reduce interference from licensing authorities and politicians. The BBFC centralises film content advice, but the real power remains with local authorities. Local government can pass a film banned by the BBFC, ban a classified film, or change a film's classification.

The BBFC initially relied on just two certificates to distinguish film content:
U - film especially suitable for children
A - film generally suitable for public exhibition

Between 1913 and 1932 the BBFC published an annual list of prohibited images and themes. One theme, described as "abdominal contortions in dancing", appeared on several lists.

With the emergence of the American horror film the BBFC introduced a third classification in January 1933. The H - applied to "films which are likely to frighten or horrify children under the age of 16 years" - was at this stage advisory and not a formal certificate. H stood for "Horrific" and 55 films received the rating, the first being Carl Theodore Dreyer's eerie "Vampyr". Following pressure from local authorities an official H certificate was introduced in late 1937. The first 'adults only' certificate.

The H certificate lasted until 1951, when it was subsumed into a new X certificate, indicating a film suitable for those aged 16 and over. In 1970, this increased to 18 and over, and in 1982 it was replaced by the 18 certificate.

The BBFC now uses seven film classifications:
Uc - Universal, but especially suitable for very young children
U - Universal, and the film may be enjoyed by the whole family
PG - Parental Guidance; parents may consider certain scenes unsuitable for their children
12 - for persons aged 12 and over
15 - for persons aged 15 and over
18 - for persons aged 18 and over
R18 - for sex videos that are available only in licensed sex shops and to persons aged 18 and over.
An eighth unofficial classification is used by certain video distributors - E - educational, such as sport or wildlife.

Further reading

"'X' Films", Ian Conrich. 'Sight and Sound', May 1998.

"Forbidden British Cinema" issue of the 'Journal of Popular British Cinema' No 3, Ian Conrich and Julian Petley (eds), Flicks Books, 2000.

"The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in Britain 1930-1939", Jeffrey Richards, Routledge, 1984.

"The British Board of Film Censors: Film Censorship in Britain, 1896-1950", James C. Robertson, Croom Helm, 1985.

"What the Censor Saw", John Trevelyan, Michael Joseph Ltd, 1973.

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