Banned movies: The films that vexed the censor

X certificate

The way films are censored can tell us much about changing attitudes in society to sex, violence and rebellion, writes Ben Southwell.

Enter the hidden world of the British Board of Film Classification's written archive and a hundred years of film censorship are laid bare.

It's possible to chart the changing concerns of the board as it has trodden a fine line between enforcing the standards of the day and recognising artistic endeavour.

The letters between censor and film-makers begin to take on a life of their own as the relationship develops from regulator to collaborator and beyond.

An examiner's report on Ken Russell's The Devils reveals a wry sense of humour often present in the censor's letters. "I have no personal knowledge as to the shape of nuns under their habits, but I doubt they all look like the 'Playmates' of this film."

Find out more

  • Timeshift: Dear Censor, the Secret Archive of the British Board of Film Classification is on BBC Four at 22:00 BST Thursday 29 September 2011
  • Timeshift has been given unprecedented access to the archive

What the letters reveal is the way certain films and scenes can be singled out to show the changing values of a nation. In the post-war years it was fears of social unrest that were near the top of the agenda.

As the nation relaxed into the 1960s, nudity becomes a prime concern. The early 1970s saw film-makers keen to push at the limits of acceptability.

In the 1980s the board changed its name from British Board of Film Censors to that of Film Classification and it was levels of violence that capture the attention.

Viewed from 2011, many of the board's decisions seem odd, quaint even, and we are able to see many of the scenes originally deemed unacceptable on DVD reissues.

But in their day these were ground-breaking films, pushing the boundaries of propriety. At times it seemed that all that stood between the nation and chaos, was the censor.

The Wild One - social unrest

The Wild One The Wild One was banned for 14 years. Now it's a PG

"What are you rebelling against, Johnny?"

"What have you got?"

Marlon Brando's The Wild One was submitted to the board in 1953. This story of a motorbike gang terrorising a small town in America was banned amid fears of what it might lead to in the UK.

The examiner's report sums up the concerns of the board very succinctly. "Brando is attractive, admirable, imitable."

That represented a significant problem to a Britain still governed by a rigid social order. The board had no option but to come to the conclusion that: "We are unable to issue a certificate for this spectacle of unbridled hooliganism." The film was banned.

The film-makers pleaded with the censor to think again.

As they said: "It is terrible that a costly picture of this description will have to be placed on the shelf without a pennyworth of revenue accruing from this territory."

But the censor was unmoved and immovable. The film remained banned for 14 years.

By the time it was finally granted a certificate in the late 1960s the world had moved on to such an extent that it was almost impossible to see what all the fuss had been about. Today the film carries a child-friendly PG certificate.

Garden of Eden - nudity

As Britain emerged from the austerity of the post-war years, long-held values came under pressure. The censor had long had a very strict approach to the portrayal of nudity on screen. By the 1950s a rather curious type of film had begun to challenge this ban.

Described as "naturist" films, these titles were deemed to be "educational". Typical of them was Garden of Eden ("filmed in a real naturist park!").

The examiner's report once more portrayed a singular sense of humour: "I think Garden of Eden would provoke very noisy reactions at tough cinemas like The Elephant. There are some unconsciously funny nudes. Especially one young lady with peculiar glutial muscles."

But the board could not let this sort of thing past. "The question of precedent must be the over-riding one here."

However, the board's decision was only ever advisory. Local councils could choose to allow these films to be shown, a choice more and more of them began to make.

By the late 1950s, the board seemed more like Canute than the moral guardian of the nation. In 1958 the censor bowed to the inevitable.

"This film was recently reconsidered by this board and it was decided to rescind the previous decision and to pass the film with an A-certificate." The floodgates were opened.

Women in Love - male nudity

Women in Love Women in Love's nude male wrestling caused eyebrows to flutter

1969 was another watershed moment as full-frontal male nudity in Ken Russell's film Women in Love was passed by the censor.

The letters between censor and producer/writer Larry Kramer reveal a relationship where the examiner has almost become part of the creative process. This was a time when many creative arts were perceived to be at a peak and the censor seems to have shared a sense of the possibilities offered by cinema.

Kramer sent the script to the board before filming commenced to hear their opinion. "We would very much like to lunch with you after you have read the script," he wrote. "We feel we are embarking on an extraordinary creative experience which we would like to have you share with us."

The censor replied: "Dear Larry, this seems an exciting production. I know Ken Russell and his work well and I am very happy that he is going to do this picture with you."

However, the censor was still concerned over the scene in which the two male protagonists wrestled in the nude. "If they were just indulging in horseplay as two friends there would not be problems, but we have already had clear indications that there are homosexual feelings between them, and this kind of scene could be troublesome if not handled discreetly. I can only advise you to be very cautious about it."

When the film was submitted for certification this was the board's response: "While we are prepared to accept the wrestling scene, we would like you to remove if possible full-length shots in which genitals are clearly visible."

Ken Russell was willing to co-operate and collaborate: "I gather there is one full-length shot of Gerald which gives offence. The only way out of this... is to darken the shot and this I would be quite prepared to do." He finished his letter with a typical flourish: "Throwing myself on your good judgement, Ken Russell."

As the darkened prints received the go-ahead the mutual respect of censor and film-maker reflected the mood of the age. The censor wrote to the film-maker: "We all think it's a brilliant film and are taking this into account in our judgement of it."

This moved the film-maker to reply: "Dear John, can I say how grateful Ken and I are for your understanding help throughout these past months."

Rambo III - violence

Rambo III The censors thought there was a lot of shooting in Rambo III

When Rambo III was submitted to the board in the late 80s two previous Rambo films had each received the 15 certificate. But between parts two and three, the Hungerford massacre - when Michael Ryan killed 16 people with an assortment of guns - had made firearms and violence front-page news in Britain.

The attitude of what was now the British Board of Film Classification showed the way it had always had to respond to shifts in public opinion.

As a result of events in Hungerford, as one examiner wrote: "This silly, rather enjoyable movie is likely to be a political red-hot potato."

The problem was that Rambo III seemed to be almost non-stop gunfire. "It's not so much what is shown, but how much and how relentlessly."

The examiners fell into an intense debate over whether to grant the film the same 15 certificate as its predecessors (albeit with cuts), or the more adult 18 reflecting the heightened sensitivities around gun use.

"Public disquiet is at a height. It is naive to believe that we can always act without regard to political realities. Indeed I would go further and argue that it's irresponsible." The film was released with an 18 certificate after cuts.

The board have imposed a rolling 20-year embargo on the written archives.

Correspondence over notorious films like Natural Born Killers or Reservoir Dogs remains under lock and key, but the archive revealed so far shows an ever-changing attitude to the things that have concerned us most over the past 100 years.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 287.

    Life imitates art...unfortunately.

    This is why they advertise products or don't in the case of cigarettes for example.

    Movies were much better when they actually had a story and left a lot to our imaginations. No one did this as well as Alfred Hitchcock IMO

  • rate this

    Comment number 286.

    "Especially one young lady with peculiar glutial muscles"
    Someone was paying very close attention to their work.
    I'll wager that his pen hovered before writing that

  • rate this

    Comment number 285.

    I studied censorship and the BBFC at A-level last year and learnt about all of the films above. The problem with classification nowadays (it is rarely ever censorship these days) is the rapid development in technology. The BBFC can go ahead and ban films like The Human Centipede II but people can still access them online. They unfortunately will never win.

  • rate this

    Comment number 284.


    I think that many people's problem with your argument is really just that they LIKE sex, violence infidelity etc. but that is not the cause of T.V. and films that is a case of human nature we are not naturally monogamous creatures as history has proved, we like sex for biological reasons and we are naturally prone to violence as a survival instinct. That’s life *Shrugs*

  • rate this

    Comment number 283.

    ... evidence and a 100% consensus in academia that T.V. and film had a direct link (not casual) with social and relationship breakdown then I would have to accept that it is the cause and all other factors are irrelevant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 282.

    This whole thing and you didn't mention The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence once and let's face it - that film is why the BBFC is trending right now. The BBC should support freedom of speech and join the campaign for a UK release of THC2:FS!

  • rate this

    Comment number 281.

    ... of statitics for personal and political gain, theres the theory that the levels of crime have never really changed and its the recording of crime that has changed, theres also the concept of 'rose tinted glasses', the idea that the past was always better when it really wasn't, I really don't want to do this cause I'm hogging the board now! As for your second question if there was indeniable...

  • rate this

    Comment number 280.

    10 Hours ago
    I've been trying to flutter my eyebrows for the last 10 mins, to no avail. ('Women In Love' caption)"

    Have you tried watching some nude male wrestling?

  • rate this

    Comment number 279.

    We see so much violence on the news especially from as far back as the "Twin Tower" attacks. Everything from blatant war, beheading s, shootings, torture, Andre Brevicks of the world. And then, in the present we have Syria & Libya on daily showing the worst kinds of thuggery & torture that we're nearly becoming immune from the most vile thing film & TV can throw at us. Censorship? What censorship?

  • rate this

    Comment number 278.


    Do you really want to go through every reason with me! Ok look other factors that cause societal breakdown and relationship breakdown could be that divorce is not as stigamtised as much, women have more freedom and independance now, our social conception of what is considered 'acceptable' is changing, theres the liberation of the youth, theres methodologies and minipulation...

  • rate this

    Comment number 277.

    273 Nonnamei

    Of course. But the population has increase less than double (2 times) and rape within marriage must have an effect, but neither these nor greater reporting can account for increases of 30-50 times!!

    275 Nonnamei

    Here's the real question: IF we could show a link between sex and violence in film/TV and real life, would you want more limitations?

  • rate this

    Comment number 276.

    "If violence or rape results should we not be more careful before crying 'Individual Freedom'?"

    No. "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither." - Benjamin Franklin.

    I do not believe that Franklin was advocating anthting that would lead to an increase in rape or any other violence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 275.


    How can you say the rise in social problems coincides with a relaxation of censorship and proves a cause and effect scenario when most scientist can't even prove it?

    The banning of racism depicted on T.V. has nothing to do with cause and effect scenarios. It is more to do with the fact that racism has been criminalised, It would be illegal to promote racism thats why.

  • rate this

    Comment number 274.

    271 Woolhouse

    If it's causing too much mess in people's lives they should at least be informed..
    Then if we can admit there is a serious problem, we can start a debate about what has to be done to minimise the effect of bad stuff.

  • rate this

    Comment number 273.


    Ok yeah the policing/reporting does have an effect coupled with the criminalisation of certain acts e.g. the rape of a sexual partner also makes a difference you didn't mention that in your comment. There are of course other factors as well such as an increased population which will incrase the amounts of crimes committed, I can't explain every factor to you in 400 Char.

  • rate this

    Comment number 272.

    Isn't the film boards views irrelevant in the age of the internet? There aren't really any 'guardians of taste and decency' when people can access any abomination of the senses they can find.

  • rate this

    Comment number 271.

    269. Noamei

    My main point is that increases in real sex violence, relational and societal problems have increased in parallel to their depiction in film -, an obvious cause since we ban things like racism.

    I think that many people's problem with this argument is really just that they LIKE films with sex, violence infidelity etc...

    There' no-one so blind as those who don't want to see!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    268. Nonamei

    That is an easy answer - but it's wrong. The level of reported criminal violence and sex crimes are both about 30-50 TIMES!! more than before this "progress". VERY unlikely to just be due to more reporting. And, though we can't just blame bad TV and films for all relational and societal breakdown, there an effect - or the BBC wouldn't ban stuff that is sexist, racist etc!.

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    Societal breakdown and relationship breakdown is such a convoluted topic most social scientists can't pin point the exact reason why. One example I can think of is that it is generally seen as bad now for a couple to stay together for the "sake of the children" also divorce is not as stigmatised as it once was. I could give 101 other reasons why, but with 400 char I've hogged the board enough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 268.


    There is an easy way to answer your question. The level of violence, sexual violence etc is probably more to do with policing and reporting of crimes plus you have to remember it was once not recognised as being able to rape your wife etc.

    As for Societal breakdown and relationship breakdown you can not put the blame wholly on a relaxing of censorship laws.


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