of Film Censors
Dept. of Culture,
Media and Sport
good neutral source
Film censorship in the UK
( from the Guardian
Sean Clarke explains how British
The Home Office, the Department
of Culture Media and Sport, the British board of film classification,
local councils and film distributors all have a say in what
you can and can't see on videos and cinema screens in the UK.
Who controls film censorship in
In theory, local councils - borough and county councils
for the most part - have the power to allow any cinema to show any
film. In practice, the councils almost always follow the classifications
given to films by the British Board of Film Classification (formerly
the British Board of Film Censorship).
Exceptions to this are rare enough to be notable.
In 1996, Westminster Council refused a licence to David Cronenberg's
Crash, though it played in the rest of the country, and in 1998
Camden Council granted a licence to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,
which was later classified as 18 by the BBFC.
What is the BBFC?
The BBFC is technically an autonomous industry body,
which charges film distributors for the service it provides in classifying
films. It was set up in 1912 by the film industry as a self-regulatory
body in an attempt to head off government interference.
With a few exceptions, local councils gradually
accepted its classifications as standard, establishing the BBFC
as the UK's semi-official censor. Since then, its relationship with
government has been based largely on a gentlemen's understanding:
the BBFC keeps its classifications within bounds deemed acceptable
to government of the day (with a close eye on public opinion).
In return, parliament makes no move to set up an
official body. In 1984, parliament made the BBFC the body responsible
for video classification in Britain. This has brought the gentlemen's
agreement within the law. It gave the BBFC official status at last,
but has also left it more vulnerable to persuasion from central
How does the BBFC make its decisions?
When does it cut films?
The board operates to a set of guidelines published
on its website. It has traditionally observed a distinction between
what it calls "manners" - flexible attitudes on the part of the
public towards things such as nudity and obscene language, and "morals"
- immutable codes of conduct.
This conveniently allows it to change its classifications
if it judges that public attitudes have changed. The BBFC is keen
to highlight the role that public consultation plays in its decision
making, and organises "roadshows" to both canvas public opinion
and to justify its decisions.
The board cuts films surprisingly rarely, and very
openly: its website lists the length of any cut, and the reasons
for it. Most cuts are made at the request of the distributor, to
squeeze films into a lower age classification (generally speaking,
lower age classifications means increased takings at the box office).
Films classified 18 are rarely cut, and generally
only to avoid prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act.
Who runs the BBFC?
Good question. In theory, it runs itself as a business.
In practice, it is very susceptible to influence from government
departments, partly through its fear of being made redundant by
the creation of an official body.
The clearest example of this is the nomination of
its president. Since the authority to classify films for video release
is granted to the president of the BBFC as a person, the board's
continued survival would be in doubt if it failed to appoint someone
with Home Office approval.
So the Home Office calls the shots?
Not any more. Since June 2001, responsibility for
film and video classification has moved from the Home Office to
the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. In part, this is because
the DCMS is working on bringing regulation of broadcast media, film
and video under the aegis of a single body, Ofcom.
What would this mean for film censorship?
One of the proposals is that Ofcom take over from
the BBFC in its role as video censor. This would mean a substantial
loss of revenue for the BBFC, and also raise the possibility of
classification differences between the two bodies.
The BBFC already has a stricter policy on video
than cinema releases, but is at least consistent in itself. Ultimately,
it is hard to imagine that a body created to regulate broadcast
and video films would not eventually assume responsibility for cinema
The effect of having film censorship run directly
by a government agency raises obvious concerns. Critics of the proposal
predict many more knee-jerk responses to causes celebres, and less
consistency over time as new governments are sworn in, bringing
their own attitudes with them.
Aren't there laws about what can
and can't be shown in films?
The Obscene Publications Act prohibits material
which "tends to deprave or corrupt persons who are likely to read,
see or hear it", and other laws apply specifically to video releases.
Though very vague, the law is generally held to apply to anything
which might encourage criminal activity by those watching it, especially
if it encourages violence or sexual violence.
Interestingly, the BBFC last
year consulted the police as to whether car theft scenes in Gone
in Sixty Seconds were likely to assist would-be car thieves. The
police thought not. The perceived ban on images of the erect penis
and sexual penetration is largely that: a perceived ban. In fact,
the BBFC has recently classified two films,
Romance and Intimacy, which feature precisely those images.
back to beginning of a
We do not fear censorship, for
we have no wish to offend with improprieties or obscenities, but
we do demand, as a right, the liberty to show the dark side of wrong,
that we may illuminate the bright side of virtue - the same liberty
which is conceded to the art of the written word - that art to which
we owe the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.
(Caption inserted by D.W.Griffiths before his controversial film
' The Birth of a Nation' - 1915)
FOR THE ART OF THE MOTION PICTURE
When this report
of an MP's speech was printed in the Western Daily Mail on Saturday,
1 May 1926, attitudes towards the cinema and censorship were clear
"IT'S NO USE FIGHTING AGAINST IT"
Mr T P O'Connor,
who is Chairman of the British Board of Film Censors, on Friday
afternoon spoke at the National Council of Public Morals held at
Hampden House, Green Street, the residence of the Duke of Sutherland,
on the improvement of the British race. A cinema should be attached
to every elementary school, he said. The living and real images
of things as they were was infinitely superior to dry history and
geography books as an educational medium.
use fighting against the cinema," he continued. "As an institution
it has come here and it has come to stay."
It was an essentially domestic entertainment to which fathers brought
their wives and children. The standards of censorship were infinitely
more severe in the cinema than in any other form of art.
"I don't accept the proposition that the taste of the masses is
necessarily high," he said. "In the press divorce proceedings and
crime are a very potent factor in the increase of circulations.
When I was the editor of a newspaper at a time when circulation
was not over-high Jack the Ripper made my fortune."
"If he committed
one murder the circulation jumped to 25,000. If he committed two
in one night it jumped to 35,000. There is nothing that interests
the common mind so much as a story of crime. We must take into account
weakness and bad taste and not expect too much. There are plays
today admitted to the stage which I wouldn't think of admitting
to the cinema. I think we, the film censors, represent the highest
form of censorship."
95 per cent of the films shown in this country were American, he
said. This was humiliating but inevitable. America had many more
cinemas than we had and some people said they had all the money
in the world. "I sometimes wish they would be a little more considerate
in their demands on the tortured nations of Europe," he admitted
Has such an awful lot changed since 1926? In some quarters, movies
are still regarded as an educational medium or "a domestic entertainment"
rather than an art form.
"the improvement of the British race" is rarely to be heard these
days, when eugenics is less fashionable, but the somewhat condescending
attitude that the taste of the "masses" is low and that they should
be improved by their chosen art or entertainment still maintains
some currency, especially when it appears that royal phone calls,
let alone divorces, can sell more newspapers than Jack the Ripper
for the British film industry, the vast majority of films exhibited
in this country are still American
the British Board of Film Censors is the British Board of Film Classification.
think that all forms of artistic censorship disappeared when the
Lord Chamberlain's powers were abolished in 1968 and with the Board's
subsequent change of name. But the certificates which it is empowered
to grant to films still enables the Board effectively to censor
movies ("If you want a PG certificate, you will remove the following
scenes...") and, moreover, the certificates themselves have become
A and X certificates of the 1960s have been superseded by:
U ("Universal. Suitable for all.")
PG ("Parental Guidance. Some scenes may unsuitable for young children.")
12 ("Passed only for persons of 12 years and over.")
15 ("Passed only for persons of 15 years and older.")
18 ("Passed only for persons of 18 years and older.")
R18 ("For Restricted Distribution only, through segregated premises
to which no one under 18 years is admitted.").
that these finer gradations of censorship mean that "strong" f'ilms
are not automatically consigned to the 18 category but it is sometimes
difficult to see exactly which swear word, violent or sexual situation
constitutes the line beyond which no 12 or 15 year old may cross.
the BBFC exercises even greater powers - the controversy over and
delay in granting a video certificate to Reservoir Dogs is a case
in point. An indication of a movie's content is, of course, essential
- but there are some 12 and 15 certificate films which 1 have found
more disturbing than, say, Pulp Fiction.
end, it would certainly be helpful to know exactly which criteria
are being followed when certificates are assigned. Ultimately, it
does seem that moving pictures are still more subject to censorship
than any other art form, often apparently as the result of knee-jerk
in the realm of painting, would you place a sticker marked "12"
on Renoir's Dejeuner sur 1'herbe (nudity), one marked "15" on Munch's
The Scream (horrific content) or one marked "18" on Damien Hirst's
bipartite sheep (violence)?