UK cinema goers may have noticed a change in the style of the certificate cards recently. These retro style cards are part of The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC)’s celebration of its centenary. Who are the BBFC? Put simply they are a none-profit organisation that is independent of film industry and more importantly the government. It is funded by the fees it charges for its services in classifying movies. As mentioned above, it has been in existence in one form or another for 100 years having been set up in 1912 as The British Board of Film Censors. Strictly speaking the true power lies with the local authorities throughout the UK but except a few exceptions always follow the guidance of the BBFC.
For a long time my feelings towards UK film censors were less than positive mainly due to the joke that was the Video Recordings Act 1984. In essence a harmless and sensible legislation that helped close a loophole bringing video recordings in line with cinema releases. Previously attempts had been made to prosecute under The Obscene Publications Act (1959 and 1964), this was clearly not fit for purpose and something was needed to clarify the issue. Unfortunately thanks to the ridicules and overblown “Video nasty” scare of the 1980’s it became a divisive law that pitted film fans against authority. Think of the misguided moral outcry against rock and roll music in the late 50’s and you get the idea. At the time I was too young to know anything about it, but just a few years later could not accept that there where films I could not see because of my age, and even worse that there were films that were banned outright. I’m not talking about the extremely gory horror movies but mainstream action films like the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies The Terminator (1984) and The Running Man (1987), the seminal action movie Die Hard (1988) and Mad Max (1979) to mention just a few. These came with 18 certificates preventing me from seeing them in the cinema or (legally) renting them on video.
Then in 1993 opinions were polarized by the murder of James Bulger. The horrendous crime was committed by two ten-year-old boys. There was some suggestion that the actions of the murderers were inspired or “encouraged” by video nasties with particular emphasis on Child’s Play 3. Despite Merseyside Police saying there was no connection, most people remembered the rhetoric of the tabloid press under the old adage don’t let the facts interfere with a good story. And thus begun the second age of the video nasty scare. In truth Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 clarified the rules rather than changed them and also gave The Secretary of State more power. It didn’t stop a tabloid led outcry that shamelessly used a tragedy for their own propaganda. At the time I had mixed feelings what was happening mainly because I was seventeen and had been able to pass for eighteen for some time and therefore could watch what I wanted. It was also around this time that I saw The Exorcist (1973) at the cinema, this was at a time when it was still not available on video and before its 1998 general re-release. This was my first experience of local independent cinema. I was back a week later to see Reservoir Dogs (1992). Two years after its original cinema release it was the only way to see it legally as BBFC initially refused to grant a home video certificate. Another hangover from Video Recordings Act 1984, UK releases are required to be certified separately for cinema and home viewing. My other memory from the time was of Natural Born Killers. Much anticipated as the release was delayed amid accusations that there had been copycat in countries that it had been shown. It was eventually shown in 1995 in the UK but not Ireland.
More recently there has been a new debate around the current 12A certificate. The Woman In Black was cut by the bbfc “to reduce moments of strong violence / horror” at the request of the distributor in order to achieve a 12A classification. The distributor for The Hunger Games showed an advanced cut of the movie to the BBFC and took advice on how to achieve a 12A classification. The finished film still strayed into the 15 category so a few alterations were made, digitally removing blood and “A number of cuts were made in one scene to reduce an emphasis on blood and injury”. The process of consulting the censor to achieve the desired classification shows a level of maturity and common sense that is a little saddening when compared to maverick filmmakers of the recent past who have pushed the boundaries of the medium. It is however in its own way an example of pushing boundaries and has resulted in its of criticism. Listeners to Kermode and Mayo’s Film Reviews on radio 5 have commented on the classification of both movies. Some horror fans resent The Lady in Black being cut to give a more child friendly rating. On the other hand The Hunger Games has been accused of being too violent for a 12A audience. There is a school of thought that the none violent killing seen in 12A movies is more dangerous to an audience in its formative years to the violent and bloody killings of Battle Royale (2000). Then I look back on the movies I mentioned above, is The Running Man much more violent than The Hunger Games? The answer is yes and no, it is no more violent but it is more graphic. To compare it to more contemporary films, If The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) and 300 (2006) can achieve 12A and 15 classifications respectively, The Hunger Games looks about right.
It wasn’t until I hit thirty and started looking back at all the films I have seen when I realised the censors can be a positive thing. When you look at the Motion Picture Production Code and the inventiveness of movies like The Asphalt Jungle (1950) or the ambiguity of Detour (1945) used to work with in the rules. But more importantly than that we need to look at films that pushed the boundaries or even broke the rules like Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964) and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). While I am more on the side of those who break the rules, where would we be without the rule breakers?