Courting Controversy: what about the children?

Feature Dave Adamson 19 Jun 2012 - 06:59

Now 100 years old, the British Board of Film Classification has endured a long and sometimes controversial history. Here, Dave looks back over some of the board’s recent challenges…

With the BBFC entering its 100th anniversary, it's time to revisit some of the challenges the British Board of Film Classification (previously the British Board of Film Censorship) has faced in its long history.

Reviled and revered in equal measure, the board can make a film notorious with the snip of its proverbial scissors, or leave some outraged at a controversial movie’s lack of cuts. The BBFC’s constantly at the mercy of opinions – from ministers, the industry it represents and the public. More often than not, however, the BBFC goes unnoticed, save for a certification card at the start of a film, or a little red circle on a poster.

The BBFC is a non-governmental organisation that operates with a great degree of autonomy, albeit with funding from the film industry. For a film to be released to cinema or at home, it must be certificated by the BBFC; the exemption here being, conveniently, the E (for Exempt) certificate, for works that are designed to, amongst other criteria, inform, educate or instruct.

The BBFC must operate within the laws of the United Kingdom when certifying films, and has been known to ban films outright in the past, though distributors may challenge such bans in court. While the BBFC must operate within the confines of such laws as the Obscene Publication Act, it has modified its stance based on changing moral and social values. Naturally, such shifts in policy have seen them criticised by numerous self-appointed moral guardians.

Many films have outraged groups like MediaWatch-UK, the readers of conservative newspapers such as The Daily Mail, and fringe groups concerned that films will lead to the corruption and downfall of our society on a moral level. These concerns are not new, nor will they go away; “What about the children?” is a mantra often associated with these groups, fearful that the young will be corrupted by what they see on screen.

Mary Whitehouse, the founder of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association (which would later become MediaWatch-UK), would famously state that she didn't need to watch 'that' type of film in order to know what was in them. It may sound like hypocrisy, but she truly believed that, without inspecting the merchandise, she knew what she was getting.

It may sound like they want to mother the populace, but groups like these are pursuing what they believe to be right. Turn on any popular television channel or film, and you’ll be beset with suspect language, potentially distressing imagery and morally dubious moment. Of course, you may need to adjust your own moral compass, but you’re bound to find something offensive if you look hard enough. It is in this realm of interpretation that groups such as Mediawatch-UK thrive.

Of particular concern to such groups, and the BBFC, is behaviour that could be considered imitable. If someone could do it 'in real life,' then it could be a risk to the fabric of society or to the participants themselves, it’s argued.. There have been cases of children injuring themselves carrying out wrestling moves seen on TV; there have been fears that those with fragile minds would someday chainsaw-massacre their way through towns; or that, in the case of Fight Club, people would choose to set up their own bare knuckle boxing club and rain violence on friend and enemy alike.

Satanic behaviour, extreme violence, sexual assaults; all these, and more, could be easily copied from the screen, it’s been said. Therefore, it stands to reason that the BBFC should protect us from such filth.

The 1999 film Fight Club, directed by David Fincher and based on the 1996 book of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk, is a satire in the darkest sense of the word. While many remember the motto “The first rule of Fight Club is 'You don't talk about Fight Club'” and some may relish the violence of the fight scenes, it’s primarily a satire on consumerism and emasculation, with Edward Norton playing an everyman to Brad Pitt's charismatic and chaotic Tyler Durden.

Instantly quotable, thoroughly masculine and relentlessly violent, it is a complex film to watch and was often misunderstood, possibly leading to its lukewarm box office performance in America and the United Kingdom. The focus was, it seemed, on fighting and, as with Black Swan, anyone going in thinking it is one thing may have been annoyed to discover something rather different – especially when the film has the monotone, sardonic voiceover of Edward Norton describing the surreal world that he’s entered and the craziness that ensues. Fighting is secondary to the film’s real subject: an attempt to bring down society.

Obviously, the bare-knuckle fight sequences were a major concern for the BBFC. Fight Club wasn't Rocky, in which Balboa takes on his opponents in the noble art of boxing, nor was it wrestling, with its cross between athletics and theatrics. Fight Club portrayed, amongst other things, a world of brutal, barbaric and bloody combat that left you in no doubt that it was painful and dangerous. It may have focused on the violence and even sought to show pleasure in the pugilism, but it certainly didn't glamorise it. Fight Club was a film of anti-heroes, not of heroes.

In a similar vein to fears that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre would lead to a spate of real-world killings, it was feared that Fight Club would lead to men across the UK setting up bare knuckle boxing clubs and unleashing their inner animal. At the time, mixed martial arts was growing in popularity and notoriety, especially in the United States. There were reports that fight clubs may have been set up in America, further reinforcing the belief that such a film would corrupt viewers’ minds.

It is with these considerations in mind that the BBFC of 1999 had to consider the impact of the film. According to its own case study, they did see the merits of the film, identifying it as “stylish and challenging”, there were those who felt that the film glamorised violence. Prior to 2005, it seemed to be felt by the BBFC that there was a need to protect viewers, adult or otherwise, from things that could be potentially harmful, regardless of whether the act they may be viewing was illegal or legal. Under this consideration, Fight Club was victim to 15 seconds of cuts, primarily involving blows to the head.

A sweeping set of reforms would later see the BBFC decide, amongst other things, that adults should be able to enjoy whatever they want to watch, as long as it wasn't illegal. With this new approach, films like Fight Club would eventually be passed uncut for the audience upon DVD re-release. Other films would find their ratings reduced – The Terminator, for example, would be reduced from the 18 certificate it had previously held to 15 for home video, while other films would be finally granted a certificate for UK home viewing – The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre saw the light of day, having previously been limited to cinema screenings.

From a social and moral standpoint, things have changed in 20 years, and sensibilities have shifted, with the feeling that the public is more tolerant on a wider range of issues. The BBFC has carried out studies and surveys in order to gauge public opinion on its operations, and the lines of certification have been redrawn – the 15 certificate, for example, seems a lot more 'adult' today than it may have done ten years ago. The research also saw the introduction of the 12A certificate, replacing the cinema certificate of 12, which would be a home media certificate. 12A would allow children under 12 to see films – and to help parents make more informed decisions about the films they wanted their children to watch, more detailed information was provided via the BBFC website.

In 2008, The Dark Knight was granted a contentious 12A certificate, garnering a number of complaints from parents and MPs outraged at its scenes of violence – in particular, a scene in which The Joker stabs someone in the eye with a pencil. MP Keith Vaz wanted to bring the BBFC in front of his committee on knife crime in response to scenes in the film, while the BBFC stated that the certificate was justified thanks to the comic book setting.

Comic book setting or not, this clearly wasn't being seen in the same light as Superman punching a villain through a wall. The Dark Knight was far from the post-modern camp of Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever; one only has to compare Tommy Lee Jones’ pantomime Two-Face with garish make-up, to Aaron Eckhart’s horrifically deformed and brutal version of the same character.

Referring to The Dark Knight, the then-Conservative MP and Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, John Whittingdale, boldly suggested that “Nobody goes to the BBFC's website for parental advice.” Herein lies the problem; the information is out there and, in 2008, 16 million UK households had Internet access, according to the Office of National Statistics. Surely some of those households were amongst the 4.7 million viewers that the BBFC claimed saw The Dark Knight?

It stands to reason, therefore, that some of them were aware that information about the film could be found online and, even if they didn’t read it, there were reviews, previews and endless television footage showing Heath Ledger’s portrayal The Joker. Sadly, it seems, as with many things, a vocal minority want to be spoon-fed detail without doing any research for themselves – it's similar to the people who write to complain about the programmes they can't, for some reason, turn over to spare their blushes, or buy their children the latest Grand Theft Auto game and complain that they didn’t realise it was all about stealing cars.

With it being such a widely available and easily accessible medium, film is an easy target for the condemnation of politicians, and the previous success against so-called video nasties in the 80s could be seen as a precedent for success amongst political leaders. Usually, politicians and councils get involved when the public choose to complain about the content they see or, one could cynically suggest, when there are points to be scored in an upcoming election.

Sometimes, however, councils can choose to counter the decisions of the BBFC. The 2002 film Spider-Man had its certificate reduced from 12 to PG-12 in Tameside and North Norfolk, whilst Breckland District Council offered the film at PG. “It could have been a 15,” said the BBFC, but this didn't stop the councils, as they responded to parental complaints that their children couldn't see a film that would appeal to them.

In 1979, fears of blasphemy saw Monty Python's Life Of Brian banned by a number of councils in the UK, with Harrogate Council admitting that the ban was spurred by the opinion of Mary Whitehouse's Nationwide Festival of Light.

A Serbian Film was supposed to be included in the line up of Film Four FrightFest in 2010, but Westminster Council refused to grant permission to show the pre-certification version. Of course, in most cases, it takes someone to notice before the councils will act and, even then, there's the effect on business and potential negative publicity to consider – had the BBFC not banned A Serbian Film in the first place, chances are, like many foreign language films, it would have gone unnoticed by most mainstream horror fans.

An ideal world wouldn’t need censorship, it could be argued. For the BBFC, film certification is a fine balancing act, where it runs the risk of criticism if it’s seen as too lax or too stifling. But ultimately, it’s up to each of us to decide where the boundary of taste sits.

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