Secrets from the BBFC examiners’ archives

Why was Alien given an 18? How much screaming is too much in a Doctor Who movie? We take a look back through the BBFC's archives.

Sitting around watching television all day might sound like an enticing prospect, but a BBFC examiner’s lot isn’t necessarily a happy one. Consider Ros Hodkiss, who served as an examiner for the British Film Board of Film Classification in the 1990s.

In 1998, she provided a window into an average day at the office. It began at 10am with a viewing of an adult film called Pornucopia (“Too many erections for our liking”). After the porn came an hour of Teletubbies – passed for a home video release with a U certificate. A spot of lunch, then a screening of action sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, which, the board ruled, required the removal of a neck break and a few other moments of violence before it could be passed for a 15. This was swiftly followed by an episode of The Simpsons.

“It’s been a run of the mill day,” Ros wrote. “One line on Teletubbies, a half page on porn, a paragraph on Simpsons, a big report on Mortal Kombat. After three paragraphs I decide I’ve only got a couple of brain cells left…”

Since 1912, the BBFC (formerly the British Board of Film Censors) has scrutinised, classified and sometimes demanded cuts to movies bound for cinemas in the UK. As times and technologies have changed, its remit has spread to home video releases and for a time, videogames, while its shift in title from Board of Film Censors to Board of Film Classification reflects its less authoritarian stance since the start of the 21st century.

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The BBFC has also become more open about its methods in recent years, with a selection of its examiners’ notes now available online in its case study archives. Some of these provide an insight into the board’s practices over the past five decades, their decision-making and even their opinions of a film’s relative merits. From innuendo in a Carry On film via excessive screaming in a Doctor Who movie to cannibalism in a zombie flick, here’s a look at some of the weirder moments from the BBFC’s archives…

Alien (1979)

“A perverse view of the reproductive function”

Ridley Scott’s space horror Alien was rated X on release – not because of its gore and violence, but because of its sexual imagery. The examiners’ notes praise the film’s technical achievements in florid style, but also wrestles with rating Alien should be given. Like Jaws, the examiner argues, Alien is “far more frightening to adults than to children” – and could therefore qualify for an AA rating (allowing teenagers aged 14 or over to see it) rather than an X, which would restrict it to the over-18 crowd.

“At first, the British distributors were also in two minds, urging us to consider an AA in order to widen the audience,” the examiner wrote. “We replied that if we were to grant an AA to Alien, it would be hard ever again to give an X to similar entertainments.”

A later document explains why the BBFC plumped for an X: too many pulsating orifices.

“I feel uneasy at passing for 14-year-olds a film which uses sexual imagery in a horror context [….] Occasionally the image is explicit, such as when the leathery egg opens up to reveal glistening pulsating membrane which erupts into the squid-like creature. It was more or less on the strength of a shot like this that Invasion Of The Body Snatchers was made X, and I object to this on the same grounds – ie, that it presents a perverse view of the reproductive function. I don’t want to flash ideas like this to teenagers who might not have come to terms with the normal sexual functions…”

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Braindead (1992)

“Some teenagers (girls especially) are disturbed and upset by blood”

The very words ‘classification board’ may conjure up images of dusty old people sitting in the dark with clipboards, tutting at the sight of a bullet wound or the occasional nipple. Yet the notes from Peter Jackson’s wildly violent comedy horror Braindead hints at a more enthusiastic relationship with horror than the BBFC’s outward appearance might suggest.

“I don’t much care for horror spoofs,” the examiner wrote, “but this is wonderfully funny – a genuinely entertaining grand guignol farce in which the comic invention never flags. I was on this basis sorely tempted to go for a 15, despite the endless succession of amputated limbs, torn off head-skins, beheadings, buckets of blood, dismemberments, pustules bursting, arms being devoured…”

A document from a second examiner concurs, and notes that someone else at the same screening “boldly floated a 15, on the grounds that there’s nothing here to harm or disturb a 15-year-old, and that most teenagers would love it.”

Ultimately, the decision was made to give Braindead an 18 certificate, partly to avoid setting a precedent for giving a gory horror a lower rating, and partly because, in the examiner’s words, some more sensitive teenagers – “girls especially” – the writer adds – “are disturbed and upset by blood and visceral detail, even in a comic context.”

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“They would not thank us for lowering the rating (which they use as a guideline,” the document continues. “Obviously more research is needed into teenagers’ attitudes to splatter; don’t let’s push the boat out before we’ve consulted them properly!”

Clash Of The Titans (1981)

“Alive man seen burning in the middle of a fire”

The late, great Ray Harryhausen fantasy opus Clash Of The Titans caused a minor clash of its own at the BBFC. When the film was in its early stages at the end of the 1970s, its makers – Andor Films – were keen to get a U rating, and therefore sent a copy of the script to the BBFC’s James Ferman to seek his approval.

Ferman replied that he couldn’t imagine giving the finished film a U certificate, and that it was so violent that he’d also struggle to give it an A rating – meaning children wouldn’t be able to see it without their parents. In a letter dated the 2nd October 1978, Ferman provided Andor Films with a list of scenes from the scripts that could result in a dreaded AA rating – meaning only those over the age of 14 could watch it.

Here’s a brief taste:

Page 30 – Man burning. Page 52 – Creature’s throat slashed open by whip. Page 97 – Blood pours from man’s arm. Page 98 – Blood gush from severed head. Page 115 – the face of the huntsman, a raw bloody pulp…

Andor Films replied in a second letter that it was keen to pursue an A rating, to which Ferman replied with a further list of problematic sequences highlighted by other examiners:

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Page 30 – Alive man seen burning in the middle of a fire. Page 118 – shots of the naked Andromeda as she is about to be sacrificed…

When the finished film was submitted to the BBFC for classification in 1981, the board stated that around nine seconds of footage still had to be removed to gain an A.

“Remove close-up shot of three-pronged fork embedded in man’s back”; “After Calabos [sic] falls to knees with sword in his stomach, remove all sight of him writhing in agony…”

Released with a 15 certificate on video in 1987, the original Clash Of The Titans now carries a 12 rating for “moderate fantasy violence”.

Carry On Up The Khyber (1968)

“An endless stream of smutty jokes”

In its 60s and 70s heyday, the Carry On franchise was a great British comedy institution, offering a string of saucy innuendo and cheeky slapstick. The movies’ suggestive dialogue often gave the BBFC a headache, however, as a document about 1969’s Carry On Camping proves.

The board provides a faintly comical list of the lines that would have to be excised to meet the requirements of an A certificate:

Reel 1 – Remove the line “She’s been showing me how to stick my pole up.”

Reel 7 – Remove all the dialogue relating to phallic symbols. Delete the line, “Erection is fairly simple; it’s getting it to stay up.” Re-edit the scene where the two men and two girls are in the tent in such a way as to remove, or greatly reduce, the innuendo in the lines “How about those two things sticking out in front. “Get hold of them with both hands.”

Even in 1987, the Carry On team’s antics were still being scrutinised by the BBFC. For a video re-release of 1968’s Carry On Up The Khyber, the board’s examiner had to decide whether the film’s jokes were appropriate for a PG rating; while one line, “He’s just a travelling fakir,” once cut for an A certificate, was back in, two similar jokes (“Fakir off”) were still cut out.

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“I must admit that I would be prepared to pass this U,” the examiner wrote, “but there is an endless stream of smutty jokes, and a scene at 41 minutes where the adventurous four fondle the busty ‘ladies of the night’ that have been provided for them. I’ll take the easy way out and pass it PG.”

Matron.

The Terminator (1984)

“The only love scene is lyrical, passionate and waist-up”

One of the words that often comes up in the BBFC’s notes and correspondences is “merit”. The Last House On The Left, for example, was banned for years not just because of its graphic scenes of violence, but because the BBFC didn’t consider it a movie artistically worthy enough to defend. In a letter from 1974, BBFC secretary James Murphy wrote that, “We can find no redeeming merit, in script, in acting, in character development […] if we are to go into this area of sexual violence, it will have to be for a film in which we detect greater merit than this.”

If a movie impressed the BBFC’s examiners, on the other hand, they’d actively recommend against cutting it or giving it a more restrictive rating. James Cameron’s The Terminator was given a raving report by an examiner in 1984, who described the film as “a real stunner” – “action packed, yet full of humanity, science fiction that is philosophically engaging in its treatment of time, and exciting as hell.”

The examiner then goes on to note that the film’s distributor expected the film to be given an 18 certificate in the UK, but was “ruefully” willing to suggest cuts to the film to make it fit a more inclusive 15 rating. In the writer’s opinion, however, the film was simply too good to cut, and was worthy of being given a 15 simply because younger teenagers would enjoy it so much:

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“For me the film is much too good to be cut, and indeed too good to deny to an audience who could derive much sheer enjoyment for it (for once girls as well as boys) without very powerful justification. Since I could not find this justification myself, I must therefore pass it 15 and accept that I may be called upon to justify my decision further.”

Ultimately, BBFC director James Ferman stepped in and gave the film an 18 rating. That certificate remained until the board’s guidelines relaxed in the year 2000, and its rating was lowered to a 15.

Day Of The Dead (1986)

“Keywords: cannibalism, zombies, splatter, macho values, mutilation”

When it came to classifying or even recommending cuts to films, the BBFC’s documents reveal that examiners weren’t just considering their own reactions, but also trying to predict the public mood.  The Video Recordings Act of 1984 resulted in the ban of a number of “video nasties” and a media-led backlash against violent films involving power tools and cannibalism. In a revealing document relating to George A Romero’s Day Of The Dead, we discover that one examiner didn’t necessarily subscribe to the thinking that scenes of flesh-eating were too much even for an 18-rated movie.

“[With cannibalism] we have always been cautious and more so since the Video Recordings Bill when it appeared that, officially at least, the eating of human flesh has a particular horror for the ‘public’. I can’t understand why, but must respect that we have to conform with this.”

Later in the same document, the examiner lists a series of shots which could be cut under the BBFC’s guidelines at the time, though the lack of conviction in these recommendations is easy to spot:

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“The subsequent eating of his various entrails I did not much relish but would hardly cut were it not for our policy and precedent on this sort of dining behaviour. On these grounds I would have thought that the whole series of shots would have to go.”

A few days later, Day Of The Dead was examined again, and the decision was made to grant an 18 certificate without making the cuts proposed earlier. What’s significant is that Romero’s film was passed not because of any personal conviction on the part of the examiner, but because it was considered unlikely to generate any complaints.

“In the light of The Thing and Omen II having been shown on TV with little complaint,” the examiner concludes, ” I cannot imagine that this film will draw much complaint from the public. Passed 18 without further cuts.”

Dr Who And The Daleks (1965)

“…as I have said, there are too many screams.”

Swearing, nudity and violence are a common bone of contention among BBFC examiners, but what about screaming? When it came to the script for Dr Who And The Daleks, the Doctor’s first feature film outing from 1965, it was the amount of screaming that made the examiner uneasy – “In U films, we are always anxious not to have shots of people who are terrified, particularly close shots,” the BBFC’s then-director John Trevelyan wrote.

“My main objection to what I read was the number of screams, quite excessive and unnecessary and not always redeemed by the fact that what has been screamed at turns out not to be frightening after all.”

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Simply put, Trevelyan objected to the jump-scares. To underline his point, he listed all the places in the script where someone shrieks or screams in terror. “Barbara wakes Ian – he wakes in a scream,” one entry reads. “I know he is meant to be a figure of fun, and Roy Castle has a reassuring personality, but still there is too much yelling in this script.”

Someone get this examiner an Aspirin.

Footloose (1984)

“Absolutely not PG…”

You might have thought that a breezy dance movie like Footloose would pirouette through the classification process. One scene in particular, however, gave the BBFC pause when they saw it in 1984 – a high-speed stunt involving rebellious reverend’s daughter Ariel (Lori Singer).

“She pulls herself out of the car in which she is travelling and straddles the space between that one and a truck travelling parallel. If either had moved, it would have been the ultimate in doing the splits. Absolutely not PG and I was mildly concerned for 15, but felt it was so outrageous a gag that only someone very foolhardy would try to emulate it. Still…”

Yes, this single moment almost led to Footloose being given an 18 rating. Distributor UIP, anxious to get a PG for the movie, cut a total of two minutes and 48 seconds to pass the BBFC’s criteria – including that “outrageous gag” described above. Later versions of Footloose were released uncut, with a 2002 edition classified 15 and a 2007 re-release given a 12A.

Gremlins (1984)

“I hope we don’t have to butcher a film that I rather enjoyed…”

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The year 1984 proved to be something of a flashpoint when it came to film classification. In the US, the complaints about the level of violence in such films as Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and Poltergeist, both released with PG ratings, led to the creation of the PG-13 certificate. The UK wouldn’t get a similar rating until the 12 cert emerged in 1989, which left the BBFC in something of a quandary when it came to a film like Gremlins.

On one hand, Joe Dante’s comedy horror had just enough of a fun spark to make it accessible for younger audiences; on the other, it contained scenes of death and goo that would leave some parents open-mouthed had Gremlins been given a PG. The BBFC examiner’s notes reveal a huge appreciation for the movie and its adept fusion of cosy suburban life and anarchic horror, and there’s a clear reluctance to cut the movie for a PG rating – even though a list of potential cuts is provided.

“[If we are forced to cut for PG, I would consider cutting: the death of the teacher; the terror of the Futtermans as they are attacked; the ‘comic’ death of the nasty old lady, which may not be so funny for kids (I am unsure about this one) ; the attack on the man dressed as Santa; Kate’s story of the death of Santa…”

Yes, one of the greatest monologues in 80s cinema would have had to go if the film was to get a family-friendly rating.

A document from a second examiner took a far more dim view of Gremlins‘ black comedy, in fact:

“I was appalled at Katie’s description of her father dressed as Santa Claus dying in the chimney […] Are we supposed to laugh at this? Are we supposed to condone children laughing at this?”

Gremlins was ultimately released uncut with a 15 rating, though a later release saw it reduced to a 12A.

Jurassic Park (1993)

“Obviously a must-see film for families and children…”

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Even BBFC examiners can become swept up in the hype of a summer movie from Steven Spielberg:

“No way 12 or cuts for PG, yes way PG.”

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

“Relatively low ‘fuck’ counts”

The 90s marked the point where star-led, often 18-rated action movies gave way to effects-led summer movies aimed at a wider audience, and James Cameron’s T2 could be regarded as a stepping stone from one age to another – from the ultra-violence of Total Recall, released just one year earlier in 1990, to the groundbreaking summer hit Jurassic Park, which completely upstaged Schwarzenegger’s Last Action Hero in the summer of 1993.

Unlike the original Terminator – an 18-rated, grungy action thriller brimming with violence and a hint of soft-focus sex – T2 dialled back the bloodshed for a story which says (as the BBFC put it) “delinquent young boys just need a machine to protect them and a mother to love them.”

Interestingly, the BBFC’s documents from the period give a flavour of how it approached rating a film for the cinema versus its home release. While T2 was passed for a 15 certificate with only minimal suggested cuts – specifically in some injury details where Sarah Connor escapes from a psychiatric hospital – numerous cuts were demanded for the film’s home video edition a few months later.

A document dated 6th January 1992 lists seven minor cuts “mostly to reduce moments of heavy violence, many by the Terminator hero to innocent people who are merely doing their job”. These included the shooting of a security guard, a Hell’s Angel being stabbed in the shoulder and a policeman colliding painfully with a metal post. A cut was also requested to a scene where Sarah picks a lock – presumably because the BBFC was worried that impressionable viewers might use the scene as some kind of how-to guide.

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An uncut home release of Terminator 2 didn’t appear until 2001 – an entire decade after the movie’s cinema debut. By this point James Ferman, who’d served as director of the BBFC for nearly a quarter of a century, had stepped down, and the board’s attitudes to certification and censorship had softened somewhat.

As for poor Ros Hodgkiss, she resigned from the BBFC in 1998 – she was tired and disillusioned, it seems, from repeated clashes with Ferman and hours spent classifying porn. “Censorship sees deviance wherever it looks,” she wrote in the Guardian shortly after her departure; “and like a starchy matron, imposes its own morality like an iron corset. It is not a pretty sight. Does the material corrupt? No, but the job does…” 

  

You can find lots more case studies from the BBFC’s archives on its website.