Let the banned play on: how UK film censorship works in practice

The BBFC's director talks to us about the Board's work and the factors that underpin its decision-making

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Following Salò, Ai No Corrida and Cannibal Holocaust, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has recently granted another notorious banned film, Visions of Ecstasy, an 18 certificate. 

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The film was outlawed for 23 years in this country for fear of its release breaking UK blasphemy laws, but following the repeal of those laws and the film’s subsequent resubmission to the Board, it will finally be issued legally and fully uncut in the UK later this year.

One of the most puzzling things about censorship from the public’s point of view is the apparently arbitrary way in which films are cut, banned and un-banned in Britain. For instance, the “video nasties” of the early 1980s were once the subject of media hysteria and bans, but today almost all of them can be bought entirely legally in your local DVD emporium. What’s changed? Why are they no longer a threat to society?

Well, according to David Cooke, the Director of the BBFC, the reasons for any apparent flip-flopping from the Board in its decisions are numerous and somewhat complex.

“The fact that films can become dated, and lose their impact, can be a significant consideration in classifying a film,” he says.

“We classify for contemporary standards so, for example, some of the so-called “video nasties” from the early 1980s have lost much of their impact and power to shock, while others still pose significant harm risks.” 

Artistic assessments are fundamental to the Board’s decision-making when it comes to certificating controversial films like Visions of Ecstasy, as Cooke explains: “Artistic merit is one of the factors that the Board is able to take into account in borderline cases. 

“The judgements involved include questions of stylistic treatment, whether the material still looks credible, whether it now seems ridiculous, or whether it still carries a significant charge.”

But the BBFC isn’t a body of film critics, and its examiners’ decisions are informed by two further factors: public opinion and UK law.

Cooke explains: “What the Board is aiming to reflect is broad scale public opinion.

“Over five years, changes in public opinion are relatively small and detailed – bigger changes become clear when the period is longer, say 20 or 30 years, and changes are not all in one direction; for instance, the public finds discrimination and racist language less acceptable today than in the 70s and 80s.”

Though he emphasises that while the public may be of one opinion on such matters, it is ultimately up to our country’s legislators to decide what people can and cannot see.

“The Board’s main powers can be found in Video Recordings Act 1984 and the Licensing Act 2003,” says Cooke, though numerous other pieces of legislation are cited on the BBFC website.

He continues: “The legislation itself gives the Board fairly wide discretion, but this is then focused down through the process of consulting the public and drawing up published guidelines.

“Even the guidelines, however, need to be interpreted and the Board always gives great weight to context as well as to a precedent in reaching its decisions.”

And it is through arriving at these guidelines that the Board is able to assign films different classifications, enabling its examiners to deal with problematic themes like discrimination, misuse of drugs, horror, bad language, sex and violence in a broadly measurable manner. So, for instance, a film can be strongly violent and be awarded a 15 certificate, but if it contains violence with a sadistic element it would be classified 18.

Ultimately the BBFC’s main concerns are to protect film-makers and distributors from prosecution – to which they would be liable if a film they had released were found obscene by a jury – and to shield viewers from harm.

So in the case of Visions of Ecstasy, the decision to relent and award the film a certificate comes following a change to UK law, which in turn reflects a shift in broad public opinion.

“The Board recognises that the content of [Visions of Ecstasy] may be deeply offensive to some viewers,” says the BBFC’s news release about the decision.

“However, the Board’s Guidelines reflect the clear view of the public that adults should have the right to choose their own viewing, provided that the material in question is neither illegal nor harmful.

“In the absence of any breach of UK law and the lack of any credible risk of harm, as opposed to mere offensiveness, the Board has no sustainable grounds on which to refuse a classification to Visions of Ecstasy in 2012.”

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Film classification in the UK is a complex business that attempts to apply the letter of the law to something as subjective as art.  It is, of course, impossible for the Board to placate every individual’s views about what is, or isn’t, acceptable to depict in films. But the knowledge that the Board’s examiners have such a range of competing and ever-evolving concerns to bear in mind when assigning classifications makes one appreciate just what a difficult task they face.