The day I knew I couldn't hack it as a censor was the day before the British Board of Film
Classification went on the road. Andreas Whittam Smith, the new president, had ordered a
"censorship roadshow" and a series of public meetings. As James Ferman, the
chief censor, rehearsed his presentation, I realised in a blinding flash I couldn't bear
to support what the board stood for. I resigned the next day. At first I thought it was
the presentation that repelled me. Pompous, paternalistic and riddled with assumptions, it
seemed so emotionally manipulative. Clips of cuts we'd made in films showing violence and
sexual violence were strung together, out of context to a thumping rock accompaniment. It
started with cuts showing animal cruelty. What better way to woo the support of the
British public than enroll their sympathy for animals?
But then I realised it was not
the presentation. It was the job. I came to censorship (or examining, as we called it)
from education - I taught drama and English at a sixth-form college in Brighton. I applied
out of curiosity after seeing an ad. I needed a job in London, the money was reasonable, I
loved film and was interested in the debate on the effects of the media. I considered
myself broad-minded, liberal even. I had few reservations about film. As a teacher I
credited young people with intelligence and discrimination, but I could see the point of
classification, if only as a guide to help individual choice.
My friends were amazed. One colleague couldn't imagine me censoring anything. Others
were intrigued. Later I could dominate a dinner party with snippets of confidential
information, or stories about porn. But a part of me was embarrassed to admit I was a
censor. It was at odds with my values, though my values and responses would shift like
quicksand while I was working at the board.
I joined the BBFC in a tranche of appointments after it did not renew the contracts of
its feisty part-time examiners in 1994. It needed "new blood" and a new approach
and wanted a full-time board. In the moral panic following the Jamie Bulger case, which
was linked erroneously to the "Chucky" film Child's Play 3, there was new
legislation, The Amendment to the Video Recordings Act, contained in the Criminal Justice
and Public Order Act (1994). This required the BBFC to consider the "likely
harm" of a video to its potential audience (or to society through the behaviour of
its audience) in the treatment of drugs, horror, sex, violence and crime. I started work
in September 1995 in the second intake of full-time examiners. Three years later I
We full-timers had been recruited from the same fields as the previous generation -
social work, psychology, journalism and education, but there was a crucial difference. We
were, generally, younger, less established in our careers, and financially dependent on
Was full-time examining a means of reducing dissent? Battles between James Ferman, the
director and chief censor, and his part-timers were notorious, though I was blissfully
unaware of his reputation as something of an autocrat when I took the job. Would full-time
posts make any difference?Apparently not.
When I left, the atmosphere was sombre. Ferman's authority was sapped by the
appointment of Andreas Whittam Smith as president. Ferman's reputation had suffered after
his fruitless attempts to liberalise porn available in sex shops and he announced his
retirement. After so many ostrich years, He now appears to crave publicity - there's been
a Panorama and dispirited pronouncements that he should have cut Pulp Fiction. It does not
take much of a leap of the imagination to see him sniping from the sidelines in future, á
la Mrs Thatcher.
Life at the BBFC under Ferman was always contentious and theatrical. Controversy set
the board backtracking on policy, or retreating into silence. A handful of letters
constituted a public outcry. I'll never forget the day of the Dunblane massacre. Most
examiners had children and reacted with horror to the slaughter. Although there was no
connection between Thomas Hamilton and film, Natural Born Killers was due for release on
video that month. As society wrung its hands the spotlight fell on video violence. Films
like Michael Mann's Heat were criticised by Andrew Neil in the Sunday Times. Editorials
sprang up everywhere condemning violent entertainment culture. Whenever these stories
broke, whatever the facts, there was a reining in. Decisions undoubtedly became more
conservative. In such a climate it is difficult to keep your cool and remain objective.
But all this was nothing compared to the Daily Mail's campaign to ban David
Cronenberg's Crash. Luckily I was on holiday when reporters doorstepped my colleagues,
prying into their personal lives. The Crash controversy never seemed to end. Ferman, with
characteristic caution, would not issue a certificate before he had covered every angle.
The Daily Mail scored a coup when Paul Brittan, the forensic psychologist consulted by the
board, condemned the decision to give it an 18. Examiners had no qualms about the
decision; it was the hesitation and mess in the way it was handled which sunk us.
We viewed five hours a day, three-and-a-half days a week. It was a mixed bag - TV
comedy and dramas, videos of Hollywood films, straight-to-video action thrillers,
children's material, or foreign language stuff like Hindi films. And porn. Lots of it. I
might have a day of film once a fortnight. People assume the job is glamorous. I found it
dull and isolating. Imagine sitting through Chinese soaps - three hours of Neighbours in
Cantonese. Or Barney, the purple dinosaur, soporific, politically correct and gushy. I
would rather let my three-year-old watch Reservoir Dogs. But then the job gets you like
that. You either become delinquent or Outraged of Eastbourne. You get a reputation, after
a while - good on violence, bad on language, wobbly on sex. Some examiners were considered
"safer" than others. One colleague, who left after two months, found herself
holed up for her last weeks with kiddies' cartoons. Another had a spate of Whoopi Goldberg
movies. My worst week had Teletubbies as the intellectual highlight.
The viewing day started at 10am. We worked in pairs, usually starting with porn. I'm
not sure why. It wasn't a formally agreed practice, rather an unspoken understanding. Porn
often required cuts - a time-consuming task in a tightly scheduled day. We needed to be
brisk and businesslike to get over the embarrassment of watching sex with strangers. If we
got through this, there'd be better to come.
I am not a natural porn user. So there I was, having barely digested breakfast, sitting
in a small, dim room staring at intimate body parts with someone I wouldn't normally
invite to dinner. (Don't get me wrong, I liked all my colleagues, but there are limits.)
You have to swiftly establish a front of objectivity. Personal feelings, be they
arousal or disgust, simply shouldn't enter into it. This is a paradox, of course, since
such feelings are precisely those on which notions of taste and decency, two cornerstones
of classification, are based.
My own relationship with porn shifted from week to week, dependent on mood, and
personal circumstances. At first it felt odd. The material seemed bizarre. Later, in turn,
I was bored, irritated, occasionally depressed, more by the routine predictability than
anything else. Often I found it funny. Some images would follow you home, resurfacing at
We distanced ourselves with ridiculous language. Erections were described in terms of
"the angle of the dangle". "De-minimus" was a fleeting glimpse of
something normally banned. "Natural Configuration" meant you saw bits you
shouldn't when the model bent over. The standards were arbitrary, bizarre, I couldn't
fathom their rationale, but I applied them anyway, as jobsworth as the next examiner.
"Length and Strength" meant sex scenes over four to five minutes would be cut.
Long shot buttock thrusting caused particular problems. The oddest was the ruling that
outer but not inner labia could be shown. This was based on some dubious parallel between
male and female sexual organs. Dicks on the dangle were all right, but inner labia were
equated with an erect penis. I thought the engorged clitoris a more likely comparison, but
what's anatomical accuracy when taste and decency are involved?
We would play games in the viewing room to alleviate the boredom. Spot the villain (no
challenge), predict the dénouement (marks for accuracy, extra points for getting the
timing right), complete the dialogue line. We had the nuances of genre nailed.
Ferman loved to fiddle, snip and trim, like an enthusiastic barber. An idea was rarely
expurgated, but might be "reduced to establishment only". Some trims didn't make
sense. The rape scene in Rob Roy was a case in point. It was reduced on film for a 15
cert, and further cut on video following a handful of complaints. Yet many viewers thought
the cuts sanitised the rape.
Lord Birkett, the previous acting president, feared Physical Graffiti, a documentary
about body modification, might encourage rebellious youth to get pierced, tattooed, or
worse, and suggested a ban. Ferman's answer was to trim the goriest details, to remove the
"process". Some details made me feel quite sick: a man hanging from butcher's
hooks piercing his back, self-induced vomiting, huge metal ball-bearings and spikes
inserted under the skin. But it had the right of expression.
Marginal lifestyles always created problems. Censorship normalises and contains,
unaware that democracy is tested at the periphery.
"Process violence" was bad, potentially titillating, likely to appeal to
sadists. Censorship sees in black and white - moral or immoral, harmful or not.
Ferman minimally cut the action thriller Eraser, a Schwarzenegger vehicle,for an 18
cert. On video, where statutory powers exist, Ferman made 43cuts, including the final
scene. He didn't hesitate to change the meaning to make it morally "suitable for
teenagers". In the 1997 annual report he represented this as a favour to the company.
The film flopped, the video did well, ran his argument, because less violence made it
palatable to the British audience.
Ferman believed his intervention made films better and had several anecdotes to prove
it. He cut a scene in another actioner, Lethal Weapon 3. Mel Gibson brutally disposes of
the villains who killed his girlfriend, by slamming the head of one in a car door. Ferman
quotes the film's director Richard Donner as saying this "improved the film",
because it gave the hero a chance to grieve.
I had several spats with Ferman before I finally left. They began within weeks of
joining the board. The first bout was provoked by Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days, a
futuristic action thriller that explores voyeurism and technology. Ferman wanted to cut
the "forcible exposure of breasts" in the scene in which a young woman, Iris, is
murdered. The scene is shot from the killer's point of view and played back on virtual
reality technology by the hero, Lennie (Ralph Fiennes). I found it a brash but interesting
film, and the scene in question was thematically crucial.
Blood on breasts was an absolute no-no, and any scene involving bodice ripping was
liable to cuts. I was outraged by the term 'Peter Meter', a measure of the potential for a
rape scene to arouse. Intelligent interpretation could be overridden by the biological
assumptions of the chief censor. The audience could not be credited with complex
responses. The cuts were implemented.
Ferman claimed needle penetration was a turn-on for potential drug addicts.
Consequently he re-framed the shooting-up scene in Pulp Fiction for video.The evidence for
this was anecdotal. We cut instructional detail of hard drug use. Shots of heroin
preparation were cut from Trainspotting on video,and from Andy Warhol's Trash. This seemed
ludicrous, mechanistic, irrelevant. Surely there are more direct ways to learn about drugs
than watching a film? I may be wrong; representation may be crucial to latent drug users.
But I never saw any relevant research.
The serpentine weekly examiner's meeting clarified cuts and categories and discussed
policy. We rarely arrived at solid conclusions. Contentious titles were left on hold and
slipped into classification purgatory. Stuffed in drawers, discreet words to the
distributor behind closed doors, letters on file implying unrecorded intervention.
Decisions seemed often to be made elsewhere.
The regime was wholly idiosyncratic. The specific censorship vocabulary, the policies,
the peculiar working practices, were all Ferman's. Logic and argument were subject to the
whim of the director, who regularly overturned decisions. When Whittam Smith was appointed
Ferman was slow to turn his policies into a code of practice, for which he could be held
Ferman saw himself as a mentor to the examiners. He would announce the
"truth" of a film, a definitive interpretation. He congratulated himself on his
Leavisite training, and wanted linear narrative and clear morality. Michael Hanneke's
Funny Games was "unremitting sadism". A treatise on "cool violence"
waylaid debate on Dobermann. Films of the nineties, he emoted, such as Pulp Fiction and
Natural Born Killers, promoted "cool violence" but were underpinned by moral
intentions. Dobermann, by contrast, was irredeemable. This was it. The truth. It should be
banned. Like a tyrannosaurus, he would only notice if you strayed directly into the sight
line of his hobby-horses. And yet despite his flaws he loved film, and was committed to
What does the future hold? Jack Straw's intervention in the appointment of Andreas
Whittam Smith does not bode well. Whittam Smith lacks Ferman's film literacy. During a
screening of Dobermann he asked what LS (long shot) and postmodernism meant. Yet he
overruled Ferman and passed it as cert 18 uncut. He has banned other marginal works, and
remains immovable on porn.
Robin Duval, Ferman's successor, a career regulator from the ITC, may or may not meet
the challenge of rethinking regulation in a digital age. He has already voiced concerns
about action heroes, continuing Ferman's line of attack.
At Whittam Smith's instigation, the BBFC met the public in roadshows around the
country. Several months down the line there is still no published report. And how
representative is a handful of public meetings, some of which were attended by less than
I'm frequently asked if I was affected by the work. Surely, cooped up in a cramped room
for five hours a day watching the worst that popular culture can muster makes me a likely
candidate for "effects", should they exist?
Well, of course, I went mad. But not because of the material but because of the
stifling passivity of watching too much television. And then there was the job itself.
Censorship sees deviance wherever it looks, 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.
In the end, I resigned. The lack of accountability and clear focus, the arbitrary
judgments, frustration and loss of integrity helped. But mostly it was the lack of
relevance to the real world.
The public may, in theory, support classification, but in practice it makes its own
choices; the three-year-old who knows every word of Toy Story, passed PG for mild horror;
the eight-year-old who delights in The Full Monty with his family, passed 15 for swearing;
the teenager who, as mid-evening viewing, enjoyed This Life, episodes of which were passed
18 on video for drugs. When will we trust adults to choose for themselves? When will we
credit children and young people with the ability to watch critically?
The board could be genuinely informative. Instead of pandering to alarmist fears it
could offer a rational voice in the debate. Instead of slavishly responding to a vocal
minority it could take note of the vast majority who don't give classification a second
thought. For now, at best the classification system is a sop to society's conscience, a
rough guide to content and at worst it is an oppressive tyrant. Nanny with her must-nots.