Andreas Whittam Smith was the editor of the Independent before having a spell as president of the BBFC (at a time
when film censorship was lightening up after the departure of James Ferman).
He used his BBFC experience in an opinion piece in the Independent calling for the banning of news footage of the barbaric murder of a Jordanian pilot. He wrote:
That some images can be too horrific to show is also an issue in the classification of films. I was President of the BBFC for five years stretching into the early 2000s. Relevant here are the guidelines for films classified as 18 . The basic rule
is that adults should be free to see what they want to see in the cinema ...BUT... with some exceptions. Revenge is an inescapable urge, but it can never lead to good You don't need to watch a man burning to find it outrageous We must
report the facts, but not be the conduit for gruesome propaganda
Now the sadistic killing of the Jordanian pilot was fact not fiction. Nonetheless the current BBFC guidelines are of interest. Parts of them are indeed relevant to broadcasters and news organisations. They state that exceptions are most likely where material or treatment appears to us to risk harm to individuals or, through their behaviour, to society
. This takes us into the second reason for treading carefully - that we may be causing harm to society, as the BBFC would put it, by broadcasting Islamic State videos or by publishing them online or by taking stills from them. They are propaganda and
propaganda will do its job.
What the BBFC has in mind of course is a very different situation from the Islamic State videos. But the BBFC's list of what it considers harmful to disseminate include the detailed portrayal of violent or dangerous acts, or portrayals of sadistic
violence which make this violence look appealing, or which invite viewer complicity in, harmful violent activities . This is a useful analysis of how harm to society may arise.
So might the videos of sadistic violence distributed by Islamic State appeal to some viewers in Britain or invite their complicity?
The answer is almost certainly that they would do so. After all, it is estimated that as many as 2,000 Britons are fighting alongside Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq.
A storm of protest greeted publication of new guidelines by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). It always does. Children as young as 15 are to be allowed to watch films filled with obscene language, reported one newspaper. As a former
chief film censor myself, I don't object to these expressions of outrage, though they are often unfair. For the activity comprises an unarguably good bit -- classifying films on grounds of suitability for different age groups in order to help parents.
And also a controversial bit -- preventing people watching what they might otherwise wish to see, indeed interfering with their freedom.
In these circumstances, you should be exposed to vociferous challenge.
Another lesson you learn as a censor is that the BBFC must take society as it is, rather than seek to change it, as various pressure groups would wish. I believe this stance to be completely realistic. How could a body employing just 60 people, managed
by a handful of executives, have any expectation of holding back movements in social behaviour against which the government itself, the political classes more generally and the major faiths fail to have an impact?
This powerlessness is going to become more acute. Because today's parents, as a result of developments in technology and the social media, are losing control of their children's viewing habits. The plethora of devices means the dynamics of film-viewing
-- in terms of frequency, audience and impact -- has greatly changed in the past few years.
Should the "12" certificate in the cinema become advisory? This would mean that parents would decide whether children
below the age of 12 would be able to attend films classified for the 12-to-14 age group. At present, the rating is mandatory. Under 12s are not supposed to go to "12" movies even if accompanied by their mother, their father, their grandparents
and the local priest.
I write "not supposed" because a certain amount of dodging goes on. Friends have told me how they took, say, 11-year-old Sophie or Euan to see The Mummy despite its "12" rating and have dared me to disapprove. I don't
cluck my tongue because, frankly, the "12" rating does have problems. The maturity of children at around that age varies widely and parents are the best judges of their robustness. And cinema staff, too, cannot necessarily distinguish between
an 11-year-old, for instance, and a 13-year-old, just by looking.
Moreover, the "12" rating is still highly restrictive. Billy Elliot , in many ways a natural "12" was classified at "15" because of the extensive use of four-letter words, albeit in a
conversational rather than aggressive manner. The rule at "12" is that strong language should be rare and justified by context. As to violence, there should be no dwelling on detail and no emphasis on blood and injuries. Sexual violence can
only be implied or briefly indicated and in any case without physical detail. Likewise, sexual activity may only be implied. Sexual references must do no more than reflect standards set by sex education in schools. There can be horror movies at
"12" but limited to occasional gory moments. Similarly, references to soft drugs or scenes where soft drugs are used must be brief and few in number. They must be justified by context and indicate the dangers. Hard drugs are off limits.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was classified at "12" because the considerable violence was cast in the form of stylised martial arts. It is always a consideration to what extent form
distances violence from the viewer. To take a different example, the excellent Australian film, The Dish , seemed to me to be a sort of modern miracle because of the almost complete absence of sex and violence. The "dish"
refers to an Australian radio telescope which found itself playing an important role in the American moon landing.
Here, the decision went the other way. The Dish would have been a PG (parental guidance) except for one bit of bad language; this raised it to the "12" category. Another example of a "12" is Pearl Harbor
, which seems to be as big a commercial disaster for the makers as the actual event was for the American navy. The Mummy Returns , now for me indelibly associated with Lady Thatcher ever since her ponderous reference to it, is
also, like its predecessor, a "12".
As it happens, a good illustration of the difficulties of the mandatory "12" is coming up. Lara Croft Tomb Raider , rated "12", will open shortly. This is a big-budget film version of a successful
computer game. It is a story of a quest for a magic device which gives the possessor the power to control time. The acrobatic, all-guns-blazing Lara fights an evil society - as well as passing robots - for its possession.
Large numbers of youngsters, whether or not they have quite reached their 12th birthdays, will want to go to it for they have already seen the Lara Croft character on computer screens. As a matter of fact, though, the version submitted to
the BBFC did conflict with the rule that "realistic and contemporary weapons should not be glamorised". The main problem concerned shots emphasising the attractiveness of flick knives. The film company took the board's concerns seriously and
brought the movie into line with the "12" guidelines.
There are, however, major problems confronting any plan to make the "12" certificate advisory. One is the issue of accompaniment. It is difficult to write a rule which ensures that under 12s will be accompanied by a parent or
responsible adult. At the box office window, the cinema staff have no way of ascertaining whether the older person who presents him or herself is indeed the parent or nominated by the parent. Insisting on adult accompaniment might encourage some kids to
ask complete strangers to take them into desired movies.
When older readers of this newspaper were young teenagers, using a willing stranger to get one into a forbidden film was a recognised practice and I don't remember any reports of harmful experiences. But those days of innocence have
passed. Paedophiles might see an opportunity. Is there any way of designing a satisfactory accompaniment requirement?
Another issue is consumer information. If parents are to decide whether to let younger children go to a "12" rated movie, they need to know what sort of film it is. The board provides consumer advice on its
for every film and video passed. But the board has no power to insist that the film and video industry uses it in its advertising. Until now, the cinema distributors and owners have been unenthusiastic.
A further question is the manner in which the board should proceed in exploring the case for a change. The frame within which the board operates is the law. In the cinema, the most relevant statutes are The Protection of Children Act 1978,
The Obscene Publications Act 1959, the 1937 act which makes it illegal to show any scene involving actual cruelty to animals and the new legislation on human rights.
Within these bounds, the board sites its detailed guidelines and these govern individual classification decisions. The important point is that the board's guidelines are designed to reflect public opinion as closely as possible. In a
sense, the board has no view of its own. It does what it believes the public, particularly parents, wish it to do. In turn, cinema owners can operate only if they have a licence from the local authority, an invariable condition of which is that the board
categories be observed unless the authority makes an exception for a specific film.
How, then, to test the proposition that "12" should become advisory rather than mandatory? I think, the question must be put in the following form: would parents approve a relaxation in the rules provided that useful consumer
information about individual "12" category films was readily available? Of course, this begs the further question whether better information can be provided. To this end, the co-operation of the cinema owners and distributors and involvement of
local authorities will be essential.
There are signs that this can be secured. And once the board can put the question in a form which ties in better consumer information, then the methods used to test public opinion can be used again. It may also be possible to organise an
experiment, perhaps lasting three to six months, in a single local authority area. The bottom line, however, is that the board will not make a permanent change unless satisfied the public approves. Public opinion will have the decisive say.
Andreas Whittam Smith leapt into the limelight again the other day - the Bishop as Batman - by saying there should be sex shops in
every town. His argument was perfectly logical. As president of the British Board of Film Classification, he oversees a species of video-rated 'Restricted 18' that can only be sold in licensed sex shops. But if there is no licensed shop in an area - and
there are very few outside Soho - porn-seekers go to illegal traders who sell videos out of the backs of cars and mix paedophile and bestial material along with the normal hardcore. So Andreas believes local authorities should control and supervise the
trade rather than ignore it, by encouraging the establishment of sex shops.
Like so many of Andreas's arguments, this is on the one hand sensible and on the other hand slightly mad, or at any rate unrealistic. Naturally it sent the Daily Mail into a screaming frenzy. Stephen Glover, his old adversary from The
Independent, accused him of wanting to sweep a tide of filth through every high street, so that you couldn't pop out for a loaf of bread without confronting window displays of mind-boggling sexual contraptions . Other papers took up the hue and
cry but Andreas, far from being alarmed by the clamour, was delighted. There was even a cartoon in The Sun ! he beams. He is an absolute Liz Hurley when it comes to publicity.
He became president of the BBFC two years ago, and until that moment he had never been a consumer of pornography in any form. What, really, never - not at school, not in the Army, never ever ever? No:
I'd never seen a sex video in my life. The first one I saw - which wasn't strictly speaking a sex video - astonished me hugely. It was called Pregnant and Milking No 5 - it was the number
five that got me! So I looked at this thing and I discovered that there is a genre, which some men pay money to see, which is of pregnant women very dolefully and unenergetically stripping and fondling their breasts - that's all they do. I was very new
to the job; I didn't know the rules at all. So I thought, oh dear, we can't have this in ordinary shops - we'd better make it R18. So that's what I did. I now know that that was a completely wrong decision - it's not like hard porn where the camera is
about one inch from the action - but it still languishes in R18.
I must say I find it weird discussing blue films with Andreas - I keep wanting to hoot and snigger and shout 'weyhay'! He was my boss for three years when I worked on the Independent on Sunday, and although I knew he was not the
sanctimonious prig depicted in Private Eye, I don't think we could have discussed Pregnant and Milking in those days - or certainly not with the suavity he brings to it now. But he says one of the things he likes about this job is the
complete absence of cant. 'If we say to the distributors, There's not a shred of a plot here of any kind , they say, No there isn't. We didn't intend there to be.
Most of his job consists of classifying videos as suitable either for general release, R18 release (to sex shops only) or no release at all, and there is a very precise legal framework for making these decisions. Classifying cinema films
is a comparatively minor part of his work - 700 films a year as against 7,000 videos - and so far he has shown no inclination to cut anything, as he made clear from the beginning when he licensed Lolita uncut. He believes that cinema-goers broadly know
what they're getting and I think at l8 adults should make up their own minds. Of course I'm sure 16-and 17-year-olds are running into 18 films but I don't think 12-year-olds are; I think it's quite well policed. And no other
country comes up to 18 - most of them stop at 17. We are the most highly censored country in the world.
Alexander Walker (the Evening Standard 's film critic) had 50 fits last year when Andreas passed the French film Romance complete with full-frontal erections. Allow one pioneering male sex organ to rear its head ,
he shrieked, and suddenly dozens more will come out of hiding. (Actually, Walker was too coy to mention it, but there was ejaculation as well.) But Andreas is unconcerned - he thinks there probably will be more onscreen erections but only when
the public is ready for them.
The public is becoming less tolerant of violence on film - and you can see this in that the Hollywood action heroes aren't getting roles any longer. But the public continues to become more relaxed about
sexual explicitness - that tide has not turned. So slightly more explicit stuff will gradually seep through. Because guidelines reflect what we can read as public opinion and if public opinion is slowly becoming more relaxed, then we will too.
Apparently Jack Straw approves. According to Andreas, I have a very good relationship with the Home Secretary.
Not all the issues are about sex and violence. There's a genre of videos at the moment that are offcuts of television news footage, which no one dares show on a regular news programme - people running out of houses burning, or the police
opening a door and finding someone hanging. Andreas again is permissive. I have to say, I'm sympathetic to showing it. I suppose it's my news instinct - I think, well that's what happens. People do run out of fires burning. It
isn't acting. It isn't a story encouraging violence, it's real.
He has a team of 20 examiners who classify most of the films, but he watches the one or two a week that are 'problematic'. He has just passed Pasolini's Salo which has never been licensed in this country and refused to
make cuts. What you find with a good film-maker - it's like with good prose - you can't cut it. Secondly, the best film-makers, when you look carefully, suggest everything, they don't actually show it. You think you've seen all
sorts of things, but you haven't really. And censors can only deal with what we see.
So has he been depraved and corrupted by watching all these dirty movies? Has he started fantasising about having sex with goats?
No - but I don't think you ever get hardened to it. It's very like going to the dentist. You've got this date - 11 o'clock, Wednesday morning. And often you know it's going to be pretty tough, and you think
"ohmigod". I always ask, "How long is it?" and if there's a lot of time spent on the introductory stuff, I think, oh that's good, 10 minutes gone! And then quite often of course it's nowhere near as bad as you fear. But when it is
bad, I definitely feel as if my mind has been soiled. I come out of the Board and walk towards Tottenham Court Road tube station. And as I pass people in the street I've still got the film going in my head, and these people are part of it somehow. The
only word I can think of is soiled.' Does he find gay films difficult? 'Yes, I think I'd have to say I find it even harder to watch a gay film than I do a heterosexual one, but that's just me. They can be very sado-masochistic and often run into greater
problems for that reason. The video he found hardest of all to watch was one about body piercing - It showed everything - it showed the bolt going through, it showed the operations. And it ended
up with men - I don't think women do it - men having hooks placed in their backs - apparently the skin is strong enough - and then they're dangled from some sort of pulley arrangement, hanging from these hooks on their back, and revolve. They're looking
for an out-of-body experience, so they say. And perhaps they achieve it, I don't know. Well, that was a new one! I knew nothing about that!
Conversely, does he ever get turned on by these videos?
No, not by sex videos because they're too up close. They are fantastically unnatural. And one mark of that is that I can never remember individual titles. If someone says, "Do you remember Office
Tarts ?" I don't. I remember the genre well enough, but they're all the same. I can easily be turned on by a beautiful or romantic comedy with fairly explicit sex, sure, but not by that. I need a bit of class to be turned on! And he
utters his strange barking laugh.
The great thing to remember about Andreas Whittam Smith is that he may look like a bishop, he may on occasions talk like a bishop, but he is not a bishop. True, he is a clergyman's son (as were seemingly half the staff of the Independent
in his day) and he takes his religion seriously. But his high-minded puritanism is mixed with a wacky iconoclasm, or what Glover calls his Baader-Meinhof streak. He can do gravitas in spades, but there is also a flighty, flouncy side, subject to strange
tantrums and vanities, delighted by gossip, thrilled when Pamella Bordes once came to the Independent office, happy to pose for Annie Liebovitz with a golden eagle on his arm, and always eager for any excuse to open champagne. Sebastian Faulks, who was
at the Independent from the beginning, recalls him as an inspiring editor and says that 'to me he seemed a bit like the Jack Nicholson character in Easy Rider: a real straight who had suddenly been given his head'.
Rupert Murdoch said he had 'the charisma of a poached egg'. On the other hand, everyone who worked on the Independent was obsessed by him and would try to read the runes of his ever-changing complexion - was mauve a good sign? Was it
better to ask for a rise when he was mildly pink or positively white? I always thought he was an actor manque but he says, on the contrary, he would hate to be an actor, and he actually has a recurring nightmare in which he is made to act and 'I haven't
learned my lines, we're just about to start, and I'm going to have to go on stage and look a complete and utter clown'. That's an imposter dream, I tell him. 'Exactly, yes.' So is he an imposter? People who believed in his bishop image were always
terribly shocked when they came across his flighty side and accused him of being a hypocrite. But, as he says, it's not his fault if people read him wrong.
He doesn't understand how he ever got this bishop image:
I'd like to shake it off - I don't really want to go around looking like a bishop. My greatest desire has been to be cosmopolitan and it shattered me one day when the then editor of La Repubblica said
"Andreas, whenever I think of an Englishman I think of you". I thought, "My God - all this time I've tried to be cosmopolitan!" And when I was feeling very metropolitan one day I went to Harrods to get my hair cut, and as I lay back
in the chair, the barber said, "Up from the country, sir?" And I hadn't moved out of the city for six months! So I can't achieve the self-image I want. I'd like to be either cosmopolitan or metropolitan or both really - a man of the world, at
ease everywhere in the world. The nearest I came to it was when the Daily Mail was really cross with me about Lolita ; the leader was a big attack, which ended up by describing me as "this urbane liberal" and I was so pleased
with the urbane! That's the only thing I can set against this wretched bishop image.
He is about to become more cosmopolitan because he and his wife have just started 'an experiment in two-city living', which means she lives in a rented flat in Paris during the week and he joins her at weekends. It sounds rather lonely for
him, but he says, I've got lots to do, my oldest son is often here and we're slowly turning it into a men's club - it's like a men's club without any members at the moment.
He is 63 but has no thought of retiring. When he left the Independent in 1994 he decided to plan his life on the basis that he had 30 more working years ahead of him. Some people have a fear of death, which I
don't. But I do have a very deep, powerful fear of not working. The notion of retirement has no attraction of any kind - I can't understand it when people my age start going on cruises. I know I shall always work whatever happens. So that tells you
something about what drives me. It's not to do with accumulating money, it's to do with a sort of puritanical view, I think, that I always wish to contribute in some minor way. And maybe that comes from the vicarage
To what extent is exposure to pornography harmful to children and young people? For me, as president of the British Board of
Film Classification, the question is important. Readers may have noticed that the board's refusal to licence a number of pornographic videos was overturned by Mr Justice Hooper in the High Court last week. We shall not be appealing further. So Horny
Catbabe, Nympho Nurse Nancy, Office Tart and the rest will be granted restricted 18 certificates, meaning that they can be sold only in licensed sex shops -- although, of course, they will be viewed in the home.
Pornographic videos are qualitatively different from what children might see if they blundered into their parents' bedroom and found them engaged in sexual intercourse on top of the bed -- with the lights on, to make my example sufficiently explicit. In
the videos, no relationship is established between the parties; the participants treat each other as impersonal objects. And the camera is brought within inches of the action; this is sex magnified, this is close-up voyeurism. For both these reasons, sex
videos can be easily be distinguished from the erotic material commonly found on television channels towards the end of the evening.
The problem is where to draw the line. Through the Video Recordings Act, Parliament has decided that such material, depending upon its strength, may be supplied. Parliament has likewise provided local authorities with the power to license sex shops where
R18 videos may be sold to adults. The legislation gives the BBFC the task of licensing sex videos -- or refusing to do so -- according to its assessment of whether potential viewers may be "harmed". In practice this means focusing our attention
on whether children or young people who come across such videos in the home might suffer -- hence my question.
There is virtually no research to guide us. As compared with the massive analysis of the effects of screen violence, hardly any work has been done on the relationship between pornography and child development. There is a natural reluctance to question
children about such matters. In the absence of academic work, the BBFC has been seeking advice from psychiatrists working with children and adolescents and applying common sense. During the case which ended in the High Court last week, it was agreed that
young children can be affected by pornography, some quite seriously. What is unknown is how often this happens.
This is the context in which the BBFC devised a set of guidelines in 1983 when the Video Recordings Act came into force. These have remained our standard since then, interrupted by two short periods of experimentation with slightly more permissive rules.
But broadly our tests have been as follows. Sex scenes must be non-violent and between consenting adults. They must also be legal, both in the acts portrayed and in the degree of explicitness. Erections may be shown but there must be no clear sight of
penetration, or of masturbation or of ejaculation.
Distributors of sex videos are well aware of these rules, but they also know that the law provides a right of appeal to a Video Appeals Committee, a body which includes among its members two well known novelists, Nina Bawden and Fay Weldon.
This committee considers appeals in a different way from the courts. Rather than examining whether we have reached our decision in a reasonable way, taken into consideration all relevant evidence, acted in a manner consistent with previous decisions and
so on, it conducts what is in effect a re-trial. The members decide whether they would licence the works which we have rejected, and if they disagree with the BBFC, the committee's decision prevails.
So it was with Horny Catbabe, Nympho Nurse Nancy, Office Tart and four others. In line with our published guidelines, the BBFC had asked that all shots of penetration and masturbation be removed. The distributors declined to comply. We refused the
certificate. There was an appeal. The committee found in favour of the distributors. That should have been that, except that the BBFC was unhappy with the committee's reasoning.
The act asks the BBFC to consider "any harm" to "any person". The committee appeared to have elevated this test to devastating damage to more than a small minority of children. The BBFC wanted to know whether this was a correct
interpretation of the legislation and therefore took the unusual step of seeking a judicial review of the operation of its own appeal body. This was the first time that the act, now 17 years old, had ever been tested in the courts. It was this process
which resulted in Mr Justice Hooper's finding.
He went carefully through the steps in the argument. Was a child or young person likely to view the videos in question? Yes, all parties were agreed that it was likely. May such a potential viewer be harmed by the manner in which the videos deal with
human sexual activity? Again an affirmative; all were agreed. As a result the BBFC must have "special regard" among other relevant considerations to that factor. Must it take into account, as is especially relevant in this case, "an
unquantified risk of harm"? Yes, indeed. Does this mean that, as the BBFC argued, that a licence may be withheld until the risk is quantified? No, decided the judge, this may be a perfectly reasonable approach, but it cannot be said to be the only
approach which a reasonable decision maker could adopt.
The law has been declared; justice given. But still the problem remains: what is the extent of the risk?
The BBFC is currently engaged in a research project in which professionals who work with children, including children who show signs of being disturbed, are being asked whether they have evidence, even if it's imprecise, that children are harmed by
viewing pornography. When this work is completed, we shall then have to consider whether to revise our guidelines.
It was obvious from the outset that The Idiots could be problematic for the censors. Graphic orgy scenes included footage of real sex, but this was no cheap porn video. It was a European arthouse movie, directed by Lars von Trier, the respected
Danish director who made Breaking The Waves.
Von Trier used a video camcorder to shoot his story about a group of middle-class people who pretend to be mentally handicapped and was clearly challenging attitudes on a number of issues, including censorship. Some directors might
threaten to withdraw their films if a single frame were threatened, but not Von Trier. He decided to make it easy for the censors by producing a second version with the controversial bits blacked out, Japanese-style. Basically he called the
censors' bluff. And it worked. Just about the only black spot on the horizon is the US. They want more black spots , said a spokeswoman for the Danish sales agents. It's very entertaining . The Idiots has been passed uncut in
more than 30 countries in Europe, South America and Asia, including Britain, where shots of erections and sexual penetration are virtually unprecedented. It would have been relatively simple for Von Trier to show a scene of naked, writhing bodies,
without shots of penetration, and rely on the worldliness of the audience to work out what was going on.
The distributors offered to submit the black-spot version to the BBFC, but it wanted the hardcore one. We considered the view of real sex and group sex to be so brief and so crucial to the story - because after that the group breaks up - that it was
OK , says BBFC president, Andreas Whittam Smith. The Idiots is just one in a series of potentially controversial films passed in recent weeks by the BBFC, ranging from sexually explicit European arthouse films to old American horror and
The Exorcist has received clearance for video release for the first time since the introduction of video certificates in the eighties and is now available. The Driller Killer , demon of the video nasties hysteria of the eighties, was passed
after the distributor itself made cuts. And, after a quarter of a century of prevarication, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was approved for cinema release, and the only cuts were those inflicted by Leatherface. Whittam Smith expected the
villain to be a ferocious and scaring and worrying sort of figure ; all he got was a feeble figure panting around in a rather wonky mask.
We have certificates for video nasties, the seal of approval for hardcore sex, and no public or media outcry whatsoever. Whittam Smith is as surprised as anyone. To tell you the truth I was expecting a big row on Happiness, it's about child
abuse. Robin Duval, the BBFC director, had similar fears about The Exorcist , after Whittam Smith decided to review the video ban without any prompting from the film company. Whittam Smith concluded it was a very fine film and found no
evidence of any harm to viewers, which makes you wonder why it was banned in the first place.
In recent times Britain has had the toughest film censorship regime in western Europe. It is only nine months since the Edinburgh Film Festival, which traditionally provides a platform for uncertified films, decided The Idiots was too big a risk
in the current "climate of censorship". Home Secretary Jack Straw had publicly criticised the BBFC's director, James Ferman, for his liberal attitude to the sort of hardcore pornography which has a special certificate restricting it to licensed
sex shops. Ferman, who had run the BBFC as a personal fiefdom for almost 25 years, accused Straw of pandering to the "puritanical vote". Straw blocked the appointment of Lord Birkett, the insider choice for BBFC president, and installed former
Independent editor Andreas Whittam Smith. Sight and Sound magazine said the appointment was "a sop to Middle England". Whittam Smith insisted the BBFC's constitution should be rewritten and that ultimate authority be invested in the post of
president (ie him). A year after his appointment, Ferman is gone, replaced by Robin Duval, a professional regulator from the ITC. Everything was in place for a dramatic clampdown on sex and violence. But it has not happened. There was an early indication
last year of Whittam Smith's independent thinking when he passed the violent French film Dobermann uncut, despite reservations from Ferman. There was not a single complaint from the public. The BBFC's own guidelines ban erections and penetration
even in sex videos, but it had made an exception in the case of the Japanese classic Ai No Corrida , passed in 1991 after a 15-year delay, and Whittam Smith and Duval cited it as a precedent in their decisions on both The Idiots and Seul
Contre Tous .
However there is a wonderful get-out clause attached to the BBFC guidelines for every certificate: Context may justify exceptions . But is that the context of the films or the context of the censors? Against all the odds, has the toughest film
censor in western Europe adopted a new liberal strategy? I would rather you judged that, ' says Whittam Smith. I'm not setting out to be either liberal or restrictive. Put it another way - would The Idiots have been passed uncut three or
four years ago? Possibly not.
But when it comes to adult audiences in the cinema, Whittam Smith's philsophy is simple. There is an overwhelming duty on the board to interfere as little as possible with what adults want to see, unless what is portrayed on the screen is
illegal. (Talk of an illiberal and dishonest cop out, the BBFC are positively supporting a corruption of law that lets them unilaterally declare the things they want to cut out to be illegal) . Whittam Smith maintains this was always his view:
it is the definition of a liberal approach. Among the many elements which the British censor must now consider is the right to free expression under the European Convention of Human Rights, though there is no question of Britain adopting the same
standards as France (Why not? This is a presumption that Britain will be able to maintian its illegal censorship regime) , where the sex scenes in the new film Romance have attracted considerable media attention on both sides of the Channel in the
last few weeks.
Whittam Smith did intervene in the case of the French film Seul Contre Tous , which contains a longer scene of penetrative sex than The Idiots , which he considered breached the Obscene Publications Act. (Typical inconsistancy, a few
seconds is OK but a minute is somehow depraving and corrupting) It occurs when the central character visits a cinema to watch a porn movie. The BBFC was able to blur the image of the film within the film and leave the sense of the scene intact.
Whittam Smith may not have changed his fundamental views on censorship, but he has quickly learned that cutting films is no easy task. That is not entirely true: it is perfectly easy to cut films, or stick black spots over offending bits; the difficult
thing is to censor them without the audience realising they have been censored. (Why? because the UK population may start to realise what a noxious and repressed country Britain has become?) I originally thought Oh well, if there's a problem, we can
cut our way out of it. That's not really an option. Anything good is too intricately made to cut. Taking the scissors to Happiness was never feasible. Todd Solondz's film interweaves the lives of various New Jersey characters, including a
pathetic, overweight man who gets his kicks from obscene phone calls, and a devoted father who is attracted to pubescent boys. There are a couple of scenes in which characters masturbate: the act remains unseen, but the end-result is shown, in the first
instance, hitting the wall, and, in the second, being licked by a dog. They are no more gross than the hair gel scene in There's Something About Mary. The acts of pedophilia take place off-camera, though the father subsequently confesses to his son. It's very, very powerful
, says Whittam Smith, a searing conversation between the child-abusing father and his 10-year-old son. It is the most serious and poignant scene in the film, ending with both characters in tears. To cut the scene would be to destroy the film,
it would be as well to ban it. The film attempts to understand the depth of the father's compulsion, though that is not to say it condones it, and his life is utterly destroyed. I passed it with some trepidation, because I fancied there could be a big
row (Great, so the Daily Mail gets to influence the censors!) , says Whittam Smith. To my amazement the Daily Mail liked it and Chris Tookey gave it five stars. The BBFC has received few complaints about any of these films. The Exorcist
and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre elicited more letters of support than complaint. Amazingly the news that the BBFC had approved the video re-release of The Driller Killer brought no complaints at all.
Whittam Smith is unsure why there has been so little controversy. Both he and Duval believe it is only a matter of time, but they are preparing their defences every step of the way. The BBFC now issues statments to explain how it arrives at decisions,
and they have the effect of forcing critics to engage in debate on specific points. Or not at all. Whittam Smith and Duval have madethemselves available to the press, whereas journalists could get access to Clint Eastwood more easily than Ferman. In line
with the new policy of
glasnost the BBFC has belatedly decided to appoint a press officer and is currently advertising the post.
Ferman disliked banning films and had a habit of simply postponing decisions, hoping the fuss would die down, while managing to infuriate everyone, including small distributors who had paid sizeable sums for films which lay gathering dusk in the BBFC
offices. It just seemed to be completely wrong, whenever there was a problem, to sit on it , says Whittam Smith. If it's difficult - get the answer out as quickly as you can. Distributors are delighted with the speed with which he and Duval
are making decisions, with the decisions they have been making, and with the readiness to look again at old films and videos. Is there any move to re-release A Clockwork Orange , which was withdrawn by Stanley Kubrick and would need a new
certificate now? There have been no representations on it. How about Salo , Pasolini's final film, a portrait of degradation in fascist Italy? Whittam Smith has never heard of that one.
In Whittam Smith, the government seems to have appointed a censor who brings none of the prejudices of Middle England and the pro-censorship lobby to the post (Conveniently forgetting about sexual entertainment of course) , but the open-mindedness of
someone who knows hardly anything about films. He will learn film history on the job. It is too early to say what his own place will be in that history. But it seems unlikely that he will be taking a chainsaw to films, much to the relief of the industry
and of cineastes.
BBFC exorcise their hang up about William Friedkin's notable film
30th March 1999
From the Telegraph
Whittam Smith is just over a year into his job and is still fresh enough to shudder at the thought of some of the films he has had to sit through. People generally assume that if you do have to watch a lot of this stuff, it hardens you. In fact it works
the opposite way and I think you become less tolerant of violence on screen.
Whittam Smith was appointed as president of the BBFC at the instigation of Home Secretary Jack Straw, at the height of a wave of media indignation about censorship - or rather, the lack of it. Whittam Smith took up the role on January 1, 1998 with the
condition that his was the real power within the board, not that of the director. So when the previously all-powerful James Ferman retired, to be replaced this year by Robin Duval as director, the balance of decision-making shifted. Whittam Smith was
seen as a sort of liberal puritan, a tag he rejects, who would put the brake on permissiveness that Ferman had allowed to start rolling.
The sort of films he is talking about are are likely never to receive a licence for video release. These are videos of unremitting, murderous, sexual violence. I suppose I have seen half a dozen in the past 13 months. They are horrid. But one of the
nastier things about this job is that I only get asked to look at the horrid things, to make difficult decisions, policy matters.
In comparison, the viewing of The Exorcist, granted a licence for video release with an ordinary 18 certificate this week, was a breeze for Whittam Smith. He admits that but for the adverse publicity baggage that the film carries with it there
would have been little doubt about its release.
Going into it, with all that had been said and knowing of all the reactions to it, I thought, what must it be like?, he says. I timidly pushed the button on the video machine; but it wasn't that bad. Quite often, your worst fears are never
realised. The fact is that what you are seeing is simply an extremely good film. The story is well told and very simple. There aren't really any sub-plots, it's a very formidable piece of work. But there's no question that all the press reports at the
time do tell us that when it was first shown people rushed out of cinemas in hysterics. When you see it now, of course, you are seeing effects which were brilliant at the time but which look rather dated now.
The central problem for us is that this particular film has a well-reported power to frighten young people and we can't, of course, assume that the 18 certificate for a video means that the under-18s won't see it. The question isn't for us whether it
will frighten people, because lots of people pay good money to be frightened. The question is whether the fright, the terror, could in any way be said to be permanently damaging. That's the bottom-line question for us. And the fact is that there is no
solid evidence that The Exorcist has done.
The film, he points out, has been on cinema release for 25 years; was relaunched last year on its silver anniversary; and has been freely available in Holland and Germany with certificates for 16 and 14-year-olds respectively. This last fact is an
indication of the gulf that exists between our own and European standards on film and video classification.
Whittam Smith, though in some ways an ardent European, resists harmonisation across the Union. These are cultural differences For instance, British people are profoundly unhappy with swearing on screen. Not with all swearing on screen, but there is a
list of words which help to determine your classification level because British people are concerned about language, for whatever reason. This doesn't even extend to Ireland. I'm not sure why it is, but these are facts as far as I am concerned.
But there is a cloud of European unification on the BBFC's horizon. The incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law will mean that it will be easier for video companies to challenge decisions by the board to refuse a
It will probably mean that where in the past we might have been minded not to license something, now we might have to ask for a substantial number of cuts instead. It might come to the same thing, mind you, because the distributor might say, 'Well if
I have to make all these cuts, I have got nothing left, it's a worthless thing commercially'. (He shows as much respect for the Law as I do for censors!)
But he doesn't think it will make much difference to the cinema. For a start, we haven't refused a licence on a film for cinema release for eight years. Cinema is to some extent an open road, and I am very keen to keep that road open if I can. Because
the cinema is well-regulated - I have no evidence of 13-year-olds running into 18 films - and adults know what they are going to see when they go to the cinema. Television and video are unbidden. However, more important to him than Europe's influence on
British censorship is the gradual change in public opinion.
Two of the most important tides of today, at least this is my feeling rather than anything that I can prove, is that public toleration of violence on the screen has diminished, but public toleration of sexual explicitness has not and is indeed still
Even governments are not strong enough to stand against these deep social currents. After all, no government has wished to see the steady increase in single parent families. In many ways I am pleased to find that governments are powerless to stop
these social changes. Even less is the tiny little Number 3 Soho Square able to hold up its hand and stop such social pressures. (Hey for once I agree) But people do want us to be there, parents want us to be there to help us regulate their children's
viewing. (Well stick to classification then and stop telling adults waht they can watch)
Update: Why I believe The Exorcist can do no harm in the home
From the Independent
The substantial differences between going out to the cinema and watching films on video at home - at least in the minds of the mysterious
authorities who govern our lives - are vividly illustrated by the history of the The Exorcist.
This excellent, albeit notorious, film has been regularly available in cinemas since its controversial debut in 1974, when it was given the old X rating. But only last week - 25 years later - did the British Board of Film Classification (of which
I became president in January 1998, and thus an authority ) classify it for the video market.
Cinemas are well regulated in terms of observing the age categories. While there can be some slippage in films classified at 12 or even at 15 because children do not always look their age, it can be assumed that the 18 category is
reliably policed. In other words, the 18 rating in the cinema means adults only . Indeed I would say informed adults only for people must always have some idea of what kind of movie they have come out to see. In fact, the board has
not refused an 18 classification for a film in the cinema for eight years, but occasionally it has insisted on brief cuts.
When videos enter the home, however, one cannot assume that the age classification will be observed. Even where parents conscientiously regulate their children's viewing, they cannot control what their young ones may see at their friends'. Like
television, where viewers often have no idea what to expect as they move from one channel to another, videos can be carelessly picked up and played. Both television and videos can have the quality of being unbidden.
On the other hand, the board does not assume that every 12-year-old, for instance, will wish to watch every 18 video that his or her parents may rent. That depends much more upon the subject matter, the style and the actors.
In the case of The Exorcist, which we classified at 18 , the board made two assumptions: that so famous is the title, most kids would want to see it; and that many parents are aware of the film's reputation and that they would take such
precautions as they might think to be appropriate.
There is also an enormous difference between the economics of the two markets, and this has an impact on the way they are regulated. Films made for the cinema, rather than directly for the video market, are expensive to produce and to promote, and the
board receives about 400 a year for classification. The bulk of them have wide appeal.
But the board is sent about 4,000 videos each year. Only about a tenth of these will have been in the cinema; the rest are cheaply produced, solely for video rental and often serve niche markets. If the cinema is still a bit like the theatre, the video
market resembles book publishing with a similar ability to satisfy small interest groups.
The majority of these are unexceptional. But among the interest groups, one is pretty big - the buyers of so-called adult or pornographic movies, in turn dividing into heterosexual or gay, and subdividing again into specific sexual activities.
Alongside explicit sex, there is also a niche market which relishes violence on screen, and, of course, often sex and violence are combined.
These two aspects of the video market - the fact that videos come into the home and that some will be more sexually explicit or more violent than is generally so in the cinema - explain why the legislation governing the classification of videos is much
stricter and more precise.
As far as the cinema goes, the board carries out its work on behalf of local authorities, which are able to insist that local cinemas observe the board's classification decisions. Our legal duties are limited to making sure that works are not classified
that would breach the Obscene Publication Acts, or which would infringe the Protection of Children Act (that makes it a crime to produce or publish indecent photographs of a child), or which would break the pre-war law which forbids any scene where
animals were treated cruelly in the making of it.
Recently, too, the European Convention on Human Rights has been made part of English law and with it, Article 10, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression.
While all this legislation applies equally to videos, there is an extra consideration - the Video Recordings Act. This has been amended twice since it was first placed on the Statute Book in 1984. Some members of both Houses of Parliament continue to
wonder whether it is sufficiently effective. (David Alton I presume)
At its centre is the notion of harm - harm to those likely to view the video and harm to society through the behaviour of those viewers afterwards. And it singles out five activities as being potentially harmful - criminal behaviour, the use of
illegal drugs; violent behaviour or incidents; horrific behaviour or incidents, and human sexual activity.
The Exorcist contains scenes of violence and sex, but it is not these which prevented video classification for so long. The film, with its treatment of demonic possession, was found so frightening when it was first shown that some young women fainted.
That has been the problem.
On the other hand, to be terrified by a piece of fiction, whether a book, a play, a television production or a film is not necessarily to be harmed. After all, many people in their leisure activities seek briefly to feel alarmed; they pay good money for
frightening experiences whether at the fun fair, or on the mountains in winter, or at the cinema.
The question which has taken so long to answer is whether The Exorcist's undoubted power to induce fear can be harmful in the sense of permanent psychological damage.
You can say that this is an unanswerable problem, and I confess that many of the issues which the board faces feel like that, but, nonetheless, have to be resolved. In this example, unusually, we had something to go on. It is this. In 25 years, no cases
of psychological damage arising out of viewing The Exorcist have come to light. It was available on video, uncut, in the United Kingdom until the passing of the Video Recordings Act in 1984.
It has been in video shops uncut in Europe for many years without any adverse reaction being recorded. The film was again shown in British cinemas last autumn; there was no hysteria. How do we know there has been no incidence of harm? Of course we cannot
be certain; but lobby groups would have rushed to inform us if there were examples. Still, waiting 25 years was a bit excessive - even for the authorities.
Open up a newspaper any day and you are bound to find a story about censorship, in one form or another, or at least some expert or someone in the public eye telling us what we should think or how we should behave - take this morning; the headline in
"The Thunderer" sums it up neatly - Viewers find cynical sex a television turn off . We will investigate that a little more through this hour.
Our special guest has to second guess what is going to offend you and me - not on television, that's not his department, but movies and videos are.
You wouldn't want this job by all accounts, it's pretty mind numbing stuff. Cooped up in cramped rooms for hours at a time, watching the worst that popular culture can muster - our guest this hour has taken on a job that guarantees he's always going to
offend one section of our community or another - and sometimes his own staff. When we are talking censorship in the cinema or on video, the buck stops with our guest.
Who would want to be a censor? One disillusioned censor who quit last year has accused her colleagues at the BBFC of pandering to alarmist fears: of slavishly responding to a vocal minority, of not taking note of the vast majority of us who don't give
classification a second thought. There are others who ask, 'when will we trust adults to choose for themselves?' There are others who ask, 'when will we credit children and young people with the ability to watch critically?' Do we need censorship at all?
Andreas Whittam-Smith, why would you accept this poison chalice?
Andreas Whittam Smith (AWS):
Well, it's a very good question because...as... one day a week by the way, I'm the President... It's one day a week. I'm not one of the excellent examiners who are sitting in those cubicles you describe and they do that job full-time- there are twenty of
them. They watch wonderful things and they watch awful things, but finally, it is an important job, I think and I have a lifetime policy of... if somebody asks you to do something, unless you can quickly think of a reason why not you should probably do
it. In a rather unthinking way, as is my habit, I said, 'OK. If you want me to do it, I'll do it.'
Do you have to second guess what is likely to offend us, or indeed cause us harm?
It's a mixture I think. One is doing it on behalf of one's fellow citizens, therefore, you need to know...keep yourself regularly informed as to what they are thinking. The public mood does slowly change. The report in this morning's paper suggests that
viewers of television dislike more than they did, the diet of sex which appears on their screens it. I think the number thinking there is too much sex on their screens has only gone up a small percentage- up from 34% to 37%.
Is this a cyclical thing?
I think these are very, very deep currents which eventually turn around. The current which probably _has_ started to move the other way is the public tolerance of violence on screen- particularly sexual violence. I couldn't give you a statistical
argument here but my impression, and a lot of peoples impression is that people are less tolerant now than they were. The video nasties, as they were described, of ten or fifteen years ago, have to some extent gone and in the cinema the action heroes are
getting a bit old and haven't precisely been replaced. I think people's tolerance, of sexual violence in particular is less. But on the whole people's tolerance of sexual explicitness is growing and there are some interesting regional differences. When
the police finally decide to prosecute.. I don't know.. a merchant for selling obscene material of whatever type, unlicensed by us, it is quite difficult in London to get a jury to convict, but in Manchester, it's a little bit easier. So there are some
How do you account for that?
I don't know. I went to a very interesting conference at the Home Office, and both the Manchester Police, and the Met., Customs and Excise and others concerned were comparing notes and it became clear that there are these regional differences.
I want to pursue that because you, for the first time, took the BBFC on the road- a censor's roadshow, round the country (Yes). To do what?
Yes. I didn't view it as market research, I viewed it as essentially democratic. We do this work on behalf of everybody else, we can and do have the power to stop people seeing things they might want to see, we better open ourselves up to people. So we
turned up in nine cities, took a hall, gave an hour's presentation on how we view different films and different episodes and people fire questions at us. We noticed that there was a different atmosphere in most cities we went to. In Liverpool, the shadow
of the James Bulger case hangs over that city still. You can feel it in the air. In Northern Ireland it was a different feeling. In Southampton, a different feeling again in London, some very aggressive audiences, 3 in London, and whereas the rest of the
country was often pro-censorship, in London, it was very hostile to censorship.
That's interesting, MORE censorship?
There is a very, very strong lobby of people who argue...
Here's the problem though Andreas, is this the vocal minority that you are sometimes accused of pandering to? Not you personally, but you censors.
Well, the lobby groups are all minorities. What this minority believes is that many children are in homes where the parents don't regulate their viewing particularly well, and the board's job is to stand in place of those parents. I don't actually think
it is anyone's job to stand in place of parents but that is a very strongly held view.
I don't want to say whether it's valid or not valid. I describe what I think the scene is, there are two armed camps, I don't mean that TOO literally, obviously. There are people who would like more censorship and there are people who would like us to
get out of the way completely. These "armed camps" have ways of making their opinions known: they have newspapers which support their views, they have MPs who make questions, they have lobby groups, they have meetings, they have write in
campaigns and, maybe 10% are in the pro-censorship lobby, maybe 5% in the libertarian lobby and the rest of people never think about it very much and are more or less content with the system the way it is.
Rita from Liverpool:
I hope this man isn't going to be a failure like his predecessor James Ferman. They are supposed to be a censorship body and that means they set standards. James Ferman let films through like Lolita and Crash and you have only got to look around in
society to see the destructive effects all this is having, violent sex crimes up, 11 and 12 year old parents, and... I mean Michael Barrimore had a little boy about six on the other night ,on his programme over Christmas, and he asked him what he wanted
to be when he grew up. He said, "I want to go out into the street and take all my clothes off, and be a male stripper."..this is harming our children, it's destroying society.
First of all James Ferman is the director, he's retiring, well, will shortly leave in the next month or two, when a new director takes over. He has been doing the job for 23yrs. As for Lolita and Crash, I was certainly in office when Lolita came along
and I was the person who passed it. I am not aware that since it has been passed there have been any events which suggest that that film, which is an extremely balanced examination of the relationship between a middle aged person and a under-age girl,
which happens, and you only have to turn up at the courts to see that it happens... I'm not aware that it has any negative results. As for Crash, which I passed for video, I wasn't there when it was passed for cinema, it is a film... I wonder whether you
have seen it...I wonder whether you have seen Lolita too because you mention these things- you have to see them...not just to go off what the papers say.
Have you seen them Rita?
I don't have to put my hand in the fire to know that it burns.
No, you haven't seen them. That's very important. You see, most critics have not seen what they complain about. They read newspapers and they parrot the opinions of newspapers. I would be very keen, you may not now be able to see them because it is some
months since they were available, but you can see the video Crash if you want to, and tell me what you think its effect will be when you have seen it. It is a very cold film, about weird sex between weird people involving car injuries and so on- as soon
as I saw it I couldn't think that any body was going to imitate this behaviour; and I've seen no evidence that they would. There are video which I have refused to pass and they are unlicensed and they can't be lawfully sold. That is because I think that
they would generate anti-social behaviour. The basic test for us, especially in the video market, is will this work generate anti-social behaviour. The law asks us to consider: will it harm the viewer directly- this would be an issue in the case of the
video The Exorcist, for instance, which is in front us at the moment. And will it harm society through the actions of viewers. That's what the law asks us to do. In the cinema by the way- that's where Lolita has been- there is an 18 certificate, the
cinema is well regulated, you don't get young people running in to 18 films miles below the age, adults know what they are going to see, and I think we should pause long and hard before we prevent adults in a regulated cinema- not in the home- seeing
what they want to see.
Paul in Oxfordshire:
I'm a publican(?) and an ex-commercial diver and by no means am I a puritan, but why... every film out these days with a certificate 15, every other word is effing this and effing that. You show a bit of breast, of something natural and a movie goes up
to eighteen. Some of these films, if you cut out the language, they would end up about five minutes long.
Well, the language is something that people are extremely sensitive to, and we have very strict rules about language. It is one of the easiest things for a regulator to look at- there either is a word or there isn't a word- there is no ambiguity about
it. It puzzles me but I have to accept that British people are very, very sensitive to bad language on the screen. Much more so than other nations, much more so than the Americans, and even much more so than a nation, which is very close to us, Ireland.
I recently met the film censor there and they are much more relaxed about language; over here we really care about it.
Why would that be?
I best explain it to myself by saying, whatever a family does, whatever language it uses within the four walls of the house, at the work place, or school, or the football match, it is when you go to visit the grandparents or something, it is then you
hope your children won't swear in front of grandmother. I think it is that sort of feeling. It is a feeling which pervades the nation, it's a fact, it is no use criticising it, it is a cultural fact. That is why I don't believe in harmonisation
regulation across the European community. There are strong cultural differences between us and I can't explain it; it is just a fact.
So what do you do about it?
Well, we have strict rules. We observe this fact, we monitor what people feel about language and we are very careful about it. And so will the broadcasting authorities. In fact, it is cynically used, if we say to a film maker that we are going to give
them a certificate that is one that they don't want, for commercial reasons they sometimes put bad language in, in order to raise the classification. They would rather be in a fifteen than a twelve, for whatever commercial reasons. The main line film
distributors would rather have a fifteen than an eighteen, because they want a family audience.
The British board is financed by the film industry is it not?
It is in this sense: film makers and video producers must get their products classified and they pay for it. It's a tariff and we charge by the minute, how long is the feature and it is the same cost whoever you are. The industry finances classification.
Dave in Salford:
I am an avid movie collector, have been for years. I heard you saying that The Exorcist is up for review. I just hope that if you do decide to give it a certificate that it is going to be left in its entirety and not cut because it will detract from the
impact of the film, I feel. If it was going to be cut I would rather that they didn't release it.
It's a very fair point. When I started this job I thought that cuts were often the answer. When you come to do the work you see that... not really. Of course films are cut, but it is not the easy option that it first appears. I have a lot of sympathy
with what you say. I particularly...am worried by the fact that, because the cinema is well regulated, a film may be classified in a different way than its video version. The film may have been in the cinema uncut and in the video cut. Sometimes the
distributors might submit to us a slightly different version for the video market. So, people like you for whom this is a wonderful hobby, can buy the video version and you are disappointed to find that the film you enjoyed in the cinema is just slightly
different in the video version. I have a lot of sympathy with people's problems with that.
The official line, I read about The Exorcist- the most popular horror film of all time, 2 Academy Awards, is coupled to successive social problems, the latest being satanic child-abuse. The censorship of The Exorcist has been a running battle between the
British Board of examiners and your predecessor and you decide to review it after all these years despite being, you are quoted as saying, "not being the kind of film I normally watch". The unofficial line I read is that this is an example of
the collusion, in Britain between the censor and the censored.
Well the fact is this, The Exorcist was launched again in the cinema, it has long been available in the cinema. It started in Scotland and it has come down to England, and it seems to me, given the vast amount of discussion of this very famous film, that
it was ridiculous for me as a new President to have it in cold storage and not get it out and review it- even though, then the distributor hadn't asked for a video version. I thought we should have a look at it. I viewed it and I asked the examiners to
start the normal process of reviewing it. Since then the distributor has asked for a video release and it is now in the system and will emerge quite soon.
Why The Exorcist particularly? Why has this been such a protracted discussion?
When it arrived in the cinema 25 years ago, it had the biggest impact that any film has had for a very long time, in terms of its ability to horrify and frighten people. People, famously, fainted, rushed out of the cinema, there was a sort of hysteria
about the film. It still retains the power to frighten young people- you meet people who say: it is the most frightening film I have ever seen, I wouldn't like to see it again, people still say that and it's 25yrs old. Some of the effects, of course,
look a little ancient by today's standards. It still has that power. Maybe it's not so much the effects as the notion of being possessed is the really frightening thing.
There are other movies which have not been passed by the censors, not necessarily under your stewardship, but I read that there are films which would not have been passed if they had been submitted by a sex film distributor, but it has been passed
because it is being distributed by the British Film Institute- because of different audiences. The inference being that, if it is shown to the right audience, middle class intellectual and not grubby people in raincoats, it is different somehow.
First of all, in the viewing process itself, in the examination process, we don't really know who submitted it. We have the title, all the documents, and so on. Reports that accompany the process, it is highly documented as it should be, we just write
about the film, nobody asks the question 'who submitted it', it's not of any relevance really. Secondly though, you do have to ask yourself what is the likely audience for something, and my judgement on Crash was that the likely audience was not going to
be of a kind... the film addressed the audience in a way which wasn't going to generate antisocial behaviour, but there are those that do so you are always concerned with the audience. What is the likely audience? Thus , if it is a foreign language film
that has got subtitles, you know that that reduces the likely audience greatly- and that is a factor in the process of arriving at a judgement.
What does the latest research tell _you_ about the influence of images and imagery on people's behaviour?
Well, the latest research, which is Home Office research into young offenders and their viewing habits, of videos, shows that people with a violent disposition already will: spend more time with violent videos, watch them, more often and six months later
remember them more clearly. From that you can suppose, but you can't prove, that it will validate their behaviour, and reduce whatever barriers there are to violent action. You can 'suppose' it exacerbates the situation, but you can't prove it.
And certainly it decreases sensitivity...
If you don't have a violent disposition, which is most people, it makes no difference to you at all. It doesn't 'make' you violent but if you already are it can make you worse.
Chris calling in:
I work in the computer games industry and I was wondering what criteria censors use to rate games.
Games come under our perview only if they contain material which is likely, in the words of the Act,...you know, deals with violence or horror or sexual behaviour or whatever. Of course, many games don't and they won't do. We view them in precisely the
same way, the Act is the same, there is no difference in the legislation, there isn't special games legislation and the basic test is, is this going to harm the user directly, or society through the actions. Obviously the famous example recently is
Carmaggedon, which give points for running people over and which we thought might create antisocial behaviour. The people who made the game exercised their legal right to appeal against our decision and it is obviously very good that there should be an
appeals procedure, and they won the appeal, so that is the result.
Because people were hardly likely to go out in their cars and run people over trying to score points.
Well, this is the point. There is a lot of joyriding- particularly in Northern Ireland we hear a lot about this and people are killed in joyriding incidents and the question is do you think that will generate that sort of behaviour. It is the sort of
judgement we are asked by the law to make.
Les in Bristol:
I have a couple of points. I went to see The Exorcist not so long ago and I think that time softens a film. Because as a general public, we advance as a society, and our views change. There are certain bits in The Exorcist that people were just rolling
about laughing. They had a thing on the news about when it first came out and there were priests coming upto the cinemas, counselling people after, stuff like that, I mean, we were just laughing! It was hilarious.
I think that's a very good point. That is partly what we will be engaging our minds in.Whether you are correct about that. I don't know whether you are or not but it is a very valid point I think. In the cinema at the moment is The Texas Chainsaw Murder,
another very famous, never allowed onto video, and I will take myself off to see it shortly for the very reason you give. It is now a very ancient production and the context in which we live rather forms our view of these things- and the context is
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, banned on film and video, it is supposedly an analogy of the American defeat at the hands of the Vietcong, according to its maker Tobe Hooper, but he's probably closer to the mark when he says 'it is about meat'.
The official line is "an outrageous, revolting film which shows the pornography of terror", the unofficial line is that: it has surprisingly little graphic violence, James Ferman has made repeated attempts to cut it for an 18 certificate, but
he has always been stymied by such intangibles as "macabre atmosphere" and the film's "mental terrorisation". What does these terms mean?
I havent read the reports and I havent seen the film but I mention it because I agree with Les, when life has moved on and generations have moved on, one sees things in a different way and it is quite possible that this will be the case here, it may not
be the case, I just don't know, but I think I need to give myself a chance to see.
Do you brace yourself before you go in?
I do a bit, especially with one that is so famously violent.
I'm a big Star Trek fan and I've just been to see the latest film and one of the things that concerns me is the standard of... when somebody says 'we don't like that bit cut it out', how badly some films actually look on screen. There was one certain
part of the film where there was a face-lifting exercise going on, on an alien creature and the editing was so bad it was as if it was done with meathooks, now, do you tell the film maker, 'Edit this' or do you edit it?
If there is bad editing there, it is down to the film makers not to us. We give the makers lists of cuts... we tell them what the problem is and ask them if they could adjust the film to deal with our reservations, but it is up to them to make the
Maisie from Weybridge via fax:
Good to hear that an influential member of Britain's censorship body is a balanced logical person. I feel the rules concerned with sex within the media are fine. There are rules that limit the link between sex and violence, which is the most disturbing,
and I'm satisfied with that. However, the censorship of violence in films, I feel that ther could be tighter controls. I can't give you suggestions on how this could be done. The film that comes to mind, that disturbed me, was an American film called
Goodfellas. Andreas, are guidelines for violence being looked at?
They're not being specifically looked at, at the moment. We have recently reviewed the guidelines- and part of the point of the roadshow was to get peoples reaction to our guidelines and the people who came to our nine meetings were asked to, and they
did, filling forms and indicate what they agreed with and what they didn't. That didn't suggest that we should change them but I have instituted a regular review of the guidelines and they will be looked at, probably annually, in the light of experience.
I can't say that at the moment we have plans to alter the guidelines as far as violence is concerned.
Nick via fax:
Given that one of the purposes of censorship is to prohibit the showing of films or video that lead to antisocial behaviour, could your guest tell us how many of the film examiners he employs have gone on to be satanic child-abusers and the like, as a
result of watching the films that we aren't allowed to see.
Heh-heh. This is a very good question. It is about the effect of watching material on the professionals who do it. First of all, I think that any job one does affect one. You get a mind of a particular kind. I have already got a tiny bit of a censors
mind. I can't any longer go to the cinema ordinarily and not just notice censorship points. It is the way everybody's mind works. As to whether it hardens your mind, or the opposite happens, I think it varies from person to person. James Ferman himself
says that he is less tolerant, he has become less tolerant of violence, it has worked that way for him. Other people it can be the opposite effect. I think age has something to do with it, speaking of myself. I took up this job aged 60. One's character
is so set by that age that one is less likely to be dramatically affected than if one was 25, that's all.
Tony via fax:
I have a couple of points on the subject of pornography. I feel that in the days of mass communication and the Internet, censoring film and videos is a little pointless. Within 30 seconds I can view so-called hardcore images on my home computer and I can
receive films from Europe via satellite, and can order videos from abroad. The reason we can't view pornography in this "free country " is because no MP wants to be associated with a bill to relax the law. It would be political suicide and the
MP would be ridiculed by the public and his peers. The strange thing is that an Internet search engine showed that 50% of all searches on the Internet is for pornography, so it isn't even the case that a moral majority want it kept under wraps. It seems
that we are free to do whatever we want so long as the moral minority say that it is acceptable. Who is to say that Page 3 is harmless but x-rated videos will corrupt viewers? In a free country, we should all be able to make our own decision about what
we want to see. The only restriction should be that anyone taking part in the film should be willing to participate and old enough to make the decision to do so. As for children watching them, how about parents taking their jobs seriously? In Japan,
films that would be banned here are freely available but the Japanese seem a ble to distinguish between fantasy and reality. And those Scandinavians are known for their violent hatred of women aren't they? No they are not. A quick question for your
guest: after viewing so many banned films has he become an axe-wielding lunatic, I'll take the answer as no. So why is it assumed that the populous in this country will all be corrupted? To sum up; why is it that I can make love with my partner in all
sorts of ways but I can't watch others doing it on film? Which century are we approaching the end of? It doesn't feel like the Twentieth-Century. With that I'll go, and drape that tablecloth a little lower over the table legs, lest I become aroused.
Well, a lot of points there. The first one is there is undoubtedly an unregulated fringe. There are videos sold which have not been licensed by us. In London, you can go to Camden Lock Market and buy a video of a film which is not yet, supposedly, in
video, you could buy the video of Titanic the day after it opened in the cinemas, let alone buy things which would never be classified by us. So there is an unregulated fringe and the Internet adds to that, there is no question. One should note that less
than 10% of households in this country are capable of linking themselves to the Internet and receiving these images , so it is important not to get that figure out of proportion. Whenever you have regulation you have an unregulated fringe, when you have
customs duties, you always have smuggling. The question is whether that unregulated fringe is so large and powerful that it is making a nonsense and a mockery of the regulated...centre, if you like. That is a risk because, I suspect that the unregulated
video market is getting a bit larger and it's certainly a risk because of the arrival of the Internet, if I say that less than 10% of households are linked, that figure is rising very quickly- but I am not so gloomy about the regulation of the Internet
as some people are. First of all, I don't think it will be long before anybody with an Internet site has to have a sort of electronic label on it, if you can imagine that. The result of this is that if the site is not labelled it then you wont be very
easily able to access it. I think one should view the Internet like a sort of, you know like he Cold War a sort of armed struggle between the people who want to get stuff out and the people who want to regulate it. It will be down to the makers of
software, whether you can filter out things which you don't want your family to see and that is the way it will go I think.
Paul in London:
I can't remember the name of your guest, but I want to ask him if he knows what the story was behind the release of the film A Clockwork Orange by Stanley Kubrick. When I was at college I had a general studies teacher who tried to get the video from the
US, in fact he got the video and we were going to watch this and the whole subject was censorship because it wasn't available in the UK. Unfortunately, and we didn't know at the time, if you bring a US video into the country you can't watch it because it
is a different television system, so we never actually got to see it in the end. But from what I can understand id that it was Stanley Kubrick who decided that it shouldn't be released in the UK.
As far as I know you are correct. Kubrick has not allowed it to come into the video market and , finally, if a video distributor doesn't knock on our door and say, 'please classify this', there is nothing we can do about it. As we mentioned before in the
case of The Exorcist, I thought at least we should have a look and that the knowledge that we were having a look caused the distributor to come forward and ask for classification. Finally, we are reactive, we are not active.
Again we have an official line and an unofficial one. This is from an article published in the Guardian last September; The official line is that Kubrick, who co-owns the British rights withdrew it after a year on release in the West End and ever since,
those who want to see it make a pilgrimage to Paris. The unofficial line is that the most likely explanation is Kubrick got fed up with the film being a political football. It has also been suggested that Kubrick received death threats to his family and
his relatives. The bottom line is Paul, if you want to go and see it, until Andreas is asked to classify it, you have to Paris.
One shouldn't give too much status to what is called an unofficial line, the unofficial line is generally journalists sitting behind word processors wondering what to say and putting down the first thing that comes into their heads.
Dave in Suffolk:
A couple of observations on people getting involved in censorship, especially TV companies. I watched Fatal Attraction and the scene of Glenn Close and Michael Douglas in the kitchen was removed, but the scene at the end, which was fairly violent, was
kept in. I don't know why they decide to do that
In the case of television, first of all they do their own... they make their own decisions using the 9 o'clock watershed as their chief regulatory device. Secondly there are often a variety of prints of a particular film around and for all I know they
may have bought a version that was adjusted for television. They obviously notice what we do and, they take a lot of notice of it, indeed, but finally, it is their decision and you do get some disparities and contradictory results between the television
and the cinema and video markets.
Norman in Somerset:
Being a father and a grandfather, this new cult video South Park I'm a bit concerned about the crudity of the language that is used in it and I want to know why, you only gave it a 15 certificate.
Well, I hope you'll forgive me for saying I haven't seen that one. I would be surprised if we... because as I said before the language, in a way, is the easiest thing to monitor and we can write precise rules, I would be surprised, indeed distressed if I
found that we had wrongly classified it. But I haven't seen it and your question prompts me to ask 'are we sure we did the right thing with that video'?
In my opinion you haven't done so. It is basically a story in cartoon form, of children. One of the characters in each of the stories gets killed. The language in it is not rude, it is absolutely crude. They use modern idioms and I just wonder whether
your censors are aware of the content within this programme.
Oh look, the censorship procedure is extremely painstaking. The examiners work in teams of two, so it is not just one person on his or her own. If there is any disagreement between them, or any doubt in their minds, a second team of examiners looks at
it. If it seems at all a difficult question, the entire examining body watches the work in question. The Director and others are asked to give an opinion and that is quite often, maybe a hundred times a year or something, then I as President and the
Vice-Presidents are also asked to have a look. So, it is a pretty painstaking process as you can imagine. In any organisation if there is doubt, they like their seniors to have a look. They are not inclined to make very controversial decisions on their
I've seen a bit of South Park and it is a bit near the knuckle. And you will be pleased to note Norman, that Andreas has taken a note of South Park. Andreas, how long are you going to put up with all of this.
It is difficult thing to say you are enjoying a job when it means you have got to look at things you wouldn't normally want to watch, but the issues are extremely interesting, I have been forced to think very deeply about violence and violence on screen,
and sex obviously but I am talking about violence, what re the circumstances under which we should take action and when not to. It depends always on the context, upon the resolution of the film, it depends on a whole variety of circumstances. Also there
is the rather interesting and difficult question of very frightening and disturbing movies where a lot of the action is actually off screen, it is all suggested. It is almost as if it is in front of your eyes, when in fact it isn't. There is a film in...
at the moment... in the cinema Funny Games, which is a perfect example of that. A very frightening and worrying film about a family being terrorised on holiday, which we gave an 18 certificate to, but as a matter of fact the terror is all suggested. you
don't see anything explicit in violence terms. I enjoy the job because I have been made to think very, very hard about these question, I have been made to wonder about the state of public opinion and how it shifts. I have been made to wonder about the
national differences we talked about earlier- why we should be so sensitive to the bad language and I greatly enjoy working with the 20 examiners and the rest of the staff, because, obviously their reports are not published and shouldn't be, they are
written for a particular purpose but they are very insightful, and if my film critic friends will forgive me I get much more out of reading one of their reports that I do reading about film criticism in a newspaper.
Why I read, watched, listened - and then passed Lolita for cinemas
31st March 1998
By Andreas Whittam Smith
I could have wished for an easier task as the new president of the British Board of Film Classification than having to make a decision about Lolita , an adaptation of Nabokov's novel in which Jeremy Irons plays Humbert, the schoolgirl's
But I started at the beginning - by re-reading the novel. It is more shocking today than it was when first published in 1959, because the widespread incidence of paedophilia was then unknown. Nobody could forget the theme, if only because the word, Lolita
has entered the language; the Oxford Dictionary defines a Lolita as a sexually precocious schoolgirl .
Yet, during the 30 years that had passed since I first read it, my memory had become blurred. I had forgotten the famous opening line which Irons speaks so well in the film: Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin. My soul. Nor did I
remember Nabokov's careful, if lyrical definition of a nymphet, the sole object of Humbert's sexual desires: Between the age limits of nine and 14 there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travellers, twice or many times older than they, reveal
their true nature, which is not human but nymphic (that is, demoniac).
In fact, those two passages, taken from the opening pages of the novel, encapsulate the main issues for classification. Fire of my loins is the first indication of the erotic charge that runs powerfully through the novel and the film. But note
that the phrase is immediately followed by the reference to sin.
In innumerable ways, the doomed, mutually destructive, criminal nature of the liaison is repeatedly marked. The age of Lolita is important, too. In the novel, she is 12 and a half. In Stanley Kubrick's earlier version with James Mason as Humbert, Lolita
looked 16 to 17 years old. And finally, there is the description of paedophiles as bewitched travellers and the parenthesis demoniac .
Here Humbert is pleading that Lolita was literally irresistible and such self-justification is also a feature of the book and the film - and of paedophiles in general, who rarely blame themselves for the crimes they commit.
The film sticks pretty closely to the novel, except in one important respect. Adrian Lyne, the director, has raised the age of Lolita to 14 ( played by a 15-year-old actress with a 19-year-old body double used where necessary). This can have a dangerous,
ratchet effect. The closer Lolita appears to approach full sexual development, the more natural Humbert's infatuation is likely to seem. Added to which, the film is full of seductive delights. Irons is perfect as the sophisticated, sardonic, self-aware
Humbert; the atmosphere of late 1940s America is wonderfully recreated and the music is suitably romantic.
So, how did we deal with all that? When I took up my part-time appointment at the beginning of the year, the Board's examiners had already evaluated the film. It's a painstaking process. The examiners work in teams of two. If there is disagreement at the
first viewing, or uncertainty, then a second team has a look. In important cases such as Lolita, every examiner, of whom there are 15 or so, will be asked to prepare an analysis.
What, then, is the role of the president? Cinema classification is done in the names of the president and of the director - our signatures flash up briefly as the certificate is displayed on the screen. As responsible authorities in law, we are in
a similar position to a newspaper editor. You are legally responsible but you cannot see everything.
Over the years, the Board has developed principles of classification, but the starting point is always the same: why should this film for the cinema or video work not have a U or universal certificate? Each successive restriction, parental
guidance , suitable for persons of 12 years and over and so on, or no certificate at all - in effect a ban - has to be justified.
Restrictions depend on the notion of harm - harm to children and young people, harm to society generally. On Lolita, we were grappling with problems such as: had the film's pleasures been set up in too powerful a way? In other words, did we empathise
with Humbert or take the story for the cautionary tale it seems to be? Is the critical comment on Humbert's behaviour strong enough to be heard above the overt messages that there is a paradise in a child's sexuality?
All the time, the central problem loomed over us: was the risk that paedophile behaviour would be encouraged by Lolita so great that the film should be banned? On that, apart from the experience and informed common sense of the examiners, we needed
I watched Lolita for a second time in the company of two psychiatrists who work with children - and one had also done quite a lot of work with paedophiles. I also met police officers who deal with child-abuse cases. And we got legal advice from the
leading counsel in the field. My role was to test this array of opinion and advice and then to come to a conclusion.
I asked the examiners what would have made them unanimous that the film should be banned. Then, I asked the opposite question - seeing that we witness such relatively restrained sexual relations on the screen, why should the film not be granted a 15
or even a 12 certificate? I tried, courteously, to bully the two psychiatrists into saying that the film was likely to cause harm. But they, with equal politeness, refused to be budged from their opinion that it would not do so. The police told me
that paedophiles sexualise images of all kinds, some of which may appear more or less harmless to the rest of us, such as pictures taken from sales catalogues.
Finally, the decision: pass at 18 . Put out a press release. Unlikely to encourage paedophile behaviour or put children at risk. the film, like the book, abounds with indications that the breaching of what is a necessary social taboo is wrong.
the new Lolita is a challenging and compassionate treatment of an established literary classic which adult cinema goers have a right to judge for themselves. Wait for the media storm to break. And wait for the film to open and see whether people
think we were right.