I spoke with Richard Falcon about the work of the BBFC and some of the issues raised by it. A senior examiner at the BBFC Richard Falcon proved to be personable fellow and informative about his work and that of his employers, younger than
expected (in his early thirties I would say) with a far more balanced approach that one might have expected given the BBFC's negative image amongst the followers of horror film. He also admitted to me to being a fan of horror movies himself [though perhaps not of the mere extreme type]
and a semi-regular visitor to London's dear departed Scala Cinema.
(PL) How did you become an examiner and what training did you undergo?
Iíve been here ten years now. 1 joined the board in 1984 after the Video Recordings Act was passed, just before the board was designated and the BBFC advertised for part time examiners as it was then in a series of newspapers. I was at Bath
University at the time, writing up my PHD on ĎThe New German Cinemaí, so I was kind of involved with Film Studies. I saw the advertisement in The Guardian, applied and went through a long interview process. Itís a tripartite interview procedure.
First of all I met the Director James Ferman, Margaret Ford [the Deputy Director] etc and then was a viewing day where you see three films. The films I saw were MOTHERS DAY , FEAR CITY -Abel Ferrara and TURKISH DELIGHT .
(PL) A real test that, to start with.
(RWF) Yes [laughs].
(PL) MOTHERS DAY was rejected, FEAR CITY cut and TURKISH DELIGHT passed.
(RWF) FEAR CITY was cut, I donít think any distributor picked up TURKISH DELIGHT at the time, although it went out last year on video distributed by Missing In Action.
(PI,) Right, thatís Rutger Hauer.
(RWF) Its Rutger Hauer yes, a Paul Verhoeven film, a Dutch film, one of his early ones an interesting little movie.
(RWF) Then there was a third part to the interview after the viewing day when we had written our reports when we had to come in and justify various points and things, it was a long process.
(RWF) So really, that was the first time the board had advertised in the press, youíre interested in what we look for in examiners?.
(PL) Yes, that was the next question I had in mind.
(RWF) I was involved at one stage in the interview, process for examiners, certainly there are professional qualities needed, one of the most important ones being, strange as it may sound a love of films. This is practical, if youíre going
to be sitting through three features a day as we often are, you have to like what youíre doing. You have to be able to write quite quickly because at the end of the day you are having to produce a kind of mini Monthly Film Bulletin
synopsis of the film, a series of comments relating to the film and relating it against certain board ďpoliciesĒ
(PL) Do you work from a checklist?
(RWF) Yes, but it probably gives you the wrong idea. The examiner will synopsis every film on a report and you go through a process of discussion...
(PL) They work in duos donít they?
(RWF) Yes they do, after theyíve seen a film they tick a grid [the checklist takes the form of a grid with a series of ratings along the top ranging from "U" - "I8R", a column with "cuts" and a series of listings
down the side encompassing such areas as "sexuality" and "violence," et al but that is just a series of ticks, again your first impressions of the film as a whole are important. Also you fill that in as soon as youíve
seen the film, at the end of the day what we do is we go back to out PCs and write a much longer report on the film including synopsis, our views on it, our appreciation of the film, try to give some idea of what the film means, what pleasures
are in it, what its all about. After that, we match it against various board policies.
(RWF) If there is anything contentious about it, if the two examiners disagree for example or if it is a film which is obviously going to cause an amount of problems, NATURAL BORN KILLERS for example, then it has to be referred up [the
managerial ladder] to canvass further views as appropriate. The next stage will see a team of three examiners sitting in and their reports will be added to the meeting and the management team will see it, their will be a logical
discussion. So this process can be long and unwieldy, but I think what we have to do is to make sure that as many views that are going to be expressed about the film out there by film critics, by the public are canvassed in here first so
we have as wider view as possible and be able to say at the end of the day: "this is what we are going to do with this film and this is how we are going to justify the decision".
[ I will say at this stage that although I am not a supporter of the BBFC, simply because I am not in favour of film censorship, their more considered approach is at odds with that of the MPAA in the USA. In taking the view that
each film represents an individual body of work and must be considered as such in its entirety as opposed to literally timing or measuring acts of violence or onscreen bloodshed with a stopwatch mentality, the BBFC are at least
basing a sense of perspective to a difficult task; that we donít all agree with the conclusions they reach of the decisions taken, but thatís inevitable]
(PL) So really there is no specific training, its largely a matter of "on the job" acclimatisation.
(RWF) Yes, well you see examiner is a kind of generalist job. The skills you have to have are writing skills, analytical skills etc. Also youíve, got to be open to the film, to the motion picture experience youíve got to be seeing
film... . My own particular area of expertise is "Film Studies". What fascinates me about the job is all the abstract things going on in film . We have had experts of all kinds here, psychologists and other professional
people covering a wide range of issues. Largely we are able to reach decisions through a kind of consensual agreement. We have a three-month training period during which a great deal of legislation has to be learnt, board policies
and other aspects of the job need to be absorbed. The training is to give you a kind of "body of precedent" which you can then work with so you know what films classifiable and how. Its important in ensuring you know whatís
at stake is such a balancing act.
(PL) What hours do you work and what salary do you earn (if that's not too leading a question)?
(RWF) Well, it is too leading a question. I worked here part time at first, the salary was not wonderful but Iíve been here ten years and Iím now a senior examiner. We have to get in for 9.45 in the morning, which is quite good as I live
in Tottenham and come in on the Victoria line and we are not supposed to leave before 6.00, but with the work we hardly ever could do that anyhow.
(PL) Roughly an eight hour day or thereabouts with an element of "job and finish"?.
(RWF) It varies, if youíre writing up very long reports on NATURAL BORN KILLERS, it could take up most of the evening. [laughs].
(PL) Does the board operate a rota system with regard to the pairing of examiners?.
(RWF) We have to be aware that we are pushing material through a system, but it should also be a kind of debating area. We work with different people each day. Thereís three senior examiners now and seven fulltime examiners, thatís
ten, plus three members of management who also examine. So you find yourself in a different pairing each day.
(PL) To what extent would you regard yourselves at the board as "The guardians of Public morals"?.
(RWF) John Trevelyan [one time head of the BBFC in the Sixties used to say thatís ridiculous, "of-course the BBFC cant be the guardian of public morals, were not here to represent the views of the British establishment and all that
represents. Sixties cinema cannot be judged by these archaic standards". [quoting from memory, so by his own admission the wording may not be exact]. The question of morality is a problem, which does have a bearing
on what we are doing to a certain extent. The "likelihood to deprave and corrupt" is a very severe moral test. The moral guardianship is not invoked in those terms very often though, we deal in classification rather than
censoriousness, but where it is invoked is when it comes to things like sexual violence and representations of sexual violence. If youíve got a likely audience of men who are attracted to a film such as THE NEW YORK RIPPER which
this applies to pretty straightforwardly where you have a film director in Lucio Fulci who, instead of making his usual splatterfest makes a film in which a whole series of women who dress sexily get slaughtered by a psychopath, there seems to
be an offer of very conscious, vicarious "revenge against women" going on with this film, almost a venting, by a man of their (genders) anger against women in a way most stalk n slash and horror films donít, or take a film like DEATH WISH II
with its rape scene- you can disagree with me in a minute- you have I think, an argument which says this has the potential at least to turn certain members of the audiences on. So that is the moral test, to say that we are not moral
guardians is wrong, itís a question of balance. But obviously these are the exceptions rather than the rule, these donít happen every day. [my own thoughts are perhaps not surprisingly a shade different, THE NEW YORK RIPPER is
undoubtedly vicious and open to charges of misogyny and DEATH WISH II with its rape scene intact is pretty strong stuff, but I would consider both acceptable viewing for an adult audience as is the case with ratings boards
all across Europe].
(PL) The mention of NEW YORK RIPPER and the charges of violence against women bring me back to a film covered earlier, MOTHERS DAY , in which mistreated women fight back and turn the table on their tormentors and yet that was
rejected, why is this?
(RWF) You are quite right, MOTHERS DAY was rejected on its original submission on film and has never been submitted on video.
(PL) What about MANIAC ? it too was banned. Why? ( a heavily cut version of Lustigís masterpiece was submitted to the board at the same time).
(RWF) MANIAC was withdrawn by the company after its submission.
As it would happen, a letter from my files confirms my understanding of the situation. Dated 12th April 1983 and signed by Ken Penry, it contains the following paragraph: "Films such MOTHERS DAY and MANIAC
have not been given a certificate as the board tiles to reflect public opinion at any one moment of time...']
(PL) As youíve mentioned THE NEW YORK RIPPER , I have another question in relation to this film. As I understand the situation, the film was submitted by Eagle Distributors. Not only did the board refuse to make the expected
cuts, but actually took the extraordinary step of refusing to return the print to the distributors and having it taken out of the country under customs escort. Is this so?.
(RWF) Again the problem is, youíre interviewing me and not James Ferman...
(RWF) THE NEW YORK RIPPER was in the late eighties wasnít it?. I joined the board in I984, exactly what happened on the day to the print I have no idea.
(PL) Iíve just never heard of that happening before (or since for that matter).
(RWF) No, I think Itís very unlikely. I wasnít involved in the NEW YORK RIPPER discussion.
(PL) Whatís the story regarding THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE II ?.
(RWF) Well, Warner Brothers withdrew that.
(PL) I understood it was Cannon distributing it at the time.
(RWF) Yes, sorry it was Cannon.
(PL) They wouldnít accept the amount of cuts you wanted and just never picked it up after that. It was never officially rejected though, correct?.
(RWF) It was never officially rejected, it was going to be cut, the opening sequence with Leatherface and the woman with the chainsaw between her legs and some of the gore was going to be cut from it.
(PL) I've heard 22 minutes said to be the amount the board wanted to remove!
(RWF) Yeah, there were a lot of cuts in that film, which is a shame as itís quite an interesting film.
(PL) Thatís an awful lot...
(PL) Do you see the board as responding to public opinion or as playing a more active role. How do you judge what is public opinion anyway?
(RWF) [sighs] Thatís an impossible question. Itís an extremely difficult thing to do. You have to read newspapers sensibly, I think thatís very important. You have to be careful not to take what the newspapers say on
principal. You see thereís a piece in The Guardian about Quentin Tarantino, which you have to read with a certain perspective. We get letters sent in, we try to soak up as much informed opinion as we can.
(RWF) We have to respond to it [public opinion]. Itís clear that what motivated the recent amendment in the criminal justice bill was a huge amount of disquiet about childrenís access to video and despite the fact that
"certain campaigners" were not particularly knowledgeable and couldnít care about it [film] and were wrong about CHILDíS PLAY 3 as was the press, the fact that all this was just a campaign of disinformation, the fact
remains that behind all this is a damn good public constituency message which obviously appealed to them (the Tories). To write that off, to say that the press just creates these things is actually wrong, behind these campaigns in the
press is a public disquiet, which we have to take on board. It doesnít mean we have to act or be more censorious, but the cinema and video are like anything else, it only exists in the public mood and we have to be aware of such shifts...
(PL) Does the board then fear the tabloid press. Do you fear the hysteria they are capable of whipping up, if they say too much to the effect that the BBFC isnít doing its job properly as they see it, the board may lose itís independence?
(RWF) I think the board has to be conscious of its public image in the press, just like any other institution. The board particularly is a controversial institution, but if it was truly afraid of what the tabloid press said about it, it
couldnít carry on existing and continue, because the board is assailed from all sides generally. So, no. Its informed opinion that is responded to, informed opinion and copy, not tabloid nonsense.
(PL) What about Mary Whitehouse, by which I mean what about her faction?. What about the lobbyists for total censorship. Does the board listen to them, what influence do they have?
(RWF) Yes, they have influence, in that they have very strong views when it comes to how film should be treated. Yes, we have to listen, to canvass those views, to take them on board, we have to canvass views from as many representatives
of society as possible. But again, Itís a matter of balance, we have to listen to them, but we canít subscribe to a moralists view of the cinema, but neither can we accept that everything is as valuable as everything else, we cant accept a
libertarian position that says that every film you see is worth so much that you have no right to bring these questions about weather it is going to harm society or children. So some kind of middle ground has to be carved out between these
two extremes, itís very difficult.
(PL) Itís a common conception amongst followers of horror film...
(RWF) You feel targeted by the BBFC.
(PL) Yes!, thatís a very common sensibility indeed and the general feeling is that because moralists, the pro-censorship lobby are much more vocal and have much more of a platform, they have a great deal more influence. Is that a correct
(RWF) Thereís a peculiar kind of dance involved here. From what it means to be a horror film, is that there is this strange kind of symbiotic relationship between horror films and censorship anyway. The processes of censorship come
out of the kind of notion of what is taboo within a society, of what is difficult to deal with, what is difficult to take. You have a genre, the horror genre that sets out to speak the unspeakable, to speak about atrocity, death
etc. So what you are going to get is a whole series of fans who love the genre for lots of different reasons, lots of reasons the genre should be loved; they like the macabre, they speculate on the edges of human experience and so on, then
and very very important this is, they like taboo, they like to be looking at the material that skates near the edge of where that line is drawn. So now the problem with the way youíre formulating it is that you make it sound arbitrary, as
if there are these films which the censor has decided are particularly problematic and sets out to victimise this particular group of people, who read Fangoria and like Lucio Fulci films and Italian exploitation films from the seventies and
particularly focus on these. But thatís actually untrue, its actually within the nature of the films themselves to be controversial in that way because of what they set out to do, part of what they set out to do makes them of interest
because they are approaching certain taboos. So the board as an institution has to think about the impact of these films upon society and is actually in this strange kind of relationship. But I have some sympathy with people for
example who feel that Dario Argento is a really interesting filmmaker and want to be able to see and own his films uncut, but I think a lot of what horror fans need to take on board is possibly their own interest in why this is, because the
films are controversial and controversial for good reasons, because their to do with certain pleasures, to do with mutilation and death etc. Also part of the reason the horror genre's so interesting and is always going to be, are films
which because they tend to speak the unspeakable are going to get peoples backs up, its why there of interest.
(PL) What screening facilities do you have here (at 3 Soho Square)?
(RWF) We have viewing rooms downstairs, video viewing rooms with monitors in and we have two theatres, the larger of which is in the basement in which we see films on 16 and 35 mill. We also have a smaller dual-function theatre upstairs
which is used as a meeting and conference room as well.
(PL) So, do you ever venture outside the BBFC building to see a film, perhaps in 7Omm?
(RWF) Yeah, occasionally weíve been to see films at Pinewood [studios], special screenings.
(PL) Do you ever go to the movies yourself, just as a punter?
(RWF) Oh yeah, all the time. The last one I saw was LA REHNE MARGOT , very good film.
(PL) Do you consider the process of film censorship to be subjective or objective?
(RWF) I think it canít be objective. It has to be as objective as it can possibly be, I think it has to be argued through, its no good saying "I feel this and thatís the end of it", it has to be "I feel this because ... and
because..." It is subjective and has to be considered and discussed.
(PL) Are films as potential theatrical and videocassette releases examined using different criteria?.
(RWF) Yes they are, films are examined basically through this voluntary relationship between the board and local authorities who licence cinemas and who as you know have the power to overturn any of the boards decisions.
With video, its statutory of course and now we have this extra test as a result of the amendment [this is the Alton Ďinspiredí amendment Richard is referring to, whereby the BBFC are compelled to examine the possible effects upon
children of videos designed and certified for adults!].
(PL) Are they therefore viewed twice and on their intended medium?
(RWF) Yes they are. The film is seen first and therein the video will be seen at a later date and considered under the different legal tests.
(PL) How is a decision to request cuts or reject a film entirely reached?
(RWF) By a series of discussions, viewings and comparing its content with various board policies. If a film is rejected, it would be because of the Obscene Publications Act, because of our understanding of this phrase about having "a
tendency to deprave and corrupt" a portion of its likely audience. If a video is rejected it is because we donít feel it is suitable for viewing in the home, but only 33 videos have been rejected since 1984. [for the curious, I can
list all of them and give a few details about each].
(PL) Will NATURAL BORN KILLERS get a video release?. (RWF) It hasnít been submitted yet, so I canít say.
(PL) What do you think about the calls for totally uncensored cinema?
(RWF) Iím not in favour of totally uncensored cinema, certainly I can support a more lenient system of classification for theatrical, but there are some films, particularly in the area of sexual violence that cross that line and really shouldnít
be seen at all.
(PL) Is there a list of "forbidden images", such as nunchuckas, erections or eye gouging sequences for example?. (RWF) Nunchuckas cannot be seen in a context in which their use is glamorised in combat sequences in martial arts
exploitation movies. They may be allowed in other contexts. Board policy does not allow videos, in particular to teach about weapons, which are easy to construct, conceal and use. For this reason in certain glamorising
contexts, the BBFC also removes the sight of butterfly knives being twirled and the sight of throwing stars in use. An eye gouging sequence might be different in any one film, so we would look at a film as a whole before we took a decision
(PL) " Stalk n slash" pictures seem to have found a particular disfavour with the board, why is this?
(RWF) Thatís not the case, for example HALLOWEEN, the film that sums up the genre at its most interesting was passed "X" uncut in 1978 on film and then uncut on video in 1986. It is not what a film is about that is important, but
how it deals with its subject matter.
(PL) What about the "violence against women" issue. How do you respond to the claim that the "damsel in distress" has always been a cinematic icon and as such this oft-stated concern is an overreaction on the part of
those perpetuating it (including the BBFC)?
(RWF) 1 donít accept that at all. The damsel may be in distress, but there is no need to show her being cut up, raped or mutilated as in the case of films like THE NEW YORK RIPPER . The important thing is that violence to
women should not be eroticised and films should not offer, as their main source of pleasure, vicarious involvement in the process of sexual violence against women and the conscious gratification of the misogynistic impulses of some sections of
the male audience.
(PL) I see, why is it then that films featuring pernicious and casual violence in the throwaway vein of the HOME ALONE films and their ilk are favoured over films featuring realistic violence showing the pain and price of such
actions. Surely this has the effect of suggesting to the impressionable that violence is no big deal?
(RWF) I think that children should be credited with a little more understanding, their tolerance for learning is higher than we sometimes think. The HOME ALONE films are in any case related in style to slapstick comedy and
fantasy. Also we do often cut this type of violence in major Hollywood films for home video, TRUE LIES has just been through on video and we've cut back some of the violence in that. Other major films cut for video include DIE
HARD 2 and LETHAL WEAPON 2, so its not the ewe to suggest big budget films receive preferential treatment.
(PL) Id like to get your thoughts on a few films that have not been granted certificates, why?
(PL) THE EXORCIST .
(RWF) THE EXORCIST is available on film, but has not been classified on video to date. The BBFC is concerned that teenagers who would undoubtedly see it on video might be traumatised in the way that some were when the film was first
released. James Ferman has also expressed his concern about the possible use of the video in satanic abuse cases.
(PL) HIDDEN RAGE (aka: PERFECT VICTIMS ).
(RWF) HIDDEN RAGE was submitted on video in August 1988 and rejected after numerous viewings of it including one involving the president and vice presidents of the BBFC. This video, with its portrait of an AIDS victim as a twisted
and sadistic monster, seemed to the board to be contrived so as to provide titillatory rape sequences for male audiences and cutting was therefore not an option.
(PL) I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (aka: DAY OF THE WOMAN ) (another instance of harsh realism, on this occasion the true horror of the crime of rape being penalised?)
(RWF) This has never been submitted to the BBFC on video, the rights holders probably being aware of its notoriety as a so-called "video nasty" in the early 1980's. It is debatable whether this film constitutes "harsh
realism" as you suggest or an exploitation of images of gang rape for some audiences who may be seeking not the "true horror of the crime of rape", but the possible vicarious thrills of sexual violence for predisposed audiences .
It would therefore, be unlikely to be passed in its original form.
(PL) CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (again perhaps, an example of powerful film-making being penalised in a film with a valuable message concerning mans inhumanity to man).
(RWF) CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST has also never been submitted for classification. I imagine that distributors am wary about investing in this title knowing its history of successful obscenity prosecutions.
(PL) THE DRILLER KILLER .
(RWF) THE DRILLER KILLER has never been officially submitted to the BBFC , perhaps again, because of its notoriety during the "video nasty" moral panic in the early 1980's.
(RWF) With the above three titles, the BBFC has no discretion in deciding on their suitability for release in various forms because of the obscenity decisions passed on them by British juries, as the board cannot pass material which has been
declared obscene by the legal process.
[This does strike me as confusing, simply because other titles including " THE BEYOND , THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY and 'Tobe Hooper's DEATH TRAP (to name but three of many) were all caught up ill the
'video nasty' hysteria, yet they later sufficed in BBFC approved versions. Were they just never actually found "obscene'? (surely DEATH TRAP was, It along with I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE formed the first
two videotapes Mrs Mary Whitehouse took action against in the test case that proved the catalyst for the whole scandal) or was the degree by which they were cut a factor? or is there another answer?]
(PL) DEATH WISH .
(RWF) DEATH WISH has had its video certificate withheld by the BBFC since 1987 due to the sequence featuring the rape and murder of the mother and daughter near the start of the film, although a version of the film was passed by the board
for transmission on satellite TV. It was felt that it would be impossible to allow this kind of exploitative sexual violence to be released on video under the terms of the video recordings act and the company CIC felt it best in the wake
of Hungerford not to distribute it in any form.
(PL) What about A CLOCKWORK ORANGE ?. Would it be passed if submitted now?. Uncut?
(RWF) A CLOCKWORK ORANGE was as lm sure you are aware, withdrawn by Stanley Kubrick in 1973 and has not been permitted distribution in this country on film or video since then. It would be unwise, given this state of
affairs'. to speculate on what would happen if he were to change his mind and resubmit it, but James Ferman has stated on the record that he would have problems with the rape sequence for video classification. [Yes, Iíve seen a comment
attributed to James Ferman saying of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE , that he would have to "cut deeply into the rape scene"].
(PL) THE TRIP .
(RWF) THE TRIP was rejected on video in 1983 because of its almost advocatory depiction of drug usage. [extraordinary this, anyone who has seen THE TRIP would know it to be both bogus and dated].
(PL) RESERVOIR DOGS .
(RWF) RESERVOIR DOGS has had its [video] certification delayed in response to the recent outbreak of concern over children's access to violent video images. A decision is pending on this title and an announcement will he made soon.
(PL) THE NEW YORK RIPPER .
(RWF) THE NEW YORK RIPPER was submitted as you say, by Eagle Films in early 1984 and rejected by the BBFC. It is one of the few films ever to be unanimously considered obscene, in both the legal and the personal sense, in its
depiction of the mutilation of women. Previously, HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK had been rejected and had found its way into distribution as a bootleg video. Given that the issue here was an extremely serious one, James Ferman
did take the action mentioned in the Video World piece in order to prevent the film being copied and circulated.
[A real hornets nest here. Certainly James Ferman's decision reflects minimal faith in the then management of Eagle Films, also it raises the question of whether it is Skyline Video's release of HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK
referred to as the "bootleg video' If it is, does that also mean that the many similar rumours concerning Replay Video's release of Wes Craven's similarly vicious THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and the majority of VIPC0ís
catalogue have some substance?]
(PL) What were the problems the board had with a recent trio of films submitted by the Redemption Video label, namely BARE BEHIND BARS , DEMONIAC (Franco's THE SADIST OF NOTRE DAME by another name) and SADOMANIA .
Company literature has stated all three titles as being "Banned in the UK by the BBFC"?. (RWF) With these three videos, as it is the case that this company is in the process of appealing a decision on one of these titles [
BARE BEHIND BARS ], 1 am not in a position at the moment to comment on them.
(PL) What about CURFEW ?
(RWF) CURFEW was rejected in 1988. [James Ferman has been quoted in saying of CURFEW; "thereís rape, forced dancing on broken glass and repeated degradation and mutilation, all presented solely for entertainment".]
(RWF) You should, I think, also be aware, of the latest amendment to the Video Recordings Act contained in the Criminal Justice and Public order Act, with which the BBFC now has to work when making decisions on video. This requires the
board to have special regard to the treatment of certain depictions and their potential viewers. [This is the execrable recent amendment which has the effect of forcing the BBFC to rate adult (by which I do not just refer to softcore)
videotapes whilst considering the effect they might have upon those of an age supposedly prohibited by the rating from seeing the work(s) in question in the first place].
Well there, you have it. Basically slap bang in the middle between the moralists and the libertarians, the BBFC is doing the best it can to classify films amid the morass of legislation (some of which we have reproduced for your