So, how does a gent more accustomed to twirling
his brolly down Whitehall view the prospect of ogling blue movies and getting paid
for it? I dont think Ive ever seen a genuine blue movie, admits
Quentin Thomas, our new film censor. Its not why I applied for the job. As
perks go, its hardly on a par with luncheon vouchers.
You what? He may have been
the brainiest civil servant of his generation but me fears he could be in for quite an
education. Thrusting resolutely into his in-tray, for instance, is Irréversible,
featuring nine minutes of rape. Anally. Compared with other flicks in his now video
collection, however, Irréversible is about as outré as Delia Smith
knocking up a suet pudding. Such, dear reader, is the gentle retirement of a man whose
favourite films include She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).
I dont wish to be rude but is the old ticker up to this job?
At the Home
Office I was responsible for obscenity. I did take the trouble to, er, sample some of the
magazine stuff. It comes in very distinct genres: rubber fetishists, or people who like
big breasts. Really, do elaborate. Its very mechanistic. If you happen to
share that predilection, its interesting. If you dont . . . Even among
mandarins, few could master the Thomas tone: rendering Big & Bouncy less racy than a
discussion paper on Welsh snail farming.
Dry but not dull, Thomas, 58, is the man John Major sent to make Britains first
contact with Martin McGuinness. He had no qualms shaking the demonised Sinn
Fein leaders hand and admires his key role in staunching the bloodshed.
So after nine tense years in Belfast, he is unlikely to be fazed by cinematic tomato
ketchup, let alone unusual sex acts, when he has seen Gerry Adams jump into bed with David
Still, remaining intellectually aloof in his new job will not be easy. I gather that
counselling now has to be offered to censors, so traumatised are they by increasingly
violent films and videos, while morale is said to be subterranean. I may be knocked
back a bit and I guess if it became too difficult I would have to resign, he admits.
He indicates in this, his first big interview, that he intends to imbue the BBFC with a
stronger moral code, and discloses that he will ask ministers to enact legislation to
allow him to censor movies on such old-fashioned grounds as decency. While his
liberal predecessor Andreas Whittam Smith took me for a boozy lunch and a smutty movie
and was condemned for permitting a tide of filth Thomas shares
new Labours zero tolerance of licentiousness. Only in saying he will abolish the 12
rating in favour of parental discretion does he seem anything but a censors censor.
Is there any point, I ask, in censorship in such uncensorious times?
Yes, because I
think people want guidance, he says. And yet we are bombarded by unwanted e-mails
offering (I pick a recent shocker at random) rape sex now!
cant control the flow, he hedges. And herein lies his dilemma: if the flow
grows ever filthier, should the board swim with it? It is not for us to say there are
too many westerns or not enough musicals, he says quaintly (one suspects he
hasnt seen much of his fellow Quentin, Tarantino).
But cinematic credentials still need to be established. So come on, Quent, what would
you have done with the explicit French film Baise-moi, which Whittam
Smith cut? I havent seen that, he says. Indeed, apart from
Elliot, he doesnt seem to have seen much, post-1949 anyway.
enough cases to consider without taking on the work of looking at earlier ones. So
what will be his verdict on the forthcoming Irréversible?
not here yet and Ive learnt already that you shouldnt make a judgment on the
He is cautious, but Thomas cannot hide entirely his conservative agenda, disclosing
that he will not, as Whittam Smith intended, drop the 15 and 18 certificates. Over
Spider-Man, however a film which again I have not seen he defends
the board for declaring it unfit for children even though some local authorities ignored
the classification as ridiculous.
This strategy seems a bit odd: shielding adult eyes more, while protecting children a
little less in abolishing the 12 certificate. Why? The child would have to be
accompanied by a responsible adult and there must be proper consumer advice to take an
informed view. Which is fine for responsible parents, but if some cannot be bothered
to send children to school, how fussy will they be about films? Some people make
better calls than others, he says glibly. The risks are not that great. You
cant expect parents to pass an examination as they queue for tickets.
The most radical change under Thomas promises to be the censoring of sexual violence.
Now, if a film maker appeals, the onus is on the board to prove the film could cause harm
(by encouraging copycats, for example). Many banned films have been released after court
cases, prompting Thomas to say he will ask Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary, for
clearer powers. What worries me is that our discretionary power is implicit
rather than explicit. There is virtually no legislative guidance,
There is one
clause about cruelty to animals and another about children.
Instead, he wants clearly defined power to ban films that are inappropriate or
offensive. If we have to prove that a film will cause harm we will be neutered I
am worried the boards discretion is being eroded and substituted by somebody
elses. It may well be that legislation is needed. If parliament wants the board to
have discretion, it may have to say so.
His ambition, he says, is to establish principles of taste.
Anything that causes
harm should be a factor. But there are others. Bad language, for instance. What else?
Well, this is slippery stuff, says the Whitehall man, conscious he is one
careless remark from either the label pornographer in chief or Stalinist
There are notions of what is decent, and what is offensive, but its difficult
to articulate. Ah, the lament of the censor. Which is why a censor, even one with
fine intentions, tends to tie himself up in knots the more he censors. If you purge films
of swearing, where do you stop? Four Weddings and a Funeral was expletive-rich, but loved
by 90-year-old grannies.
Whether you agree with Thomas, he cannot be accused of seeking a quiet life. Indeed,
for this job he has cut short his summer in Tuscany, where he is restoring a farmhouse
with his wife and three grown children. He boldly over-rides his press minder to say that
he does not see why the board should not apply the blasphemy laws when films deal with
religions other than Christianity. Given Islamic sensitivities, this could have serious
ramifications. I dont know if I am inventing a new doctrine, but thats
where Im coming from, he smiles.
One weakness of the board, not widely appreciated, is that it is funded by the film
industry. We are selling a service, he admits. This hardly makes it an objective
policeman. Well, if that were the case we would classify everything U. That isnt
the service film makers want. They want a credible classification. They also want a
gradual ramping up of violence, which desensitises people, and against this there is
little the censor can do. As he admits: We are market-led. But the fault lies
with us for watching the junk.
If we must have a censor, were lucky to have a big-brained one. But in searching
for principles to define the censors code, I fear this self-styled old
gent could suffocate amid the big bazookas (human and military). He may have been
better off stamp collecting.