BBFC People: Quentin Thomas

President of the BBFC: 2002-present


After Ten Years of Watching Flange...

Quentin Thomas steps down as President of the BBFC

Link Here 6th July 2012

After 10 years as President of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), Sir Quentin Thomas has decided to retire from the post. An advertisement for an open competition to choose his successor has been placed today and Sir Quentin Thomas will remain in post until a successor is selected.

Sir Quentin Thomas said:

It has been a great privilege and pleasure to serve as President. The Board has a great team under the effective leadership of its Director David Cooke. There is an enthusiastic staff with an unrivalled knowledge of film and of the regulatory issues; and I have been fortunate in my colleagues in the Presidential team and in the support of the Council of Management under Graham Lee and his predecessor Ewart Needham.

When I was appointed Ali G said it was the best job in the world as you got to watch porn all day . He was wrong about the porn but right that it is a great job, with ample opportunity to sample the range, depth and diversity of film.

I hope and believe the public and the industry appreciate the work the Board has done, now for some 100 years. It is important we retain their confidence as film continues to explore the full range of human experience, inevitably pushing at the boundaries as it does so.

David Cooke, Director of the BBFC said:

I am very sorry that we have been unable to persuade Sir Quentin to stay on. His ten years as President have seen the BBFC's Classification Guidelines, based on wide public consultation, achieve high levels of public and industry trust. He has also overseen improved efficiency and speed of decisions, innovative new services for video-on-demand, and the provision of rich and helpful content information to the public. On behalf of all the staff at the BBFC I want to thank him and wish him well for the future.


4th August

Brolly Twirler...

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Jasper Gerard meets Quentin Thomas, film censor
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Quentin Thomas 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 don’t think I’ve ever seen a genuine blue movie, admits Quentin Thomas, our new film censor. It’s not why I applied for the job. As perks go, it’s 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 don’t 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. It’s very mechanistic. If you happen to share that predilection, it’s interesting. If you don’t . . . 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 Britain’s first contact with Martin McGuinness. He had no qualms shaking the “demonised” Sinn Fein leader’s 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 Trimble.

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 Labour’s zero tolerance of licentiousness. Only in saying he will abolish the 12 rating in favour of parental discretion does he seem anything but a censor’s 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!” Well, we can’t 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 hasn’t 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 haven’t seen that, he says. Indeed, apart from Billy Elliot , he doesn’t seem to have seen much, post-1949 anyway. I have enough cases to consider without taking on the work of looking at earlier ones . So what will be his verdict on the forthcoming Irréversible ? It’s not here yet and I’ve learnt already that you shouldn’t make a judgment on the publicity.

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 can’t 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 board’s discretion is being eroded and substituted by somebody else’s. 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 thought police”.

There are notions of what is decent, and what is offensive, but it’s 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 don’t know if I am inventing a new doctrine, but that’s where I’m 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 isn’t 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, we’re lucky to have a big-brained one. But in searching for principles to define the censor’s 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.

BBFC Archive   Horror An interview with Richard Falcon speaking about the BBFC treatment of horror in 1995
  Blasphemy Ruling European Court of Human Rights upholds BBFC ban of Visions of Ecstasy in 1996
  The Ferman Chainsaw Massacre remembering the defunct website 'Ban the Board of Film Censors'
  Confessions of a Censor by Ros Hodgkiss, retired film examiner
  Sinful Days in Soho by Maggie Mills, retired film examiner
  Monster Love Carol Topolski tells of being a film examiner under James Ferman


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