Censorship is revealed to be an unworkable concept when censors change their minds about what is permissible. If material is deemed dangerous, corrupting, imitable, etc., then surely it must remain so, regardless of whether it's 1901 or 2001?
But if, as seems to be the case, material can be reassessed and judged harmless, then it stands to reason that it was harmless in the first place, and the argument for censorship collapses. Let's look at the farrago caused by the Texas Chainsaw
films, which has managed to prolong itself for nearly thirty years.
The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre created quite a stir before it arrived in the UK in 1975. This was not because it was the goriest film ever made. It wasn't by a long chalk; someone cuts his hand during the first twenty minutes and
the rest of the blood-letting happens off screen. No, the talk was that the film was reputed to be one of the most frightening ever made; many viewers and most critics found it so, although some people thought it hilarious.
James Ferman, newly appointed secretary of the BBFC, was very influenced by this advance publicity. He convinced himself that there was no way that the sustained terrorisation of a young woman could have a beneficial effect on the British
public. Well, correction here. He was worried about the effect on the British working class. After the film had been shown, uncensored, to members of the British Film Institute at the London Film Festival, Ferman got up on stage and, thinking he
was among friends, said,
"It's all right for you middle-class cineastes to see this film, but what would happen if a factory worker in Manchester happened to see it?"
When they heard this gaffe, the audience became hostile, and Ferman was visibly shocked. He never again referred to the true nature of his job as a censor - to stop working class people being stimulated by controversial films. Instead, for the
rest of his interminable office, he fortified his unassailable position as guardian against the abuse of women. This attitude did not always extend to his treatment of female employees, many of whom found his attentions objectionable. But away
from Soho Square, during his many public engagements, Ferman became scrupulously politically correct. He was still wittering on about feminism when he retired in 1999. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre , the film that had so shocked the
inexperienced censor, became Ferman's bete noire. He, and only he, banned it and saw to it that it stayed banned. A legend grew up around his supposed condemnation of chainsaws. Reputedly the instrument could not be featured or even referred to
in any film.
But was this a myth? Ferman certainly forbade other weapons - most famously chain-sticks - but never issued a written instruction about chainsaws. Nevertheless, folklore had it that Ferman was trying to obliterate the lumberjack's tool from
British cinema history. In 1983 a chainsaw murder was cut from Scarface . In 1986 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was banned. In 1988 the organisers of a horror film festival seemed to believe that some kind of retribution would
befall them if they publicised the screening of a film which featured the forbidden word in its title. Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers was shown as Hollywood ******** Hookers . Madness appeared to be prevailing. It goes without saying
that in 1990 even the heavily cut version of Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III was also banned.
This unaccountable hysteria now seems to belong to the distant past. Chainsaws are part of the era that brought us Driller Killer s and Cannibal Holocaust s, stupid films we weren't supposed to see, but which everybody saw because
pirated videos were on sale at every other car boot sale. These films turned out to be very disappointing indeed. They were supposed to be dangerous and harmful but quite patently most of them were just bad.
The censor has an unpopular job. One of the ways in which he can sustain himself in power is to pretend to be sympathetic to public opinion. Robin Duval would have done himself no favours had he appeared to be as batty as his predecessor and
maintained his now ludicrous conviction that the mere sight of a chainsaw inspires us to carve up our neighbours. Consequently, as soon as he got his feet under Ferman's desk, Duval made sure he distanced himself from such fanaticism by passing
uncut not only The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which opened in cinemas October 5 to generally dismissive reviews, but also the fourth episode of the series, Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre , now on video.
Yes, it's official. These films aren't harmful at all. It was just that a crazy old censor, now completely discredited, was squeamish about them. But surely, therefore, isn't there a chance that the present censor is equally bonkers and that all
his senseless decisions will one day be overruled...?
" Censorship is belief that one's obscenities must be the obscenity of all "
- Jay E. Daily, The Anatomy of Censorship, 1973.