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 Sinful Days in Soho

 BBFC Archive



Sinful Days in Soho

By Maggie Mills

from the Sunday Times


BBFC logoA picture of a man and woman frolicking together naked used to hang in the film theatre at the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). Its caption read: "We'd better see it again before we ban it." One memorable rerun in the years I worked as a film censor - "examiner" was the politically correct nomenclature - was a gobsmacking glimpse of Sylvester Stallone's private parts in a film made before he was famous. Was it, we had to ask ourselves, a "sid soft", and safe within the board's interpretation of the obscenity laws, or a "harry hard", thereby requiring excision?

I felt I belonged to one of the most exclusive and secretive clubs in Soho, but a sense of the ridiculous certainly came with the territory. I defy anyone to find a more highly qualified professional group that spends its working life in passionate argument about such trivial hairsplitting, often of the "inter labia out, outer labia in" variety.

But it was fun. Twice a week I cycled in to a leisurely start, watched three films a day and got paid for it. I can still remember my first day: there was a zzzz-inducing Hungarian short on clockmaking; the latest Bertolucci, which was a joy; some hard core featuring unmentionable goings-on with snakes and lots of bodice ripping at the beach, which got us into a row about when playing around became sexual assault; and then, as we reached teatime, a blood-splattered, crazed granny wielding a pair of kitchen scissors more times than I could bear to watch. However, my viewing partner - a true horror buff - thought the latter a real treat. I admit that I cycled home in a pretty wobbly state.

But I hung in there, actually for about another 18 years. For all of us censors, James Ferman, the director, who is finally on his way out (and not before time), was the bogeyman. In the beginning we respected him because he had a good eye - he had made films himself - and he respected art. Pedro Almodovar's Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown, for example, had the F-word in the subtitle, but he refused to cut it. On the other hand, he also left Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers untouched out of admiration for the director, even though it wasn't a good film at all.

Ferman started out as a 1970s liberal, but as the years wore on he became ever more autocratic. He was a control freak who would sit in his office alone, late into the night, obsessively watching videos. His lack of contact with the normal human world showed; he ran the BBFC as his personal fiefdom, overriding those who disagreed with him.

Unfortunately for a despot, Ferman was not actually very good at making decisions. In his former life as a television producer, he had been known as Mr Indecision. He had a habit of hiding the tapes of controversial films in drawers and would hold on to them for ages to escape the moment of truth. One of his tactics was to wait for the fuss to die down, then to give the film a certificate while leaving it almost entirely uncut. Finally, when the furore returned, he would say, "We cut it, of course", to get himself out of hot water.

As long as Lord Harlech, our former president, was alive, Ferman had someone above him whom he respected. But when Harlech was tragically killed in a car crash in 1985, Lord Harewood took over with Monica Sims and Lord Birkett as vice-presidents. Their sway over Ferman's dominion was not strong - Lord Harewood once described his triumvirate as the "three blind mice".

The first restraint Ferman had had in years was when Jack Straw, the home secretary, announced that Ferman's time was up. So far no successor has been announced, although Ferman is supposed to leave at the end of next month. He finally overstepped the mark when he relaxed the rules governing porn by creating a steamy R18 certificate for sex shops but forgot to alert the government to the change.

If you have a terrible boss there is only one thing to do: leave. But in censorship and classification there was nowhere else to go, and why would anyone ever want to stop doing such a fantastic job? Life at the BBFC certainly provided excitement and fantasy, in contrast to the dry university psychology department that was my habitat the other days of the week.

People were right to say we couldn't help becoming desensitised to what we saw. Yet even after a decade in the job, I was made physically sick - the only time it happened - by a film called New York Ripper, which showed a broken bottle being shoved up a woman. I am pleased to say that the film was banned.

The process of examining, of course, was fascinating. I not only had to experience a film - feeling revulsion, confusion, outrage, boredom, whatever, just as the director intended - but I also had to analyse how I was being manipulated and what impact the viewing had on me.

Then there was the practical matter of capturing accurately what one saw and heard. For example, the number of sexual expletives (at the BBFC we often called ourselves the British Board of F*** Counters): was the count too high for the 12 category? What about the amount of violence? Did the 10th kick to the face and gush of blood make it too explicit for a 15 or did the context justify it?

American war films scored well here as Ferman was a fan. Or leniency might denote an expected art-house showing: for example, Bertolucci's 1900, where there was an explicit sex scene between a woman and two men.

Most difficult of all, however, was having to decide in an imaginative way how the material might have an impact on a person more vulnerable psychologically or morally than oneself. Not only does this raise the question of how films and videos influence as opposed to reflect behaviour, but one could easily fall into the trap of saying it's okay for people like me to see something but not others.

Examiners are usually middle-class professionals and not representative of the younger generations who watch most of the films and videos, so there really is no judgment by peers. It is impossible in a small body of examiners to have a representative section of the community, and we didn't try very hard.

At the BBFC, censors always watch films in couples. Reel by reel we would write a log in the dark as the film or video was playing. One became very knowledgeable about the other examiners' peccadillos: one colleague had a phobia about rats, another about sharp objects going into eyes, and hypodermic needles. I had trouble seeing violence in horror films as fantasy and so was likely to categorise them rather stringently.

The board set such store by these examining duos that, when new censors were appointed, we all had the right of veto if for any reason we felt it would be impossible to sit in a darkened room with them watching porn. There can't be too many other jobs where someone would not be employed because they were deemed too "creepy", "inhibited" or "off-putting" - but to do this work you had to have total trust in your partner in the dark.

Over the years, the boundaries changed as films became technically ever more capable of depicting violence and horror. Films such as Terminator 2, Total Recall and Pulp Fiction created extraordinarily explicit violent scenes. Although there had always been problems with gore before - think of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch or Straw Dogs, passed before Ferman's time as director - these were of a whole new order. The American market was releasing more and more explicit scenes and, although we cut more than they did across the pond, the limits on the violence we would let through got looser, and more disturbing special effects became the norm.

As society became more sex-saturated, we also allowed more explicit sex through at lower certificates. Previously a hand on a bosom, the sight of a naked breast or the suggestion of oral sex would once have made a film unavailable to children. This, however, remains a tricky area. Mrs Doubtfire was made a 12 because of some explicit sexual talk, but several local authorities were happy to lower it to PG. The board later made it PG on video.

Aggressive, raunchy sex remained the preserve of 18. One of the most striking changes of view during my years at the board concerned sexual violence. When I arrived, the mainly male examiners viewed a bit of bodice ripping, or violent seduction and rape, as vaguely titillating. When the number of women increased, those days were gone. Nowadays, sex with violence is a no-no, and great care was taken even with a film such as The Accused to cut any shots that might have made the rape scene titillating.

The other big change was video, which brought disturbing material directly into people's homes, enabling freaks to replay sadistic or violent scenes again and again. There is no way of knowing, as an examiner, what impact that has. But in practice, particularly because parents do not always monitor under-age viewing of difficult material, it is usual to make more cuts in the video than in the film.

Deplorable though a lack of openness is, if the minutes of our discussions had been made public, we would all have qualified for permanent slots in Private Eye's Pseuds Corner. We took ourselves and the work very seriously. But what remains with me from my time at the BBFC is an abiding love of bad films, a feeling when I enter a video shop and see all those titles that I am revisiting old friends, and a conviction that as long as I have access to a cinema or video I shall never be bored. 

 

BBFC Archive  James Ferman Director of the BBFC: 1974-1999
 Computer Hits
 Nunchakas The BBFC attitude to martial arts weaponry
 Anime Interview with a BBFC examiner
 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