Monster Love

 Carol Topolski at the BBFC



28th January
2008
  

Monster Love...

Carol Topolski tells of being a film censor under James Ferman
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Carol Topolski, a former film censor, has written a debut novel, Monster Love , whose horrifying premise might itself have a twitchy editor reaching for the blue pencil.

Her long spell on the BBFC - between 1983 and 1995 - was, she said, my best time, the most intellectually stimulating job I've ever done. She combined it with work as a therapist. There I was at one end of the week encouraging freedom of speech from my patients, and there I was at the other end of the week cutting and banning it. I very much liked that tension.

She served on the board through an era of great public anxiety about the corrupting effects of 'video nasties' - in 1993, for instance, the judge in the trial of James Bulger's killers suggested that the boy murderers had been inspired by the video Child's Play 3 . Topolski thought the judge's comments irresponsible - he put those boys in a horror film category, she said, from which they have never emerged.

Though she loved the wonderful culture of debate on the classification board, Topolski and her fellow censors grew frustrated by what they saw as an increasingly dictatorial attitude in their boss, James Ferman. We all felt that he was sucking the debate out of it, she said. We would debate and make a decision and he would slide up to his directorial eyrie and change it. The 1973 horror film The Exorcist was a particular point of conflict. Ferman refused to allow it out on video, point-blank refused, so it was effectively banned. Every few years we'd come back to it, rehearse the arguments again, and he was just unbudgeable.

Topolski considered The Exorcist a 'splendid' movie. As the mother of a teenage daughter in the late 1980s, she came to see the film as really an excellent portrayal of adolescence. When you have a teenager, quite often, even if you don't say it, you think, "What the devil's got into you?" because they do seem suddenly to be possessed by some maniac energy that's coming from left field.

In 1995 the tensions within the film board came to a head and Ferman sacked the other censors, Topolski among them.

When I asked Topolski if she had been truly shaken by anything she had seen, she cited scenes in a film called The New York Ripper ( we actually banned it ) that depicted a man slicing open women's breasts and genitals, and two pieces of paedophile film shown to the film classification board by the head of the Obscene Publications Squad. These are acid-etched on my mind, she said, and then, quietly, and I really, really, really wish they weren't there.

...as a film censor, there was also that strange split. You have to inhabit the film in the terms in which the film was working - that is, be a punter - at the same time as have the censor's part of your mind saying, "We can't have that."?

When she took up her place on the film classification board. The board was expanding to cope with the rise of video: This was new territory we were mapping out. It was fascinating. Of the films that appeared in that era, Pulp Fiction is my bête noir, she said. It's brilliant. Tarantino understands the medium, his writing is superb, his direction is pitch-perfect, the characters are funny and so on, but I think it is a dangerous film, actively a dangerous film, because it gives you the psychopathic experience with no comeuppance.

Tarantino says, "Look! See how entertaining it is to blow someone's head off! Or to laugh at them when they're humiliated! Or to anally rape them!" There's no consequence. You just enjoy it.

Did she think it should have been banned? No. I think there's a lot of dangerous art out there, and you've got to assume that the majority of people in the audience are going to have enough internal resources to be able to process it and not act on it. You have to trust your audience.

 


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