The day I knew I couldn't hack it as a censor was the day before the British Board of Film Classification went on the road. Andreas Whittam Smith, the new president, had ordered a "censorship roadshow" and a series of
public meetings. As James Ferman, the chief censor, rehearsed his presentation, I realised in a blinding flash I couldn't bear to support what the board stood for. I resigned the next day. At first I thought it was the presentation that repelled
me. Pompous, paternalistic and riddled with assumptions, it seemed so emotionally manipulative. Clips of cuts we'd made in films showing violence and sexual violence were strung together, out of context to a thumping rock accompaniment. It
started with cuts showing animal cruelty. What better way to woo the support of the British public than enroll their sympathy for animals?
But then I realised it was not the presentation. It was the job. I came to censorship (or examining, as we called it) from education - I taught drama and English at a sixth-form college in Brighton. I applied out of curiosity after
seeing an ad. I needed a job in London, the money was reasonable, I loved film and was interested in the debate on the effects of the media. I considered myself broad-minded, liberal even. I had few reservations about film. As a teacher I
credited young people with intelligence and discrimination, but I could see the point of classification, if only as a guide to help individual choice.
My friends were amazed. One colleague couldn't imagine me censoring anything. Others were intrigued. Later I could dominate a dinner party with snippets of confidential information, or stories about porn. But a part of me was
embarrassed to admit I was a censor. It was at odds with my values, though my values and responses would shift like quicksand while I was working at the board.
I joined the BBFC in a tranche of appointments after it did not renew the contracts of its feisty part-time examiners in 1994. It needed "new blood" and a new approach and wanted a full-time board. In the moral panic
following the Jamie Bulger case, which was linked erroneously to the "Chucky" film Child's Play 3, there was new legislation, The Amendment to the Video Recordings Act, contained in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (1994). This
required the BBFC to consider the "likely harm" of a video to its potential audience (or to society through the behaviour of its audience) in the treatment of drugs, horror, sex, violence and crime. I started work in September 1995 in
the second intake of full-time examiners. Three years later I resigned.
We full-timers had been recruited from the same fields as the previous generation - social work, psychology, journalism and education, but there was a crucial difference. We were, generally, younger, less established in our
careers, and financially dependent on the salary.
Was full-time examining a means of reducing dissent? Battles between James Ferman, the director and chief censor, and his part-timers were notorious, though I was blissfully unaware of his reputation as something of an autocrat
when I took the job. Would full-time posts make any difference?Apparently not.
When I left, the atmosphere was sombre. Ferman's authority was sapped by the appointment of Andreas Whittam Smith as president. Ferman's reputation had suffered after his fruitless attempts to liberalise porn available in sex shops
and he announced his retirement. After so many ostrich years, He now appears to crave publicity - there's been a Panorama and dispirited pronouncements that he should have cut Pulp Fiction. It does not take much of a leap of the imagination to
see him sniping from the sidelines in future, á la Mrs Thatcher.
Life at the BBFC under Ferman was always contentious and theatrical. Controversy set the board backtracking on policy, or retreating into silence. A handful of letters constituted a public outcry. I'll never forget the day of the
Dunblane massacre. Most examiners had children and reacted with horror to the slaughter. Although there was no connection between Thomas Hamilton and film, Natural Born Killers was due for release on video that month. As society wrung its hands
the spotlight fell on video violence. Films like Michael Mann's Heat were criticised by Andrew Neil in the Sunday Times. Editorials sprang up everywhere condemning violent entertainment culture. Whenever these stories broke, whatever the facts,
there was a reining in. Decisions undoubtedly became more conservative. In such a climate it is difficult to keep your cool and remain objective.
But all this was nothing compared to the Daily Mail's campaign to ban David Cronenberg's Crash. Luckily I was on holiday when reporters doorstepped my colleagues, prying into their personal lives. The Crash controversy never seemed
to end. Ferman, with characteristic caution, would not issue a certificate before he had covered every angle. The Daily Mail scored a coup when Paul Brittan, the forensic psychologist consulted by the board, condemned the decision to give it an
18. Examiners had no qualms about the
decision; it was the hesitation and mess in the way it was handled which sunk us.
We viewed five hours a day, three-and-a-half days a week. It was a mixed bag - TV comedy and dramas, videos of Hollywood films, straight-to-video action thrillers, children's material, or foreign language stuff like Hindi films.
And porn. Lots of it. I might have a day of film once a fortnight. People assume the job is glamorous. I found it dull and isolating. Imagine sitting through Chinese soaps - three hours of Neighbours in Cantonese. Or Barney, the purple dinosaur,
soporific, politically correct and gushy. I would rather let my three-year-old watch Reservoir Dogs. But then the job gets you like that. You either become delinquent or Outraged of Eastbourne. You get a reputation, after a while - good on
violence, bad on language, wobbly on sex. Some examiners were considered "safer" than others. One colleague, who left after two months, found herself holed up for her last weeks with kiddies' cartoons. Another had a spate of Whoopi
Goldberg movies. My worst week had Teletubbies as the intellectual highlight.
The viewing day started at 10am. We worked in pairs, usually starting with porn. I'm not sure why. It wasn't a formally agreed practice, rather an unspoken understanding. Porn often required cuts - a time-consuming task in a
tightly scheduled day. We needed to be brisk and businesslike to get over the embarrassment of watching sex with strangers. If we got through this, there'd be better to come.
I am not a natural porn user. So there I was, having barely digested breakfast, sitting in a small, dim room staring at intimate body parts with someone I wouldn't normally invite to dinner. (Don't get me wrong, I liked all my
colleagues, but there are limits.)
You have to swiftly establish a front of objectivity. Personal feelings, be they arousal or disgust, simply shouldn't enter into it. This is a paradox, of course, since such feelings are precisely those on which notions of taste
and decency, two cornerstones of classification, are based.
My own relationship with porn shifted from week to week, dependent on mood, and personal circumstances. At first it felt odd. The material seemed bizarre. Later, in turn, I was bored, irritated, occasionally depressed, more by the
routine predictability than anything else. Often I found it funny. Some images would follow you home, resurfacing at inconvenient moments.
We distanced ourselves with ridiculous language. Erections were described in terms of "the angle of the dangle". "De-minimus" was a fleeting glimpse of something normally banned. "Natural
Configuration" meant you saw bits you shouldn't when the model bent over. The standards were arbitrary, bizarre, I couldn't fathom their rationale, but I applied them anyway, as jobsworth as the next examiner. "Length and Strength"
meant sex scenes over four to five minutes would be cut. Long shot buttock thrusting caused particular problems. The oddest was the ruling that outer but not inner labia could be shown. This was based on some dubious parallel between male and
female sexual organs. Dicks on the dangle were all right, but inner labia were equated with an erect penis. I thought the engorged clitoris a more likely comparison, but what's anatomical accuracy when taste and decency are involved?
We would play games in the viewing room to alleviate the boredom. Spot the villain (no challenge), predict the dénouement (marks for accuracy, extra points for getting the timing right), complete the dialogue line. We had the
nuances of genre nailed.
Ferman loved to fiddle, snip and trim, like an enthusiastic barber. An idea was rarely expurgated, but might be "reduced to establishment only". Some trims didn't make sense. The rape scene in Rob Roy was a case in point.
It was reduced on film for a 15 cert, and further cut on video following a handful of complaints. Yet many viewers thought the cuts sanitised the rape.
Lord Birkett, the previous acting president, feared Physical Graffiti, a documentary about body modification, might encourage rebellious youth to get pierced, tattooed, or worse, and suggested a ban. Ferman's answer was to trim the
goriest details, to remove the "process". Some details made me feel quite sick: a man hanging from butcher's hooks piercing his back, self-induced vomiting, huge metal ball-bearings and spikes inserted under the skin. But it had the
right of expression.
Marginal lifestyles always created problems. Censorship normalises and contains, unaware that democracy is tested at the periphery.
"Process violence" was bad, potentially titillating, likely to appeal to sadists. Censorship sees in black and white - moral or immoral, harmful or not.
Ferman minimally cut the action thriller Eraser, a Schwarzenegger vehicle,for an 18 cert. On video, where statutory powers exist, Ferman made 43cuts, including the final scene. He didn't hesitate to change the meaning to make it
morally "suitable for teenagers". In the 1997 annual report he represented this as a favour to the company. The film flopped, the video did well, ran his argument, because less violence made it palatable to the British audience.
Ferman believed his intervention made films better and had several anecdotes to prove it. He cut a scene in another actioner, Lethal Weapon 3. Mel Gibson brutally disposes of the villains who killed his girlfriend, by slamming the
head of one in a car door. Ferman quotes the film's director Richard Donner as saying this "improved the film", because it gave the hero a chance to grieve.
I had several spats with Ferman before I finally left. They began within weeks of joining the board. The first bout was provoked by Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days, a futuristic action thriller that explores voyeurism and
technology. Ferman wanted to cut the "forcible exposure of breasts" in the scene in which a young woman, Iris, is murdered. The scene is shot from the killer's point of view and played back on virtual reality technology by the hero,
Lennie (Ralph Fiennes). I found it a brash but interesting film, and the scene in question was thematically crucial.
Blood on breasts was an absolute no-no, and any scene involving bodice ripping was liable to cuts. I was outraged by the term 'Peter Meter', a measure of the potential for a rape scene to arouse. Intelligent interpretation could be
overridden by the biological assumptions of the chief censor. The audience could not be credited with complex responses. The cuts were implemented.
Ferman claimed needle penetration was a turn-on for potential drug addicts. Consequently he re-framed the shooting-up scene in Pulp Fiction for video.The evidence for this was anecdotal. We cut instructional detail of hard drug
use. Shots of heroin preparation were cut from Trainspotting on video,and from Andy Warhol's Trash. This seemed ludicrous, mechanistic, irrelevant. Surely there are more direct ways to learn about drugs than watching a film? I may be wrong;
representation may be crucial to latent drug users. But I never saw any relevant research.
The serpentine weekly examiner's meeting clarified cuts and categories and discussed policy. We rarely arrived at solid conclusions. Contentious titles were left on hold and slipped into classification purgatory. Stuffed in
drawers, discreet words to the distributor behind closed doors, letters on file implying unrecorded intervention. Decisions seemed often to be made elsewhere.
The regime was wholly idiosyncratic. The specific censorship vocabulary, the policies, the peculiar working practices, were all Ferman's. Logic and argument were subject to the whim of the director, who regularly overturned
decisions. When Whittam Smith was appointed Ferman was slow to turn his policies into a code of practice, for which he could be held to account.
Ferman saw himself as a mentor to the examiners. He would announce the "truth" of a film, a definitive interpretation. He congratulated himself on his Leavisite training, and wanted linear narrative and clear morality.
Michael Hanneke's Funny Games was "unremitting sadism". A treatise on "cool violence" waylaid debate on Dobermann. Films of the nineties, he emoted, such as Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers, promoted "cool
violence" but were underpinned by moral intentions. Dobermann, by contrast, was irredeemable. This was it. The truth. It should be banned. Like a tyrannosaurus, he would only notice if you strayed directly into the sight line of his
hobby-horses. And yet despite his flaws he loved film, and was committed to the job.
What does the future hold? Jack Straw's intervention in the appointment of Andreas Whittam Smith does not bode well. Whittam Smith lacks Ferman's film literacy. During a screening of Dobermann he asked what LS (long shot) and
postmodernism meant. Yet he overruled Ferman and passed it as cert 18 uncut. He has banned other marginal works, and remains immovable on porn.
Robin Duval, Ferman's successor, a career regulator from the ITC, may or may not meet the challenge of rethinking regulation in a digital age. He has already voiced concerns about action heroes, continuing Ferman's line of attack.
At Whittam Smith's instigation, the BBFC met the public in roadshows around the country. Several months down the line there is still no published report. And how representative is a handful of public meetings, some of which were
attended by less than 30 people?
I'm frequently asked if I was affected by the work. Surely, cooped up in a cramped room for five hours a day watching the worst that popular culture can muster makes me a likely candidate for "effects", should they exist?
Well, of course, I went mad. But not because of the material but because of the stifling passivity of watching too much television. And then there was the job itself. Censorship sees deviance wherever it looks, and like a starchy
matron, imposes its own morality like an iron corset. It is not a pretty sight. Does the material corrupt? No, but the job does.
In the end, I resigned. The lack of accountability and clear focus, the arbitrary judgments, frustration and loss of integrity helped. But mostly it was the lack of relevance to the real world.
The public may, in theory, support classification, but in practice it makes its own choices; the three-year-old who knows every word of Toy Story, passed PG for mild horror; the eight-year-old who delights in The Full Monty with
his family, passed 15 for swearing; the teenager who, as mid-evening viewing, enjoyed This Life, episodes of which were passed 18 on video for drugs. When will we trust adults to choose for themselves? When will we credit children and young
people with the ability to watch critically?
The board could be genuinely informative. Instead of pandering to alarmist fears it could offer a rational voice in the debate. Instead of slavishly responding to a vocal minority it could take note of the vast majority who don't
give classification a second thought. For now, at best the classification system is a sop to society's conscience, a rough guide to content and at worst it is an oppressive tyrant. Nanny with her must-nots.
Day in the Life of a Censor
10am: Start viewing. Breakfast of hard porn: Pornocopia. Great title, shame about the movie. Too many erections for our liking. We cut out the fellatio and masturbation , and pass it R18 for
licensed sex shops only.
11:30am : Five minutes to make coffee and go to the loo. No time for a break.
11:35am : Back to the New Talent Video Special. Magazine porn. "Girls who strip for the very first tome wearing their Marks & Spencer knickers". About 20 minutes. Make a note
never to shop at M&S again. Top-shelf newsagents or cable telly stuff. Easy decision - cut out the inner labia.
12 noon: Teletubbies - Uh-Oh! Messes & Muddles, sell through video. Passed U. Welcome light relief from the porn. Po is bending over for a second but we let it pass.
1pm: Lunch hour. Actually lunch 45 mins. The porn's set us behind schedule.
1:45pm: Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, the video of the film. The film was cut for 12, removing the neck break. We think 15 is a more suitable category - plotless with frequent bouts of
violence. Does the fact that it's a fantasy based on a computer game rather than the real thing make a difference? Beginning of the daily headache, eyes are dry, fidgety, and my joints are beginning to ache. The debate goes on and on - its passed
on to a further team of examiners and ultimately to Ferman. In the end, three months later, the back break, neck break and a kick to the head are all cut and it was passed for 15.
3:30pm: The Simpsons: Marge vs The Monorail. Compilation tape. Language, sexual references, pass it at PG. Love it. Highlight of the day, a genuine laugh to take us through to 4.30. Shame
about the headache.
4:30pm-6pm: Write report. It's been a run-of-the-mill day. One line on Teletubbies, a half page on porn, a paragraph on Simpsons, big report on Mortal Kombat. After three paragraphs I decide
I've only got a couple of brain cells left. I can't string a sentence together, and this needs thought. Time to go home.
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