Film and Video Censorship in Modern Britain

Film and Video Censorship in Modern Britain

Julian Petley
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 240
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctt1r24x8
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  • Book Info
    Film and Video Censorship in Modern Britain
    Book Description:

    How does film and video censorship operate in Britain? Why does it exist? And is too strict? Starting in 1979, the birth of the domestic video industry - and the first year of the Thatcher government - this critical study explains how the censorship of films both in cinemas and on video and DVD has developed in Britain. As well as presenting a detailed analysis of the workings of the British Board of Film Classification, Petley casts his gaze well beyond the BBFC to analyse the forces which the Board has to take into account when classifying and censoring. These range from laws such as the Video Recordings Act and Obscene Publications Act, and how these are enforced by the police and Crown Prosecution Service and interpreted by the courts, to government policy on matters such as pornography. In discussing a climate heavily coloured by 30 years of lurid 'video nasty' stories propagated by a press which is at once censorious and sensationalist and which has played a key role in bringing about and legitimating one of the strictest systems of film and video/DVD censorship in Europe, this book is notable for the breadth of its contextual analysis, its critical stance and its suggestions for reform of the present system.Key features include:* Detailed case studies of individual instances of censorship, including Last House on the Left, sex videos in the R18 category, and press-inspired campaigns against films such as Child's Play 3 and Crash.* Interviews with central figures* The author's own contemporaneous reports on key moments in the censorship process.

    eISBN: 978-0-7486-3093-6
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Britain, along with the Republic of Ireland, has the strictest film and video censorship in the European Union. This book will attempt to explain how this situation has been maintained, and indeed strengthened, in recent times, how the censorship system actually works, and why it is maintained.

    Part I examines the origins of the Video Recordings Act 1984 (VRA), and situates these firmly in the moral panic about ‘video nasties’ which commenced in 1981. Part II looks at how the Act was interpreted in the second part of the decade, and at some of its consequences for the video industry....

  5. Part I ‘Censorious Rigmarole and Legalistic Overkill’
    • Introduction to Part I
      (pp. 17-22)

      Early in 1979 there are fewer than 100,000 VCRs in the UK, used mainly for time-shifting television programmes about once a month. Video rentals cost around £6.00 per night; EMI blank tapes retail at £7.00 for thirty minutes and £14.50 for 180 minutes. To buy a film on video costs from around £20 to £60. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of films are watched on rented tapes. By the end of the year 250,000 VCRs are in use, 80 per cent of which are rented, but one in five Britons still doesn’t know what video is. Because the major distributors are...

    • CHAPTER 1 A Nasty Story
      (pp. 23-32)

      The video nasty affair began in 1981 with complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the British Videogram Association (BVA, the video distributors’ trade body) and members of the public about the gruesome nature of the advertising (cassette covers, posters in video shops, pages in video magazines) for certain cassettes. The ASA upheld complaints against advertisements for Cannibal Holocaust, Driller Killer and SS Experiment Camp, and the main video magazine editors agreed joint standards on advertising. It was these various forms of advertising, then, that first aroused the moralists’ wrath, and so it could be argued with some justification...

    • CHAPTER 2 Nastier Still
      (pp. 33-43)

      One of the most disturbing things about the Video Recordings Bill, now going through the House of Lords, is the widespread ignorance of this piece of legislation’s likely effects. On one level such ignorance is hardly surprising: the newspapers which so assiduously helped to fan the ‘video nasties’ affair into flame in the first place are hardly likely to turn round and criticise the offspring of that campaign – a hasty, ill conceived and thoroughly authoritarian bill which threatens to turn Britain (never renowned anyway for freedom of artistic expression) into by far the most heavily censored country in Western Europe....

    • CHAPTER 3 Two or Three Things I Know About ‘Video Nasties’
      (pp. 44-48)

      A good deal has been written recently, if somewhat belatedly, about the Video Recordings Act. Amidst all this welter of concern, however, the original objects of debate, the so-called ‘video nasties’, are largely conspicuous by their absence – as has, in fact, been the case all along. In the first articles to appear in the press about horror videos, a certain litany rapidly took shape out of capsule descriptions of half a dozen or so videos. Thus on 28 May 1982, the Daily Mail complains of ‘films which show castration, sadistic attacks on women and violence including the use of chain...

  6. Part II After the Deluge
    • Introduction to Part II
      (pp. 51-54)

      The chapters in Part II of this book take up the story of video, and to a lesser extent, film, censorship in the wake of the passing of the Video Recordings Act 1984. They usefully illustrate the extent to which the fears of the critics of the Act aired in Part I were, and weren’t, justified, but what gives them their particular interest is the light which they throw on the modus operandi of the BBFC’s remarkable Director, James Ferman.

      Ferman had been appointed as the Secretary of what was then the British Board of Film Censors in 1975, an...

    • CHAPTER 4 ‘The Tenor of the Times’: An Interview with James Fermans
      (pp. 55-62)

      Anyone who has read John Trevelyan’s What the Censor Saw will realise what a close relationship Trevelyan enjoyed with many British film-makers, frequently advising them on censorship matters before and even during production. It’s also noticeable that British films are rarely cut by the BBFC. Does this mean that current BBFC Director Ferman carries on in the Trevelyan tradition? Or have British film-makers simply internalised the Board’s standards and know what they can and can’t get away with? Ferman explains:

      We are asked for advice sometimes prior to production, but we don’t offer ourselves where we’re not invited. However, films...

    • CHAPTER 5 ‘Reading Society Aright’: Five Years after the Video Recordings Act
      (pp. 63-70)

      What bothers the Board the most these days? A look at the BBFC Annual Report for 1988 is most revealing.¹ Not surprisingly perhaps, violence features high on the list, and Rambo III, which was cut by some two minutes for the cinema and lost even more on video, is singled out for particular attention. The report notes its ‘alleged potential for encouraging anti-social violence on the streets of Britain’, and continues:

      It was the moments of military death-dealing in Rambo III which seemed likely to inspire dreams of emulation, and many brief cuts were required by the Board in bloodshed...

    • CHAPTER 6 The Video Image
      (pp. 71-80)

      Last year the video industry in Britain celebrated its tenth birthday, and a decade of phenomenal growth. In December 1979, there were 230,000 video recorders in British homes; ten years later, there were 13.8 million. To buy an EMI three-hour blank tape in March 1979 would have cost you £14.50; today this would purchase a three-pack of four-hour tapes and still leave change to spare. By October 1981, there were still only 6,000 video outlets in the UK, of which only half carried a sizeable stock. According to Derek Mann of the Video Trade Association, there are now 5,500 independent...

  7. Part III Nineties Nightmares
    • Introduction to Part III
      (pp. 83-86)

      This part of the book shows the BBFC at work in the 1990s, and covers James Ferman’s last decade as its Director. Chapter 9 and the last part of Chapter 7 attempt to illustrate Ferman’s somewhat idiosyncratic modus operandi, and suggest that at least some of the Board’s problems in this decade were partly a result of his high-handedness and his pronounced tendency to sit on potentially troublesome films and videos in the hope that the problems which they apparently posed would somehow defuse themselves, whereas all too often – as in the case of Crash, for example – the lid finally...

    • CHAPTER 7 ‘Not Suitable for Home Viewing’
      (pp. 87-101)

      By the early 1990s the ‘video nasty’ hysteria had subsided considerably from the levels it had reached during the first half of the previous decade, but a dreadful event on 12 February 1993 unleashed the deluge once again: this was the murder in Kirkby, Merseyside, of the two-year-old James Bulger by the ten-year-olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who were convicted of the crime on 24 November 1993. The lurid, sensational and above all hate-filled reporting of the case by most British national newspapers marks the nadir of a journalistic culture infamous for its debased and degraded standards (for...

    • CHAPTER 8 Vicious Drivel and Lazy Sluts
      (pp. 102-108)

      According to most newspapers, British is awash with ‘video nasties’ which are openly available to young children; there is a direct causal link between the video Child’s Play 3 and the murders of James Bulger and Suzanne Capper; academics have at long last recognised the ‘obvious’ link between screen violence and real-life crime; and the British Board of Film Classification is irresponsibly liberal in its decisions.

      In fact, ‘video nasties’ were outlawed by police action under the Obscene Publications Act even before the Video Recordings Act was passed in 1984; there are no causal links whatsoever between Child’s Play 3...

    • CHAPTER 9 Doing Harm
      (pp. 109-114)

      When politicians and press pundits work themselves into a self-righteous frenzy over films such as Natural Born Killers, Child’s Play 3 and Crash you could easily be forgiven for thinking that Britain has entirely abolished film and video censorship.

      Nothing could be further from the truth: Britain inflicts some of the strictest film and video censorship in the Western world. Between 1985 and 1995, the British Board of Film Classification cut 23.6 per cent of ‘18’-rated videos and 30.4 per cent of those rated ‘R18’. Forty were banned outright. Numerous recent films have suffered at the hands of the Board,...

    • CHAPTER 10 The Anatomy of a Newspaper Campaign: Crash
      (pp. 115-128)

      The beginnings of the Crash furore lie entirely in a review of, or rather hysterical diatribe against, the film in the Evening Standard (3 June 1996) by Alexander Walker who had just seen it at Cannes. The piece is headed: ‘A Movie Beyond the Bounds of Depravity’, although this phrase appears nowhere in the text. It was, however, taken up in numerous subsequent articles, the first of which was the Mail’s front-page story on 9 November, headed ‘Ban This Car Crash Sex Film’, which stated that Crash ‘has shocked critics, one of whom labelled it “beyond depravity” ’. Walker’s...

    • CHAPTER 11 The Last Battle, or Why Makin’ Whoopee! Matters
      (pp. 129-158)

      In August 1999 the Video Appeals Committee (VAC), established under the Video Recordings Act, announced that seven videos which the British Board of Film Classification had refused to certificate at ‘R18’ (the licensed sex shop category) should be passed. These were Horny Catbabe, Nympho Nurse Nancy, TVSex, Office Tart, the trailer for Carnival (international version), WetNurses 2 (continental version), and Miss Nude International (continental version).

      However, on 28 September, BBFC President Andreas Whittam Smith and Director Robin Duvall announced they were seeking judicial review of the decision

      because, in the Board’s view, it is based on a definition of harm...

  8. Part IV New Millennium, New Beginning?
    • Introduction to Part IV
      (pp. 161-162)

      As we saw in Chapter 11, late in 1997 the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, imposed Andreas Whittam Smith, one of the founders and the first editor of the Independent, as the BBFC’s new President. But as also noted in that chapter, if Straw thought that Whittam Smith was simply going to act as his patsy, he was very much mistaken. In January 1999, Robin Duval was appointed as the Board’s Director, following a seven-year stint as deputy director of programmes at the Independent Television Commission (one of the forerunners of the present-day Ofcom). As already noted at some length, the...

    • CHAPTER 12 ‘The Way Things Are Now’: An Interview with Robin Duval
      (pp. 163-172)

      JP: How do you take Christopher Tookey in the Daily Mail describing you as ‘less notorious but no less permissive’ than James Ferman?

      RD: I don’t particularly enjoy being referred to as notorious, and I don’t particularly like being described as permissive, but I’ve no special objection to liberal, and I don’t mind at all being characterised as a director of the BBFC who has moved things on into the twenty-first century. That inevitably involves a degree of liberalisation because that is the way the British community has moved.

      JP: You’ve certainly introduced much greater openness and transparency into the...

    • CHAPTER 13 The Limits of the Possible
      (pp. 173-196)

      On 18 June 2001 Carl Daft of the distributor Blue Underground angrily declaimed that ‘the right to free speech in the United Kingdom died today, and for that I have to say that I am ashamed to be British’, whilst Mark Kermode in the Independent (21 June) bemoaned a decision that ‘leaves British horror fans once again in the wilderness’. The cause of such fury and bemusement was the decision of the Video Appeals Committee (VAC) not only to uphold the British Board of Film Classification’s decision to insist on sixteen seconds of cuts in the video of Wes Craven’s...

    • CHAPTER 14 Full Circle
      (pp. 197-212)

      In August 2009 it was discovered, while preparing the Digital Economy Bill, that the Video Recordings Act (VRA) had never been properly passed in the first place and thus could no longer be enforced in the UK courts! In a letter to the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Minister for Culture and Tourism, Barbara Follett, was forced to admit that: ‘It has come to light that offences under the Act are unenforceable and, accordingly, all affected current prosecutions under the Act should be discontinued and future prosecutions should not be undertaken’. The opportunities here for intense Schadenfreude were even greater...

  9. Appendix: The DPP List of ‘Video Nasties’
    (pp. 213-216)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 217-220)
  11. Index
    (pp. 221-232)