Film censorship in Britain

“Britain possesses the most rigorous film censorship system in the western world”
Tom Dewe Mathews in Censored! What they didn’t allow you to see and why: the story of film censorship in Britain

Censorship milestones

1896  First public film screening in Britain when the Lumiere Cinematograph is shown at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London.

1909  The Cinematograph Act is passed by parliament in response to fears about public safety due to the fire hazard from highly flammable early film. It requires all cinema premises to be licensed by the local authority and forms the basis for subsequent film censorship in Britain.

1913  The British Board of Film Censors is established by the film industry, with the promise that “No film will be passed that is not clean and wholesome and absolutely above suspicion.”  Films passed by the BBFC are given either “U” (for univeral exhibition) or “A” (more suitable for adults) certificates. The BBFC has no legal powers to censor films, but its advice is generally to be followed by local authorities, which have the power to withdraw licences from the cinemas that show them.

1917  In response to a growing lobby in favour of state censorship, the new BBFC president, T P O’Connor, a Liberal MP, publishes “O’Connor’s 43” -- a list of grounds for deletion laid down for the guidance of film examiners. These are added to over the next 20 years.

O’Connor’s 43

1. Indecorous, ambiguous and irreverent titles and subtitles.
2. Cruelty to animals.
3. The irreverent treatment of sacred subjects.
4. Drunken scenes carried to excess.
5. Vulgar accessories in the staging.
6. The modus operandi of criminals.
7. Cruelty to young infants and excessive cruelty and torture to adults, especially women.
8. Unnecessary exhibition of under-clothing.
9. The exhibition of profuse bleeding.
10. Nude figures.
11. Offensive vulgarity, and impropriety in conduct and dress.
12. Indecorous dancing.
13. Excessively passionate love scenes.
14. Bathing scenes passing the limits of propriety.
15. References to controversial politics.
16. Relations of capital and labour.
17. Scenes tending to disparage public characters and institutions.
18. Realistic horrors of warfare.
19. Scenes and incidents calculated to afford information to the enemy.
20. Incidents having a tendency to disparage our Allies.
21. Scenes holding up the King's uniform to contempt or ridicule.
22. Subjects dealing with India, in which British Officers are seen in an odious light,and otherwise attempting to suggest the disloyalty of Native States or bringing into disrepute British prestige in the Empire.
23. The exploitation of tragic incidents of the war.
24. Gruesome murders and strangulation scenes.
25. Executions.
26. The effects of vitriol throwing.
27. The drug habit. e.g. opium, morphia, cocaine, etc.
28. Subjects dealing with White Slave traffic.
29. Subjects dealing with premeditated seduction of girls.
30. “First Night” scenes.
31. Scenes suggestive of immorality.
32. Indelicate sexual situations.
33. Situations accentuating delicate marital relations.
34. Men and women in bed together.
35. Illicit relationships.
36. Prostitution and procuration.
37. Incidents indicating the actual perpetuation of criminal assaults on women.
38. Scenes depicting the effect of venereal disease, inherited or acquired.
39. Incidents suggestive of incestuous relations.
40. Themes and references relative to “race suicide”.
41. Confinements.
42. Scenes laid in disorderly houses.
43. Materialization of the conventional figure of Christ.

1926  Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin is banned under BBFC rules prohibiting “Bolshevik propaganda” and “incitement to class hatred”. It is not finally cleared for screening until 1954, when it receives an “X” certificate.

1930  Marlene Dietrich becomes the first woman to kiss another on screen in Morocco.

1933  Although it has become common practice for film-makers to approach the BBFC in advance to try to ensure that they don’t fall foul of the censors, in 1933 it objects to a record 504 of the 1,713 films submitted to it. Within a few years, though, the film industry has got the censors’ message. By the end of the 1930s, with audiences totalling around 990 million annually at more than 5,000 cinemas nationwide, only a handful of films are refused certificates each year. This is in large part due to tough new regulations in Hollywood, which crush the early freedom of the film industry. Even so, the BBFC still feels it necessary to introduce the “H” classification for Hollywood horror movies, indicating that such films are unsuitable for children.

1937  The Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act prohibits films involving the mistreatment of animals.

1939  The outbreak of war sees responsibility for film censorship shared between the BBFC and the Ministry of Information. Pre-war rules are actually relaxed rather than tightened. Anti-Nazi films, such as Pastor Hall (1940), which was rejected at script stage before the war under rules banning films that might “wound the susceptibilities of foreign peoples”, are now passed for production. So too is Love on the Dole (1941), formerly rejected as “sordid”.

1948  Although the “spiv film” No Orchids for Miss Blandish is passed by the BBFC, its violent content prompts widespread criticism. The new BBFC president Sidney Harris makes an unprecedented apology for having “failed to protect the public”. With the new BBFC secretary, Arthur Watkins, Harris formulates three principles on which the board should judge films:

1. Was the story, incident or dialogue likely to impair the moral standards of the public by extenuating vice or crime or depreciating moral standards?
2. Was it likely to give offence to reasonably minded cinema audiences?
3. What effect would it have on children?

1951  The “X” certificate is introduced, replacing the “H” certificate. The new classification allows for a new generation of films dealing with “adult” themes. Even so, Marlon Brando’s The Wild One is banned; it is not classified for distribution in Britain until 1967. Both the “H” and “X” certificates impose a minimum entry age of 16.

1955  The Garden of Eden, a film set in a nudist camp, is the first in rash of British films which attempt to get round the usual restrictions on nudity by purporting to be documentary features about naturism. Although The Garden of Eden is refused a certificate by the BBFC, a number of local authorities allow it to be shown. From then on, the BBFC relaxes its rules to permit “discreet” nudity.

1959  Under the new BBFC secretary, John Trevelyan, Room at the Top and later British films such as Saturday Night, Sunday Morning begin to push back the boundaries of what is permitted on screen with their frank treatment of sex.

1965  The BBC bans the broadcast of The War Game because of its depiction of the after-effects of a nuclear holocaust.

1967  Local licensing authorities are left to take their own decisions on Joseph Strick’s Ulysses, in which the word “fuck” is spoken for the first time on British cinema screens.

1969  Ken Russell’s Women in Love features a nude wrestling scene with Alan Bates and Oliver Reed, in which male genitals are seen on screen for the first time. The sequence is blurred on the insistence of the censors.

1970  A prosecution for obscenity of Andy Warhol’s Flesh is dropped; the film is subsequently passed by the BBFC, becoming the first in Britain to show an erection.

The “X” certificate is changed, restricting such films to audiences aged 18 and over. At the same time, a new “AA” category is introduced barring children aged under 14.

1971  Ken Russell’s The Devils is passed by the BBFC after many cuts. Following protests by the Christian Festival of Light organisation, however, it is banned by at least 17 local authorities.

1973  Stanley Kubrick withdraws his film A Clockwork Orange from British distribution after it is linked with several cases of copycat violence.

1975  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is granted an “X” certificate by the Greater London Council despite being rejected by the BBFC. It still does not have a video classification.

1976  BBFC secretary James Ferman reports that 58 of the 402 films seen by the BBFC that year include explicit rape scenes. Pasolini’s Saló, refused a certificate because of its treatment of sado-masochism, falls foul of attempts to restrict the representation of sexual violence in film.

1977  The new Criminal Law Act extends the Obscene Publications Act 1959 to cover film. This allows for the context and artistic merit of a film to be taken into account in determining whether or not it is obscene.

1978  The Protection of Children Act makes it illegal to show indecent images of children in films, regardless of context.

1982  The current BBFC classification categories of “U”, “PG”, “15”, “18” and “R18” are introduced. The additional category “12” is introduced in 1989. The law is tightened to stop bogus “cinema clubs”, which are exempt from the the normal film classification system (but not from prosecution for obscenity), offering instant membership on the door.

1984  The Video Recordings Act 1984 gives the BBFC responsibility for classifying, cutting and sometimes banning videos. The Act is prompted by a high-profile public campaign against so-called “video nasties”, led by backbench MPs (the Act began life as a private member’s bill in parliament), religious leaders and some tabloid newspapers.

1985  The BBFC drops the word Censors from its title, becoming the British Board of Film Classification.

1989  The BBFC refuses a certificate for the film Visions of Ecstasy -- the first time it has ever done do on the grounds of blasphemy.

1994  The killing in Liverpool of the four-year-old (CHECK) Jamie Bulger by two young boys prompts a fresh national outcry over “video nasties”. The new Criminal Justice Act amends the Video Recordings Act 1984 and the BBFC is required to pay special attention to video representations of violence, horror, criminal behaviour, sex and drugs.

1996  The Broadcasting Act 1996 establishes the Broadcasting Standards Commission as the statutory body with responsibility for standards and fairness in broadcasting. Its Code on Standards, an updated version of the former Broadcasting Standards Council code, covers all television and radio, as well as text, cable, satellite and digital services provided by the BBC and commercial broadcasters.

1996  Even film soundtracks can sometimes fall victim to the censor’s pen. The title song to Walt Disney’s Aladdin is changed, for fear of giving offence to Muslims, from referring to “that barbaric place where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face” to “where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense”.

1997 An experiment whereby the BBFC relaxed restrictions on “R18”-rated videos is ended on the instructions of new Home Secretary Jack Straw after it emerges that HM Customs have been seizing such films as obscene.

1998  Andreas Whittam-Smith, former editor of The Independent, takes over as president of the BBFC. One of his first decisions is to pass Lolita uncut for general distribution. In the same year, Britain becomes the only country in the world to insist on cuts to the new James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies.


Censorship milestones

The censors and the law

What gets censored

What gets censored: the BBFC guidelines