Film censorship in Britain

What gets censored

In all, an average of around about 16 films and 30 videos a year have been refused BBFC certification since 1985. This is out of a total 3,200 videos and 400 cinema films seen by the board each year. The banned videos include some -- such as Straw Dogs and The Exorcist -- that had previously been approved for release in the cinema. The BBFC says it has “truly become a board of classification rather than censorship, with cut films diminishing from 40 per cent of the total in 1974 to just under 4 per cent in 1997/98”. On video, cuts were made to 7 per cent of the films submitted in 1997/98, reflecting the stricter standards for viewing in the home. Most of these were made to “18”-rated videos (only 32 were given a “R18” certificate). The reduction in the number of cut or rejected films is not the product of a more liberal censorship regime, however. It largely reflects the disappearance of the violent “exploitation” movies that were produced in great numbers in the 1970s, together with an increasing awareness on the part of film-makers about what will or will not get past the censors.

Among the decisions taken by the BBFC in 1997/98 were:

Ÿ         The use of a butterfly knife in John Woo’s Face/Off was cut due to the risk of imitability.

Ÿ         The Lost World--Jurassic Park was felt to have “tested the limits” of the “PG” certificate. It was released on film and video with the additional warning message that it contained “scary scenes of violence that may be unsuitable for sensitive children or those under eight”.

Ÿ         A technique for stealing a car was deleted from a crime thriller.

Ÿ         The snorting of cocaine was removed from a “12”-rated action adventure.

Ÿ         Violent scenes were cut from three Indian films to achieve a “PG” certificate.

Ÿ         101 Dalmations, Men in Black, Fierce Creatures and My Best Friend’s Wedding are all subject to cuts for the use of expletives.

Ÿ         Cuts of violent scenes were made in the Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies to enable it to qualify for a “12” certificate.

Ÿ         The film Lolita was passed uncut after discussions with police, paedophilia specialists, child psychologists and legal experts. They agreed that the treatment was responsible and that the film was unlikely to encourage paedophile behaviour.

Ÿ         Banned videos included Brave, Bashed, Battered and Bruised, an extremely. violent film about karate, and SAS Weapons and Training for its glamorisation and detailed instructions on the use of guns.

On television, although the boundaries of what is permissible have generally been extended, there is one exception to this trend. According to a Sheffield University study, the Broadcasting Standards Council, the predecessor of the Broadcasting Standards Commission, oversaw a decline in the content of violence in programmes on the four terrestrial channels from 1.1 per cent of output in 1986 to 0.61 per cent in 1994/95. Satellite channels retained a higher proportion of programmes containing violence, at 1.53 per cent of output. This related mainly to US feature films. Since one of the films cited for violent content was Battle for the Planet of the Apes, however, it is not always clear what definitions of violent ouput should include.

With regard to sex on television, a judgement by the BSC in early 1999 attempted to draw a line against further liberalisation by preventing terrestrial television channels from broadcasting specifically erotic material. In the judgement, Channel 5 was censured for broadcasting late-night. soft-porn films. The BSC chairman, Lady Howe said that: “The inclusion, for its own sake, of erotic material in a free-to-air television service is a step change in the use of sex on British television.” It risked an erosion of standards and could encourage the more frequent use of such material. The BSC ruled that erotic material should be restricted to subscription channels, except where it was justified within a “dramatic or informative context”.


Censorship milestones

The censors and the law

What gets censored

What gets censored: the BBFC guidelines