Film censorship in Britain

What gets censored: the BBFC guidelines

Overall themes

The BBFC guidelines say that only in the “18”-rated classification are there no taboo subjects. For “U” and “Uc”-rated films, they require that “sensitive or problematic themes will be treated in a way that makes them understandable, even to younger children”. In “PG”-rated films “social problems like crime, divorce, racism and serious illness may feature, but more disturbing adult issues will not”. Such themes “should be treated in a reassuring way”. “Adult themes” may feature “discreetly” in “12”-rated films, but “difficult themes” should have “clear outcomes”. Most themes are arrived for films classified as “15”.


BBFC guidelines allow for “little or no nudity” in “U” or “Uc”-rated films; “occasional nudity in a non-sexual context” in those designated “PG”; occasional “brief and discreet” nudity in a sexual context in films rated “12”; full-frontal nudity, “sometimes in a sexual context” (but avoiding “close-up detail”) in those rated “15”; and “extensive full-frontal nudity” in a sexual context (“as long as there is no undue focus on the genitals”) in those rated “18”.


No sexual behaviour or references are permitted in “U” or “Uc”-rated films, and although “sex may be suggested” in “PG”-rated films, this should be “discreet and infrequent”. Sexual activity “may be implied, but without physical detail” in films classified “12”; and it may be shown, but without “intimate physical detail” in those classified “15”, when “casual sex scenes will be brief, and sex will mainly illustrate developing relationships”. Scenes of simulated sex are permitted in “18”-rated films, but these “may be limited because of length or strength”; images of real sex “must be brief and justified by context”.

Controls are relaxed to some extent in sex videos rated “18” or “R18” (the special category for videos sold only in licensed sex shops). The “18” category permits sexual activity to be “realistically but not explicitly simulated” (except where sex material “genuinely seeks to inform and educate”, when brief explicit images may be included), but this may still be cut for length and “sight of erections or prolonged focus on the genitals is not permitted”. Sex acts should also involve no more than two adults.

The “R18” category imposes no limits on the length of sex scenes, allows the representation of group of sex and permits erections to be shown. The line is drawn, however, at penetrative sex (oral as well as vaginal or anal), ejaculation or anything more than the mildest forms of sado-masochism or fetish activity.


BBFC guidelines are quite detailed about the treatment of violence in films, reflecting high levels of public concern about the impact of screen or video violence on behaviour. “U” and “Uc”-rated films require that “threat or menace” be kept to a minimum; that there should be “no focus on violence (physical or verbal) as a solution to problems”; that there should be “no focus on weapons unless in comic, historic or fantastic settings”; and that while there may be “brief moments of fighting” these must be “balanced by reassuring sequences or storylines”.

In “PG”-rated films, “violence must be justified by the story, but more will be allowed in a historic setting or in a comedy or fantasy film”. There must be “no emphasis on combat techniques or realistic weapons”.

“12”-rated films may show violence more reastically, but it should not be detailed. There may be “occasional gory moments”, but violence to individuals should be brief. Sexual violence may be “implied or briefly indicated, but only when justified by the story”.

A similar test of justification is applied to “15” and “18”-rated films. In those classified “15”, the BBFC says that: “If the violence itself is the primary source of entertainment, detail should be kept to a minimum and be balanced by other elements of storytelling such as character or plot.” In the case of those classified “18”, it says that: “Detailed focus on violent acts may be unacceptable is it promotes violence or the use of illegal weapons”. Sexual violence “may be implied and sometimes shown, as long as the scenes do not offer sexual thrills”.


“U” and “Uc”-rated films may include “brief moments of mild horror in comic, historic or fantastic settings”. “PG”-rated films may include horror scenes “in a fantasy context, but there will be no prolongfed focus on gory images or suffering”. “Occasional gory moments and some grotesque images” are permitted in “12”-rated films, and may be more frequent or detailed in those rated “15”. In films classifed as “18”, “horrific themes, incidents and images are acceptable, as long as they do not breach standards on violence, sexual violence or sex”.


No drug references are permitted in films rated “U” or “Uc”. “Mild verbal or visual references” are allowed in those rated “PG” and brief images are allowed in those rated “12”, as long as they don’t condone or encourage drug use. Drug use may be shown without detail in films classified as “15” and in detail but with “no clear instruction” on use in those classified “18”. “15”-rated films cannot include images that “glamorise, promote or encourage illegal drug use”, while in the case of “18”-rated films the film as a whole must not “promote or advocate the use of hard drugs”.

Bad language

Jesus is worse than God and Hell is better than Christ. The BBFC guidelines for what constitutes bad language set out five categories of expletive: very mild, mild, moderate, strong and coarse. In “U” or “Uc”-rated films, only on rare occasions may the mildest of swear words be used. In “PG”-rated films, “mild bad language may be used occasionally but no strong swearwords will be used”. “12”-rated films permit frequent use of mild or moderate swear words, but only very rarely will there be a sexual swear word. “15”-rated films may contain sexual swear words “but very coarse or aggressive language will only be used occasionally”. And films rated “18” have no limitations on the strength and frequency of swear words or the explicitness of sexual references.

The BBFC categories of swear words:

Very mild: damn, hell, God, sod

Mild: bloody, bastard, piss, pissed, shit, son-of-a-bitch, bugger, bollocks, screw, crap, arse, shag, slag, slut, whote, arsehole, tosser, Jesus, Christ

Moderate: wanker, prick, bitch

Strong: fuck

Coarse: stronger sexual swearwords


Censorship milestones

The censors and the law

What gets censored

What gets censored: the BBFC guidelines