A Century of censorship: 100 years of the BBFC

Kieran Turner-Dave
cinema 300x225 A Century of censorship: 100 years of the BBFC


This year marks the 100th anniversary of one of British film-making’s central institutions – the British Board of Film Classification. Over the past century, the British Board of Film Classification has evolved from the quaint, and supposedly morally superior, institution that was tasked with protecting the public from corruptive indecency; into a transparent, accountable and in-touch organisation that mainly classifies movies so that filmmakers may more effectively meet their target audience.

In 1909, after several fairground fires were caused by nitrate film, the British government ruled that all cinemas required licenses from their respective councils. Fearing the intrusion of local government on film-making, the British film industry established The British Board of Film Censors on January 1st 1913 to independently manage the censorship of films.

When T.P. O’Connor was appointed President of the BBFC, he introduced a list of 43 scenarios that would ensure a scene be deleted from a motion picture. This antiquated list included prohibitions on scenes that were ‘laid in disorderly houses’, ‘dealt with the premeditated seduction of girls’ and ‘held up the King’s uniform to contempt or ridicule’.

During the two World Wars, the British government became increasingly concerned by the way ‘enemy’ nations had utilised cinema as a medium for mainstream propaganda in films such as Battleship Potemkin and Triumph Of The Will. The BBFC therefore focused heavily on the censoring of films that expressed controversial political views, and took the measure of inviting British film-makers to submit scripts before shooting began to prevent the possibility of political unrest. Interestingly, many 1930s Hollywood movies concerning crime and the Great Depression were passed uncut, on the basis that these qualified as ‘foreign culture’ and addressed issues with which British audiences could not readily identify with.

The end of World War II and rationing saw an increase in youth prosperity, and the emergence of an identifiable youth culture. The BBFC therefore introduced the ‘X’ rating (for those aged 16+) alongside the pre-existing ‘A’ (children must be accompanied by and adult) and ‘U’ (suitable for all) classifications, so that filmmakers could address adult themes within adult contexts.

However, the following two decades saw the BBFC struggle to reflect the increasing liberalisation of British society. Notable films that caused controversy included The Wild One and Rebel Without A Cause, which were delayed classification and cut during the Fifties, due to their focus on themes of youth rebellion.

In the Sixties, Basil Dearden’s Victim was cut to an ‘X’ rating due to its explicit calls to legalise homosexuality. Saturday Night And Sunday Morning also had to undergo edits to its script, which addressed the themes of extra-marital sex and abortion, before being rated ‘X’. All four of these films are now available uncut on DVD, rated ‘PG’.

The 1970s saw the BBFC fall under increasing scrutiny as it had to appease concerns from morally outraged conservatives who sought to protect the public from the dangers they perceived to result from permissive society, whilst also answering to the growing anti-censorship attitudes of the artistic left. The BBFC therefore saw its classifications for works including A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, The Exorcist, The Devils, Last Tango In Paris and Life Of Brian ignored by local councils who refused to allow the films to be shown, despite being passed by the BBFC. The moral panic surrounding these controversial releases was largely a result of pressure from conservative Christian organisations like Mary Whitehouse’s Nationwide Festival Of Light.

It was Whitehouse who coined the term ‘video nasty’ to describe a selection of cult horror films of the early Eighties that managed to be distributed unrated as a result of the burgeoning availability of home video equipment. Her organisation’s close relationship with the Thatcher government undoubtedly influenced the passing of the Video Recordings Act (1984) – which banned the sale of allegedly corruptive videos such as The Evil Dead, Last House On The Left, Cannibal Holocaust and I Spit On Your Grave – unless they had been cut and passed by the BBFC. In line with their increased powers over videos, the BBFC changed its name to ‘The British Board of Film Classification’ in order to reflect the fact that classification played a far larger part in the Board’s work than censorship.

The conservative media hysteria surrounding certain films passed by the BBFC continued into the next decade (Child’s Play 3, Kids, David Cronenberg’s Crash, Natural Born Killers). Yet the Nineties also saw BBFC President Andreas Whittam Smith announce his intention to steer the institution towards greater openness and accountability. This included the launching of a BBFC website, and the publication of the BBFC’s first set of classification guidelines, following a series of public ‘roadshows’ in which public views were canvassed.

The research into public attitudes led to the introduction of the ‘12A’ certificate in 2002, which allowed the distributors of movies like The Bourne Identity and Spider-man to target a younger teen audience. This move effectively signified the BBFC’s primary role shift towards helping filmmakers more easily market their films, whilst also creating an audience wherein parents could be readily informed of a film’s possibly inappropriate content.

The BBFC still occasionally demand cuts from films such as The Human Centipede II and The Bunny Game, which contradict their guidelines that were established by contributions from 11,000 members of the British public in 2005. However, movie studios themselves now carry out the majority of film censorship. The Woman In Black and The Hunger Games both received ‘15’ ratings from the BBFC, before producers had scenes cut, redubbed or darkened in order to achieve the ‘12A’ rating.

As exemplified in Kirby Dick’s exceptional documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, The BBFC is way ahead of its transatlantic counterpart The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) in terms of transparency, information and engagement with the public. Having survived the political unrest of two World Wars, the revolution of liberal society and the subsequent backlash from religious conservatives; The BBFC now survives as an institution that seeks to promote appropriate film distribution as well as audience enjoyment.

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  • Ramsey Campbell

    No cuts were demanded in THE BUNNY GAME – the film was refused a BBFC certificate. The Board said “The Board considered whether its concerns could be dealt with through cuts. However, the pervasiveness of the abuse makes it very difficult to deal with The Bunny Game by means of cuts. If the company would like to attempt to cut this work in order to submit it in a reduced form, they are entitled to do so, but the Board can offer no assurances that such re-editing would be successful. The decision to reject The Bunny Game was taken by the Director, David Cooke and the Presidential Team of Sir Quentin Thomas, Alison Hastings and Gerard Lemos.”

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