The British Board of Film Censors was set up in 1912 by the film industry as an independent body to bring a degree of uniformity to the classification of film nationally. Since the introduction of the Video Recordings Act of 1984 due to the boom in home video, the BBFC has also taken responsibility for classifying videos (and later DVDs). It was at this point the body removed the word Censorship from its title, renaming itself The British Board of Film Classification. Although the BBFC may always be seen by many as censors, this is a somewhat simplistic view of their work, which has consistently evolved alongside the film industry itself over the 100+ years since its formation.
We caught up with Senior Examiner Craig Lapper for an overview of how the BBFC has developed over the past century.
Interviewed by Marcus Lawry.
TT: The Board was founded originally with two main edicts; namely there should be no nudity on screen and no materialisation of Christ. What are the modern equivalents of these foundation rules in the BBFC's policy today?
CL: The BBFC's guiding principles today are that adults should, where possible, be free to choose their own entertainment but that children and vulnerable adults should be protected from harmful content. Additionally, we seek to empower consumers, particularly those responsible for children, to make informed viewing choices by providing relevant and accurate content advice.
TT: Some may not realise that the BBFC doesn't make any cuts itself, but provides the filmmaker with a list of cuts which would need to be made, in order to obtain the desired rating. I imagine that this approach throws up the potential for heated dialogue between the two parties?
CL: The process has always been that the BBFC will indicate any difficulties to the company; we've never implemented cuts ourselves. Sometimes there might be more than one possible solution to a problem and we're always prepared to look at a range of alternative edits, depending on the technical difficulties of making changes to a particular scene. Of course, making changes has become far easier in the digital age than it was when dealing with physical film stock.
In general terms, the process is far less painful than you might imagine and the majority of film companies are eager to work with the BBFC to ensure their work gets to the audience for whom it is intended. The Board offers an advice service which allows films to be seen at any stage of post-production, so that any changes can be made before a finished version is assembled. This is because it's far easier and more cost-effective to make changes before all the visual effects and sound have been finalised. Nonetheless, if a company, or a director, is unhappy with a final classification decision, we also offer a formal reconsideration process, which allows them to ask us to take a further look at a work and listen to any arguments they wish to make.
In terms of directors resisting cuts, the BBFC necessarily has close and varied contacts with film-makers, but these have to be kept confidential so that there can be candour and trust on both sides. When a case is old enough, these issues lose their salience, and the BBFC is normally able to disclose its files once they are more than 20 years old.
TT: During your time at the BBFC, which titles have proved the most divisive to classify?
CL: The BBFC does of course have vigorous internal debates, which play a key part in reaching a final classification decision. However, those debates have to be kept confidential because ultimately there has to be a single decision from us. We normally disclose our files after 20 years and many historic cases of divisive classifications have been discussed at length in various books and articles - including the BBFC's centenary book, 'Behind the Scenes at the BBFC'. But I'm afraid I can't go into detail about any cases in which I've been involved. Of course, the BBFC can and does still give full reasons for its decisions in the form of the Insight we publish on our website. This attempts to cover all the salient classification issues with a particular title in which the public may be interested.
TT: As an examiner, you have to follow BBFC policy in enforcing the code, but as a Cinefile, you are in a rare position of seeing many films in their entirety, as the director wished them to be seen. How often do you feel the cuts that are made detract from the artistic merit of a film?
CL: The BBFC's role is to classify films based on public opinion, rather than to evaluate artistic merit, so it wouldn't be fair for us to comment on the artistic merit of a particular film, nor on what effect any changes might have on that aspect. Nonetheless, the BBFC does work hard to preserve the integrity and apparent meaning of key scenes, where possible, and we may decline to recommend cuts where we feel they would be unacceptably extensive or complex or where they would not be able to deal with a tonal or thematic issue. It's also worth bearing in mind that the Board sometimes sees films for advice in an unfinished form and the final version may look quite different when submitted for formal submission. This can be for a wide variety of reasons, many unrelated to the BBFC's recommendations, including the results of test screenings, the advice received from other international classification boards, and changes in direction taken by the production.
TT: You would have seen the horror genre change in its direction significantly during your time as an examiner, through slasher flicks, found footage, torture porn. It's a genre that relies on shocking and terrifying its audience as a measure of success. Where do you see the genre heading next? Is there anywhere to progress too, or do you see a regression back to old fashioned scares, maybe at lower certificate to grow audience reach?
CL: All genres develop and change with time and the horror genre is no exception. My experience has been that horror tends to go in cycles, with gory films waning in popularity for a time and being replaced by more atmospheric horrors, only for gore to have a resurgence at a later point - perhaps because of improvements in special effects.
TT: Which title for you personally, has been the hardest to watch?
CL: I wouldn't want to single out a particular title because I wouldn't wish to give it publicity. But in general terms the things I find most difficult to watch are recordings of real violence, pain and suffering, particularly when they're being presented ostensibly for entertainment. I'm thinking of so-called 'extreme reality' works rather than serious documentaries.
TT: And finally, what's your favourite film?
CL: It's impossible to narrow it down to a single film, but particular favourites would include Pasolini's 'Accatone', Herzog's 'Stroszek' and Kubrick's 'Paths of Glory'. Plus 'Jaws'.
Want more? Check out BBC Four’s amazing ‘Dear Censor’ documentary on the history of film censorship.
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