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British Board of Film Classification

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The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), originally British Board of Film Censors, is the organisation responsible for film classification and censorship within the United Kingdom.

Responsibility and powerEdit

The BBFC rates theatrically-released films, videos and some video games. Legally local authorities have the power to decide under what circumstances films are shown in cinemas, but they nearly always choose to follow the advice of the BBFC. In line with the Video Recordings Act, all video releases not exempt under the Act must be classified by the BBFC, it being illegal to supply material which has been explicitly refused a certificate. Very realistic video games with adult themes must also be submitted to the BBFC to receive a legally-binding rating (contrast advisory PEGI ratings) in the same way as videos.

All videos and games rated by the BBFC receives a certificate, along with "consumer advice" detailing references to sex, violence and coarse language. If a certificate specifies that a film or video game is only suitable for someone over a certain age, then only those over that age may buy it.

The BBFC can also advise cuts for a less-restrictive ratings. This generally occurs in borderline cases where distributors have requested a certificate and the BBFC has rated the work at a more-restrictive level. The final certificate then depends on the distributor's decision on whether or not to make the suggested cuts.

Current CertificatesEdit

The BBFC currently issues the following certificates since 2002:

Symbol Name Definition
UcUniversal ChildrenSuitable for all, but especially suitable for young children to watch on their own (video only).
UUniversalSuitable for all.
PGParental GuidanceAll ages admitted, but parents are advised that certain scenes may be unsuitable for younger children.
MMatureAll ages admitted, but parents are advised that it is more suitable for mature audiences 12 years and over.
12A12 Accompanied/AdvisorySuitable for those aged 12 and over (cinema only); under 12s are only admitted if accompanied by an over 18..
1212Suitable for those aged 12 and over (video only).
1515Suitable for those aged 15 and over.
1818Suitable for those aged 18 and over.
R18Restricted 18Suitable for those aged 18 and over and only available at licensed cinemas and sex shops. These films contain sexually explicit, pornographic content, and/or sexual violence.

A history of British film certificates is also available.

History and overviewEdit

The BBFC was established in 1912 as the British Board of Film Censors by the film industry (who would rather manage their own censorship than have national or local government do it for them). The legal basis on which it operated was the Cinematograph Act 1909, which required cinemas to be licensed by local authorities. The Act was introduced following safety concerns following a number of nitrate film fires in unsuitable venues (fairgrounds and shops which had been hastily converted into cinemas), but the following year a court ruling (LCC v. Bermondsey Bioscope Co.) determined that the criteria for granting or refusing a licence did not have to be restricted to issues of health and safety. Given that the law now allowed councils to grant or refuse licenses to cinemas according to the content of the films they showed, the 1909 Act therefore enabled the introduction of censorship. The film industry, fearing the economic consequences of a largely unregulated censorship infrastructure, therefore formed the BBFC in order to take the process 'in house' and establish its own system of self-regulation.

Informal links, to varying degrees of closeness, have been maintained between the BBFC and the Government throughout the Board's existence. In the period before World War II, an extensive but unofficial system of political censorship was implemented by the BBFC at the Home Office's bequest. As the cinema became a culturally powerful mass-medium, governments feared the effect of its overt use for propaganda (as happened in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany), and discouraged any expression of controversial political views in British films. This trend reached its climax during the 1930s. Following protests from the German Embassy after the release of a film depicting the execution of Edith Cavell (Dawn, 1928, dir. Herbert Wilcox), intense political pressure was brought to bear on the BBFC by the Home Office. A system of script vetting was introduced, whereby British studios were invited to submit screenplays to the BBFC before shooting started. Interestingly, imported Hollywood films were not treated as strictly as British films, as the BBFC believed that audiences would recognise American cinema as representing a foreign culture, and therefore would not apply any political messages therein to their own lives. So while the Warners gangster films and other 1930s Hollywood films which explicitly dealt with crime and the effects of the Great Depression were released in the UK largely uncut, these subjects were strictly off-limits for British film-makers.

During World War II, the BBFC's political censorship function effectively passed to the Films Division of the Ministry of Information, and the BBFC never regained this to the same extent as before the war. The increasing climate of post-war liberalism ensured that from the 1950s onwards, controversies involving the BBFC centred more on depictions of sex and violence than on political expression. There were some notable exceptions: Yield to the Night (UK, 1956, dir. J. Lee Thompson), which opposed capital punishment; Room at the Top (UK, 1959, dir. Jack Clayton), which dealt with class divisions; Victim (UK, 1960, dir. Basil Dearden), which implicitly argued for the legalisation of homosexuality all involved the BBFC in controversy.

In 1984 it changed to its current name to "reflect the fact that classification plays a far larger part in the Board's work than censorship".[1] At that time it was given responsibility for classifying videos for hire or purchase to view in the home as well as films shown in cinemas. Home video and cinema versions of a film usually receive the same certificate, although occasionally a film may receive a more restrictive certificate for the home video market, as it is easier for children to watch a home video than to be admitted into a cinema.

The Board is an independent, non-governmental organisation. Its business affairs are controlled by a council of management selected from leading figures in the manufacturing and servicing sectors of the film industry. This council appoints the President, who has statutory responsibility for the classification of videos and the Director who has executive responsibility and formulates policy. The Board, which is based in Soho Square, Soho, London, is financed from the fees it charges for classifying films and videos and is run on a not-for-profit basis.

In the case of films shown in cinemas, local authorities have the final legal say about who can watch a particular film. Almost always local authorities accept the Board's recommendation for a certificate for a film. There have been some notable exceptions - particularly in the 1970s when the Board allowed films such as Last Tango in Paris and The Exorcist to be released with an X certificate (essentially the same as today's "18") - but many local authorities chose to ban the films regardless.

Conversely, in 2002, a few local authorities, apparently under pressure from distributors and cinema chains, ignored the BBFC's ruling that Spider-Man receive a 12 rating, and allowed children younger than 12 to see the film. However, the BBFC were already in the process of replacing the 12 rating with a new 12A which allowed under-12s to see the film, provided that they are accompanied by an adult, so shortly afterwards, Spider-Man was reclassified as M. A common misconception is that the rating was introduced as a direct result of Spider-Man. While it is true that the introduction was accelerated, plans to relegate "12" to an advisory rating for cinema were drawn up as early as 2000, and piloted in Norwich in 2001. The first M certificate awarded was for The Bourne Identity.

Local authorities do not have such power for video recordings. Under the Video Recording Act 1984, all non-exempt recordings must be classified by an authority chosen by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. This classification is then legally binding, in that supply of material contrary to its certificate (selling recordings which have been refused a certificate, or supplying to someone younger than the certified age) is a criminal offence. However, possession is not an offence in itself, other than in the case of "possession with intent to supply". Since the introduction of the Act, the BBFC has been the chosen authority. In theory this authority could be revoked, but in practice such a revocation has never been suggested.

Attitudes to censorshipEdit

Historically the Board has faced strong criticism for an over-zealous attitude in censoring film. Prior to the liberalising decade of the 1960s, films were routinely and extensively censored as a means of social control. For example, Rebel Without a Cause was cut in order to reduce the "possibility of teenage rebellion". Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night was cut to remove "overtly sexual or provocative" language.

The BBFC's attitude moved extensively towards liberalisation during the 1960s - concentrating on censoring films featuring graphic sex and violence. However decisions which the Board reached repeatedly caused controversy in the 1970s when it banned a series of films that were released uncut and were popular in other countries. Notable titles include The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left. However, under recent President Andreas Whittam Smith and current incumbent Sir Quentin Thomas, guidelines have been relaxed again, allowing the release, usually uncut, of these previously banned films on video and in cinemas. Some films from the 1970s remain unreleased (see this list for titles), but many of these titles remain banned primarily because their distributors have not chosen to re-submit the films to the BBFC, almost certainly for commercial reasons. If they were, they would be likely to receive a more sympathetic hearing than 30 years ago - only two films from the 1970s, Love Camp 7 (rejected in 2002) and Women in Cellblock 9 (rejected in 2004), both of which contain substantial scenes of sexual violence, have remained completely banned following a re-submission since 2000.

In general, attitudes to what material is suitable for viewing by minors have changed over the years, and this is reflected by the reclassification of older films being re-released on video. A 1913 film given the former A rating could very probably be rated U today. An extreme example of this is the rating of the horror film Revenge of the Zombies, with a U certificate upon its video release in the late 1990s, whereas, when it was first examined as a film in 1951, it was given one of the first X ratings.

RelaxationEdit

The relaxation of guidelines has also made hardcore pornography widely available to adult audiences through the R18 rating. Films with this rating are only legally available from licensed sex shops, of which there are about 100 in the UK. Violent films or films with mixed sexual and violent themes are more likely to be acceptable at an 18 rating than ever before.

Recent examples include the passing of Irreversible, "Romance", "Baise-Moi" and numerous other films uncut for cinema and video viewing. Despite this trend towards liberalisation, anti-censorship campaigners are still critical of the BBFC. A prominent online campaign group is the "Melon Farmers", which criticises both the laws that BBFC is required to uphold and the BBFC's interpretation of that law in specific cases. Conversely, BBFC has attracted more criticism from conservative press, in particular the Daily Mail, on the grounds that the release of sexually explicit and violent films was corrupting the nation. The newspaper's most famous clash with the BBFC came when the Board released Crash without cuts. The following day (19 March 1997) the Mail led with the banner headline "CENSOR'S YES TO DEPRAVED SEX FILM". Westminster City Council imposed its own ban on the film after the decision.

Current concernsEdit

The BBFC's current guidelines identify a number of specific areas of concern which are considered when awarding certificates or requiring cuts. These are theme, language (i.e. profanity), nudity, sex, violence, sexual violence, imitable techniques, horror, and drugs. The BBFC also continues to demand cuts of any material which it considers may breach the provisions of the Obscene Publications Act or any other legislation (most notably the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937 and the Protection of Children Act 1978).

There is no theme or subject-matter that is considered inherently unsuitable for classification at any level, although more controversial topics might require a restricted certificate. This is in keeping with current practice in most liberal democracies, but in sharp contrast to the early days of the BBFC when such themes as prostitution, incest and the relations of capital and labour were unacceptable in any circumstances.

'Bad' or 'strong' language can earn a film a more restrictive certificate, though BBFC policy states that there are no constraints on language use in films awarded an 18 certificate. It is difficult to compare the BBFC's policies in this area with those in other countries as there are different taboos regarding profanity in other languages and indeed in other English-speaking countries. For example, the use of 'strong' language has little effect on a film's classification in France. The BBFC's policy proved particularly controversial in the case of Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen in 2002, which was passed uncut only at 18 certificate, even though its main characters were teenagers who frequently used profanities that the director argued were typical of the social group his film depicted. The film received similar certificates in Ireland (also an 18 certificate) and the United States, but in Australia it was awarded the less restrictive MA certificate.

There are minimal restrictions of the depiction of non-sexual nudity, which may be allowed in even U and PG certificate films, but scenes of (simulated) sexual activity are limited to more restricted certificates. With regard to material that is intended primarily as pornographic the Board's policy, as stated on its website is "Material which appears to be simulated is generally passed ‘18’, while images of real sex are confined to the ‘R18’ category." However, for some years depictions of real sex have been allowed in 18 certificate videos which are intended to be educational, and in recent years a number of works such as Catherine Breillat's Romance, Patrice Chéreau's Intimacy and Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs which feature apparently unsimulated sex have been passed uncut for theatrical release.

Violence remains one of the most problematic areas, especially where it is sexualised. The Board continues to cut films even at 18 certificate for "any detailed portrayal of violent or dangerous acts which is likely to promote the activity." This is particularly the case with so-called "imitable techniques". However, the Board takes into account issues of context and whether it considers scenes of sexual violence to "eroticise" or "endorse" sexual assault. In 2002, the board passed Gaspar Noé's Irréversible uncut, but less than a month later cut Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer by three and a quarter minutes specifically for its alleged sexual violence.

Crime techniques which may be imitated may be cut at any level of certification, as may depictions of drug use that might be imitated. Films which "promote or encourage the use of illegal drugs" may also be cut at any level. The issue of imitable techniques is one that does not seem to figure especially highly in the censorship systems of most other countries, but in the UK numerous minor cuts have been made, primarily to films whose distributors want a PG or 12A certificate, to supposedly imitable techniques. For example, in recent months issues involving hanging have become very problematic; Ren and Stimpy Series 1 (classified PG) was cut for a depiction of hanging which "is presented as comedic, fun and risk free, on the grounds of potential harm to the likely audience" [2] whilst Paranoia Agent Volume 3 (classified 18) was cut to remove the depiction of an attempted self-hanging by a child [3].

Presidents of the BBFCEdit

Chief executives of the BBFCEdit

During James Ferman's time the title of the chief executive officer at the BBFC changed from "Secretary of the Board" to the current "Director".

ReferencesEdit

  • Knowles, Dorothy, The Censor, the Drama and the Film, London, George Allen & Unwin (1934).
  • Hunnings, Neville March, Film Censors and the Law, London, Allen & Unwin (1967).
  • Mathews, Tom Dewe, Censored, London, Chatto & Windus (1994).
  • Richards, Jeffrey, 'The British Board of Film Censors and Content Control in the 1930s', Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol. 1, no. 2 (1981), pp. 95–116 & vol. 2, no. 1 (1982), pp. 39–48.
  • Robertson, James C., 'British Film Censorship Goes to War', Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol. 2, no. 1 (1982), pp. 49–64.
  • Robertson, James C., The British Board of Film Censors: Film Censorship in Britain, 1896-1950, London, Croom Helm (1985).
  • Robertson, James C., The Hidden Cinema: British Film Censorship in Action, 1913–72, London, Routledge (1993).
  • Baron, Saskia (writer & director), Empire of the Censors - two-part TV documentary, pc. Barraclough Carey, prod. Paul Kerr, BBC2, tx. 28 & 29 May 1995.
  1. BBFC website [1], April 2003.

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

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This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at British Board of Film Classification. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with MOVIEPEDIA, the text of Wikipedia is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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