Know your enemy

As part of a new era of “accountability”, the BBFC have been having a series of public meeting, up and down the country, to…well, I’m not quite sure what the POINT of them was, but hey, let’s miss no opportunity to rip into our beloved censors. Thus, I found myself in the salubrious surroundings of the Institute of Child Health last Monday night, waiting to see what would ensue.

The big guns were out in force: James Ferman, soon-to-retire chairman of the BBFC, alongside Andreas Whittam-Smith, newly appointed president, whose initiative the evening appeared to be, as well as three low-life peons, sorry, BBFC examiners, allowed out of their cages for the evening, albeit still under the eagle eye of Ferman. And it was Ferman who got the evening under way, with an illustrated lecture on the work of the BBFC.

He began with the legal position, concentrating on the ban on animal cruelty material, illustrated with a spectacular montage of footage of horses being brought down by trip-wires. This was a frequent facet of the presentation, and it did seem somewhat duplicitous of the BBFC to take scenes out of context, and punch them together with rapid fire editing. It’s somewhat disturbing to see the censors using tactics which smack of those used by the campaigners against “video nasties”.

He then moved on to the various areas which were deemed to be of concern to the public at large: drug taking, imitable crime, bad language, sex and violence. This was the most interesting portion of the evening, as Ferman showed “before and after” examples, to illustrate what was done, for example to the sequence in ‘Trainspotting’ where Ewan MacGregor shoots up, which was trimmed to prevent people from learning how to inject heroin [the question was not addressed of whether it might be better for people to learn how to do it RIGHT, rather than get it wrong…]

Particularly interesting was the start of ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’, which begins in jail with a guy getting his hand cut of by his captors. In the US version, we saw the lead-up, with the victim cowering and yelling in terror, having his arm held down, the sword coming down, and the severed limb being pulled away. In the British cinema version (certificate PG), all the lead-up was missing, we got the sword coming down, and the severed limb. However, that was still deemed too much, after a flood of complaints (more on which later), it became the sword descending and the guy being taken away in the video edit…

It was disturbing to realise that the aforementioned “flood” consisted of no more than forty letters. That’s all it takes to influence the BBFC on a subject; I don’t think I really need to say any more, it should be obvious what you need to do the next time the Daily Mail is shrieking over the latest threat to the nation’s morality [isn’t it funny how they never do follow-up pieces, exposing the corruption caused by films like ‘Natural Born Killers’ or ‘Crash’? I wonder why…]

The “sexual violence” chunk showcased another chunk of editing, opening with a long sequence taken from anime schlock masterpiece ‘Kekko Kamem’. I think the three of us there were the only people giggling, but then, everyone else made the fatal error of taking it SERIOUSLY. Putting it just before ‘The Accused’ gives KK rather more credit than it deserves, I think.

Though the audience was definitely pro-choice, perhaps inevitably, there was a loony censorship advocate there, but even Ferman had to laugh when she described a love scene for ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ (certificate ’15’ here) as “hard-core pornography”. I dread to think what she thought of the clip from ‘Highlander 3′, shown to illustrate the difference between ’15’ and ’18’ sex. Her brain probably spontaneously combusted.

The points to come up were pretty much the ones you would expect, but the entire topic is one which could, and indeed probably should, have gone on for an entire day, rather than a mere evening. About the only surprise is that people seem genuinely aggrieved at the lack of information on video releases, which I always thought people didn’t really care about much. To their credit, the BBFC representatives did seem to be their to listen, and I hope they came away with an appreciation of how much most of the people present objected to being told what they could and couldn’t watch.

They handed out a lot of informative leaflets, explaining their stance, and I also got a copy of the guidelines for film certificates (if anyone wants a copy, get in touch and I’ll sort it out). I’ll close by listing the categories of bad language, into which they classify swear-words:

  • Very mild – damn, hell, God, sod
  • Mild – bloody, bastard, piss, pissed, shit, son-of-a-bitch, bugger, bollocks, screw, crap, arse, shag, slut, whore, arsehole, tosser, Jesus Christ
  • Moderate – wanker, prick, bitch
  • Strong – fuck
  • Coarse – stronger sexual swearwords are described as ‘coarse’

Now, why is “bitch” moderate, but “son-of-a-bitch” only mild? Answers on a postcard, please…