Book Review: Behind The Scenes At The BBFC

Friday, December 14 2012
Book Review: Behind The Scenes At The BBFC

In a week when the BBFC once again found itself in the headlines, with its updated research on sexual violence in films published, to a huge press and, particularly, online hubbub, it’s been fascinating dipping in to Behind The Scenes At The BBFC (BFI), a weighty, near-coffee table-sized tome just published to mark the 100th centenary of the organisation.

If anything, the brouhaha shows the ongoing fascination with the work of the classification organisation, and the fact that anyone with even a mild interest in film (and a lot of other people with no interest in the form whatsoever, it must be admitted) has an opinion of some sort on what should and shouldn’t be shown in cinemas and on video.

The BBFC is constantly on what might be termed a hiding to nothing. This week’s events have again brought this into focus. The BBFC is too soft, conservatives, from the likes of the Daily Mail, thunder. The paper’s coverage this week featured just the kind of editorial tone you’d expect; alongside its standard news report, there was an article by its upstanding film critic Christopher Tookey, railing against the increasing trend towards sexual violence in films. “The truth,” he frothed, “is that ever since it let through another exercise in sexual sadism, Crash, in 1996, the BBFC has repeatedly allowed 18 certificates for films that wallow in sexual degradation, rape and torture.”

Over in the likes of The Guardian, the BBFC was, its readers and columnists might argue, clamping down and censoring the “art” that they wanted too see.

Subtitled Film Classification From The Silver Screen To The Digital Age, this book gives lie to both sides of this argument.

With insight, and not inconsiderable hindsight, it assesses key moments in the organisation’s history, illuminating them with case histories and pertinent detail.

Penned by BBFC staffers, both past and present, and assorted academics and writers, it’s less salacious and more scholarly, admittedly. It fits in with the line I’m oft told by anyone who works at the BBFC: “It’s not all watching porn you know.” So in the same way it looks at films, there’s no titillation here, just the facts and opinions of the BBFC.

Nor does it always look far beyond the confines of its Soho Square offices. If you want that kind of insight, on, say, the video nasty years, take a look at Marc Morris and Jake West’s Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship And Videotape, an essential documentary chronicling the notorious part of our industry’s early history.

But within Behind The Scenes At The BBFC, there’s so much more. Written in chronological order, it details the early years although for this reader, it starts getting really juicy from A Clockwork Orange onwards.

The video nasty era is dealt with well, ignoring the well-worn elements of the tail and instead picking apart the bits left on the corpse in some detail.

For this reader, however, it starts getting really juicy when looking at the years after the Video Recordings Act 1984.

Contained here are the tales of titles that are less well told, Indiana Jones And The Still Beating Heart (Ferman flew to Hollywood to discuss the matter with the likes of Steven Spielberg, after being troubled by some of the stronger material in The Temple Of Doom) and the 80s and 90s Bond incarnations.

And then there’s the post-Bulger 90s, when another storm broke around films. It dispels another myth, the one surrounding Child’s Play and talks at length about some of the forgotten titles – Mikey, for example, about a child serial killer (we still have a review copy on VHS of this unreleased flick) warrants a case study, as does Salman Rushdie fatwa tale International Guerillas. It also outlines the ridiculous problems with a distinctly unfriendly British press.

The most gobsmacking chapter is the one penned by Robin Duval CBE, about the final days of the Ferman era and the huge problems surrounding the BBFC in the late 90s and into the new millennium. Brutally honest, unswervingly franks and totally enthralling, he talks about, among other things, the decision to allow more hardcore material through at R18 which eventually did for the BBFC supremo, and its eventual resolution, finally exorcising the ghosts of the early video era, including The Exorcist and Straw Dogs and then sexual violence in the likes of Irreversible, A Ma Souer and more. It covers arguably one of the biggest changes in the BBFC’s history and it’s fascinating reading.

Behind The Scenes At The BBFC moves on to talk about the current era and looks, at its end, at the digital age and the problems of classification in an online world.

Where the last part of the book succeeds, for this author and, we’re sure, for a few contemporaries in our industry, is that it’s events that are now part of its 100-year history that we remember or were even involved in.

I have a book’s worth of BBFC anecdotes, tales of problems with the organisation, tales of classification and plenty more and this book fills in the blanks – namely facts – and gives weight and credence, and a sense of perspective, to those.

Take The Exorcist. Duval notes the reaction to its eventual release at cinemas and on video – I remember vividly Warner begging us not to report on the granting of an 18 after I got wind of it. We agreed to an embargo, for an announcement to media about its release, a day when all BBFC leave was, we were told, cancelled. Everyone expected a firestorm, and, on the red letter day, nothing much happened. Newspapers were remarkably restrained, reported faithfully and there was no moral outrage.

There are tiny morsels here and there (Evening Standard critic Alexander Walker stormed into Soho Square after hearing A Ma Souer had been granted an 18) but the BBFC is nothing if not cautious – most distributors, especially the independents, are not named, they’re referred to merely anonymously. So Straw Dogs is discussed at length, but FremantleMedia is never named. A good friend of ours was closely involved in this process and we had a good idea of what was going on – where this book works is in filling in the gaps in the story from the other side of the fence.

As the BBFC noted in finding its feet in the post-Ferman, digital era (and we include in that DVD and disc-based formats beyond that), it needed to be more open – in its dealing with the public, the press and other institutions, in talking about its research and modus operandi.

Behind The Scenes At The BBFC gives a genuine flavour of the thought process that goes into classification, the research involved, the behind closed door debates.

And it also proves that it’s not all about watching porn.

Essential reading.

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