So, how does a gent more accustomed to twirling his brolly down Whitehall view the prospect of ogling blue movies and getting paid for it?
I dont think Ive ever seen a genuine blue movie, admits Quentin Thomas, our new film censor. Its not why I applied for the job. As perks go, its hardly on a par with luncheon vouchers.
You what? He may have been the brainiest civil servant of his generation but me fears he could be in for quite an education. Thrusting resolutely into his in-tray, for instance, is Irréversible , featuring nine minutes of
rape. Anally. Compared with other flicks in his now video collection, however, Irréversible is about as outré as Delia Smith knocking up a suet pudding. Such, dear reader, is the gentle retirement of a man whose
favourite films include She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).
I dont wish to be rude but is the old ticker up to this job? At the Home Office I was responsible for obscenity. I did take the trouble to, er, sample some of the magazine stuff. It comes in very distinct genres: rubber fetishists, or
people who like big breasts. Really, do elaborate. Its very mechanistic. If you happen to share that predilection, its interesting. If you dont . . . Even among mandarins, few could master the Thomas tone: rendering
Big & Bouncy less racy than a discussion paper on Welsh snail farming.
Dry but not dull, Thomas, 58, is the man John Major sent to make Britains first contact with Martin McGuinness. He had no qualms shaking the demonised Sinn Fein leaders hand and admires his key role in
staunching the bloodshed. So after nine tense years in Belfast, he is unlikely to be fazed by cinematic tomato ketchup, let alone unusual sex acts, when he has seen Gerry Adams jump into bed with David Trimble.
Still, remaining intellectually aloof in his new job will not be easy. I gather that counselling now has to be offered to censors, so traumatised are they by increasingly violent films and videos, while morale is said to be subterranean. I may
be knocked back a bit and I guess if it became too difficult I would have to resign, he admits.
He indicates in this, his first big interview, that he intends to imbue the BBFC with a stronger moral code, and discloses that he will ask ministers to enact legislation to allow him to censor movies on such old-fashioned grounds as
decency. While his liberal predecessor Andreas Whittam Smith took me for a boozy lunch and a smutty movie and was condemned for permitting a tide of filth Thomas shares new Labours zero tolerance of
licentiousness. Only in saying he will abolish the 12 rating in favour of parental discretion does he seem anything but a censors censor.
Is there any point, I ask, in censorship in such uncensorious times? Yes, because I think people want guidance, he says. And yet we are bombarded by unwanted e-mails offering (I pick a recent shocker at random) rape sex
now! Well, we cant control the flow , he hedges. And herein lies his dilemma: if the flow grows ever filthier, should the board swim with it? It is not for us to say there are too many westerns or not enough musicals,
he says quaintly (one suspects he hasnt seen much of his fellow Quentin, Tarantino).
But cinematic credentials still need to be established. So come on, Quent, what would you have done with the explicit French film Baise-moi , which Whittam Smith cut? I havent seen that, he says. Indeed, apart from
Billy Elliot , he doesnt seem to have seen much, post-1949 anyway. I have enough cases to consider without taking on the work of looking at earlier ones . So what will be his verdict on the forthcoming Irréversible
? Its not here yet and Ive learnt already that you shouldnt make a judgment on the publicity.
He is cautious, but Thomas cannot hide entirely his conservative agenda, disclosing that he will not, as Whittam Smith intended, drop the 15 and 18 certificates. Over Spider-Man, however a film which again I have not seen he
defends the board for declaring it unfit for children even though some local authorities ignored the classification as ridiculous.
This strategy seems a bit odd: shielding adult eyes more, while protecting children a little less in abolishing the 12 certificate. Why? The child would have to be accompanied by a responsible adult and there must be proper consumer advice to
take an informed view. Which is fine for responsible parents, but if some cannot be bothered to send children to school, how fussy will they be about films? Some people make better calls than others, he says glibly. The risks are
not that great. You cant expect parents to pass an examination as they queue for tickets.
The most radical change under Thomas promises to be the censoring of sexual violence. Now, if a film maker appeals, the onus is on the board to prove the film could cause harm (by encouraging copycats, for example). Many banned films have been
released after court cases, prompting Thomas to say he will ask Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary, for clearer powers. What worries me is that our discretionary power is implicit rather than explicit. There is virtually no legislative
guidance, There is one clause about cruelty to animals and another about children.
Instead, he wants clearly defined power to ban films that are inappropriate or offensive. If we have to prove that a film will cause harm we will be neutered I am worried the boards discretion is being eroded and substituted
by somebody elses. It may well be that legislation is needed. If parliament wants the board to have discretion, it may have to say so.
His ambition, he says, is to establish principles of taste. Anything that causes harm should be a factor. But there are others. Bad language, for instance. What else? Well, this is slippery stuff, says the Whitehall man,
conscious he is one careless remark from either the label pornographer in chief or Stalinist thought police.
There are notions of what is decent, and what is offensive, but its difficult to articulate . Ah, the lament of the censor. Which is why a censor, even one with fine intentions, tends to tie himself up in knots the more he censors.
If you purge films of swearing, where do you stop? Four Weddings and a Funeral was expletive-rich, but loved by 90-year-old grannies.
Whether you agree with Thomas, he cannot be accused of seeking a quiet life. Indeed, for this job he has cut short his summer in Tuscany, where he is restoring a farmhouse with his wife and three grown children. He boldly over-rides his press
minder to say that he does not see why the board should not apply the blasphemy laws when films deal with religions other than Christianity. Given Islamic sensitivities, this could have serious ramifications. I dont know if I am
inventing a new doctrine, but thats where Im coming from, he smiles.
One weakness of the board, not widely appreciated, is that it is funded by the film industry. We are selling a service , he admits. This hardly makes it an objective policeman. Well, if that were the case we would classify everything
U. That isnt the service film makers want. They want a credible classification. They also want a gradual ramping up of violence, which desensitises people, and against this there is little the censor can do. As he admits: We are
market-led . But the fault lies with us for watching the junk.
If we must have a censor, were lucky to have a big-brained one. But in searching for principles to define the censors code, I fear this self-styled old gent could suffocate amid the big bazookas (human and military). He may
have been better off stamp collecting.