Andreas Whittam Smith likes pornographers. Well, perhaps that is putting it a bit strongly. Certainly he appreciates their honesty.
When the sex film people sent a delegation to our offices, I said to them: 'This Office Tart movie ' it's got no artistic merit whatsoever, has it? They replied: 'No.' I said: It's not meant for anything other than sheer titillation, is
it?' They said: 'No, that's right. I immediately thought to myself: 'I can work with these people'. What I liked about them is that they had absolutely no cant,That seemed so refreshing.
Over the past four-and-a-half years, encounters like the one he describes have become par for the course for Mr Whittam Smith, whose reign as president of the BBFC ends this week.
With his approval, the board belatedly approved the release of a slew of "video nasties", ranging from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the newly-certified Straw Dogs ( One of my weaknesses as a censor is that I can't take
horror seriously ).
Films containing full-frontal nudity and all manner of amorous activities now qualify for 15 certificates, while it has become commonplace for a certain kind of arthouse movie to include scenes featuring actual sex. At the same time, the board has
signalled its intention to downgrade the 12 classification to "advisory-only", like PG, possibly as early as this autumn.
Yet it has been far from a free-for-all. For every relaxation, there has been a subtle tightening of rules around the margins. References to drug-taking have been all but eradicated from movies with anything less than an 18 certificate, while graphic
sexual violence remains virtually taboo.
And, lest we forget, it was only after a fierce legal wrangle that the BBFC finally consented to approve the sale of uncut sex videos, even through licensed adult outlets.
There's one mystery I've never been able to fathom the whole time I've been in this job, which is why the British allow themselves to be the most regulated nation in the world," he muses. "Is it because we are more puritanical? No, that
doesn't wash, because the United States is very puritanical in some ways, but far less heavily regulated. There's no clear answer, other than that we seem to have an ingrained paternalism, which must be some kind of inevitable consequence of our
historical development.To me, the BBFC's primary job should simply be to enable parents to regulate their children's viewing. In my deepest heart, I object to the notion of paternalism.
Though it may seem odd for the nation's supreme arbiter of taste and decency to disapprove of censorship, Mr Whittam Smith is confident he speaks for the majority of the British public. My guess is that 80 to 90 per cent of the population is
happy with censorship laws as they are, while 10 per cent are for heavier censorship and 10 per cent are libertarians, Those who want more censorship just happen to be disproportionately represented by one incredibly powerful newspaper, the Mail.
While he has clearly relished the challenges, not to say run-ins, that have characterised his time at the BBFC, there is one thing Mr Whittam Smith will certainly not miss: viewing bad films. I'm watching this unpleasant Japanese gangster film at
the moment featuring sustained sadism, which is either going to have to be fantastically cut or refused a licence, It's like having your teeth pulled out.
On Advisory Certificates
Children will be able to watch movies that are currently rated 18 in cinemas within a decade, Andreas Whittam Smith predicted last night. The growth of opportunities to view unregulated movies on the internet has made the abandonment of compulsory 15
and 18 certificates inevitable,
His comments to The Independent on Sunday raise the prospect of young children being granted access to films featuring high levels of sex and violence, as long as they have the permission of their parents. In the very long-term, all ratings will
become advisory, There will be a long pause before the next relaxation, but it will all happen in a 10-year period.
Whittam Smith's remarks come as the BBFC prepares to downgrade the 12 rating to an "advisory-only" certificate like PG. The move, which is being finalised after months of consultation with parents around the UK, will allow children of all
ages to watch such films as Spider-Man and Pearl Harbor, provided they are accompanied by "responsible" adults. He also said he believed the change would be in place by the autumn. There's nothing in a 12 that is terribly serious, and
parents are the best judges of what their children can watch, provided they are given the right information about a film's content by cinemas and distributors."
Whittam Smith said he believed the most problematic issue facing his successor, who is expected to be named within a fortnight, would be how to treat films containing acts of sado-masochism. Vivid depictions of sexual violence are still largely
regarded as taboo by the BBFC.