James Ferman, retired BBFC director, looks back on 25 years at the cutting edge of entertainment
20th December 1999
From the Independent
When I took the job of "film censor" in 1975 - my tenure came to an end last month - I was warned to forget about following public taste: any
decision I took would be too lenient for some, too strict for others. Nearly a quarter of a century later, the situation is much the same - as this weekend's Channel 4 special on censorship has shown. However, though society is still polarised, at least
the grey areas in between have shifted. Nudity is no longer an issue, and sex is far more acceptable, in the right context. Even bad language is less contentious - people still find it offensive, but the words objected to are arguably far stronger than
20 years ago. Some call it freedom.
In recent years I have come under strong personal attack from various newspapers, especially those that specialise in frivolity and family values. But my early years as director of the British Board of Film Censors - its name was changed to the British
Board of Film Classification in 1985 - were not accompanied by press carping. In those days we were seen as a modern, campaigning body. In the late 1970s we helped to reform obscenity law; in the 1980s we were largely responsible for sweeping away
"video nasties"; and we laughed off Monty Python's Life of Brian by passing it uncut for teenagers.
But the religious right struck in 1988 over Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ, whipping up a tabloid storm over allegations of blasphemy, even before the film arrived in Britain. When I suggested mildly to a journalist that prominent churchmen
might do better to see the film before commenting, it drew the front-page headline: CENSOR SAVAGES BISHOPS. I responded by inviting 28 church leaders in to see the film, including five Anglican bishops. They all agreed it was not blasphemous at law, so
the furore receded. But not for long.
In the 1990s, a new wave of screen violence coincided with a rise in juvenile crime. Videos became the scapegoat, and video regulators the villains - too liberal for the tabloids and too strict for the arts crowd. The Jamie Bulger killing traumatised the
nation, and the press was quick to allege corruption of the two child murderers by video violence. As tension grew, two more brutal crimes were attributed to videos, and it took some months for the Home Office to research the evidence and report in
Parliament that "the police reports did not support the theory that those crimes had been influenced by exposure either to any particular video, or to videos in general". Unfortunately, truth is no bulwark against insidious rumours, and the
allegations were stubbornly and mischievously recycled over the next few years.
The BBFC had become a good story, the stuff of Parliamentary debate, rent-a-quote MPs and tabloid hysteria, fuelled every year by one or two contentious titles. A climax was reached in 1997 when examiners were doorstepped by Daily Mail photographers as
they left home to take their children to school. A gallery of mugshots was printed along with scurrilous condemnations of each for having put the social fabric at risk by passing Crash - in retrospect a non-event, since few bothered to see it.
I was the chief culprit. "Does nothing appal this man?" asked the Daily Mail. Well, yes, I murmured, rape as entertainment appals me, mutilation and torture appal me, as I've made clear year after year. I've always carried the can for Board
decisions, even though most of them were reached by consensus. Crash was a unanimous decision, as was the decision to release The Idiots (with its nude orgy) uncut. But I was hired on the understanding that the buck stopped with me. What this meant
became clear within weeks of my joining when both my predecessor, Stephen Murphy, and the Board's long-serving president, Lord Harlech, stood in the dock at Bow Street accused of aiding and abetting an indecent exhibition.
What they had done, after lengthy deliberation, was to pass a sex education film called Language of Love. They were swiftly acquitted, but the film was referred to the Old Bailey, and I spent much of the next year preparing its defence. Again we won, and
the following year, 1976, I led the campaign on behalf of the local authorities and the film industry to bring films within the Obscene Publications Act, which meant that at last, in 1978, the courts would have to consider films as a whole, just like
books and plays. It also meant that artistic merit could be argued in defence and that the test of criminality would no longer be offensiveness, but harm to the morality of a significant proportion of the likely audience. The "deprave and
corrupt" test could have been conceived to hold the line against the exploitation of sexual violence and torture, the biggest problems of the 1970s. It might also have been framed to provide the ideal weapon against the video nasties of the 1980s,
where it proved its effectiveness repeatedly.
I set out to establish within the BBFC a framework of full and frank debate. We recruited examiners who could argue their case vigorously and professionally, and we encouraged diversity to ensure a broad range of opinion, with every reasonable point of
view likely to be put by the public canvassed first within the Board. We know that taboo themes, like those of Crash and Lolita, will engender controversy, but in a free society there should be no such thing as a taboo theme, only taboo treatments. In
the 1970s, exploitation film makers were often irresponsible in their treatment of rape and sadism. Today, under a stricter censorship of sexual violence, such problems are far less frequent.
Last year the Human Rights Act wrote into British law the Freedom of Expression provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. This, for the first time, puts the burden of proof on the censors, not the film makers. But unlike the American Bill of
Rights, the Act recognises that freedom may need curtailing "to prevent crime or disorder" or "to protect health or morals". This echoes the 1994 amendments to the Video Recordings Act, which require the Board to consider "harm
to potential viewers or, through their behaviour, to society". It is a good test, and one we have applied responsibly.
Having suffered my own share of heavy-handed censorship as a television director in the 1960s and 1970s, I took pride in transforming the BBFC from a board of censors to a board of classification. Few cinema films are cut these days, with the numbers
declining from 40 per cent in 1974 to under 4 per cent in 1998. On video, cuts are averaging about 8 per cent of the total, reflecting the stricter standards for viewing in the home where there is far less control of audience age.
But if I began by refusing to cut works of art, I learned very quickly that art had little to do with violence or sexual violence or crass commercial exploitation. Violence is still the thorniest problem: to what extent should the goal of free speech
vindicate scenes of brutality and blood-letting? Even in America, judges have begun to wonder if the test of "clear and present danger" remains adequate to stem the drip-drip effect of "designer violence" on inner-city teenagers with
access to guns. I'll be glad to say goodbye to the violence of contemporary films and videos.
Sex is a different matter. In the last quarter century, both the Board and the British public have begun to accept increasingly frank depictions of sex on the screen. No sexual image has been cut from any cinema film in the last 10 years, and explicit
sex education tapes now cause little comment on the shelves of W H Smith. But pornographic videos that offer non-violent sex between consenting adults as an aphrodisiac are still treated as criminally obscene by the police and Customs and Excise. The
Board believes such material should be classified for adults-only sex shops, and last summer the Video Appeals Committee supported this view by granting a sex shop certificate to just such a video.
The extent to which this can be treated as a precedent is the subject of much high-level debate. If this approach is disallowed, then sex entertainment will be relegated once again to the black market jungle, where pornography is mixed with violence and
degradation in a manner which is scarcely conducive to a healthy society.
I have no wish to encounter pornography ever again once I leave the Board, but 24 years have not convinced me that the meagre pleasures offered by voyeuristic sex are harmful to those who seek them out, provided the sex is legal, consenting and
non-violent. Society has far more important things to worry about, and we should stop wasting public money pursuing non-violent pornography through the courts.
One of James Ferman's final lectures before retirement was addressed to the British Film Academy
10th December 1999
From the Evening Standard
We began the night with the shark from Jaws eating Robert Shaw. James Ferman first saw it a few weeks before he became film censor. How could I
pass this as a PG? he asked himself. It would give children nightmares. So, as censors do, he rushed off to a child psychiatrist, who said, What's so bad about nightmares? It's just kids working through their problems. So Ferman passed it PG,
and Jaws is now family folklore . Mind you, he did cut out the shot of Shaw spewing up blood: it gave him nightmares.
So began the learning curve, steep and swift, of the man who recently retired from the BBFC. He was giving his valedictory address last week at the British Film Academy. It lasted over three hours, and by the time I went home we hadn't even got to Crash
. Very instructive it was, too, in ways that perhaps censors cease to appreciate. For what the evening's strange mix of experience and innocence confirmed again and again was the British genius for hypocrisy - for sanitising some of the lewdest, most
degenerate and horrific material submitted for a censorship certificate so that the film companies selling it could take their profit without undue offence to public decency.
I saw Ferman not in a new light, but in a clearer one: not so much a film censor, more a trading standards officer for the film industry. Only reasonable, of course, since it's still the trade that appoints British film censors to be judges in their own
"Rape," said Ferman next. There was a lot of it about in the Seventies . We then saw a lot of it: Emmanuelle raped in an Indonesian bordello, Emmanuelle raped in a Tokyo cabincar. And an Emmanuelle-type raped, whipped and branded on her
bottom in the French classic The Story of 0 , which Ferman advised on in the so called "rough cut".
We saw how much rape there had been: Ferman attributed it to the backlash by male film-makers against the Women's Libbers . Anyhow, he wasn't having it, at least not too much of it: especially not if the lady, after being gang-banged and buggered,
simply adjusted her dress and went off as if it had been a thoroughly therapeutic experience. Rape without consequences was dangerous fantasy stuff: it was OUT.
Then he showed the piece de resistance of the genre, though that phrase is not very apt since the two women raped in Michael Winner's Death Wish 2 could put up next to no resistance at all to the gibbering multi-racial rapists who
gang-banged them fore and aft. I cut three minutes 42 seconds of that stuff , said Ferman, a record I think. Winner was furious. We then saw "that stuff" uncensored and really it did look the worst screen violence against women
I've ever seen. Winner, we were told, later became "Censorship Officer" for the Directors' Guild.
"Nudity," Ferman went on, " doesn't seem to bother many people nowadays. " Usually the bare bottom is at the bottom of the list; female tops are there, too. Violence, drugs, swearing - those are the great British worries.
Ferman was told that one producer, a very big name in Hollywood, previewed his ultraviolent films to the worst elements in Los Angeles and, when he noted their attention wandering, snipped away at the film until it was an uninterrupted series of violent
acts: no compassion got a look-in. But what could Ferman do with such people? What he'd done was to "classify up", not reject a movie, but censor it a bit for older age groups. It wasn't a perfect solution. But that's what he was paid to do,
and now with the Convention on Human Rights a part of British law, it would mean his office couldn't take a high hand and reject what it considered obscene out of hand: it had to be made decent. That's what freedom of expression meant.
The certainty that this is what it meant became a little less certain when he showed a clip from the Stallone thriller Cliffhanger , which had Craig Fairbrass using a man's head as a football. Fair-brass, one gathered, was a very popular character
in London's East End, and it hurt Ferman to deprive him of his spectacular run-up to the prostrate victim, all the while doing a jaunty little soccer-style commentary, before kicking the man into goal. Ferman took out most of his kicks, but preserved the
entire sequence for his private collection and has shown it with great effect to MPs and others. I show them the cut version first, which looks bad enough. Then I show them the uncut version. That clinches it: the MPs all cheer the censor's team.
We were wondering at this point when penises were going to enter the discussion. Now they did. He told us how he'd been courageous, yes courageous enough to give a certificate to the Japanese film Ai No Corrida (In the Realm of the
Senses) , a story of perverse love, in which a man and woman go the limit - the limit being reached when she strangles him "with his permission", said Ferman, which made it all right, and castrates him. He showed us the scene where she
fellates him, erect. The lawyers had said it would not tend to corrupt and deprave a significant number of people. It looked so ugly, I could believe it.
But problems arose when the same lady began pulling a naked child's pubescent penis, hurting him. Couldn't pass that: the Protection of Children Act, and all. So Ferman had what he called "an optical" made, that enlarged the area around the
child's private parts, but left the latter out of sight below the level of the cinema screen. A triumph of trompe-l'oeil art.
So with this reconciliation of art and commerce, the evening ended with great applause and a vote of thanks from the film people whose wares Ferman had perused, purified and passed over for 23 years. Perhaps only Michael Winner would have sat on his
Watching all the currents within feminism is very interesting. We can't ignore what's happening; and I would say that in the seventies, we actually led
it , says James Ferman. The GLC often showed films that we had refused certificates to. But in the eighties Valerie Wise convinced Ken Livingstone (then leader of the GLC) that he'd been wrong and they withdrew all the certificates they'd ever
given. That was two years before the GLC was abolished!
We noticed the number of films, particularly in porn, in which women were forcibly stripped at gunpoint or knifepoint and raped. They were eventually, as they say, screwed into submission, threw their arms around their attacker and thanked him for
this glorious liberating experience. Plainly, the message in these films was that when a woman says no she really means yes.
The BBFC decided that the material was depraving and corrupting. It was not a message about rape that ought to be propagated. these films were all for men - so we laid down a policy that we would not accept that message in porn. Serious films make
their own rules. I don't think you can have rules about serious films, but you can have rules about a genre like pornography . Ferman pioneered the cinematic release of Ai No Corrida a few years ago and stresses the distinction between quality films
and those which are apprehended rather than comprehended. Pornography is a generalising medium, it doesn't exactly promote intellectual messages.
Anyone who has taken a media studies course during the eighties will probably know about the male gaze. For feminist film theorists, it was fundamental to the way Hollywood misrepresented women. Whilst male characters were shot head-and-torso entire
frame, the camera would linger on parts of women's bodies for no obvious narrative reason. Pornography was seen as the most extreme example of the way cinema privileged the male gaze at the expense of women.
For feminist theorists like Professor Linda Williams, demonising male voyeuristic pleasure in this way created its own problems. Its moral distinction between 'normal' and 'perverse' subjectivities, she says, is what led some feminists to line up with
the anti pornography crusades of the moral right.
She is one of a growing number of 'pro-porn feminists' who claim that the way to challenge the anti women messages in porn is not to 'just say no' to everything sexual. Williams wants to create alternative material which shows women as active sexual
agents, given the licence to define 'a desire of one's own'. This not only brings her into confrontation with the vociferous pro-censorship lobby in the US, but also challenges the conventional distinction between soft and hard core pornography.
Linda Williams, in her book Hard Core, contends that pornography is a genre which has changed since the seventies. It often contains a perverse dynamic that undermines notions of phallic supremacy . She concludes that it is in the profusion
rather than the censorship of pornographies that resistance can be found to the dominance of the heterosexual, masculine, pornographic imagination .'
Ferman has shared many a pro/anti-censorship debating platform with Williams. A last- minute phone call from him once rescued material from the hands of British customs. He remains unconvinced by her arguments. Linda comes out of an American
perspective , he counters, where no matter what you feel, you have to be anti-censorship because censorship has been used by the likes of Senator McCarthy in such intolerable ways. The last thing any American can be is pro censorship...but I'm
afraid that men who are potential rapists are turned on by films that reinforce that propensity . Has he seen any of the change which Williams describes? We see an awful lot of porn, we don't see many films with complex characterisation .
In the United States, 40% of mail-order video porn is said to be bought by women and it has a growing popularity amongst middle-class couples. Candida Royalle is an ex-porn star who set up her own film company, Femme Productions, to make pornography
which addresses this new market, including the work of 'post-porn, post-feminist performance artist', Annie Sprinkle. For these Ferman has unqualified enthusiasm. The people she's assembled around her are all talented. It looks nice, it's about
people, they look at each other, their eyes talk to each other. In most porn you don't get that - in fact you hardly get any faces.
The reason Femme videos, which have won awards from the American Association of Sex Therapists, were not released here turns out to be a uniquely British combination of prudishness and politics. Explicit sex cannot be passed in the '18' category for sale
in ordinary video shops. The 'R18' category, which means restricted supply through licensed sex shops was proposed in 1984 by Tory MP Graham Bright. We argued very hard for it as a liberal safety valve, but in the end, the Home Office sided with
those who were against it , recalls Ferman. In the Standing Committee, the motion won by a landslide but the Home Office persuaded Bright to accept minor changes in the wording. Instead of simply saying, 'To be supplied only through sex shops', they
wanted the legend to read, 'To be supplied only in licensed sex shops', which meant no mail order sales.
There were only about 80 licensed sex shops in England, one in Wales and none in Scotland or Northern Ireland. Although more liberal local authorities do not require sex shops to be licensed, this means they are unable to sell 'R18' material. 'So
effectively, what we ended up with was a category which was open only to the chain of shops which had enough clout financially to corner the market and get the few licences that were going. It turned out not to be politically advantageous for councils to
grant too many licences because there were no votes in pornography. Most of the pressure on local politicians is part of the NIMBY syndrome.
Pride Video has succeeded in breaking out of this legal triangle and has four explicit safer sex videos on sale in WH Smith. These are health education videos. We have to distinguish between them because the law does so...if something is in the
interests of art, science, literature or learning, it has an advantage over something which is just entertainment. Yet Ferman would not be drawn into advocating change. It's not a question of being happy with it, we have to live within the law
and that's what the law is.
He claims that almost all videos submitted by gay and lesbian production companies like Pride, Pout, and Dangerous to Know are passed uncut, adding, I think it's a great pity that we haven't got a viable sex shop category. I wish that some gay
companies would open some gay sex shops and I wish some women would get together and open a chain of women's sex shops because there is room or sex entertainment for women and gays of a kind which I believe would be legal in a licensed sex shop if we
classified them as such, but at the moment they are just not commercially viable.
But is the marketplace to blame for all the anomalies within British censorship? What about the fact that erections cannot be shown, for instance? Not true, claims Ferman. It's police custom and practice that's led us to believe that there's a law
against it. The police have a checklist approach where, if there's an erection, they assume it's getting towards being obscene and if there's a penetration shot, it's obscene. If you ask them why penetration is obscene, they have no answer, it's just
that in their book, it always has been .
Sado-masochistic porn, according to Williams, rarely shows genital sex but tends to be more concerned with rituals of sexual power. While she draws on psychoanalytic theory to argue for the progressive importance of the feminist lesbian sadomasochist,
for Ferman, SM brings to mind a spate of mid-eighties concentration camp videos, SS Experiment Camp, The Gestapo's Last Orgy and Nazi Love Camp 27 from Italy and Germany. When you see as much of that as we do, you have hard and fast rules that don't
allow eroticised sadistic treatment of women. Certainly the worst sadistic stuff is coming from Germany. I don't understand why, but clearly there must be women who do this for a living . Their bodies must be so distended after they've done a
couple of years of it. They get hauled up on chains, weights are hung from their labia and nipples and they are pulled down so far that they must surely lose all elasticity... ' He recalls one video like this called Extreme Torture, which he banned,
only to discover it in a very middle-class, very respectable, pedestrian precinct in the centre of the Hague . His German counterpart told him that They may be made in Germany, but they can't be sold here because of our constitution .
This states that any media product which glorifies violence is illegal. If it makes violence seem sexy, that qualifies, concludes Ferman, so they make it and export it .
As for films portraying dominant women, Ferman says, If it were an exploitation film, we would still be very careful about it. We have quite a lot of sub/dom films. The first one we got was called Thigh and Squatting Power, simply about a big
strapping woman who sat on little men and squeezed their heads between her massive thighs. It's easier to pass when the woman is on the dominant end because it doesn't reinforce the power relationships in society, but we don't like the idea of young
women being seduced into allowing themselves to be tied up or put in a position where they can no longer withdraw their consent. We've always said that if someone could teach us a way to be liberal on masochism without being liberal on sadism, we would
do it .
While there is clearly a huge gulf between the sensibilities of people who buy the atrocities that Ferman describes and those who opt for the 'bisexual pornutopias' described by Williams, concepts like 'soft-core' versus 'hard-core' do little to clarify
it. They shed even less light on the issue of power relations in sexual imagery. If images of inequality are so powerful once made sexually explicit, then isn't this precisely the area that women should seek to subvert? And if governments wish to
intervene in favour of fairer power relations, why only in representations of sexual activity and not, say, in economics?
Asked if he thinks Britain is a repressive society, Ferman replied, I think it's trying not to be, and I think the public are prepared to go further than the regime within which we have to work and I think that the police are way behind public taste.
But I have to say that when people occasionally try to break out of the straitjacket like the satellite channel, Red Hot Dutch, you suddenly discover that there is a residual conservatism which comes out.