You know you're getting older when policemen look younger, when all pop music sounds the same, and when you come to believe the movie censor plays a vital role in upholding basic standards of taste and decency. I crossed this final Rubicon late last
week. The process was entirely painless and took place sometime between being ushered around the British Board of Film Classification's private cinema in Soho and sitting down to discuss pornography, over tea, with the board's current director. Think of
it as the death of youth, the coming of wisdom or another shuffle-step en-route to the grave. I have finally learned to love the censor.
But if I have changed positions, the BBFC has at least moved partway to meet me. In its
former guise as The British Board of Film Censors, the organisation could cheerfully hack the sexual references out of Smiles of a Summer Night , cut Rebel Without a Cause to reduce the possibility of teenage rebellion, and serenely refuse
to explain or justify its decisions. These days the remit has shifted. We are definitely not a moral arbiter, insists director David Cooke. We do everything on the basis of published guidelines which are in turn based on widespread public consultations.
For good measure, Cooke adds that the current policy is about providing information as opposed to taking preventative measures. In the 1970s the BBFC cut 27% of the films that were submitted for theatrical release. Last year the figure had dipped to
When compared to its US counterpart the BBFC appears still more laudable. This Film is Not Yet Rated , a riotous, tub-thumping documentary from Kirby Dick, exposes the Motion Picture Association of America as a
corrupt cabal, typified by a blend of moral puritanism and rampant corporate greed. Supposedly staffed by average American parents, the MPAA ratings board is depicted as a stooge of the Hollywood studios. Its appeals body, moreover, is stuffed full of
distributors and executives. Setting themselves up as moral watchdogs, the examiners wave through the violence of the big studio products, yet clamp down hard on independent and foreign-language releases that typically contain more in the way of sex.
This, Dick argues, is their way of killing off the competition.
On top of that, the MPAA is so damn unprofessional, he tells me. There are no written standards. No training. No semblance of accountability. And the studios have
fought to keep it as unprofessional as possible, because that makes it easier to control.
In his office overlooking Soho Square, David Cooke admits that he's seen This Film is Not Yet Rated and liked it a lot. That said, his
official response comes with a thicket of caveats. If the film's allegations are true, he says, then the BBFC is very different. If it's true that the appeals body is made up of exhibitors and distributors, then that's not how it is here; we have an
independent judicial tribunal. If it's true what the film says about examiner training, then obviously we do a lot more. It also sounds as though the MPAA doesn't have the same investment in public consultations as we do. But I still can't say how
accurate the film is. I haven't actually rung them and asked if it's true. He laughs, a trifle warily. I'm not sure they would welcome me doing so.
I'm betting that the BBFC is privately delighted by the appearance of Dick's
documentary. Whatever its merits as a movie, This Film is Not Yet Rated stands as a ready-made PR opportunity, an excuse for them to throw open their doors and show that they are nothing like their sister organisation across the pond. Times have changed
since the shadowy, 24-year tenure of director James Ferman (described by Screen International as a notoriously secret private fiefdom) ended in 1999. The board now runs a press office, publishes an annual report and adopts a more lenient approach to the
adult categories. Once the strict matron of British cinema, the BBFC now revels in the role of progressive young uncle, with a liberal line on what consenting adults might get up to when the lights go down.
Even so, this whole
classification business remains fraught with difficulty. One of the changes introduced by Robin Duval (Cooke's immediate predecessor) was the consideration of artistic merit as a means of rating a movie. But who is to judge whether a film is artistic or
not? Isn't this just as subjective as assessing works on a sliding scale of moral decency?
Cooke skirts the issue. What our guidelines currently state is that, if a film is a borderline case, one of the factors we can take into
account is artistic merit. But I wouldn't like to say we're anything like the French, where a Quentin Tarantino film will typically be rated as a 12-certificate because the rationale would be 'Ah well, this is a great auteur.' But in certain cases it
might make a difference as to whether a film is viewed as a sex work.
Such was the case with Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs or the forthcoming Destricted , a series of artistic responses to the theme of pornography.
Both films feature frequent bouts of apparently unsimulated sex. Both were passed as 18-certificate as opposed to the R18 fodder that can only be bought in licensed sex shops. Yes, it's a judgment call, says Cooke. But in my two years in this job I have
seen rather more pornography than I might have wanted to, and most of it is incredibly boring. And Destricted is not remotely like those things. Now obviously you can have a discussion about whether you find films like it arousing or not, and we do have
those discussions. But we felt that it was not its primary purpose.
The BBFC currently employs 29 full-time examiners. They currently rate 600 films a year for theatrical release, and upwards of 17,000 for the DVD market. The
pornography can get wearing after a while, Cooke says, partly because it looks like no human being made it. But the worst is the extreme reality material; the bum-fight videos that encourage homeless people to batter themselves senseless; the grisly CCTV
compilations of traffic accidents and suicide bombers. He explains that the board provides a counselling service for all its employees. Not because we think any of them are going bonkers, he adds hastily.
After talking with Cooke
I am led across to meet senior examiner Ros Bates. Despite working at the board for 10 years, Bates insists that she has never availed herself of the counselling service. But then I was born in Yorkshire, she says. I'd rather take the dog for a walk.
Bates has rated thousands of films during her time at the BBFC (including This Film is Not Yet Rated, which she rated 18). Does she ever think she got it wrong? I think every examiner goes home and thinks that, she says. With me it
was The Others. The Nicole Kidman horror film was passed uncut as a 12-certificate. Later, during one of the board's public consultations, Bates discovered that the film had scared the wits out of its younger viewers. The problem with that film was that
there was nothing onscreen; everything was implied. So within the letter of the guidelines I got it right. But it bothers me to this day.
And therein, perhaps, lies the last, lingering issue with the classifiers. For all their
talk of surveys and guidelines, consultations and judicial reviews, the final decision still rests with a small group of boffins in a London office. It is an inexact science at best.
Actually I would say that film classification
is an art, not a science, says Bates. You can never feel 100% confident that you got it right. This is a human organisation; we're not a biological research company. Inevitably it is a subjective judgment. But we do have layers of consultation and
discussion and believe me, contentious films go through a very long process.
In the opinion of the American judge Potter Stewart: Censorship reflects society's lack of confidence in itself. Mark Twain wrote that it is akin to
telling a man he can't have a steak because a baby can't chew it. If you take away the right to say 'fuck', argued Lenny Bruce, you take away the right to say 'Fuck the government'. And I still subscribe to these views. I'm just not sure that they can
quite be applied to the BBFC.
In desperation I call Dave Taylor at his home in Thailand. Taylor is the frontman for the Melon Farmers, an anti-censorship lobby group that has taken the BBFC to task on numerous occasions.
Annoyingly, however, it transpires that Taylor has learned to love them too. They've gone from being terribly secretive to being one of the most open and transparent organisations in the country, he says. I think they've largely backed off from
censorship, and they get away with it because they are able to back up their decisions. It's a brilliant PR mechanism. If the Daily Mail starts attacking them they can simply say, 'Oh, we made our decision via public consultation and in line with our
It's not just the rightwing press that has found its guns spiked. It has massively deflated our role as well, admits Taylor. There's simply very little for us to pick them up on; they usually have a logical
explanation. So I've gone from fighting with the BBFC to having a drink with them.
The BBFC differs from the American ratings system in one other respect. The MPAA boasts that its board is made up of honest, unsophisticated
American parents (Neither gods nor fools, according to Jack Valenti, former president of the MPAA). But the BBFC examiners are appointed by public competition. They attempt to reflect a broader social spectrum and cover a wider range of expertise. Ros
Bates used to work as a teacher. Her colleagues include doctors and lawyers, social workers and civil servants, gay examiners and straight examiners, examiners with children and examiners without. Oh, and we get an awful lot of journalists applying as
well, she adds brightly.
And yet this, surely, is a bridge too far. Yes, I have finally come to see the sense, if not in censorship, then at least in an open and accountable process of film classification. Yes, I am forced to
concede that the BBFC may actually have a role to play in British cultural life. But no, I am not about to pick up my scissors and go to work for them. At least not quite yet.