Are Britain's Film Censors Up to the Job?


A record number of films are getting release in British cinemas without any cuts being needed to get approval. Figures released by the British Board of Film Classification show that during the past decade less than three percent of the 4,951 films released into cinemas had to have cuts in order to achieve the classification they wanted.


This is a substantial fall from the position in the 1970's, the period in which film censors most often had to wield their scissors, when 27 percent of films had to take cuts to be allowed on UK screens.

In the 60's and 70's X-rated films were often cut on grounds of taste and decency. Today's 18 certificate films will only receive cuts if the censors feel they encourage illegality or if film content may encourage some people to harm themselves.

Now there are concerns that some of today's filmmakers are pushing too hard at the boundaries of taste and decency and critics of the film industry-funded classification board, the BBFC, have accused it of presiding over a “free for all” situation. There have been calls for the board to be stripped of its classifying powers and a succession of recent decisions have fuelled concerns about the regulatory system still further.

The BBFC last January allowed the film Hostel into British cinemas without cuts, despite noting that it contains scenes of "bloody violence, torture and strong sex.”. A character has his eye gouged out in Eli Roth's film, whoch some critics described as “perverse” and “obscene.”

In 1904 Michael Winterbottom's film 9 Songs was allowed unaltered into cinemas, despite the fact that it features people having sex. That was the year when film cuts insisted on by the board dropped to an all-time low rate of 0.9 percent.

The Board, on its own website, admits such a decision would not have been made ten years ago and in the 60's and 70's cuts had to made in around one in four film, though in the 1980's this had fallen to about 17% of mainstream films.

This year so far just five films – 2.9% of the films released – have had to make cuts and the total footage involved altogether was under three minutes. None of the films concerned were 18 certificates, they all had to make cuts in order to reduce their classification from 15 to the more lucrative 12A classification certificate.

One of the most stringent critics of the Board is John Beyer of Mediawatch UK, which monitors the work of the BBFC and complains that it is too reluctant to take action. “It is a free for all. Films should be classified by a body which is not linked to the industry,” he said.

"The Obscene Publications Act, which is supposed to underpin the system of classification, hasn't worked for years and the people in charge of the board believe they can proceed without fear of recourse."

BBFC former President, Andreas Whittam Smith, who was in charge between 1997 and 2002 said classification has to reflect the moral climate of the times.

"The Board should be guided by what the public wants," he said. "We shouldn't have a situation where the board tells the public what it wants."

For the Board itself, a spokesman said that the business of the Board was film classification, not film censorship."We leave it up to adults to make up their own minds about the films they see."