There is an organisation which, whether we are conscious of it or not, effects everyone who watches films either at the cinema or in the comfort of their own home. The British Board of Film Classification (or BBFC for short), has been acting as guardian of the British movie lover’s morals since 1912, and in the process become the scourge of radical and ‘cutting edge’ filmmakers everywhere.
Founded in 1912 as the British Board of Film Censors, the organisation was originally established by the film industry to provide a uniformity in film classification. Until then the 1909 Cinematographers Act had allowed local authorities to determine whether or not cinemas would be awarded licences to show films. Over the ensuing years the BBFC’s powers of veto have expanded to encompass not just films for cinema release but videos, DVDs, video games, advertisements and trailers. They also provide valuable resources and facilities to the film industry, as well as education and information to help students and their teachers learn more about film classification and regulation within the UK.
Contrary to the widely held opinion that the job of a film censor employed by the BBFC must be a film lover’s paradise, the reality is often very different. Over it’s 100 year + history those employed in the ‘odious’ task of sitting through several films a day, have emphasised the monotony and danger of desensitisation brought about by watching say a family drama followed by a horror or hardcore pornographic film, all of which must be passed by the board before being released to the general public. Having to study and categorise films films within certain limits and set rules probably does ruin the fun slightly.
However, despite their good work, the BBFC will probably be best remembered by the public for what they have not let us see.
Shortly following its formation, the organisation established a categorisation system whereby they marked all films for release on their suitability for public consumption, commencing in 1913 with two simple groups: ‘U’ – Universal, and ‘A’ – More suitable for adults (no film was passed that was not considered clean and wholesome). Over the ensuing years ratings have varied to include such obscurities as the 1930’s ‘H’ for Horrific (no one under 16 admitted) to the fondly remembered ‘X’ (persons under 16 not admitted) used between 1951 and 1982, and culminating in today’s ‘U’ – Universal (unrestricted admission), ‘PG’ – Parental Guidance (some scenes unsuitable for small children), and the self explanatory ’12’, ’15’ and ’18’ certificates.
In 1916 the organisation’s first president Thomas Power O’Connor (popularly known as T. P. O’Connor) – an MP in the House of Commons and journalist who wrote a nightly parliamentary sketch for the Pall Mall Gazette – drew up a list of 43 grounds for deletion intended as guidelines for examiners. However the controversy surrounding the banning of such infamous 1930’s horror movies as Freaks (1932) and Murders in the Zoo (1933) and the notorious thrillers A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Last House on the Left (1972) has made the public question many times whether the BBFC’s select few have the right to determine what the masses can see, particularly considering that these films are all now available uncut for general viewing.
To mark its milestone in 2012 the BBFC rolled out a series of historical Theatrical Black Cards (the certificates of film classification which show on the screen before the opening credits of all films released in the UK): six of the retro cards from 1913, the 1940’s, 1960’s, 1970’s, 1980’s and the present day played for two months at a time, showing before the opening credits of films.
The BBFC’s director David Cooke summed up the organisation’s historic anniversary at the time stating: “The BBFC’s Centenary is a chance for us to both look forward and to celebrate out past. We are constantly striving to develop new services; provide the public with fuller, richer information; and to improve our efficiency”. So it would appear that as long as films are made the decisions of a select group of men and women in offices off London’s Soho Square, will continue to determine whether or not we get to see them.