Cut It Out – The Role of the BBFC

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.

Poster - Murders in the Zoo_02
Murders in the Zoo (1933)

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.

Last House on the Left (1972)

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.

Cleaver Patterson

William Desmond Taylor – A Hollywood Mystery

Legendary actress Bette Davis once summed the business of Hollywood up by saying “Acting should be bigger than life. Scripts should be bigger than life. It should all be bigger than life.”

However the real lives, and mysterious deaths, of many of its stars is proof positive that fact is often stranger than fiction.  Take for instance the curious circumstances surrounding the murder of silent movie star and film director William Desmond Taylor.  Largely forgotten today Taylor was at the height of his game when, on the 1st February 1922, he was cold-bloodedly shot in the chest in the study of his home in the upmarket Westlake Park suburb of Los Angeles.

Born in Carlo, Southern Ireland, in April 1872, Taylor was used to money – coming from landed gentry, he himself married wealthy New Yorker Ethel May Hamilton following his immigration to America in 1890.  However, it was only after divorcing his wife and leaving for Hollywood, that Taylor was able to live the high life to the full.

William Desmond Taylor

In the early years of Hollywood’s ‘Dream Factory’, studios churned out numerous films weekly to satisfy increasing public demand for celluloid escapism.  Taylor, attractive and charismatic, had little difficulty finding work, acting in twenty seven films between 1913 and 1915.  However it was as a director that he really came into his own.  Between 1914 and his death in 1922 he helmed an astonishing 59 films, many – like Captain Kidd, Jr. (1919) starring the legendary Mary Pickford – considered classics of their time.

Mary Pickford

If Taylor was popular with the film going public, offscreen he was the life and soul of the party and as a successful director could have anything, and anyone, he wanted. Actresses like teenage star Mary Miles Minter and his close friend Mabel Normand were all thought to have been romantically involved with him.  It is his varied love-life (including rumoured bi-sexuality) which gave rise to the most likely causes behind his murder.  A popular theory is that it was drug related. Hollywood, even in those early days, was a cocaine (or ‘joy powder’ as it was nicknamed) playground. Aleister Crowley the infamous occultist and narcotics user summed the city’s inhabitants up when he passed through in 1916 calling them, “the cinema crowd of cocaine-crazed, sexual lunatics”. Normand was a well-known drug addict, a habit which Taylor had tried to wean her from to the probable anger of her pushers.

Significantly, Taylor’s death could have finished Hollywood if the censors had had their way.  Worried by the effect the lives of stars like Taylor and Normand were having on impressionable fans, moral campaigners pressurised Hollywood to clean up or shut up, though considering the scandals of today it’s debatable how successful this was. In fact it’s probably just as bad now, in the 21st century, as it has ever been, as highlighted by contemporary chat show host Jay Leno, when he talked about the popular thoroughfare which runs through the heart of film-land. “If God doesn’t destroy Hollywood Boulevard, he owes Sodom and Gomorrah an apology“. Clearly things haven’t changed much.

Murder makes the news

Whatever the truth about Taylor’s murder, it was hushed up by the studios, and after a lengthy period of police investigation the case went cold, though to this day it remains open and unsolved.  Taylor’s influence on popular culture however, both pointedly and subliminally, has remained significant in the years since his death.  In Sunset Boulevard (1950) Billy Wilder’s film noir built around the inner machinations of Hollywood’s ‘golden age’, Gloria Swanson’s character of Norma Desmond is a reference to both Taylor’s middle name and that of Mabel Normand.

Another clear reference to the scandal was by writer Gore Vidal, who died recently, when he included an account of Taylor’s murder in his novel Hollywood, an epic satire on Tinseltown’s heyday. Though fictional, Vidal’s prose only enhanced Taylor’s already shady reputation and the continuing mystery surrounding his murder. “On the other hand the telephones of Hollywood had not stopped ringing all that morning and everyone in any way concerned knew of the murder.  While the press continued to print salacious stories about Taylor’s womanising the police spoke only to the thief, Eddie, who had vanished.

Westlake Park

Westlake Park is now a nondescript part of Los Angeles, lost within its ever increasing urban sprawl.  Taylor’s bungalow on Alvarado Street is itself long gone (a parking lot covers the area on which the house once stood), confined like the murder itself to the annals of Hollywood’s troubled and murky past.

Cleaver Patterson