Reference > Media law & regulation > British censorship
Origins and the first 60 years
The British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) was founded in 1912 as a trade body, administered by the Kinematograph Manufacturers Association, itself formed in 1911, to avert threats of statutory censorship. [At that time stage works were subject to pre-production censorship by the Lord Chamberlain, an officer of the Royal Household, under the Stage Licensing Act of 1737, which remained in force until 1968.] The local authorities had been made the de jure licensing and regulatory bodies under the Cinematograph Act 1909 and could impose their own local restrictions, a right that they were initially unwilling to relinquish.
Two categories of certificate were introduced: U (Universal) and A (Public). Although A signified that the film was more suitable for adults, it was not the intention that children should be excluded. Officially it was 'without the least implication that it might not be shown to children' as it was the Board's policy that only films that were 'clean and wholesome and above suspicion' should receive a certificate.
In 1920 the Middlesex County Council formally made cinema licensing conditional on screening only BBFC-rated films, followed in 1921 by the London County Council. The LCC included a stipulation that children could only gain admittance to A certificate films if accompanied by 'a parent or bona fide adult guardian'. Exhibitors were not happy at first with this requirement but when the Cinematograph Exhibitors' Association decided about this time that its members would show only films certificated by the BBFC, the requirement was generally adopted by local authorities elsewhere in the country.
The H certificate was introduced by the BBFC in 1932 in response to pressure from local authorities over concerns about the growing number of horror films being released. Perhaps surprisingly, it was apparently not the origin intention that children should be banned from seeing H certificate films, although as the certificate itself clearly shows, such a restriction was imposed, with a minimum age limit of 16.
In fact, relatively few H certificates are issued. Whether this is a reflection of changing taste and production genres or the absence of horror in films submitted to the censor is a debatable point.
In 1948, the government appointed a Departmental Committee on Children and the Cinema (the Wheare Committee), whose report in 1950 (Cmnd 7945) failed to find any clear evidence of the 'harmful influences' that the cinema exerted over impressionable young people. Nonetheless, in January 1951 the BBFC responded to Wheare's recommendation by replacing the H certificate with an X certificate for films to which children under 16 would not be admitted. The change was relatively subtle but showed up over time: the emphasis was no longer on dramatic 'horror' but on sex and violence.
The next revision in the classification scheme came into effect on 1 July 1970. Four certificates were now to be employed:
U Universal admission;
A Children aged five and over admitted unaccompanied but parents are advised that the film may contain material they would prefer the children under 14 not to see;
AA No admission for children under 14;
X No admission for children under 18.
The age of majority in the UK was reduced from 21 to 18 in 1970. But although it could be argued that X now genuinely meant 'adult', youths aged 16 and 17 were overnight excluded from the most restrictive classification of films. For a film to be granted an X certificate could henceforth remove it from part of the key age group for cinemagoing. Saturday Night Fever was originally classified X but reclassified as A following cuts.
Challenges to the system
Although the ratings applied by the BBFC had been almost universally accepted for 50 years, there was (and still is) no statutory censorship or classification of films in the UK. Soon after the new classifications were introduced, the Greater London Council (GLC) began to issue its own certificates to allow some films to be seen in the capital that the BBFC had deemed should not be shown anywhere in the country—and on the whole they were still not shown outside London. At the end of 1973, for instance, the GLC Films Committee decided to give an 18 certificate to Jens Jørgen Thorsen's film Quiet Days in Clichy, which the BBFC had banned. Both the GLC and the BBC, recognising the changes that had in reality been in the air since the mid 1960s, conducted surveys into public attitudes to censorship and the depiction of sex and violence on film and television.
This liberalisation trend did not go unchallenged and attempts were made to find statutes under which censorship could be applied. In April 1974 Mrs Mary Whitehouse, the self-appointed watchdog of morality on television, failed with a private prosecution under the Vagrancy Act against La Grande Bouffe (Blow Out) and Edward Shackleton, a retired Salvation Army officer, brought an action under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 against United Artists for 'publishing' Last Tango in Paris.
The latter case went forward to the Old Bailey, where it was held that exhibition in a cinema did not constitute publication within the meaning of the Act. The only identifiable 'publication' had been handing the print of the film to the manager of the Prince Charles Cinema, London, and evidence had not been presented that he had even seen the film, let alone been 'depraved and corrupted' by it, as would have to have had to be proved for the action to succeed.
In some instances, local authorities took more restrictive views than the London-based censor. Two films to which the BBFC granted certificates, Ken Russell's The Devils (1971) and Walter Hill's The Warriors (1979), were among films that suffered the fate of local authority bans.
In January 1975 the GLC debated a motion to abolish film censorship altogether, and such was the interest that the debate was broadcast live on both London's local radio stations. The motion was lost by the relatively narrow margin of 44 votes to 50, but with a marker to review the situation a year hence. One can only speculate about the consequences had the vote gone the other way; one result could well have been statutory national film censorship.
A Cinematograph and Indecent Displays Bill had been before parliament but had not completed its passage by the time of the General Election on 28 February 1974. In June 1974, The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, had ruled that films could be prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, regardless of any decision by the BBFC. This was a controversial judgment that allowed the case again Last Tango in Paris to proceed but, as already indicated, Lord Widgery's view was not supported by the Central Criminal Court. The Obscene Publications Act was amended in 1977 to include the distribution and exhibition of films. Cinema clubs, showing films to members only, were not exempt, even though they were in practice not required to comply with any other film regulations.
With opinions becoming more polarised, the government set up a committee, chaired by the philosopher Bernard Williams, to 'review the laws concerning obscenity, indecency and violence in publications, displays and entertainments in England and Wales, except in the field of broadcasting, and to review the arrangements for film censorship in England and Wales'. Appointed on 13 July 1977, its report was published in November 1979. Its recommendations were not followed up by the new Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher.
The first censorial move by the Thatcher administration was to bring cinema clubs—which of course were mostly showing porn films—within the scope of the licensing regulations. A private member's bill, the Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, was introduced in 1982 but, as was pointed out in a letter to The Times by David Fisher, the editor of Screen Digest (OK, it was me), the bill was so loosely worded in terms of exhibition of moving pictures for commercial gain that it could equally apply to such things as training films and point-of-sale video displays. It was argued that it had never been the intention of the bill to extend to other activities—but experience tells us that it is the letter of the law, not the spirit, that counts. [An Act intended to ensure that only qualified midwives delivered babies, as opposed to unqualified midwives, had just been used to prosecute a man for delivering his wife's baby at home without medical assistance.] The bill was hastily redrafted and was passed (and not without a mention in both Houses of Parliament of that letter to The Times and its writer).
Revisions to the classification scheme
Meanwhile, cinema classifications were changed from 1 November 1982
U Universal admission;
PG Parental guidance: children admitted but parents are advised that some scenes may be unsuitable for young children;
15 passed for audiences aged 15 and over;
18 passed for audiences aged 18 and over;
R18 passed for screening only in specially licensed cinemas to which audiences aged under 18 are not admitted.
The previous ratings and restrictions still applied to films that had already been classified before 1 November 1982.
Statutory censorship of moving pictures was finally introduced into the UK by the Video Recordings Act 1984. This Act made the BBFC—which changed its name to the British Board of Film Classification—the statutory censorship body for video recordings intended for viewing in the home. Its role as film censor remained on a non-statutory basis.
The ratings applying to video as from 26 July 1985 were as follows:
U Universal: suitable for all viewers;
Uc Universal: particularly suitable for children;
PG Parental guidance: parents are advised that some scenes may be unsuitable for young children;
15 suitable only for viewers aged 15 and over;
18 suitable only for viewers aged 18 and over;
R18 may be sold only in licensed sex shops to persons aged 18 and over.
The most recent change was the addition of a further age band on 1 August 1989:
12A suitable for cinema audiences aged 12 and over; children apparently under the age of 12 must be accompanied by an adult.
12 video may not be bought or rented by a child under 12; it is the responsibility of the accompanying adult whether a child under 12 views the video.
Recent decisions: maintaining a balance, protecting the young
Although British law gives local authorities powers of film censorship, as has already been described, the basis of the classification system remains self-regulation—voluntary and non-statutory. Case law has grown up around BBFC decisions, however. In November 1996, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the BBFC decision to ban the film Visions of Ecstasy, about the life of St Teresa of Avila, on the grounds that is could be blasphemous. (The concept of blasphemy became a debating point in Britain for a while during the 1990s.)
Around the same time the BBFC published the results of a survey of the British public, requested by the Home Office. Although 15 per cent of respondents disagreed with classification decisions, half thought the classifications were too lenient, half too restrictive. In the background was also the recurring question of how much children's access to video could inspire them to violence, a topic that has arisen most poignantly two years earlier when two 11-year-old boys had been convicted of murdering a two-year-old. Only one per cent of those questioned believed that video was the most important factor in inciting violence.
In May 2000, the High Court was asked by the BBFC to conduct a Judicial Review of the decision by its own Video Appeals Committee to issue R18 certificates to seven sexually explicit videos. The Court ruled that the Committee was entitled to judge that the risk of such videos falling into the hands of children—the fear expressed by the BBFC—was insignificant.
Page updated 7 October 2006
© David Fisher