British Board of Film Classification

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Trash

 

Film information

  • Trash

  • Director: Paul Morrissey

  • Status: 18 uncut

  • Year: 1970

Genre: Drama

In February 1971, distributor Jimmy Vaughan (of Vaughan Films) asked the BBFC’s Secretary, John Trevelyan, to take an informal look at Trash, the latest production from the Morrissey/Warhol factory.  Trevelyan viewed the film with Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey on 26 February 1971 (Warhol and Morrissey were in London for the opening of Flesh and a Warhol retrospective at the Tate). 

However, given the controversial nature of the film and his own impending retirement, Trevelyan recommended that a final decision should be left to his successor, since it would be he who would have to take the flak for any decision reached by the BBFC.  Trevelyan did, however, stress that the film was likely to prove difficult for the BBFC, which had always been careful about drugs in films, especially where drugs were the main or only subject.  He suggested to Vaughan that, in the meantime, it might be useful to show the film to critics to garner their likely reactions and the level of support that the film might enjoy.  Accordingly, Vaughan sought the views of three leading critics, Dilys Powell, David Robinson and John Russell Taylor, forwarding them to Trevelyan. 

Sadly for Vaughan, the new Secretary of the BBFC, Stephen Murphy, was not an enthusiastic fan of Warhol or ‘underground cinema’ and when he saw the film, again informally, on 14 June 1971 he advised Vaughan that the film would require cuts at best, and at worst may be denied a certificate altogether. 

In fairness to Murphy, he had only recently taken up his post as Secretary and on doing so had announced that he intended to carry on Trevelyan's policies.  Given his predecessor’s reservations about the film it was perhaps unsurprising that he also chose to sound an early note of caution.  Murphy was made aware very early in his time at the BBFC that attitudes were shifting away from the liberalism of the 60s towards a potential backlash against ‘permissiveness’.  This was orchestrated in part by Mary Whitehouse’s increasingly vocal Festival of Light and most clearly reflected in the launch of Lord Longford's highly critical study into pornography.  Murphy was already coming under attack over Ken Russell’s The Devils, a decision bequeathed on him by his predecessor, and knew that the forces of anti-permissiveness would be looking out for any further decisions with which to question the BBFCs moral authority. 

Although loathe to reject the film outright, given critical and public interest in Flesh and Warhol’s factory more generally, Murphy suggested to Vaughan that he should wait to see how the critics and public reacted, perhaps at the London Film Festival, before submitting the film.  Vaughan, who was not keen on such a lengthy delay (the Festival was in November), responded by forwarding a handful of letters from public figures, including Viscount Norwich, Lord Raglan and Lady Beaumont, all approving of the film.  He pressed again for the film to be seen formally by the BBFC stating that “I don't really feel that Trash presents so many problems”. 

In a letter to Jimmy Vaughan, dated 21 July 1971, Murphy informed him that the best he could offer was a delay and some cuts.  He went on to comment that “The situation is complicated by the fact that there is something of a rash of drug films coming up, and, as you know, we are very unhappy about creating the impression that drugs are an ordinary part of the scene [...] it will be wrong of me to encourage you to think that Trash is going to be an easy one to solve”. 

Murphy advised Vaughan that, at this stage, the best thing might be to submit the film to the GLC for a London-only certificate.  This was a tried and tested BBFC method of canvassing public opinion − allow the film to go on release in London, judge the critical and public reaction, and then make a decision on national distribution.  If the film was defended by the critics and no great fuss caused by its public exhibition, it would be easier to ease the film out across the country. 

However, before pursuing the option of a local certificate, it was standard practice for the BBFC to make a formal decision for the local authority in question to reconsider.

The film was therefore formally submitted on 4 August 1971 and was immediately rejected by the BBFC.  According to the only surviving examiner report, the BBFC was concerned by “its effect upon those young people who are not intimately involved in the hard stuff.  We think that any cautionary message it might have is outweighed by the undoubted degradation and its destructive effect upon those who are not intimately involved in the drug scene, or even upon the fringes of it”.  In considering whether cuts, as Murphy had initially suggested, might provide a remedy, the examiners concluded that “We do not think that cutting would be a good solution as we would still incur the rage of many ordinary cinema goers without satisfying the progressives”.

A request to view the film was lodged with the GLC on 19 August 1971.  Murphy subsequently provided a letter to the council outlining the reasons for the BBFC’s rejection of the film.  He also took the opportunity to inform the GLC that "We have a good deal of sympathy with this film.  It is by no means a sexploitation picture and is, indeed, almost clinical in its treatment of sex [...] we feel that this is a film of some merit”, thus making clear to the council what would be the BBFC’s preferred outcome.  Somewhat to Murphy’s surprise, the GLC refused to approve Trash for exhibition in London on 21 September 1971.  It is possible that, like the BBFC, the GLC was becoming nervous over other ‘shocking’ films they had declined to ban, such as The Devils.  Nonetheless, if the liberal GLC were unwilling to pass the film in its present form, there was now no question of Murphy opening the film up to national release. 

Denied a London release, the next opportunity to gauge public and critical opinion would be at the London Film Festival, where the film was shown to critics first and then to a public audience on 19 November 1971 at the National Film Theatre.  Questionnaires were issued to the audience by the film’s distributor asking whether or not they thought the film should be classified and the critics were also encouraged to review the film.  According to Vaughan, the film now enjoyed the support of the Sunday Telegraph, The Observer, The Times, The Financial Times, The Sunday Times and the Morning Star.  Furthermore, of those members of the public who filled in the questionnaire, only seven were opposed to the classification of the film.  Following the screening, Murphy received impassioned letters from members of the public who had seen the film at the Festival, arguing that it should be classified.  This was followed up by a letter from Vaughan arguing that “From present evidence, there would appear to be a rather strong case for reviewing the whole problem with Trash [...] the applause at the end of both performances would have been music to Paul Morrissey's ears”.  Given the support already received from critics earlier in the year (at Trevelyan’s initial suggestion), Vaughan pleaded “How much more support do I need ...”.

The answer was that he needed the support of broader public opinion.  Although the reaction to the Festival screening had gone some way towards reassuring the BBFC that the film was not regarded as a glamorisation of drugs, there was still a serious concern over its potential offensiveness and therefore its unacceptability to local authorities.  Put simply, if the GLC had considered it unacceptable, what hope was there of the film proving acceptable outside London?  

Murphy felt that the self selecting nature of the NFT Festival audience ruled it out as an indicator of general public opinion and therefore decided to commission some research of his own from the University of Leicester's Centre for Mass Communication.  This research, undertaken at the end of 1971, involved showing the film to a group of 86 individuals and asking for their reactions.  In addition to a number of university students, the researchers also bussed in a group of ‘middle aged housewives’ to seek their views.  The results, which were not presented to the BBFC until February 1972, showed that the majority (58 per cent) were in favour of passing the film as it was and did not think that it promoted drugs (only six people expressed concerns in this regard). 

However, there were substantial reservations about the offensiveness of certain scenes (which perhaps not coincidentally included two of the sequences that would later be cut when the film was finally classified). 

62 per cent of people were upset by the mainlining scenes - not on moral grounds or because they were thought likely to promote drug use, but because they were unwatchably graphic. 

Coming in second in terms of offensiveness was the masturbation scene, which 19 per cent were upset by (although one respondent said it was the best part of the film!).  Reservations were also expressed by eight per cent of people about sex with a pregnant woman (although the BBFC did not in the end take exception to this) and only two respondents expressed concerns about the opening scene of fellatio.  Amusingly, the survey also asked for people’s general reactions to the film.  Top of the list of adjectives to describe it was ‘boring’, although a large number of respondents (55 per cent) also felt that, overall, it was ‘funny’.  When asked what they liked about the film (if anything), one respondent replied “the fact that it didn't go on any longer”. 

In the meantime, Vaughan himself undertook further screenings of Trash to bolster his case, including inviting 100 people found in cinema queues to come to a sneak preview.  Putting together the results from this screening and the Festival screening, Vaughan could now boast 301 votes for classification from the public compared to only seven against.  A later screening at the Regional Film Theatre in Manchester was less successful.  Although there was still a majority for classification (215 to 48), the higher number of no votes appeared to confirm to some degree Murphy’s concerns about the attitudes of non London audiences.

During this period of research, on 25 November 1971, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs opened in London.  This compounded the Board’s difficulties.  Straw Dogs drew surprisingly hostile reviews from the critics, who generally deplored its violence and its macho attitude to violence.  This was followed on 13 December by an open letter in The Times, signed by 13 film critics, deploring the Board’s decision to classify Straw Dogs whilst at the same time refusing to classify Trash.  Of course, Murphy rightly perceived that this attack was more about the critics’ desire to see Trash certificated than about Straw Dogs (some of the critics concerned had actually liked Straw Dogs).  But, coupled with the increasing attacks on the Board over its classification of Straw Dogs − and fresh trouble brewing over A Clockwork Orange, which Murphy passed uncut on 15 December − the letter in fact only made the situation more difficult for Murphy. 

Given the number of local authorities who were now banning films the BBFC had approved, partly in response to the campaigning of Mary Whitehouse’s Festival of Light, it was clear that the standing of the BBFC − and the reliability of its decisions for distributors − was gradually being eroded.  Now was not the time for the BBFC to stick its neck out and pass for national exhibition a film that was likely to be offensive to a great many people, especially outside cosmopolitan London.

By early 1972 the BBFC and Vaughan had reached an impasse.  Although the BBFC now accepted that the film was not likely to promote or encourage drug use (helpfully confirmed by an unsolicited letter from a drugs expert) it was impossible in the present climate to classify the film.  Flak was raining down on all sides over The Devils, Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange and the BBFC’s own research showed that, although seen as an anti-drugs film, Trash was still likely to prove highly offensive.  Given the rejection of the film by the GLC, and the increasing number of BBFC decisions being overturned by councils around the country, issuing a certificate to Trash, as it stood, did not seem to be an option.  At the time Vaughan Films were unwilling to consider cuts, but as time dragged on their resolve broke.

In June 1972 the distributor again asked the BBFC to reconsider the ban.  Unsurpringly, the BBFC simply restated its view that, in its full version, the film was not acceptable.  However, Murphy conceded that it might now be possible to pass the film if its most offensive moments (as singled out in the BBFC’s own research) were toned down.  Sensing that there was little alternative but to go along with the BBFC, the distributor accepted cuts as an option but stated that he could not make changes without the permission of the director.  Accordingly Paul Morrissey flew to London on 15 July and cuts were discussed.  Initially Morrissey stated that he could not accept in all conscience the cuts but, after further wrangling behind the scenes with the distributor, an edited version was prepared and presented to the BBFC on 24 July 1972.  In total one minute eight seconds had been deleted from three scenes.  However, the cuts were still considered insufficient by Murphy and the BBFC’s President, Lord Harlech, and the BBFC asked for the deletion of more material from the three scenes in question, bringing the total material cut to two minutes 48 seconds.  In a letter to Murphy, Brian Smedley Aston, who re-edited the film, noted that Jimmy Vaughan described the deleted material as “cinematic history down the drain”, an ironic statement given Vaughan’s later treatment of the film (see below).  The BBFC was satisfied with this edited version.

As it happened, however, the film was not classified until November 1972.  The BBFC decided that, although it was satisfied with the cut version, it would be unwise to pass the film before the Longford Report into pornography was published.  Once this had been made available, and seemed to have no implications for the screening of Trash or other ‘artistic’ films, the film was finally passed X in its cut form on 9 November 1972.  The film opened on 8 February 1973, being delayed this time by its distributor to coincide with publicity surrounding a TV documentary on Warhol’s work.

The material that was reduced in the X version was as follows:- (i) the opening fellatio scene [in fact masked fellatio], (ii) the first heroin injection scene, (iii) Holly’s masturbation with a beer bottle.  Other cuts that were initially suggested were waived.

In a further twist, it was brought to Murphy’s attention in 1973 that the version of Trash playing in cinemas might not be the same as the version he had passed. 

Obviously, the suspicion in such circumstances would be that some of the BBFC’s cuts had been sneaked back in.  However, on querying this with Vaughan, Murphy received a highly defensive letter admitting that the film had in fact been subject to further cuts after it had been passed by the BBFC.  Vaughan explained that “During the re-editing of Trash to meet the requirements of your Board, I felt I might as well make certain cuts of my own [...] I would also like to mention that I myself removed two scenes of blood going into the syringe and several other cuts which I felt myself were either boring or possibly distasteful”. 

This is a remarkable admission from the man who criticised the BBFC for throwing “cinematic history down the drain” the previous year.  In fact, Vaughan’s own cuts were considerably more severe than those requested by the BBFC and amounted to the deletion of a further eight minutes of material.  By the time Trash hit UK cinemas, nearly 11 minutes were missing, mostly because of the actions of its distributor rather than the BBFC.

Sadly, when the film was first released on video in the UK (1982, Virgin Video) it was the X rated cinema version that was issued, incorporating not only the BBFC’s original cinema cuts but also the distributor imposed cuts.  Presumably the Virgin release was simply transferred directly from a UK theatrical print.  At the time there was no formal requirement for videos to be classified by the BBFC so the video was made available simply displaying the film’s original X.  Following the introduction of the Video Recordings Act in 1984, it became necessary for the video version to obtain a formal BBFC certificate if it was to remain on the shelves.  The cut off point for classification of Trash was 1988 but, initially at least, no distributor bothered to submit the video and the old copies were simply taken out of circulation.  Finally, in 1990, Trash was submitted to the BBFC for a video certificate.  Once again, it was the considerably shortened X version that was submitted to the BBFC (which had already been available in the early 80s).  It was at this point that it became apparent that Trash’s censorship problems were not yet over.

The BBFC’s examiners in 1990 were generally in favour of passing the X rated version of Trash without further cuts.  Not only had its sex scenes been reduced by the BBFC but the drug scenes had been heavily trimmed by the BBFC in 1972 and then further reduced by the distributor’s own edits.  However, the BBFC’s Director at the time, James Ferman, had his own notions of what was acceptable regarding the depiction of drugs on film. 

Ferman had worked on a TV documentary on heroin addiction in the early 70s and had followed this up with a series of five documentary films for teachers, doctors and social workers entitled ‘Drugs and Schoolchildren’.  Following on from this, Ferman took up a part-time lectureship in community studies at the Polytechnic of Central London where he became Director of the Community Mental Health Programme in 1973, before transferring to the BBFC in 1975.  According to Ferman, “the psychology of addicts or potential addicts is not the same as that of ordinary thrill seekers.  Indeed, heroin addiction stems from the need to escape from the world of thrills and hyperactivity.  Heroin is a downer, a narcotic, and is attractive to those seeking peace or even oblivion.  Impotence is not a terrifying prospect for those for whom the challenge and strain of sexual achievement is just one more burden to an inadequate personality.  Two scenes in this film are problematic [...] the scenes at 19 minutes and 55 minutes contain so much detail that they are both instructive and also seductive in immersing the viewer in the ritualistic process of fixing heroin, mixing it in a spoon, using a tourniquet, finding a vein and actually puncturing it and injecting it”.  Therefore Ferman insisted that additional cuts were required, on top of the cuts made in 1972 (and by the distributor in 1973) in the film’s two main injection scenes.  The version of Trash classified by the BBFC in 1991 was therefore cut by a further one minute 48 seconds, on top of the nearly 11 minutes already missing from the cinema version.

But Trash would not go away for long.  In 1995, the original uncut version of the film was submitted to the BBFC for video release by First Independent Films.  This was the first time the Board had been asked to consider Trash in its entirety since 1972. 

On this occasion, Ferman and the examiners recognised that times had moved on since the 1970s with regard to sexual portrayals and the cuts originally made in 1972 to sexual material (the opening fellatio and the masturbation scene) were waived accordingly.  In addition, the ‘boring’ material cut by Jimmy Vaughan for the film’s first release was generally felt acceptable and reinstated. 

However, Ferman remained concerned by the drug injection scenes and insisted that the cuts made to sight of heroin injection in 1972, including the additional cuts made by Vaughan, and the additional cuts he had required for video in 1990, should be replicated.  In this case his position was strengthened further by the recent amendments to the Video Recordings Act (in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994), which required the Board to consider any harm that may be caused to viewers or, through their actions, to society by a video’s portrayal of illegal drugs.  Nonetheless, no expert advice was sought from outside the BBFC about the possible effect - if any - of the scenes.  In total two minutes 20 seconds were cut from the 1995 video version, making this the most complete version of Trash available in the UK to date.

In 2004 the uncut version was submitted once again, this time by Metro Tartan, for DVD release.  The only consideration this time was whether or not the two famous injection scenes could be released intact.  Since James Ferman’s departure from the BBFC in 1998 fresh advice had been taken from experts working in the field of drugs.  Having viewed other films previously cut by Ferman (including Trainspotting) they concluded that the type of material shown in Trash was not in fact likely to be instructional.  The fact that heroin is injected is widely known and no genuinely useful information (eg how to dissolve the heroin, what quantities to use, etc) could be gained from the film.  Based on their advice, the BBFC nowadays looks to intervene with ‘instructional’ drug material only where several elements are in place, showing the full process of drug preparation in considerable detail, or showing elements that would not be widely known or easily apparent. 

The experts did not consider that Ferman’s theories about the hypnotic effects of such scenes carried much weight.  Although it was true that an addictive personality might be fascinated by the ritualistic aspects, without genuinely instructive detail (not to mention access to drugs), they would be unable to act upon such impulses.  In line with the results of the BBFC’s 2004 public consultation process, emphasis has now shifted, to a large extent, away from the ‘instructional’ fears of the past (except in portrayals far more detailed and step-by-step than Trash) towards concern about the glamorisation of drug taking.  The public also agreed with the experts that information about how to take drugs was far more likely to come from peers (who may also supply the drugs) than from watching films and videos.  And the idea that Trash glamorises drug taking was comprehensively laid to rest in 1971-2. 

Therefore, Trash was finally passed 18 uncut for DVD release in 2005, 35 years after the film was made.  No doubt some people will find the full version, with its uncut injection scenes, difficult to watch in places but the BBFC does not regard the film as likely to harm an adult audience.  The BBFCinsight is ‘Contains very strong language, strong sex and hard drug use’.