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A Blast From the Past - The Problems of Censorship in 1935

Date 15/06/2011

In 1935, Edward Shortt, President of the British Board of Film Censors (as the BBFC was known until its name was changed in 1984) delivered a paper called 'Problems of Censorship' at the Cinematograph Exhibitors' Association (CEA).  The CEA is a body that represents the large majority of UK cinemas and so has had a long historical working relationship with the BBFC.

Shortt starts off with an introduction in which he emphasises to the cinema exhibitors the importance of not passing films that would 'offend a reasonable number of reasonably-minded people', as this would be 'bad business' for cinemas.  He points out that 'there are people in this country who would like to see the cinemas closed. They never attend themselves and they seem to have a desire that no one else should do so'.  He clearly does not agree with them.  Shortt also makes an interesting point which is reflected in the General Principles section of the BBFC's current Guidelines.  He said

'I have always held the opinion that the film, within certain limits, must be allowed the same freedom as is accorded to other forms of dramatic art, always bearing in mind that it should be of a character which will not demoralise the public, extenuate crime or vice, or shock the just susceptibilities of any reasonably-minded section of the community'. 

In the Guidelines, the BBFC's two guiding principles are: 'that works should be allowed to reach the widest audience that is appropriate for their theme and treatment' and 'that adults should, as far as possible, be free to choose what they see, provided that it remains within the law and is not potentially harmful'.  Of course, British society and values have changed significantly since 1935 but it is interesting to note that the fundamental principles of film classification have not changed so much.

Shortt then talks about statistics. At that time, there were only two categories, the U or 'Universal', which meant there were no restrictions on the audience, and the A or 'Advisory' which meant that a film was more suitable for adults. In 1934, 278 films were classified U and 410 films were classified A, indicating an increase in the number of 'U' films produced.  He discusses how 're-editing' or making cuts to certain scenes (as a result of discussions with the film companies) made some films suitable for release, when they would otherwise have been rejected.  In 1934, Examiners made cuts to 526 films.  Shortt refers to these as 'exceptions' which meant 'the elimination of objectionable sounds, or words or phrases which were considered vulgar and inexpedient'.  He also talks about words that have a definite meaning in one country but an entirely different meaning in another and that some film studios would shoot additional scenes for foreign audiences (including British audiences).

There are seven categories in today’s classification system: U (Universal), PG (Parental Guidance), 12A/12, 15, 18 and R18 (Restricted 18).  In 2010, 654 films for theatrical release were classified, of which only 1.4% or nine films were cut.  This is a far lower percentage than in 1934, when 19.5% of all films were cut, and 1935 when 11% of all films were cut.  Furthermore, due to the wide range of modern age categories, something that is unsuitable for a PG film, such as bad language, can be passed 12A rather than requiring a cut.  Our colleagues in 1935 must have had a difficult time working with just two categories!

Shortt presents the main section of his speech on the 'difficult and complicated problems' faced by Examiners at the time and the way in which they are handled by the BBFC, in order to help film companies make their films suitable for release.  He is clearly proud of the BBFC’s work and announces that ‘the Board today is looked upon as the mother of censorships, and censors from all parts of the world visit us when they come to London’.

'Horror' films

The horror film became popular in the US in the early 1930s. Shortt discusses the ‘tendency towards an increase in the number of films which come within the ‘horror’ classification, which I think is unfortunate and undesirable’.  He is referring to the H (for horror) advisory category that was created in 1932 in response to works such as Frankenstein (1931), in which a scene in which the monster drowns a small girl was cut  In 1934, four films were classified H and during the first half of 1935, the Board received five horror film submissions.  Shortt is concerned with the increase in the number of horror films being produced, saying ‘I cannot believe such films are wholesome, pandering as they do to the love of the morbid and horrible’.  He further states ‘Although there is little chance of children seeing these films, I believe they will have a deleterious effect on the adolescent’.

Despite societal concerns, horror films continued to be produced in ever greater numbers over the following decades and the genre is now both well established and very popular.  Classics include the Hammer Film Productions films, Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Omen (1976) and George A. Romero’s zombie horror films such as Dawn of the Dead (1978).  These were followed by A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween and Friday the 13th with their sequels, and more recently Saw and Hostel (and their sequels), as well as remakes of works such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003).  For more information about the classification of horror films and the ‘video nasties’ of the 1980s, click here.  The BBFC continues to exercise caution when classifying horror films for children, a recent example being Red Riding Hood (2011).  Although based on the fairytale, it was not considered suitable for younger children, given the dark tone and strength of the scary scenes involving wolf attacks, and was classified 12A for ‘moderate fantasy violence and horror’.

Gangster films

Alongside horror films, the gangster film genre also raised genuine concerns in the 1930s. Shortt refers to two types of gangster films.  A few years earlier, films portrayed the criminal as the hero, such as Howard Hawks’ famous Scarface (1932), loosely based on the life of Al Capone, but in more current films, the crime fighter is the hero.  In relation to the first type, he says ‘I admit the gangsters generally came to a sticky end. If the contrary had been the case, and crime had been glorified, these films would not have been certificated by us’.  Shortt mentions that he discussed the rise of the gangster film genre with representatives of the American Production Code Committee (which created the Hays Code, enforced until 1968 when the MPAA system took over).  They shared his concerns and informed him that permission had been given for Hollywood to make just a limited number of gangster films showing US government activity in crime fighting.  In contrast, it appears the British government were not as lenient with their own film-makers in relation to the portrayal of the subject of gangsters.

Cinema goers enjoyed watching gangster films, however, and unfortunately for Shortt, the gangster genre has, alongside the horror genre, also become extremely popular and well established during subsequent decades.  Films such as The Godfather trilogy, Scarface (Brian De Palma’s remake of the 1932 original), Goodfellas, Mean Streets, Carlito’s Way and Once Upon A Time In America are all highly regarded classic gangster films.  In more recent years, American Gangster and The Departed have also done very well at the box office.

Animals in films

Shortt is explicit on the BBFC’s attitude towards animal cruelty in films:

"We do not allow any incident on the screen depicting cruelty, or apparent cruelty. If scenes in a film are introduced with the object of showing pain or suffering on the part of any animal, whether such pain is caused by accident or design, such scenes are prima facie censorable. Secondly, we do not allow any incident if it can reasonably be supposed to have been produced by means which necessitated cruelty, or restraint amounting to cruelty". 

He also mentions having received advice from a committee set up in 1934 to consider the issue of animal cruelty in films.  Two years later, in response to widespread concerns about the mistreatment of animals on film sets, the Cinematograph Film (Animals) Act 1937 was passed, ‘to prohibit the exhibition or distribution of cinematograph films in connection with the production of which suffering may have been caused to animals; and for purposes connected therewith’.

Although the Act applies only to the exhibition of films in public cinemas, the Board applies the same test to videos and DVDs.  For example, cuts are made to horse falls if there is evidence of illegal tripping of the animal, whether in classic Westerns released on DVD for the first time or contemporary period dramas released on both film and DVD, such as Red Cliff (2008) which featured various examples of illegal horse falls.  Another interesting example is Tarzan Escapes (1936), which was passed U uncut on film in 1936, but in 2002 when the film was submitted for DVD classification, it required cuts to sight of a distressed leopard being roughly treated by several men and to sight of a lion being deliberately tripped up.  The Animal Welfare Act 2006 also makes it illegal to supply, publish, show or possess with intent to supply a video recording of an ‘animal fight’ that has taken place within Great Britain since 6 April 2007.

Religious films

The subject of religion was handled with great care by the BBFC, as Shortt emphasises: ‘No incident shall be passed which is likely to offend the just susceptibilities of any religious section of the community’.  Special conditions were imposed by local authorities (on whose behalf the Board classifies films for theatrical release) in the ‘exhibition of films depicting the Life of our Saviour’.  These include ‘no pictorial posters, no mention of the names of the actors, no smoking in the auditorium, musical accompaniment to be of a religious character, and no other film to be shown in the same programme’.  Shortt goes on to state that ‘we have to be particularly careful in the representation of the Sacraments of any of the established churches…scenes of christenings, marriages and funerals have to be, so far as the words of the services are concerned, reduced to a minimum. Under no circumstances do we allow a farce or knock-about comedy to be enacted in what is represented as a place of public worship, and several films have been rejected on this account. Comic incidents at a baptism, wedding or funeral are quite out of place, and are always deleted’.

Religion has gradually become less important over the decades for many people in the UK, and church attendance has decreased significantly. The UK has also evolved into a multi-faith society, with many different religions represented apart from Christianity. Nevertheless, certain films have still caused much controversy. In 1971, Ken Russell’s The Devils, featuring strong religious and sexual content, attracted much attention in both the UK and the US. Similarly, in 1988, pressure groups and the public were anxious about potentially blasphemous content in The Last Temptation of Christ. The Board invited representatives of the major Christian churches to watch the film and also took legal advice from a Queen’s Counsel before making the classification decision. It was agreed by those who saw the film that it was not blasphemous in the legal sense, although it might have the capacity to offend some Christian viewers. The film was passed 18 uncut and the Director of Public Prosecutions supported the Board’s view that the film was not likely to be found guilty of blasphemy by a jury. Despite all this, a few local authorities banned the film anyway, on the grounds of possible offence (in response to petitions against it) rather than blasphemy.

Visions of Ecstasy was until 2012 the only film to be banned in the UK on grounds of blasphemy. Submitted in 1989, it contained a fantasy scene in which the sexualised figure of St Teresa of Avila caresses the body of Christ on the cross. The Board, having taken professional legal advice, judged the film to be potentially liable to prosecution under the common law offence of blasphemous libel.  Because cuts would have removed about half the work (it was only 19 minutes long) the only option was to refuse it a certificate.  There was much debate in the press about whether or not the film was a serious experimental work and about whether the offence of blasphemy had any place in a modern society. The distributor appealed to the Video Appeals Committee and in 1996 to the European Court of Human Rights and the Board’s decision to reject the film was upheld.

In 2008, the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act abolished the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel, although they continue to apply in Northern Ireland. In 2012, the film was resubmitted for classification and the BBFC considered the film in terms of its current Guidelines. With the abolition of the blasphemy law, the film was no longer likely to be considered illegal under any current piece of UK legislation. Nor was the film likely to be harmful to viewers under the terms of the Video Recordings Act. Although the Board recognised that the film retained the potential to offend some viewers, there were no longer any sustainable grounds to refuse a classification and Visions of Ecstasy was therefore classified 18 without cuts.

‘Suggestions’

Shortt concludes his speech by urging exhibitors across the country to comply with the display of the categories on publicity material.

"If you take the London daily papers, you will find the category marked against each film advertised, and this condition applies as well to the posters and publicity. It has been found in practice that this has given confidence to the public, and has reduced the number of complaints about children being inadvertently taken to films which were clearly unsuited for them".

Nowadays, alongside the category symbol being clearly displayed on publicity material, a line of BBFCinsight is written for each film provides the viewer with more information about the content of the film, such as ‘Contains strong language and sex references’. A longer version of the BBFCinsight, consisting of two or three paragraphs of detailed content information, can also be found on our main website and is accessible via the new BBFC iPhone app.

Shortt mentions the problem of exhibitors occasionally showing an A trailer in front of a U film and that there have been several successful prosecutions as a result. It is interesting to note that the BBFC still receives the odd complaint now and again from parents over trailers classified at a higher category being shown before a lower category film.

Finally, Shortt is pleased to report that there has been a decrease in the number of negative press articles about films as well as the work of the Board. He concludes ‘our task is delicate and difficult; it involves many hours of anxious thought, deliberation and discussion…’.  Today’s Examiners would certainly agree with that description of their job!

To read the full 1935 presentation 'Problems of Censorship', please download the PDFs below.

1932 article on ‘daring “sex” films’

Prior to this report, Shortt had previously warned of action to be taken against ‘sex’ films, which were felt to be becoming ‘more and more daring’ – to the extent that 34 films at the that time were rejected for this reason. Read a fascinating archived Guardian newspaper report on the subject.

 

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