David Cooke reflects on high profile classification decisions from his tenure as BBFC Director | British Board of Film Classification
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David Cooke reflects on high profile classification decisions from his tenure as BBFC Director

David Cooke, Director of the British Board Of Film Classification (BBFC), will retire on 10 March 2016 following 12 years in post.

Date 22/02/2016

David Cooke joined the BBFC in September 2004 and has overseen the day to day running of the BBFC, three large scale public consultation reviews of the Classification Guidelines and the introduction of a new policy for classifying content depicting sexual and sadistic violence.

As a Member of the Board of Classification along with the President and the two Vice Presidents, David has been involved in the Board's highest profile decisions since 2004, including the passing of 9 Songs at 18 uncut, handling the advice process which enabled the first Hunger Games title to be classified 12A after reductions, and the shift from PG to 12A in the Harry Potter series with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. (BBFC Case Studies for these works are available.) 

David Cooke said: "I have hugely appreciated the interest and support of the viewing public during my time at the BBFC. I believe we have made real advances in online child protection, and in the provision of rich and useful information about content. All my colleagues at the BBFC have been a pleasure to work with. We now provide a better service to the industry, without compromising our standards, and we have a more respectful relationship with content creators themselves. I shall miss this endlessly fascinating work, but I know that the BBFC will be in very good hands with David Austin as its new CEO."

Patrick Swaffer, BBFC President said: “David's strong intellect, vision and leadership skills have ensured that, during his 12 year tenure, the BBFC has developed new services to reflect the changing technological landscape, consolidated its position as the provider of trusted age ratings and enhanced its reputation with the public, industry and other stakeholders. He achieved this with a skilful management style combining both direct involvement and careful delegation, applied with his quietly wry humour. 

“His clear and articulate exposition of the basis for classification and the reasons for individual decisions have ensured that the role of the BBFC has become more widely understood and highly regarded. He leaves the BBFC in excellent shape. On behalf of all the staff at the BBFC I want to thank him and wish him well for the future.”

Graham Lee, Chairman of the BBFC Council of Management said: "David has provided excellent foresight and leadership in the development of the BBFC into a strong, efficient and well trusted organisation. We will miss his intellect, understanding and good company.”

In addition to classifying film and video content, David Cooke helped the BBFC develop its services in line with technology, including new voluntary online regulation services for Video-on-Demand content, the introduction of a classification framework for mobile network operators, and the launch of an initiative to age rate UK online music videos.

Prior to joining the BBFC David Cooke held six government Director level posts, in the Cabinet Office, Northern Ireland Office and Home Office, working on topics such as the Northern Ireland Peace Process, devolution, asylum, criminal justice performance and broadcasting. David is also an Executive Board member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS).

David Austin will take up the post of BBFC Chief Executive on 11 March 2016, after David Cooke retires. David Austin is currently Assistant Director at the BBFC, coordinating the BBFC's policy work and leading on its public affairs outreach. He is also responsible for managing the BBFC’s research, communications and education programmes.


For more information contact Catherine Anderson canderson@bbfc.co.uk 0207 440 3285 (out of hours: 07946 423719).

Notes to Editors

About BBFC
The BBFC is an independent, private, not-for-profit company which classifies films, video on all physical formats (DVD and Blu-ray Disc for example) and certain video games, advertisements and trailers. It also classifies, on a best practice voluntary basis, video content for distribution online. The BBFC operates transparent, well-understood and trusted co-regulatory and self-regulatory classification regimes, such as its digital video service, based on years of expertise and published Guidelines which reflect public opinion and the risk of harm; and is accountable to Parliament.


Case Studies

9 Songs (2004)

The BBFC classified Michael Winterbottom’s film 9 Songs ’18′ uncut for cinema release in March 2004, with the BBFCinsight advising the film contains frequent, strong real sex. 

The film portrays the development of a relationship between two people, and includes a number of scenes of explicit, real, sexual activity. 

The issue of images of real sex in narrative films has always been contentious. Whenever a film containing real sex is submitted for classification - as 9 Songs was in 2004 - the BBFC must first to decide whether or not the film is a sex work - usually defined as pornography: films or videos designed specifically to sexually arouse or stimulate.  In this case, the BBFC also applied the relevant Guidelines test of the time, of ‘exceptional justification by context’.

9 Songs was carefully considered at all levels of the BBFC including by the Presidential team and the Director.

In classifying 9 Songs we considered one of the BBFC's guiding principles, which states: “In line with the consistent findings of the BBFC's public consultations, at 18 the BBFC's guideline concerns will not normally override the wish that adults should be free to chose their own entertainment, within the law.’ However, there are exceptions to that principle and one is ‘the more explicit images of sexual activity – unless they can be exceptionally justified by context and the work is not a 'sex work’”.

It was clear to those who viewed it that 9 Songs was not a 'sex work'. (Sex works are defined by the BBFC as ‘works, normally on video or DVD, whose primary purpose is sexual arousal or stimulation.’) The intention of the work is clearly to explore a narrative about a relationship by showing two characters both having sex, talking and interacting in other environments (principally at live music gigs). It also did not 'look' like a sex work - it does not star well known sex performers, it is not shot so the only focus is on sex and titillating nudity and it is not scripted to guide viewers to sexual 'scenes' or 'scenarios'.

Thus the decision became an analysis of whether the real sex, which was frequent and totalled over several minutes of screen time, is ‘exceptionally justified’ by its context.

In this instance the narrative context of the work - which clearly aims to explore a relationship through sexual activity -  was acknowledged by the examining teams who recommended 18 uncut unanimously.

Wider implications were also considered, and after bearing in mind the intention of the filmmaker, the likely audience of the work and the likely interpretation of the work from a wider audience we reasoned that the sex in 9 Songs could be contained at the adult category.

The BBFCinsight reflects the defining classification issues which are both the strength and frequency of the explicit scenes. It reads 'Contains frequent, strong real sex'.

Although not numerous, there are precedents for the BBFC passing real sex at ’18′, including Ai No Corrida classified ’18′ in 1991 (which also depicts the development of a relationship using images of real sex) and more recently Romance (1999) and Intimacy (2001).

Forty-eight letters were received about the film, many of which arrived from people who had not watched 9 Songs, demanding it be banned, cut or removed from distribution. These views from groups and individuals (most of whom felt real sexual activity was inappropriate in any nationwide release) were all carefully considered. All letters were answered personally by the David Cooke, BBFC Director, the chief assistant (policy) or examiners who classified the film. Some of the letters received praised the BBFC for taking the decision to pass 9 Songs uncut enabling adults to chose what they watched themselves.

In Spring 2007 The Diocese of Litchfield produced a paper entitled Media Exploitation calling for further research into how peoples’ behaviour is influenced by the media they consume. The paper cited 9 Songs alongside other works including Destricted, Baise Moi and Intimacy as examples of the BBFC ‘making pornography easier to access by giving hardcore material 18 certificates’. The motion was debated at the Church of England Synod where the work of the BBFC was supported.

It is worth noting that when some features for the video/DVD release were submitted in 2005 the lack of contextual justification for one longer version of a sex scene (which was submitted to the BBFC and examined as a stand alone work) meant it was classified R18. For this scene,  there was no broad context created by the film style, story or characters - rather it was simply a well shot sex scene.


The Hunger Games (2012)

The Hunger Games is an adaptation of the first novel in the 'Hunger Games' trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Is it classified 12A with the BBFCinsight: “intense threat, moderate violence and occasional gory moments”.

The film is set in North America in the future where a totalitarian government requires an annual tribute from each section of the country. This tribute takes the form of a girl and boy who must compete in a televised 'hunger game' in which the participants are placed in a large outdoor environment that can be manipulated by the authorities. Only one competitor can survive and win the 'game', killing off their rivals if necessary, although it is also possible for competitors to die as a result of accidents or exposure. The film focusses on one participant in particular, Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers to be a tribute in place of her younger sister.

The film was classified 12A following 7 seconds of cuts, plus reductions made at advice stage.

The film was originally seen for advice in an unfinished form and the distributing company was advised that the film was likely to receive a 15 certificate but that their preferred 12A classification could be achieved by making a number of cuts and visual reductions. An uncut 15 classification was available to them. When the finished version of the film was submitted for formal classification, four scenes of violence and one scene showing details of injuries were reduced. These reductions were implemented by a mixture of visual cuts, visual darkenings and the digital removal of sight of blood. In addition to the reductions already made during the 'advice' process, we required further reductions in one scene following formal submission of the finished feature.

The long BBFCinsight for the film reminds potential viewers of the BBFC's Guidelines at 12A/12, which state: “Moderate violence is allowed but should not dwell on detail. There should be no emphasis on injuries or blood, but occasional gory moments may be permitted if justified by the context”. Once the Hunger Games begin, there are a number of sequences in which the participants fight against one another and there is sight of competitors being killed and injured. The violence that remains in the 12A/12 classified version of the film is generally undetailed and there is no dwelling on detail. Much of the violence occurs offscreen and there is far less detail of violence than in the novel on which the film is based.

Inevitably given the narrative, there is a certain sense of threat hanging over the central characters from the start of the film. They know they will have to take part in an event that they may not survive. However, this underlying sense of threat is not realised until the second half of the film, in which the 'game' begins. Even when the 'game' commences, this sense of threat is broken up by other episodes and there is a strong emphasis placed on the ingenuity of the central character, Katniss, in hiding herself or working with other competitors in order to survive. Katniss does not initiate violence and a clear distinction is made between the 'bad' characters who are prepared to use violence in order to win and the 'good' characters who avoid conflict. The sense of threat is further reduced by the developing relationship between Katniss and the other tribute from her sector, for whom she begins to develop feelings. We also see the development of a mutually supportive relationship between Katniss and another female competitor. The Guidelines at 12A/12 state 'Moderate physical and psychological threat may be permitted, provided disturbing sequences are not frequent or sustained'. The more threatening sequences are well broken up by other material and are not individually sustained.

We had regard to the fact that the concept of gladiatorial contests is likely to be familiar to persons aged 12-14 and that the film is based upon a well known novel that is widely read by people in this age group. The story has some similarities to 'The Lord of the Flies', which also features violence between young people and which is taught in schools. At 12A/12 mature themes are acceptable but their treatment must be appropriate for young teenagers. Although the concept of young people being forced to fight one another is a potentially disturbing one, the futuristic and fantastical nature of the setting distances the sense of threat from reality and young teenagers are likely to understand that the film, like the novel, is a critique of violence and a critique of media manipulation, with which they will be familiar from reality TV. The overall message of the film is a moral one and THE HUNGER GAMES is likely to provoke reflection about violence, exploitation and manipulation.

The film also features scenes in which characters practice with, and later use, a variety of weapons, including bladed weapons and bows and arrows. The Guidelines at 12A/12 state 'Easily accessible weapons should not be glamorised'. There is no glamorisation of weapons, which are generally used by the 'bad' characters rather than by the heroes. The futuristic and fantastical setting further distances the use of weapons in The Hunger Games from the use of weapons in a credible real world setting. In the version of the film seen for advice, there was a sequence in which a blade is sadistically held to a character's face. This shot has been removed from the classified version of the film.

In one scene, the participants are attacked by wasp-like creatures that inject powerful hallucinogens into their victims. This results in Katniss experiencing hallucinations, which are vividly depicted. However, there is no deliberate use of drugs in the film.

During 2012, The Hunger Games generated 43 complaints to the BBFC, mostly focussing on its violence and theme. There were a small number of complaints criticising the decision to cut the film for 12A. These were mostly from young fans of the books who believed the film should remain intact and that any cuts to the violence would sanitise its impact.

In July 2012 the BBFC’s expert Advisory Panel for Children’s Viewing (APCV) met to discuss The Hunger Games (12A). The Panel watched the cut version of the film, as well as the material that had been cut for 12A. They appreciated the BBFC’s unease regarding the theme of the film, but unanimously found it to be a ‘classic fairy tale’ with clear moral messages. The 12A certificate was appropriate and useful. Panel members praised the film for having a strong central female character. Many of the Panel agreed that children in this age group would possess some awareness about the film’s debates on violence and media manipulation. The popularity of the books on which the film is based, especially among young adults, meant that most young audiences would already be familiar with the nature of the story and could thus manage their expectations of it. The Panel was asked whether the cuts made to some of the stronger and more violent scenes ‘sanitised’ the film’s violence, as some criticisms of the edits had claimed. The Panel felt that what remained in the film was sufficiently aversive to convey the horror of the situation.

Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire (2005)

The first Harry Potter film to achieve a 12A classification, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), highlights the useful flexibility of the 12A category. As readers of the novels may have anticipated, the tone of the films became darker as the series progressed and the characters grow up. Unlike the previous three films, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire went too far for an easy PG classification, both in its intensity of threat in some scenes and the overall dark tone of the film. The death of a key character was also particularly difficult to reconcile at the PG category where younger viewers, especially those unfamiliar with the novels could find it upsetting. However, had the film been classified in such a way as to exclude the possibility of nine- or ten-year-old readers being taken along, the BBFC would have been faced with a very difficult dilemma and the 12A provided the ideal solution.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire sees Harry, aged fourteen, entering his fourth year at Hogwarts amidst the excitement of the Triwizard Tournament. Alongside students from two other wizarding schools and Hogwarts’ Quidditch captain, Cedric Diggory, Harry competes in the tournament’s series of dangerous magical challenges. Meanwhile, the wizard adults are troubled by signs that evil Voldemort’s power is growing. These worlds collide in the final challenge as Harry and Cedric are transported from Hogwarts to a dark hillside where Cedric is murdered and Harry’s blood is used to restore Voldemort to his corporeal form. Saved by the spirits of Voldemort’s previous victims Harry is carried back to Hogwarts with Cedric’s body and the news that the Dark Lord has returned.

In August 2005 an unfinished version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was submitted to the BBFC for an advice viewing. At the advice viewing the unavoidable but significant shift to a darker tone reflected the same shift seen in the books and it was obvious that film required more than the established PG the franchise received up to this point.

Scenes that took the film beyond PG include the opening sequence, when Harry has a nightmare about Voldemort, while the end of the film was problematic, in PG terms, when Cedric is killed and Harry confronts Voldemort. The magical torture of Harry, with Cedric’s corpse near by, and Voldemort’s transformation into a menacing physical form were considered to be sufficiently intense and frightening to disturb younger viewers at the PG category. The almost continual sombre tone of the film, with themes of adolescent angst alongside death and betrayal, and the absence of a happy ending were also considered. Although the fantastical context of the film was discussed as a mitigating factor, the film still breached the Classification Guidelines at PG which, in 2005, stated that ‘frightening sequences should not be prolonged or intense’. Warner Bros. were told that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire would receive a 12A classification, becoming the first in the film series to do so.

Warner Bros. accepted that young viewers who enjoyed the Harry Potter films when they launched in 2001 were now older and ready to accept a darker side to the franchise, and did not challenge the recommended 12A category. When the finished version of the film was submitted for formal classification in October 2005 it received the same rating with the Consumer Advice ‘Contains moderate fantasy violence and threat’. The IMAX version of the film was also classified at 12A and the DVD release was given a 12 certificate in January 2006. All the subsequent Harry Potter films were also classified at 12A with moderate threat, violence and horror remaining the central classification issues.

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