Absolute Beginners is a British musical about 1950s London starring David Bowie, Patsy Kensit and Eddie O'Connell.
When the BBFC classified the film in 1986, references to sex and prostitution, violence, and drugs kept it above the level of PG; and in the absence of a 12 certificate Absolute Beginners was classified 15 (without cuts) on both film and video. One examiner's report suggested a reluctance to pass the film 15, expressing a reservation that it was "an over cautious decision in the light of the strong feelings elicited by the topic of urban violence. The film if viewed as a "product" is classic 'PG' stuff in its treatment and the more risqué elements like child prostitution…are suitably sugared down by the musical pastiche choreography and pop video score." In spite of this, as stated by the BBFCs Deputy Director in a letter to the public, "numerous references to prostitution, a visual reference to rear sex and masturbation, the smoking of a joint and the strength of the closing fight where chains and knuckle dusters are used", tilted the balance from PG towards 15.
Absolute Beginners demonstrates the gulf that existed between PG and 15. The content appropriate for a 14 year old is not the same as for a 9 year old, but before the introduction of the 12 certificate both ages fell in the gap between PG and 15.
The 12 classification for film was introduced in 1989, and in 1994 for video content. In 2016 Absolute Beginners was re-submitted for classification on DVD, and the 15 rating was downgraded to a 12, with the BBFCinsight 'moderate violence, racist language, sex references, nudity, drug misuse'. Absolute Beginners is acceptable at 12 because although it contains moderate violence, which takes it beyond the PG level, the violence is not glamorised and does not focus on injury detail, and is therefore within the BBFC Classification Guidelines at 12. Conversely, the issue of discrimination raised by Absolute Beginners is more problematic today than it was in 1986. In the original examiners reports, racism (racist language which was often aggressive) is mentioned only briefly as a reason to classify the film above PG. The film clearly condemns the discriminatory language and behaviour, as well as the characters deploying them. Therefore, although too strong for PG, the issue is permissible at 12.
Similarly sex references and nudity in the film, including a shot of a man masturbating under bedclothes, are brief and lack sufficient detail to raise the film above 12.
Drug misuse was also mentioned as a key classification issue by examiners viewing the film in 1986, with one examiner report stating that "the 'PG' slips irrevocably away at the nightclub" where Cool and Colin smoke a huge joint. This drug misuse remains unsuitable at the PG level, however any glamorisation of drug misuse in the film is diminished when Colin drives his motorbike under the influence of the drugs and crashes, making the issue acceptable at 12 where drug misuse must be infrequent and should not be glamorised or give instructional detail.