In his autobiography What the Censor Saw (London: Michael Joseph, 1973), former BBFC Secretary John Trevelyan stated that “If mental illness is treated seriously […] it can be entirely acceptable as material for a film, but if treated sensationally I would find it totally unacceptable.”
This unwritten policy had been applied before Trevelyan’s tenure in 1948 when the BBFC rejected Behind Locked Doors (1948), a crime film predominantly set in a mental institution, which showed patients being brutally treated, in what BBFC Secretary Arthur Watkins described as ‘a manner in no way resembling actual conditions in such institutions’. The following year, The Snake Pit (1948), a US drama in the form of a case study, was also rejected on similar grounds before being classified at A (which at the time meant ‘No admission to persons under 16 unless accompanied by an adult’) after extensive cuts.
On 2 October 1963, writer-director-producer Samuel Fuller’s black and white crime thriller Shock Corridor was submitted to the BBFC for classification, and presented some familiar problems.
Johnny Barrett is a willing reporter who is planted inside a mental hospital by his newspaper to try and solve the murder of one of the inmates. Barrett is provided with a cover story by his girlfriend Cathy, who pretends to be his sister and claims that Barrett tried to molest her. Once committed, Barrett attempts to piece together the murder puzzle by speaking to some of the patients during their occasionally lucid moments. However, he becomes increasingly disturbed by his surroundings.
The BBFC Examiners’ notes described the film as ‘a sensationalised picture of life in an American asylum’, and one examiner noted that ‘Shock Corridor shocked us’. Their concerns included Cathy’s profession and appearance as a stripper (although the latter aspect is described as being ‘rather tame’); the incest references; the murder motive; a scene where Barrett encounters a ward full of ‘nymphomaniacs’; a scene of electro-shock treatment; a nightmare sequence and a fight scene. Their report concluded “We are satisfied that cutting would be impracticable and that a certificate should be refused.” The film was then referred to the BBFC’s Secretary, John Trevelyan.
Trevelyan viewed the film with two Examiners and the BBFC’s President, and they agreed ‘that this film should not be passed’. As well as the issues previously noted, they believed that ‘the film presents a mental hospital in a light that would be considered objectionable in this country’ and that the film could not be cut to make it acceptable.
Trevelyan also had concerns about Cathy’s strip-tease, the suggestion that a sane person could fake insanity to get committed to a mental hospital, the suggestion that committal to a mental hospital could turn ‘a sane person insane’ and its potentially harmful ‘effect on mentally disturbed viewers’.
Trevelyan sent a rejection letter to the film’s UK distributor, stating that “The film portrays a picture of mental hospital life which is far removed from that in mental hospitals in this country, and which could well cause grave concern to people who have friends and relatives with mental illness.” He also referred to ‘incidents which would be completely unacceptable for normal censorship reasons’, including his previously noted concerns, and informed them that cuts were not possible.
The BBFC subsequently received a letter from Leon Fromkes, the president of F & F Productions, Inc., who had produced and also owned the film. Fromkes claimed that the rejection decision was unjustifiable as the film was not dissimilar to other films of this type that had been classified. He also claimed that the BBFC was discriminating against Shock Corridor and believed that viewers would realise the film was ‘wholly fictional’. Fromkes offered to co-operate with the BBFC by making ‘minor deletions’ to make the film acceptable, but Trevelyan was unmoved and told him that the Board would not change its decision.
The film was resubmitted in 1966 by a new distributor, but the rejection stood, as Trevelyan noted that ‘it was a thoroughly objectionable picture which could not be made acceptable by cuts’. In 1968, a different distributor made another unsuccessful submission and, following another viewing, the Board maintained its original position. Trevelyan explained to this distributor that the film was being rejected for the same reasons as in 1963 and drew a line in the sand by concluding that the BBFC would not be prepared to give the film any further consideration.
Film classification responsibilities for theatrical release ultimately lie with the relevant local authority, and the BBFC’s delegated function is an advisory one. So, as the distributor wished to secure the film’s release, Shock Corridor was submitted to the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1969.
The GLC agreed to pass the film in the X category, which prohibited children under 16 from seeing it, although Berkshire and Essex councils upheld the Board’s rejection decision.
In 1990, Shock Corridor was submitted for video classification and both Examiners who viewed the film recommended that it should be passed at 15 uncut. One described the film as ‘a fascinating mixture of the camp and the captivating’ whose ‘battle against quaintness’ now told against it. He also stated that the Board’s original comments showed ‘a worrying tendency to confuse an evident sense of distaste with public harm arguments’. The other Examiner noted that the BBFC would be acting in a discriminatory manner in rejecting a fictional film portraying ‘mental disturbance or life in a mental institution’ as films dealing with a similar theme had been classified. He also recommended that many scenes previously regarded as problematic by Trevelyan were now acceptable at 15, and noted that the GLC’s decision to award an X certificate and allow 16 year olds to see the film had ‘singularly failed to provoke public outcry’.
The Board’s Director at the time, James Ferman, agreed and noted that Shock Corridor was ‘a dated but still disturbing piece, which nevertheless should be within the range of the average teenager’s capacity’. So, the film was finally classified 15 uncut on video in June 1990, with the rating confirmed most recently in early 2004.