The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, four anthropomorphic turtles named after Italian Renaissance artists and trained by a rat in martial arts skills, became a worldwide phenomenon in the late 1980s. Their origin lay in comic books, but soon translated into a hugely successful television series. The title of the show caused problems for broadcasters, and the emphasis on martial arts weapons would prove complicated for the BBFC for the first film adaptation and its sequel.
The TV show began in the US in 1987 and quickly arrived in the UK, on the BBC. However, the government of the time was concerned about violence in children’s television, particularly ninjas and their weapons. Therefore, in accordance with the standards applied by TV and other regulators at the time, the broadcasters changed the title of the show to Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, together with accompanying merchandise and a tie-in video game. The theme song was also re-recorded and the logo changed for the UK (and European) market. Concerns about ninja weaponry extended to the content of the show as well as the title; as a result, sequences of grappling replaced all sight of the turtle Michelangelo using his trademark nunchaku weapon (chainsticks).
Additionally, the BBC version of the show changed all uses of the term ‘bummer’ (meaning ‘bad luck’), due to concerns over the term having a homophobic meaning in British slang.
In 1990, a feature film - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - came to the BBFC, after it received PG with no cuts in the US. There was some discussion about the title, which the distributor, Virgin Vision, originally wanted to change in line with the UK television series. However, the ultimate decision was to keep the 'ninja' element of the title.
The BBFC required several cuts to the feature film, due to concern about easily accessible martial arts weapons. They asked for sequences involving nunchaku to be taken out, with a letter instructing the company to remove from the UK version ‘all clear sight of chainsticks used or carried by turtle called 'Michaelangelo'[sic], particularly in reels 1, 3, 4 (briefly), and 5’.
The film’s sequel, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ll – The Secret Of The Ooze, arrived at the BBFC in April 1991 with a PG request. The BBFC Examiners acknowledged that this was a much milder film than its predecessor, and one report notes that "most of the violence-level here is ‘U’ rather than ‘PG’, though quantitatively there is enough to justify the PG requested by the company – just!"
However, BBFC Examiners also realised there was potentially a problem with some of the violence, in particular the use of improvised props resembling chainsticks or nunchaku:
"In the credits sequence in Reel 1, chainsticks are wielded (or seem to be) after a shot of sausages hanging from the butcher’s rail. Since there is real confusion between chainsticks and sausages this sequence needs to be carefully checked before cuts (if any) are listed. Ditto a sequence in Reel 2, where April tries out a pair of chainsticks; could they be sausages? If so, we would look pretty foolish (right Charlies, in fact) if we cut them!"
Another report states the then BBFC policy to remove these weapons, but warned that pragmatically it might be unwise to remove sausages used to resemble the weapon.
After contacting the distributor, the BBFC was reassured that all the sequences ‘involved sausages not sticks’.
However, BBFC Director James Ferman thought there was still potential for the sequence to showcase chainsticks-type weapons, and the sausages would look like these weapons ‘to any streetwise 8 year old’. The cuts list therefore included the following request to minimise any glamorisation of easily accessible weapons:
"After turtle takes down sausages and uses them as a flail. Reduce to minimum dazzling display of swinging sausages indistinguishable from chainsticks"
The Examiner reports for the video release include some criticism of the decision, with one report noting that "the sausage/chainstick confusion makes his [Ferman’s] cuts list a tiny bit ludicrous to read".
The second film remained cut until it returned for a video release age rating in 2002; this time the BBFC waived all the previous cuts and rated it PG uncut. The BBFC waived all the cuts to the first film when it returned for reclassification in 2003.