Roger Corman's The Trip was first viewed by the BBFC in 1967. Sadly, the BBFC's records for that viewing have been missing since the late 1960s but we do know the film was formally refused a classification on 5 September 1967.
Writing in his 1973 autobiography, 'What the Censor Saw', the BBFC's Secretary at the time, John Trevelyan, had the following to say: "In 1967 we decided to refuse a certificate to a film called The Trip made by Roger Corman for American International Pictures. This film purported to show the psychedelic experience resulting from L.S.D. I showed the film to three experienced psychiatrists, all of whom condemned it as meretricious, inaccurate in its representation and therefore dangerous. The company strongly contested our decision but we refused to alter it. On one occasion their representative in London brought his own psychiatrist to see me and one of my advisers, only to find that his psychiatrist agreed that it was a dangerous film. The film has never yet been on general release in this country, and I am still convinced that our decision was the right one although we were often criticised for it".
In spite of the BBFC's refusal to classify The Trip for general release, the film did enjoy a number of screenings at members-only cinema clubs, notably when it was shown as part of a 'forbidden films' festival that took place in London in 1969. Subsequent to this, it was also shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1970 and then at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1971. With critical and public interest in the film developing, particularly following the success of Easy Rider, it was not a surprise when a slightly shortened version of The Trip was resubmitted to the BBFC on 13 October 1971.
By this time, John Trevelyan, who had been responsible for rejecting the film originally, had been replaced as Secretary by Stephen Murphy. Nonetheless, Murphy was already facing a number of difficult decisions on drug related films, such as Trash and The Panic in Needle Park, and the resubmission of The Trip could not have been less welcome at that moment in time. After the screening, an examiner noted: "Although the film has 'aged' and a lot of it seems rather silly (as it did at the time of first viewing), the deterrent episodes (eg. the nightmare quality of a bad trip) are not strong enough to counterbalance the pleasurable aspects of L.S.D. as depicted in the film. In our opinion it might well tempt certain young people to experiment with the drug. By a coincidence only last week two young men were found wandering about a Folkestone beach, naked and out of their minds, having taken L.S.D. Something much more serious could have happened to them. So we decided not to lift the ban on this film". Stephen Murphy confirmed the continued rejection on the film in a telephone call to the distributor on 16 October 1971.
The Trip did not return to the BBFC until October 1980, by which time James Ferman had taken over as Secretary of the BBFC. The film was seen by two examiners, together with James Ferman, on 14 October. One examiner commented: "Acid is still in circulation, still dangerous, still illegal, and still imbued with the fascination of forbidden fruit. The film is a much better one than I had anticipated, and interestingly educational: at the end I felt I had a pretty good idea of what an acid trip was like. I could also see the excitement and appeal of it. Although the film is not the commercial for acid I thought it was going to be at the outset, since it does make vivid the unpleasant visions that can occur on a trip, and emphasises throughout the need for supervision by someone not tripping with you, I think we'd need some pretty solid information and evidence of changed circumstances or attitudes in the last decade before passing this. One day it may be passable as a document of social history, but not, I would have thought, yet".
In a letter to the film's distributor, dated 10 November 1980, James Ferman gave his conclusions: "All members of the Board have now seen the [...] film, and while we found it more interesting and less exploitative than expected, we all take the view that it may have the effect of normalising and legitimising a drug experience which remains dangerous as well as criminal".
Commenting on the possible future prospects for the film, Ferman went on to comment: "Film societies may view it as a document of recent social history and a stage in the development of artists like Corman and Jack Nicholson, who wrote the script. But we do not see a place for it in the public cinema until we have a certificate guaranteeing limited distribution, like the 18R recommended by the Williams Committee. We believe this certificate may be introduced in the next year or so and may provide an appropriate category for this film. On the other hand, you must bear in mind that an increase in the availability of LSD or new knowledge about its dangers could make even an 18R inappropriate. At the moment, therefore, this film must be refused a certificate, and we would ask you to wait until a change in the category system makes reconsideration possible".
The 18R category, suggested by the Williams Committee during their review of film censorship and obscenity in the late 1970s, finally arrived in 1982. The original intention behind the new category was twofold. Firstly, it would control the often obscene material being shown in members only sex cinemas, which at that point operated without any approval or control from local councils or the BBFC. Secondly, it would allow more 'serious' cinema clubs to screen material that the BBFC regarded as too explicit for X but which was not, strictly speaking, illegal. However, when the R18 category was introduced, it soon became clear that the classification would only be useful or commercially viable for sex cinemas and not for the more serious cinema clubs Williams had envisaged. Therefore, any idea of classifying The Trip 18R (or R18 as it came to be known) was put to bed.
The film next appeared at the BBFC in August 1983 when it was submitted for classification as a video release by the Rank Video Library. At the time, there was no formal requirement for videos to be classified by the BBFC, but a number of distributors had been submitting their videos to the BBFC on a voluntary basis. Rather hopefully, Rank informed the BBFC they would appreciate a rapid turnaround, as they planned to release the video in the next couple of months. Unsurprisingly, in view of the film's recent rejection for cinema release, one examiner commented: "The same argument applies to this production as always: if it glamorises drugs in any way, it cannot, under BBFC guidelines, be accepted. I can see no way in which The Trip can be seen as a warning, despite the message tacked on the beginning - it clearly shows LSD as, at worst, an interesting thing to experiment with from which the hero emerges with deeper (?) insights. Though dated, it still looks well-made and Fonda, Nicholson, Hopper, etc are still respected names that might be said to give the production credibility as an accurate and believable account. Whether it is, of course, I have no way of knowing. I see no option but to reject on the same grounds as the film was rejected".
However, other examiners took a slightly different view, with one commenting that "I think that the experience it presents is basically dated and banal, and it does present the bad trip with the good trip, and the foolishness of it all is seen from the outside. Quite honestly, I think that this video would bore the pants off most teenagers I know. They'd rather see a video nasty". Nonetheless, James Ferman was not of the view that now would be a good time to consider classifying the film on video, not least because of the impending introduction of the Video Recordings Act, which would make the classification of films released on video mandatory and legally enforceable. Accordingly, the distributor was simply told that the film had a long and difficult history with the BBFC and that it would not be possible to classify the video at this time, even on an informal basis.
During 1984, James Ferman took the opportunity to show the video of The Trip to a number of the new examiners who had been recruited to cope with the expected influx of video works after the implementation of the Video Recordings Act. These informal reports, which were part of the new examiners' training and induction, show a range of views, fairly evenly balanced between those who wished to reject the video for the reasons usually cited by the Board, and those who felt the film was sufficiently dated - and historically interesting - to merit an 18 classification. Nonetheless, when the distributor requested a formal decision on the video under the terms of the Video Recordings Act, James Ferman decided that the film still raised potential harm issues and a certificate was formally refused on 31 December 1988. In spite of another attempt to submit the film for video classification, in 1992, the film remained unclassified for either cinema or video release until after James Ferman's departure from the BBFC.
Finally, in 2002, a submission of the film for DVD release was permitted at 18 without cuts, 35 years after the film was originally rejected. This time it was conceded that the film really had become a museum piece and that the hippies shown in the film, with their constant repetition of the phrase 'Man!', were not seriously likely to have an influence on young people (or anybody) in the 21st century.