Danny Boyle’s cult film about junkies in mid-nineties Edinburgh has a rather interesting history at the BBFC.

The film’s main classification issue is drug use and there are several detailed scenes of heroin abuse throughout the work. There are close-ups of heroin being heated on a spoon and sucked into a syringe, detail of the tying of tourniquets around arms in order to raise veins for easier injection and, in the strongest scene, an extreme close-up of a needle puncturing the lead character’s skin. We also see characters taking ecstasy and smoking marijuana.

Trainspotting was submitted for cinema release on November 20 1995 and examiner reports from that date describe it as a ‘darkly comic and at times savage account of a group of heroin addicts’, stating that ‘the absence of a moralising tone allows for some of the highs as well as the lows to be given space’.

Examiners acknowledged the strength of some of the scenes of drug abuse but felt the heroin abuse to be ‘constantly contextualised by the human drama and tragedy in which addiction festers’. The examiners felt that the lack of a moralising tone allowed the film to ‘cut straight to the quick of the matter and effectively act as a very accessible, bleak, modern cautionary tale’.

Examiners recommended that the film should be passed at 18 uncut, with their only worry about the age of the actress playing the character of Diane (Kelly McDonald). After it was established that McDonald was of age, the film was passed at 18 and opened to huge critical acclaim. Derek Malcolm of The Guardian called Trainspotting ‘an extraordinary achievement and a breakthrough British film’ and Empire magazine awarded it a maximum five stars. The film enjoyed an extremely successful run at the cinema, occupying the number one slot for a number of weeks, and the screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award.

When the film was submitted for its video classification, things took a slightly different turn. Under the Video Recordings Act 1984, the BBFC is obliged to have ‘special regard’ to the likelihood of video works being viewed in the home, and to any harm that may be caused to potential viewers or, through their behaviour, to society by the manner in which the work deals with various issues. Recent amendments to the Act, brought in by the Criminal Justice Act 1994, specifically mentioned the manner in which a work dealt with 'illegal drugs' as an area for the BBFC to have special regard to. Therefore the Board was being particularly cautious at that point with any depictions of drug use that might be seen as instructional and/or promotional, especially on video where they could be viewed out of context and/or repeatedly.

Although the BBFC did not at the time publish Guidelines, there were internal documents outlining the way in which examiners were to deal with drug-taking in films. These documents asked examiners to look at how ‘seductively imitable’ drug-taking was in a film, requiring that ‘There should be no glamorising of hard drugs through loving attention to the details of its handling, manufacture and consumption at any category’.

Some examiners expressed their concern that the film would have a wide appeal to a non-adult audience when made available for viewing in the home, given the film’s success at the box office and its penetration into British cultural life through the additional popularity of the book, soundtrack and posters. With dialogue lines comparing taking heroin to ‘the best orgasm you’ve ever had multiplied by a thousand’ cited, there were concerns that the drug-taking offered temptation to impressionable young people, with one examiner stating that ‘the meticulous details are likely to be satisfying visuals for those who find heroin appealing’.

Of the four examiners who saw the work, three recommended that there should be some cuts before the film was passed at 18 on video. The film was referred to the BBFC’s Director, James Ferman, who sought advice from professionals in the field of drug dependency and abuse, including the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse (SCODA, now part of Drugscope) and the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence (ISDD). Ferman himself had experience working with drug users in the early 1970s.

No written advice from those professionals is extant, but it appears that sufficient concerns were raised for cuts to be written for the scene in which Renton injects himself with heroin in close-up detail. The distributor was asked to remove the sight of the needle piercing the skin, the blood being drawn up into the syringe and a subsequent shot of the needle in his body. After these cuts were made, the film was passed at 18 on video. It is worth noting that the cuts made to remove the close-up needle injection in Trainspotting were consistent with those cuts made to the video versions of Bad LieutenantPulp Fiction and Trash at around the same time.

When Trainspotting was submitted in its uncut form in 2002, examiners were asked to reconsider the cuts. This time, all the examiners who saw the work recommended that it should be passed uncut, feeling that ‘the arguments about fetishisation or glamorisation of needles and drug use [were] somewhat dated’. They acknowledged that the film contained detailed portrayals of drug use but argued that the detail that was cut was ‘very familiar… not just from medical dramas but also from visits to the doctor’ and that to restore the cuts would not provide instruction that was not already part of the public domain.

Professional advice was again sought, with two experts in addiction asked to write reports on the film. Both experts recommended that the film be passed uncut at 18. The first stated that ‘it would be unlikely that a drug naïve individual could use the visual information in these scenes alone to successfully inject themselves with heroin’ and, with reference to current or former heroin users, though ‘the visual images of drug-using paraphernalia, and the descriptions of the subjective pleasure of heroin use in the film may lead to drug craving in some vulnerable individuals… the detail contained in the [previously cut] scene is unlikely to lead to significantly more craving than the images and narrative contained in the rest of the film’. The report of the second professional stated that ‘The film in my view does not glamorise smoking, drinking or injecting drug use, but shows a gritty picture of the life of these young men and some women who are hell bent on intoxication’. Referring to the injection scene, he said ‘I would strongly support the inclusion of this scene in that it fully represents the pattern of behaviour the film is about and does not in any way glamorise or make it attractive’.

With these expert opinions on file, the Director, Robin Duval, agreed that Trainspotting should be passed uncut at 18. Subsequent submissions of the film, on DVD and Blu-Ray, have all been passed at the same category.

Though drug-taking is Trainspotting’s most contentious classification issue, the film’s language, sex and violence also place it at 18. There are several uses of strong language (‘f**k’ and ‘motherf***er’) as well as nineteen uses of ‘c**t’, a word that BBFC Guidelines state should be only infrequently used at 15. There are a couple of strong sex scenes, with full-frontal nudity, implied fellatio and some thrusting and an image of a dead baby lying in its cot is as shocking now as it was when the film was first released.

The long ratings info for Trainspotting, written for the Blu-Ray edition in 2009, reads ‘Contains very strong language, strong sex and violence and hard drug use’.