The Board was founded in 1912, then titled the British Board of Film Censors. The origins of the BBFC initially lay Health and Safety as early film stock, and limelight which was used in projecting early films, were both fire hazards.
Local Authorities were originally given power to license cinemas with reasonable restrictions, and could rate film. The BBFC was then set up by the film industry to standardise the ratings and give uniform film classification to all films in the UK. It is an independent, non-governmental body funded through charged fees. This means film distributors have always paid a fee to have their works rated. The BBFC is a not for profit organisation.
Initially there were two certificates (U and A), and two examiners, though by the mid 1920s there were four examiners including a woman. Little is known about the early examiners as their identities were kept secret.
In the past, the BBFC did not have any written rules or code of practice like the Motion Picture Production Code, introduced in Hollywood by the Hays Office in 1930. Policy evolved along practical lines, whilst seeking to reflect public attitudes. Since 2000, the BBFC has operated under a series of published Guidelines. These Guidelines are flexible and stress the importance of taking into consideration the context of each individual work. They are reviewed on a regular basis, which entails a period of extensive public consultation, the most recent of which took place in 2008.
Standards have evolved throughout the BBFC's hundred year history, and current concerns and practices can be found in the sections on the age ratings process and issues. This section will focus on key moments in the evolution of current standards and the development of the age rating system.
It must be stressed that shifts in standards are linked to external changes - new legislation, developments in technology, the social and historical climate of the period, and the accompanying changes in social attitudes. This evolution must therefore be examined in the wider cultural and historical context. Here are some key stages in the BBFC’s early history.
When T. P. O’Connor was appointed President of the BBFC, one of his first tasks was to give evidence to the Cinema Commission of Inquiry, set up by the National Council of Public Morals in 1916. He summarised the BBFC's policy by listing forty-three grounds for deletion, examples of material cut from films in previous years by the BBFC's first Examiners. This list was drawn from the Board’s Annual Reports for 1913-1915 and shows the strictness felt necessary if the BBFC was to earn the trust of the public and relevant bodies.
- Indecorous, ambiguous and irreverent titles and subtitles
- Cruelty to animals
- The irreverent treatment of sacred subjects
- Drunken scenes carried to excess
- Vulgar accessories in the staging
- The modus operandi of criminals
- Cruelty to young infants and excessive cruelty and torture to adults, especially women
- Unnecessary exhibition of under-clothing
- The exhibition of profuse bleeding
- Nude figures
- Offensive vulgarity, and impropriety in conduct and dress
- Indecorous dancing
- Excessively passionate love scenes
- Bathing scenes passing the limits of propriety
- References to controversial politics
- Relations of capital and labour
- Scenes tending to disparage public characters and institutions
- Realistic horrors of warfare
- Scenes and incidents calculated to afford information to the enemy
- Incidents having a tendency to disparage our Allies
- Scenes holding up the King’s uniform to contempt or ridicule
- Subjects dealing with India, in which British Officers are seen in an odious light, and otherwise attempting to suggest the disloyalty of British Officers, Native States or bringing into disrepute British prestige in the Empire
- The exploitation of tragic incidents of the war
- Gruesome murders and strangulation scenes
- The effects of vitriol throwing
- The drug habit. e.g. opium, morphia, cocaine, etc
- Subjects dealing with White Slave traffic
- Subjects dealing with premeditated seduction of girls
- 'First Night' scenes
- Scenes suggestive of immorality
- Indelicate sexual situations
- Situations accentuating delicate marital relations
- Men and women in bed together
- Illicit relationships
- Prostitution and procuration
- Incidents indicating the actual perpetration of criminal assaults on women
- Scenes depicting the effect of venereal disease, inherited or acquired
- Incidents suggestive of incestuous relations
- Themes and references relative to 'race suicide'
- Scenes laid in disorderly houses
- Materialisation of the conventional figure of Christ
During this period, the kind of material that caused concern included horror and gangster films, as well as those that dealt with aspects of sexuality. Some councils were beginning to bar children from films classified A, even when they had been cut by the BBFC to achieve a certificate. For example, the London
County Council (LCC) and Manchester City Council (MCC) banned children from Frankenstein (1931), although a sequence in which the monster drowns a small girl had already been cut. In response to such material, the advisory category H (for horror) was agreed in 1932, to indicate the potential unsuitability for children of the horror theme.
The Walt Disney classic Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs was one of the first feature length cartoons ever made, and Disney cartoon features are now synonymous with children's entertainment. However, the work is an example of one rated differently in different historical periods. It was originally passed A (so more suitable for adult audiences) even after cuts in 1938 and still cut for U in 1964 on film. It was re-released again in cinema and later on video in the 1980s passed U uncut (as it is now).
Arthur Watkins was appointed Secretary to the BBFC in 1948, under the Presidency of Sir Sidney Harris. Both men had come from the Home Office, and Watkins was also a successful playwright. Many film-makers sought the BBFC's advice on scripts before films went into production. Watkins and Harris formulated new terms of reference for the BBFC based on three principles:
- Was the story, incident or dialogue likely to impair the moral standards of the public by extenuating vice or crime or depreciating moral standards?
- Was it likely to give offence to reasonably minded cinema audiences?
- What effect would it have on children?
The effect on children was of major importance since, apart from the advisory H category, from which some councils already chose to bar children, there was no category that excluded children. An 'adults only' category was increasingly seen as desirable, not only to protect children, but as an extension of the freedom of film-makers to treat adult subjects in an adult fashion.