The BBFC in the 1980s

The decade started in dramatic fashion for the BBFC with the submission of Tinto Brass' Caligula. The film had respectable antecedents, being based on The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, and a screenplay by Gore Vidal.  Original producer Franco Rossellini approached Penthouse mogul Bob Guccione for financial support. Tinto Brass was hired as director, while the stars were familiar and respected names - Sir John Gielgud, Peter O'Toole and Helen Mirren. Problems occurred after shooting, with Brass being fired and Vidal protesting that his screen play bore little relationship to what was on screen. He disassociated himself from the film and attempted to have his name removed from the credits. Guccione then added some material of his own, some of it hard-core pornography.

The most controversial film of the eighties

The film achieved notoriety in the USA and arrived in the UK with the reputation of being 'the most controversial film of the eighties'. It was seized by Customs and Excise officials when it came into the UK and then seen by the BBFC together with lawyers and Customs officials so that any footage in danger of breaching UK laws could be removed.  At this stage, all sexually explicit material was removed in order to conform with Customs regulations (specifically the Customs Act 1876), and further cuts made to material which was potentially actionable under the Obscene Publications Act - the later including sexually violent material.

The cut film was then viewed again by the BBFC which had already indicated that further cuts to sex and violence would be necessary in order to secure a nationwide release under X standards. Some innocuous material was added to restore some dialogue which had been lost when the cuts were made.

After six months the film was finally released in the UK with an X rating, and while the majority of local authorities were content with the rating, it was banned in some areas. Inevitably, there was some orchestrated protest from concerned citizens who had not seen the film, but because the BBFC had taken every precaution to ensure that the rating was within the law, the fuss died down. The video was rated 18 when it was submitted in 1990 in a greatly reduced version, having been cut by a further 50 minutes by its distributors in addition to the cuts made for cinema release. In 2008, three versions of the work were submitted, including the original version. All were rated 18 uncut after lengthy consideration.

Throughout the decade there were a number of films involving gangland characters. 1981 saw the release of Tom Clegg's McVicar, a criminal biopic rated X; and John Mackenzie's The Long Good Friday, the story of a criminal determined to preserve his manor against incursions by the IRA, also rated X.  This has remained 18 on video and subsequently DVD since 1987, with the most recent classification in 2008. Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa was rated 18 in 1986, with Bob Hoskins playing the role of chauffeur to a prostitute.  David Green's Buster, rated 15 in 1988, told the story of Great Train Robber 'Buster' Edwards on the run from the law.  The decade concluded with Peter Medak's tale of infamous twin gangland figures The Krays rated 18, after cuts to a strong mutilation scene.

Another film based on real-life was Michael Caton-Jones' Scandal, an account of the Profumo affair, a political scandal of the 1960s.  Although for some the events were considered too recent for comfort, the problem for the BBFC was of a different kind.  An orgy scene revealed the presence of an erect penis in the backgound of the shot. The image was obscured by soft-focus lighting and the film released with an 18 rating. The film remains an 18 on DVD today.

The first of the Rambo series, First Blood (Ted Kotcheff), was rated 15 uncut in 1982, and the second, George Pan Cosmatos' Rambo - First Blood Part II was rated 15 uncut in 1985.  However, Rambo III was cut in 1988 to obtain an 18 rating.  In addition to a horse-fall removed under the terms of the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937, the violence was reduced by the excision of spatter shots, and cuts were made to counteract the glamorisation of weapons which constituted a significant issue.

Paul Verhoeven's film Robocop was rated 18 without cuts in 1987, and the same on video a year later.  The 2001 video version was submitted with additional material that had been removed by the MPAA before the film was submitted in the UK.

However, the Conan films did not have the same easy passage.  John Milius' Conan The Barbarian required cuts to a sex scene between Conan and a serpent-woman, and to remove horse-falls, for an AA rating in 1982.  The second Conan film, Richard Fleischer's Conan The Destroyer also required horse-fall and animal cruelty cuts in 1984.

The decade also saw the establishment of the 'stalk and slash' genre with the Friday 13th series of films, with Parts I and II rated X uncut on film in 1980 and 1981 respectively. Part III was also rated X uncut on film in 1982, but with two cuts to violence/horror to obtain an 18 rating on video in 1987.

1981 saw the second in the Halloween series rated X uncut on film, but a scene where a woman was scalded to death in a jacuzzi was reduced for an 18 video release in 1990.  The cuts have since been restored.

The development of the video recorder created new anxieties about the home viewing of feature films. Legally, there was no requirement that videos should be rated, which meant that films that had not been approved by the BBFC or which were suitable for adults only, were falling into the hands of children. In particular the tabloid press led a campaign against so-called 'video nasties'. This term was not always clearly defined, but there were 70 titles that had either been prosecuted by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) under the Obscene Publications Act (OPA), or were awaiting prosecution. Some of these were horror films that had never been submitted to the BBFC.

Others had been cut for their cinema release, and the video versions sometimes included restored cuts. The outcome of this concern was new legislation, introduced as a private member’s Bill by Conservative MP Graham Bright. The Video Recordings Act 1984 makes it an offence for a video work to be supplied if it has not been rated, or to supply a rated work to a person under the age specified in the certificate. The BBFC was designated as the authority with responsibility for age ratings in 1985, hiring more staff to deal with a massively increased workload consisting of a backlog of titles already on the market and all new titles (eg in 1986 the BBFC classified 348 cinema films and 4464 video works).

No record of the decade of the 'video nasties' would be complete without mention of Sam Raimi's zombie film, The Evil Dead. This was submitted in 1982 and required 49 seconds of cuts to scenes of violence and horror.  The video was placed on the DPP's list and seized, with a number of retailers charged under the Obscene Publications Act - although the work was never tested in court as the retailers pleaded guilty. In 1985 the distributor Palace Video was prosecuted and acquitted. The film cuts were increased for the video version in 1990 as a precautionary measure against possible future prosecution, but in 2000 the full uncut version was rated 18 on video.

Abel Ferrara's The Driller Killer was viewed for information in the early 80s, but not formally submitted until 1999 in a version pre-cut by the distributor by some 54 seconds, acting on advice from the BBFC's departing Director James Ferman.  The cuts were suggested because the film had collected various OPA convictions.  The full version was submitted on video in 2002 and rated 18 without cuts.

The House On The Edge Of The Park (Ruggero Deodato) was rejected by the BBFC in 1981 for serious violations of the sexual violence standards.  It subsequently appeared on the DPP list and was the subject of successful prosecutions under the OPA.  It was formally submitted on video for the first time in 2001 and cut for 18.  Most of the cuts were made for sexual violence under the BBFC's Guidelines. In 2011, the uncut version was submitted on DVD and fewer cuts were required than in 2001.

When former 'video nasties' like those above are submitted to the BBFC, they are examined under current Guidelines, and their legal history considered.  It is usually possible to make cuts to ensure a modern release, although many of them continue to test the Guidelines for sexual violence.

In 1982 the A rating was changed to PG, AA was changed to 15 and X became 18. A new rating R18 was introduced which permitted more explicit sex films to be shown in members-only  clubs. Previously, such clubs had shown material unrated by the BBFC, but a change in the law closed this loophole.  Since the mid 1980s, most R18 material has been released on video and subsequently on DVD, only available from a limited number of sex shops which must be specially licensed by local authorities.

In 1985, at the request of the industry, the Uc rating was introduced for video only, to identify works specifically suitable for very young children to watch alone.

In 1989 the BBFC introduced the 12 rating on film, to bridge the huge gap between PG and 15. This was extended to video in 1994. The first film to be given a 12 rating was Batman.