Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
British Board of Film Classification
The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is the organisation responsible for film classification within the United Kingdom.
Organisation and responsibilities
The BBFC was established in 1912 as the British Board of Film Censors. In 1984 it changed to its current name to 'reflect the fact that classification plays a far larger part in the Board's work than censorship' . At that time it also took responsibility for classifying videos for hire or purchase to view in the home as well as films shown in cinemas. Home video and cinema versions of a film often receive the same certificate, although occasionally a film may receive a more restrictive certificate for the home video market, as it is easier for children to watch a home video than to be admitted into a cinema.
The Board is an independent, non-governmental organisation. Its business affairs are controlled by a council of management selected from leading figures in the manufacturing and servicing sectors of the film industry. This council appoints the President, who has statutory responsibility for the classification of videos and acts as a "court of appeal" in disputes over classification, and the Director who has executive responsibility and formulates policy. The Board, which is based in Soho Square, Soho, London, is financed from the fees it charges for classifying films and videos and is run on a not-for-profit basis.
In the case of films shown in cinemas, local authorities have the final legal say about who can watch a particular film. Almost always local authorities accept the Board's recommendation for a certificate for a film. There have been some notable exceptions - particularly in the 1970s when the Board allowed films such as Last Tango in Paris and The Exorcist to be released with an X certificate (essentially the same as today's "18") but many local authorities chose to ban the films regardless.
Conversely, in 2002, a few local authorities, apparently under pressure from distributors and cinema chains, ignored the BBFC's ruling that Spider-Man receive a 12 rating, and allowed children younger than 12 to see the film. However, the BBFC were already in the process of replacing the 12 rating with a new 12A which allowed under-12s to see the film, provided that they are accompanied by an adult, so shortly afterwards, Spider-Man was reclassified as 12A.
Local authorities do not have such power for video recordings. Under the Video Recording Act 1984, all non-exempt recordings must be classified by an authority chosen by the Home Secretary. This classification is then legally binding. Since the introduction of the Act, the BBFC has been the chosen authority. In theory this authority could be revoked, but in practice such a revocation has never been suggested.
On occasion, the BBFC has also rated some video games. Normally these are exempt from classification, unless they depict human sexual activity, human genital organs or gross acts of violence, in which case the publishers should submit the game for classification.
Attitudes to censorship
Historically the Board has faced strong criticism for an over-zealous attitude in censoring film. Prior to the liberalising decade of the 1960s, films were routinely and extensively censored as a means of social control. For example, Rebel Without a Cause was cut in order to reduce the "possibility of teenage rebellion". Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night was cut to remove "overtly sexual or provocative" language.
The BBFC's attitude moved extensively towards liberalisation during the 1960s - concentrating on censoring films featuring graphic sex and violence. However decisions which the Board reached repeatedly caused controversy in the 1970s when it banned a series of films that were released uncut and were popular in other countries. Notable titles include The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Straw Dogs and Last House on the Left. However, under recent Presidents James Ferman and Andreas Whittam Smith and current incumbent Sir Quentin Thomas, guidelines have been relaxed again, allowing the release, usually uncut, of these previously banned films on video and in cinemas. Some films from the 1970s remain unreleased (see this list for titles), but many of these titles remain banned primarily because their distributors have not chosen to re-submit the films to the BBFC, almost certainly for commercial reasons. If they were, they would be likely to receive a more sympathetic hearing than 30 years ago - only two films from the 1970s, Love Camp 7 (rejected in 2002) and Women in Cellblock 9 (rejected in 2004), both of which contain substantial scenes of sexual violence, have remained completely banned following a re-submission since 2000.
The relaxation of guidelines has also made hardcore pornography widely available to adult audiences through the R18 rating. Films with this rating are only legally available from licensed sex shops, of which there about 100 in the UK. Violent films or films with mixed sexual and violent themes are more likely to be acceptable at an 18 rating than ever before. Recent examples include the passing of Baise Moi and Irreversible uncut for cinema and video viewing. Despite this trend towards liberalisation, anti-censorship campaigners are still critical of the BBFC. A prominent online campaign group is the "Melon Farmers", which criticises both the laws that BBFC is required to uphold and the BBFC's interpretation of that law in specific cases. Conversely, BBFC has attracted more criticism from conservative press, in particular the Daily Mail, on the grounds that the release of sexually explicit and violent films was corrupting the nation. The newspaper's most famous clash with the BBFC came when the Board released Crash without cuts. The following day (19th March 1997) the Mail led with the banner headline "CENSOR'S YES TO DEPRAVED SEX FILM". Westminster City Council imposed its own ban on the film after the decision.
The BBFC's current guidelines identify a number of specific areas of concern which are considered when awarding certificates or requiring cuts. These are theme, language (i.e. profanity), nudity, sex, violence, sexual violence, imitable techniques, horror, and drugs. The BBFC also continues to demand cuts of any material which it considers may breach the provisions of the Obscene Publications Act or any other legislation (most notably the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937 and the Protection of Children Act 1978).
There is no theme or subject-matter that is considered inherently unsuitable for classification at any level, although more controversial topics might require a restricted certificate. This is in keeping with current practice in most liberal democracies, but in sharp contrast to the early days of the BBFC when such themes as prostitution, incest and the relations of capital and labour were unacceptable in any circumstances.
'Bad' or 'strong' language can earn a film a more restrictive certificate, though BBFC policy states that there are no constraints on language use in films awarded an 18 certificate. It is difficult to compare the BBFC's policies in this area with those in other countries as there are different taboos regarding profanity in other languages and indeed in other English-speaking countries. For example, the use of 'strong' language has little effect on a film's classification in France. The BBFC's policy proved particularly controversial in the case of Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen in 2002, which was passed uncut only at 18 certificate, even though its main characters were teenagers who frequently used profanities that the director argued were typical of the social group his film depicted. The film received similar certificates in Ireland and the United States, but in Australia it was awarded the less restrictive MA certificate.
There are minimal restrictions of the depiction of non-sexual nudity, which may be allowed in even U and PG certificate films, but scenes of (simulated) sexual activity are limited to more restricted certificates. With regard to material that is intended primarily as pornographic the Board's policy, as stated on its website is "Material which appears to be simulated is generally passed ‘18’, while images of real sex are confined to the ‘R18’ category." However, for some years depictions of real sex have been allowed in 18 certificate videos which are intended to be educational, and in recent years a number of works such as Catherine Breillat's Romance, Patrice Chéreau 's Intimacy and Michael Winterbottom's Nine Songs which feature apparently unsimulated sex have been passed uncut for theatrical release.
Violence remains one of the most problematic areas, especially where it is sexualised. The Board continues to cut films even at 18 certificate for "any detailed portrayal of violent or dangerous acts which is likely to promote the activity." This is particularly the case with so called imitable techniques. However, the Board takes into account issues of context and whether it considers scenes of sexual violence to "eroticise" or "endorse" sexual assault. In 2002, the board passed Gaspar Noé's Irréversible uncut, but less than a month later cut Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer by three and a quarter minutes specifically for its alleged sexual violence.
Crime techniques which may be imitated may be cut at any level of certification, as may depictions of drug use that mught be imitated. Films which "promote or encourage the use of illegal drugs" may also be cut at any level. The issue of imitable techniques is one that does not seem to figure especially highly in the censorship systems of most other countries, but in the UK numerous minor cuts have been made, primarily to films whose distributors want a PG or 12A certificate, to supposedly imitable techniques.
Presidents of the Board
- George A. Redford (1912-1916)
- Thomas Power O'Connor (1916-1929)
- Edward Shortt (1929-1935)
- William Tyrrell, 1st Baron Tyrrell (1935-1948)
- Sir Sidney Harris (1948-1960)
- Herbert Stanley Morrison (1960-1965)
- William Ormsby-Gore, 5th Baron Harlech (1965-1985)
- George Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood (1985-1996)
- Andreas Whittam Smith (1997-2002)
- Sir Quentin Thomas (2002—)
Recent Directors of the Board
During James Ferman's the title of the "chief executive officer" at the BBFC changed from Secretary of the Board to the current Director.
- John Trevelyan 1958-1971
- Stephen Murphy 1971-1975
- James Ferman 1975-1999
- Robin Duval 1999-2004
- David Cooke 2004-
- BBFC website, April 2003
- 18 certificate
- R18 certificate
- Obscene Publications Act
- Censorship in the United Kingdom
- Motion picture rating system
- History of British film certificates
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