Censorship ain’t what it used to be

by Stephen Tall on May 14, 2006

The Sunday Telegraph today reports on the decline in cuts made by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) in the last 30 years.

Apparently, in the 1970s – the decade of Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, Last Tango, and, of course, countless dreary British sex comedies starring Robin Askwith – 27% of films required cuts. In the last decade, “less than three per cent of the 4,951 films released into cinemas have had to lose footage in order to get their preferred certificate.”

I’m relieved to say the Torygraph lived up to the right-wing stereotype of banging the hypocritical drum for proper censorship, lamenting wistfully the good ole’ days when films such as Snow White and National Velvet had to be snipped, and quoting approvingly that swivel-eyed bastion of authoritarianism, MediaWatch UK – “It’s a free for all.”

None of which, of course, prevented them – nor me – illustrating how disgusting this new spirit of libertarianism is with a still from Michael Winterbottom’s explicit, art-house pornathon, 9 Songs.

Being a liberal sort of a chap, I oppose all external censorship: every responsible adult should be their own censor.

Of course, there is a need for regulatory bodies such as the BBFC to enable us to make informed choices. We should all be grateful for the ratings system: knowing in advance a film is rated ‘U: suitable for all’ helps me to avoid accidentally sitting through something at the cinema in a room full of noisy kids toked up on Sunny Delight. And the TV Times used to have (maybe still does?) a very helpful graphic, showing two adults, which indicated a film containing unsuitable scenes – a very useful filtering device for a curious adolescent.

Andreas Whittam Smith, the BBFC’s erstwhile director, makes the key point in the article: that classification has to reflect the moral climate of the time. “The board [of the BBFC] should be guided by what the public wants. We shouldn’t have a situation where the board tells the public what it wants.”

This is pretty self-evident. I remember Jeremy Hardy commenting how the Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen caused genuine national outrage back in 1977 – and that now it seems odd it wasn’t our Eurovision entry. My parents used to switch off The Two Ronnies because they didn’t like the risqué innuendo; guess which programme united us all last Christmas Day?

In any case, censorship and convention will always have its place – if only to provide risk-taking artistes with something to kick against. As well as to enable we libertines to feel justly indignant the next time some repressed, over-compensating dullard decides to stick their finger in the dyke of freedom.