7 things I learned by reading the BBFC’s annual report this morning

Friday July 12th 2013

Each summer, the good (and incomparably whimsical) people over at the British Board of Film Certification release their annual report, a 100-page document outlining their ongoing struggle to cope with the weight of expectation inherent in being a nation’s court-appointed moral guardian.

Much like the reports for 2011 and 2010, this in-depth summary (.pdf alert) of the 10,000-odd certificates awarded by the board in 2012 is as clear a demonstration of the state of British film censorship as you’re likely to find without a security clearance.

Sensitive readers may want to go through the following post with a black marker and redact all the words they don’t like.

When it comes to PG-level violence: chainsaw good, cheese grater bad

One of the most interesting sections of the report is a description of some of the action that takes place in The Three Stooges — information previously available only to the 17 people worldwide who saw the film in cinemas. We’re told that Moe, Larry, and Curly ‘frequently slap each other round the face, poke each other in the eyes, hit others on the head with a collection of items including hammers and chainsaws, or fall off buildings. Their behaviour also leads to other characters being hit by buses, falling under road sweepers or being attacked by lions.’

The film’s slapstick tone allowed these moments to pass at PG but didn’t excuse a number of other scenes, which had to be cut. These were primarily ‘sequences showing everyday objects being used in a potentially dangerous manner that young children may copy… including the use of a vegetable peeler on a man’s head, a cheese grater on a man’s foot, hair tongs on a woman’s tongue and a man’s head being placed ina microwave’.

Personally, I also consider buildings and buses to be everyday objects, but that’s just me.

The Woman in Black was 2012’s most-complained-about movie, but don’t worry because ‘it’s literary’

Every year, one high-profile film with violent or scary elements sneaks through at the very top end of the 12A category and elicits a barrage of complaints from parents whose kids couldn’t handle it, the wimps. A few years back it was The Dark Knight; last year, we had The Woman in Black. The BBFC received hundreds of letters and e-mails about the film, to which it responded that that The Woman in Black is ‘based on a well-known book studied in schools. It is also the basis of a popular stage play. The BBFC considered that these elements lessened the sense of horror, allowing the film to be passed at 12A.’

As a justification, ‘your kids have probably read the book anyway’ doesn’t seem especially watertight. By the same logic, the film deserves a 12A rating because most children are familiar with the oeuvre of Daniel Radcliffe. Which might bode well for his upcoming gay murder movie.

42 years after its release, someone finally had the guts to complain about The Railway Children

Classified at U in 1970, the beloved children’s classic The Railway Children has spent half a century entertaining BBC One’s Sunday afternoon viewership without a single complaint levelled in its direction. Last year, one intrepid soul finally had the courage to write to the BBFC and demand that they rescind the film’s heinously permissive U rating, thereby sparing the lives of the zero children who die each year imitating a bunch of pre-teen Edwardian trainspotters and their laissez-faire approach to locomotive safety.

15-year-olds are now allowed to hear the word ‘cunt’ seven times in the space of 106 minutes

Over the last decade, the BBFC’s hypersensitivity to the word ‘cunt’ has eased off a little, maturing from a fairly strict one-cunt-at-15 limit to the more pragmatic response that met Ken Loach’s The Angel’s Share last year. Loach was allowed a record-breaking seven cunts at 15, which nonetheless meant stripping away more than half of the fifteen uses originally present in film. One option available to profanity-hungry teens who wanted to hear the word as many times as originally intended was to see the film twice, or say ‘cunt’ half a dozen times to themselves in the foyer before the scheduled start time.

Incidentally, I’ve now used the word ‘cunt’ six times in this article, which means I’ve got one more use available to me before I upset the delicate sensitivities of the sanctimonious Middle England cunts who still think that swearing is a pressing social concern in 2013.

Gremlins is finally in the 12A category where it’s long belonged

One of the longest-standing disparities in judgement between the BBFC and its American cousin, the MPAA, concerned Joe Dante’s cult 1984 horror classic Gremlins. It’s more or less a kid’s film, a fact that was acknowledged in its Stateside PG rating but ignored wholesale in the UK, where it was placed at 15. Last year, it was finally re-rated 12A — a category that, to be fair to the BBFC, didn’t exist when the film was first released.

To even things out, Jaws — a film that’s long seemed uncomfortable at PG — was bumped up a level to join Gremlins at 12A.

People are still releasing porn movies on DVD in their droves

I’ve been waiting years for a legitimate reason to use one of The Guardian‘s inadvertently hilarious ‘porn’ stock photos and now I finally have one: 555 porn films were submitted to the BBFC for certification in 2012. That figure actually represents an 11% decrease on the previous year, but still seems remarkable to anyone who’s ever successfully overcome the immense challenge of finding pornography on the internet. Moreover, porn films are still regularly subjected to censorship by the BBFC (18.2% had mandatory cuts imposed at R18) for things like ‘sexualised urination and certain types of enema play’ that are practically vanilla online.

Who knew the brown overcoat brigade was still such a powerful market force?

Only two films were cut at 18, and none were rejected outright

If all this talk of censorship and certification is getting you down, rejoice in this fact: 2012 was the first year in more than a decade in which no movies were rejected outright by BBFC examiners. Two horror films, however, were subject to cuts at 18: Deadtime and Dear God No!, both colourfully titled B-movies featuring liberal amounts of sexual violence.

The most problematic scene in Deadtime (which, ironically, appears to have been written, shot and directed by children under the age of 18) features a sharp blade being thrust into a woman’s vagina, intercut with a sex scene in order to make a powerful, hugely original point about the intersection of sex and violence. (Is it blowing your mind yet?)

I know this because along with a dozen other film journalists, I saw the ‘potentially harmful’ sequence during a visit to the BBFC last year. Together we sat and watched the scene — deemed unfit for public consumption — with our vulnerable human eyes. And as far as I’m aware, none of the critics in question have yet been transformed into sociopathic rapists as a result.

But I’ll keep you updated.