Killer Cuts: A History Of The BBFC In 18 Movies

A quickfire guide to some of the most controversial films in BBFC's history

by Phil de Semlyen |
Published on

Set up in 1912, the British Board of Film Censorship has been the annointed gatekeeper to the hearts and minds of UK filmgoers ever since. It's not always been the smoothest of journeys. In fact, the august body has refused to classify more than a thousand films in that time, including a few that have since become classics, and been criticised for other bans that it had nothing to do with. Here's a quickfire guide to some of the most controversial films in its history.

Sex And Censorship: A Day In The Life Of The BBFC

Year: 1925

Fearing a British revolution or at the very least, a dangerous upsurge in sickle sales, the BBFC banned Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 melodrama, citing its "inflammatory subtitles and Bolshevist propaganda". The distributors then submitted it to two London councils, who also rejected it. It wasn't until the death of Stalin in 1953 that it got a wider re-release, albeit rated X.

Year: 1929

Sliced eyeballs and freaky ants be damned because the BBFC were having no truck with any surrealist nonsense when Dali and Buñuel submitted The Seashell And The Clergyman in late 1929. Amusingly, its judgment that the 31-minute short was "apparently meaningless" was swiftly followed by the hedge, "if there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable". Either way, it was banned.

Year: 1932

Take one Bela Lugosi, an HG Wells tale, some furry critters, plenty of vivisection and boil under the sun of the Southern Seas. Presto! You've got yourself a recipe for a lengthy ban from British cinemas. This twisted Paramount talkie was actually banned three times in all, largely for its depiction of animal cruelty (in 1933, 1951 and 1957), before finally being passed X with cuts in 1958. In 2011, it was released as a PG on DVD.

Year: 1932

Lon Chaney's old pal Tod Browning generated serious indignation with his semi-autobiographical carny flick. Its collection of real-life 'sideshow freaks', including bearded ladies, conjoined twins and disabled performers – an ensemble straight out of a David Lynch cheese dream – caused unease at its studio, MGM, too, but it was the BBFC's opinion that it was exploitative and should be banned altogether. That ban was upheld in 1963 and Freaks continued to stir debate right into the '90s.

Year: 1954

Aside from one or two dissenting local councils, this hog-happy Brando drama was kept off UK screens for 13 years after the BBFC deemed it too incendiary for the yoot of the day. Gang culture, especially Teddy Boys and Hells Angels, were a big social concern of the time, so when a girl asks Brando, "What are you rebelling against Johnny?", the answer "Waddaya got?" probably wasn't what they were looking for.

Year: 1955

Deemed too full of "revolting hooliganism" for teenage Britain, Richard Brooks' urban drama got kiboshed in a strongly-worded letter from BBFC secretary Arthur Watkins to MGM. The film's morality was not, argued Watkins, "sufficiently powerful to counteract the harm that may be done by the spectacle of youth out of control", and the studio's defence wasn't helped by outbreaks of rioting at screenings. Judicious cuts enabled it to sneak a X certificate, but it wasn't until 1994 that its rating was tempered to a 12.

Year: 1960

Giallo great Mario Bava kicked off his filmmaking career by lobbing this grenade at the censors. A 17th century tale of witchcraft, vampirism and mangled corpses, it would, the BBFC reasoned, be too gory and horrifying for British moviegoers. (In fairness, it did have a bit where someone gets a nail through the eye.) It was banned for eight years, although it was classified in 1968 and has since become a classic of its genre.

Year: 1963

Sam Fuller's pulpy masterpiece, which told the story of a journalist slowly shedding his marbles in an asylum, was banned in 1963. BBFC secretary John Trevelyan fretted that its "unjustified and alarmist" tone would alarm people with relatives in psychiatric care. He probably had a point too, except that if you had a relative in an asylum you probably didn't need a film to do that.

Year: 1968

No matter how you dressed them up – and Robert Aldrich plumped for suits and ties – women weren't going to be kissing each other's naughty bits on the BBFC's watch. No ma'am. Even in the age of sexual revolution, the sight of Susannah York and Beryl Reid sharing "a most explicit lesbian love scene" resulted in a major cut and an X rating. Norwich council went a step further and banned it altogether.

Year: 1970

Now a counter-cultural curio, Andy Warhol's Trash was deemed unclassifiable when it crossed the BBFC's screens in 1970. Scenes of intravenous drug use, combined with graphic sex and nudity were a heady cocktail, even before they got to the bit with the self-abuse and the beer bottles. The major problem, according to the BBFC, was its "ambivalent attitude" to drug taking. Watered down with cuts, it got an X rating in 1972.

Year: 1971

The idea that BBFC banned the Droogy classic gradually took hold in the climate of press hysteria and urban myth that grew around the film - of course, it was Stanley Kubrick who withdrew it from the UK. Not only had the BBFC approved it, uncut, at 18, its considered judgment had been that A Clockwork Orange made "a valuable contribution to the whole debate about violence". After the director died, his family resubmitted it and it was given the same certification.

Year: 1971

If Mary Whitehouse had been around to have a LoveFilm list, it's safe to say that Ken Russell's X-rated allegory wouldn't have been on it. With its masturbating nuns, orgies and C-bombing dialogue, it fell seriously foul of her Festival Of Light pressure group. It fared little better with either the BBFC or Warner Bros., both of whom insisted on cuts, presumably with Whitehouse's pious cadre partially in mind.

Year: 1972

If the era of the so-called 'video nasty' led Britain to the edge of a moral aneurysm, Wes Craven's reworking of The Virgin Spring was one of the first to raise the blood pressure. It was banned in 1974 as lacking any "redeeming merit, in script, in acting, in character development, or in direction, which would lead us to feel that this muddly [sic] film is worth salvaging", but got a uncut VHS release in the early '80s, thanks to a loophole in the law. The 1984 Video Recordings Act closed that loophole, and it wasn't until 2008 that it was passed 18 uncut by the BBFC.

Year: 1975

Leatherface's milky complexion was denied to British filmgoers for 14 years. Successive BBFC secretaries decided that its tone of almost constant menace made cuts alone insufficient to temper what Ferman called its "pornography of terror". Camden council rejected their verdict though, and allowed it to be shown in the borough. The rest of the country could follow suit when the BBFC eventually relented and passed it 18 uncut in 1999.

Year: 1994

The release of Oliver Stone's meta-satire of violence and the media manipulation was bookmarked by tragic shootings that stirred a huge debate on movies and copycat killings. The first, a pair of shootings in France and America, delayed the theatrical release, while the Dunblane massacre saw its home video release delayed for five years. Stone still argues vociferously that the irony of his piece had escaped everyone. "I have a respect for violence", he told The New York Post in 2008, "because I know how difficult it is and how tough. NBK was the only time I used it as a satire."

Year: 1996

"Ban This Car Crash Sex Film" railed The Daily Mail when David Cronenberg's troubling psychodrama motored onto the big screen in 1996. After much testing and consideration, the BBFC rejected that invitation and instead classified Crash '18' with no cuts, sparking a media witchhunt that would see individuals examiners "outed" in print. It remains banned by Westminster Council, presumably for its scenes of illegal parking.

Year: 2002

Not only the worst date movie ever made, Gaspar Noé's slug of sensory overload was also medicine far too strong for many critics. Despite outrage at its ten-minute rape scene and condemnation of its perceived homophobia, the uncut Irréversible was awarded an 18 certificate. The BBFC justified its decision by arguing that few filmgoers would be encouraged to bash each others' brains in with fire extinguishers.

Year: 2011

With its crazed scientist recreating the first Human Centipede and literally stitching people together willy-nilly, Tom Six's even-more-controversial sequel was seen to represent "a real risk to potential viewers" and banned by the BBFC. Eventually, after two minutes 27 seconds of cuts that left fans of buttock stapling cursing, it was passed 18 on DVD.

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