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

The British Board Of Film Classification opens its doors to Empire

by Phil de Semlyen |
Published on

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The British Board Of Film Classification opens its doors to Empire

Empire is on the hunt for porn. Sat in an office on the executive floor of the BBFC building, we scroll nonchalantly through a list of increasingly filthy titles in an effort to track down one in particular. Our smut-seeking sidekick in this endeavour is BBFC assistant director, David Austin, who with a sigh of exasperation picks up the phone to a colleague down the corridor. "Murray, I'm looking for a clip called It's Just Wrong. Any ideas?" As we try to stifle a bout of puerile sniggering in favour of professional detachment, Murray from down the corridor offers some helpful pointers. "Right, I can see Buttman Goes To Montreal...", Austin matter-of-facts into the handset. "No... wait, there it is." A mouse hovers over the S drive, there's a click and we find ourselves watching a porno with one of Britain's most senior film classifiers.

A less bashful Empire started our day as a fly on the British Board Of Film Classification's wall one floor down. The austere body's small band of examiners is located on the second floor of 3 Soho Square, scrutinising the newest blockbusters, discussing the issues of the moment and, when needs must, grimacing through Buttman's other global adventures. We've been afforded an access-all-areas tour of the building that's housed the British Board Of Film Classification since a Luftwaffe bomb rated its previous West End HQ 'U' for uninhabitable. Not only that, but we've had the chance to spend some time with the people responsible for deciding what we can and can't watch on a daily basis. In short, we're here to watch the watchers.

Our preconceptions of the BBFC's offices — that it will be a Brazil-meets-Hudsucker bureaucracy of paperwork, probably transported around the building via tubes — are subverted straight away. Sure, there are filing cupboards for viewed discs and the odd discreet pile of paperwork, but the first impression is of a workplace of professional film fans rather than the British film industry's gatekeeper. The walls are lined with posters for Roman Holiday, Amarcord and other classics. There are Game Of Thrones box sets and an Argo DVD waiting for some after-hours downtime, and at no point does a faceless apparatchik thrust a 27B/6 form in our face.

The examiner we're riding shotgun with Caroline (her name has been changed because collective anonymity is everything here) does at least have a spreadsheet open. Her office walls are decorated with posters for Chinatown and Breathless, and there's a telly and Blu-ray player facing her desk. She's typical of BBFC examiners in arriving here via another career: a past life in TV production and acquisition that offered the kind of life experience prized in these parts. Among her colleagues are former media lawyers, an ex-policeman, a video-game developer, even a part-time film director who "disappears occasionally" to work on his own projects. Austin, their boss, is a former diplomat who served in conflict resolution at the sharp end of the Balkans conflict. It's a job, you'd argue, that makes him perfectly suited to stand between, say, The Human Centipede and a furious Daily Mail.

"Gregory Peck sent us a telegram saying that he preferred the BBFC-cut version to the US version of Cape Fear."

Dave Austin, Assistant Director, BBFCAfter chatting about her favourite film, Vertigo, Caroline kicks off her day's viewing with a pre-release copy of arthouse drama Hors Satan. At first glance, it seems to be an existential French piece featuring a man, a woman and a beach. There's no immediate sign of Satan. The film was rated 15 in cinemas for "strong sex, language and a brief gory image", but as she explains, there's a chance that additional material would shunt it into a different bracket on DVD. If so, it'll be spotted and logged in a spreadsheet. We're guessing that a gore-splashed Beelzebub building a giant sandpenis would do the trick, but after 25 minutes of sandy wanderings we're disappointed to encounter nothing of the sort.

Once Satan has been Hors'ed, there's a Shallow Hal DVD menu to be scoured and a One Hour Photo 'making-of' to watch. An examiner's day typically kicks off at 9am and involves exactly 340 minutes of viewing, an oddly precise timeframe that allows for report writing and recommendations filing. While the BBFC isn't a profit-making body, costs have to be covered and distributors are charged according to the length of their film. Classifying a two-hour theatrical feature will cost you £1128, while a 180-minute opus will set you back £1632. If you've made the next Berlin Alexanderplatz, you might want to talk to your bank manager.

For that outlay, distributors can be sure their release will be seen in its intended format. In the basement there's a 30-seat 3D screening room for theatrical releases, where pairs of examiners sit under the watchful gaze of Alan, the BBFC's long-serving projectionist. An IMAX release means a lonely vigil at the South Bank or Science Museum — "It's creepy," shudders Caroline of the near-solitary 70mm experience — while DVD and Blu-ray releases are viewed at desks. Like most movie watchers, BBFCers are partial to a snack — or at least they were until someone took the vending machine away, possibly for health reasons. "Everyone puts on about a stone in their first year," laughs Caroline. Out of hours, there are occasional beers at The Nellie Dean around the corner and a Friday night social in the in-house cinema. Stoker and Hansel & Gretel both screened recently.

It's a serious and often solitary profession, though. The examiners' guiding principle is that every movie should be seen by the widest possible audience and the BBFC ethos is that 'Every film starts at U'. While A Serbian Film and company don't stay there for very long, 18 ratings are never dished out for the sake of it. The BBFC publishes a glossy pamphlet of guidelines — these, along with detailed case-studies, can also be found online — breaking down the differences between ratings. Filmmakers wanting a 12A/12s (12A is for theatrical releases, 12 for DVDs) rather than a 15 will find major pointers here. "Nudity is allowed," runs the 12A guideline, "but in a sexual context [it] must be brief and discreet". In a 15, by minor contrast, "nudity may be allowed in a sexual context but without strong detail". With so much overlap and room for nuance — exactly how blurry should a nipple be? — it's easy to see why the individual judgment of examiners becomes so important, albeit with guidelines to work to and senior examiners to oversee recommendations.

A big intangible, and one not easily legislated for in the guidelines, is the issue of how a film makes its audience "feel". You may not see John Harrison crushing craniums with his bare hands in Star Trek Into Darkness, but you sure as heck feel it. By that token, the film that attracted the widest ire in recent years was The Dark Knight in 2008. The BBFC's widest-possible-audience edict guided it to a 12A rating, much to the chagrin of the 264 people whose angry missives barged through the Soho Square letterbox. Newspapers at the time were full of outraged op-eds and letters. One letter published had a 43 year-old complaining that when he'd taken his nine year-old son to see it, he'd "had his hands over his face a lot of the time because he was scared".

The BBFC would point out the 'A' part in '12A' leaves responsibility with the parent, although The Dark Knight, pencil scene and all, was contentious enough to prompt a public consultation. Only 69 per cent of people polled felt it received the right rating; a figure well below the normal 90 per cent mark. Still, despite that vanishing HB, Christopher Nolan's blockbuster adhered to all the criteria for a 12A, so if there is a problem, maybe it's with the guidelines. Maybe a lack of 'injury detail' and canny editing aren't enough to protect young minds? Last year, the 12A-rated Woman In Black drew more than 100 complaints, even after the BBFC insisted that certain shots be darkened, a rotting face and a hanging removed from the final cut and audio cues toned down.

These are the kind of subjects that get chewed over every Wednesday morning at the weekly examiners meeting. Over coffee, opinions are exchanged and issues tackled to ensure a unified approach, preferably without spoiling the movies in question for the people who haven't seen them.

BBFC Registry The original classification for Gone With The Wind from 1940. The BBFC's précis notes that MGM's epic "includes some mild bad language, including 'damn'."

A Beginner's Guide To The BBFC Certificates

Leaving Caroline to Robin Williams and that One Hour Photo extra, Empire heads upstairs to discuss these issues with David Austin. He's the man responsible for overseeing the BBFC's day-to-day decision-making, and the best person to tackle recent BBFC controversies. The organisation rated 850 movies last year, including Ken Loach's The Angels' Share, a C-bomb-dropping, comedy/drama set in Scotland that caused a major rift between filmmakers and classifiers. "We were allowed seven 'cunts' but only two of them could be aggressive 'cunts'," Loach grumbled at Cannes last year. "Yes, we were criticised by Ken Loach," recalls Austin with some understatement ("tortured, middle-class and obsessed with language" is how the director summed it up), "and he eventually cut out uses of the word to get a 15".

So if seven C-words are acceptable, why not ten? Why any? "Our guidelines are always based on what the public tells us," explains Austin, "and in our last research the public told us that frequency [of swearing] was important to them. Many people really hate that word but the general attitude is that they know it exists, they know their kids hear it, and while they don't like it, there may be circumstances when it's OK at 15." If the C-bomb controversy gives the BBFC a chance to explain its remit, Austin bridles slightly at Loach's inference. "We're not just reflecting southern, middle-class, white attitudes", he explains. "We do this research all over the UK and we can see the differences."

The BBFC conducts regularly surveys to keep in tune with public sensibilities, and as attitudes shift, it tries to shift with them. "There's less concern with consensual sex between adults than 20 years ago", explains Austin, "but more with depictions of self-harm, suicide, racism and other discrimination". Regular liaison with The Samaritans and Self Harm UK, among other charities, also helps formulate guidelines in areas like copycat behaviour. Recently, an episode of House Of Cards, in which Kevin Spacey's character explicitly details a suicide technique, scored an 18 rating in line with concerns from The Samaritans. Gathering dust on the shelf behind Austin's desk is a row of unrated DVDs that includes a 'fitness' film demonstrating the best techniques for knifing someone, and a rip-off Pussycat Dolls exercise video that features a whole lot more bumping and grinding than is really acceptable for a tween audience. Currently exempt from classification, these are legally supplied to children, although government scrutiny could soon see them fall under the BBFC's keen eye.

Austin, like most here, is a self-professed film geek. Even a decade of Adam Sandler movies and low-budget porn hasn't changed that. During Empire's hour with him, he corrects us on Peeping Tom's release date, shares with us his wife's hair-raising response to a home viewing of [•REC] ("She woke up in the middle of the night and started wrenching a wrought-iron mirror off the wall!"), and enthuses about Apocalypse Now. There's a poster for Coppola's Vietnamasterpiece on his office wall, alongside promos for The Great Escape and the original Cape Fear, an auspicious case study for the organisation. "Gregory Peck sent a telegram saying that he preferred the BBFC-cut version to the US one," says Austin. "He really liked the cuts we made." There are hundreds of letters and telegrams from directors, producers and distributors squirreled away in the BBFC archives although most, he admits, aren't as flattering.

Inside The BBFC *Clockwise from top. The BBFC shares film-friendly Soho Square with Dolby Europe, 20th Century Fox and post-production house Deluxe Entertainment Services. None of them are allowed to use the bike stand. *

All of which brings us back to the porno that's currently staring us in the face. No-one will be writing in about It's Just Wrong because it will never be released, and now that Austin has loaded it up, it's clear that it hasn't been squirreled away on the BBFC server for artistic reasons. This is one of the clips kept on file to demonstrate problem areas — in this case, performers being deliberately dressed to look underage — that makes you understand why the BBFC offers anonymous counselling to its staff.

Gathering dust on the shelf is a rip-off Pussycat Dolls exercise video that features a whole lot more bumping and grinding than is really acceptable for a tween audience.It's safe to say that classifying pornography — or 'sex works' as they're known here — isn't exactly relished around these parts. "Luckily there isn't as much these days", explains Austin, alluding to the explosion in online porn that has undercut the DVD market. When he joined the austere body ten years ago there was "masses" of the stuff to either ban or pin 'R18' ratings to, and while the internet has lessened the load, there are still a thousand or so a year to wade through. Regular collaborations with the police keep policies aligned with changes to the law, but there are other considerations too. "Our research told us that people often watch porn with a view to copying it," he explains. "Sometimes you see penetration with power tools, and we won't pass that. You really don't want to be in A&E that evening." Obviously when you're scouring "sex works" for breaches in the Obscene Publications or Criminal Justice & Immigration Act, a little gallows humour goes a long way. Memories of rating a porno with a plotline borrowed from Vertigo also prompt a chuckle.

With Empire's time almost up, we're curious to know if there are any red flags on the BBFC's horizon. Explicit Palme-winning drama Blue Is The Warmest Colour is heading their way, as is Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac. The Danish provocateur is releasing hardcore and softcore versions of the film, a prospect that will surely raise the BBFC's collective blood pressure? Of course, we'd forgotten that a Monday morning one-to-one with Willem Dafoe's scrotum is all in a day's work here. Austin gently bats the enquiry away, he's a von Trier fan, you see. "We always like his films," he explains mildly. The BBFC counselor is always there in case the Dane pulls out any seismic shocks — it's unlikely, granted, but more genital lopping may push the whole organisation over the edge — but we're not expecting the battle-hardened Austin to be involved in too many copycat incidents. "The only thing I've copied is from The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon knocks on Penny's door three times," he laughs. "I do that with my daughter."


Killer Cuts: A History Of The BBFC In 18 MoviesSet 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.

The Empire Podcast: The BBFC Special

In an Empire podcast first, readers posed their Twitter questions, queries and grievances on movie ratings direct to the man who oversees them on a daily basis, BBFC executive director David Austin. Why was Gremlins rated 15? Why did What Ever Happened To Baby Jane go from an 18 to 12? What's a 12A for, anyway? What happened with A Good Day To Die Hard? We made Austin a cup of tea, showed him to the hot seat and fired your questions at him for 45 fascinating minutes.

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