I do however believe in a system of clear and simple film classification, which functions as a set of parental guidelines and as a means by which adults may avoid watching content that will offend them. Classification should be about providing adult consumers with the knowledge to make informed choices, and nothing more.
In the 1990s I worked as label manager for a number of UK video labels and distributors, a role which usually included acting as a VHS release producer (and, for a time, LaserDisc) responsible for all or most of the steps involved in getting videos mastered, packaged and on to retail shelves. In that capacity I had a few enlightening experiences dealing with the mindset of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) and its then Director, the late James Ferman.
The British Board of Film Censors was formed in 1912 by the UK film industry as an initiative to bring uniformity to censorship standards, as local authorities’ standards varied widely. Interestingly, local authorities have always been able to reject the decisions of the BBFC; they can opt to ban the screening of films that have been passed and vice versa, and can allow films to be screened without cuts that the BBFC has requested of a producer or distributor. It’s also worth noting that, legally, there is no wriggle room in the UK regarding the dissemination of any films that contain children (defined as those under 18) depicted in any sort of sexualised context, nor is any image of overt cruelty to animals tolerated (this latter taboo has on occasion required filmmakers to provide sworn statements that although depictions of animals being tortured or killed appeared real, they were in fact achieved through trickery).
In 1984, following the media uproar surrounding the ‘video nasties’ moral panic, Parliament passed the Video Recordings Act, which states that, subject to certain exemptions, video recordings offered for sale or hire in the UK must be classified by an authority designated by the Secretary of State. This was a crucial turning point in the role (and the perception of the role) of the BBFC. The President and Vice President of the body were appointed as the governing authority with the power to assess and pronounce on ‘suitability for viewing in the home,’ and the word ‘censor’ in their name was changed to ‘classification.’
The BBFC now allegedly saw itself primarily as a classification body, rather than an entity protecting the public from harm by deciding (censoring) what the public could and could not view in cinemas and their homes. I don’t actually believe that that is how they saw themselves at all, however. The name change was simply an expedient way to quietly efface the taint given to the BBFC that the word ‘censors’ bestowed upon them. The legal requirement that all videos distributed in the UK be viewed and passed by the BBFC and given an age rating before they could legally be sold had two immediate ramifications: the initial Wild West aspect of the business that saw videos being released by all and sundry and sold anywhere that bore a resemblance to a retail outlet was over; and the viewing fees charged to assess and rate films for video release meant that a huge source of revenue generation was handed to the BBFC.
I first dealt with the BBFC on something other than straightforward submissions of videos and wraps for review and rating in 1992/93. The distributor I worked for had purchased the UK theatrical and video rights for John McNaughton’s terrifying Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and was bound and determined to get it out on VHS, where the film’s potential profits clearly lay (it had been shown initially in the UK at London’s Scala Cinema without a certificate, which the Scala could do as it charged a membership fee to all patrons, a legal loophole which allows club cinemas to sidestep the certification law).
BBFC Director James Ferman had previously announced on Barry Norman’s flagship BBC film programme that he could not envision Henry ever being granted a video certificate as it was simply too disturbing (meaning likely to inflict damage on susceptible viewers) to be viewed at home. However, my employer had quietly persisted in her attempts to get Henry certified for video, and asked Mr. Ferman if he might be willing to discuss possible cuts that could be made which would allow the film to be certified for a video release. After repeatedly rebuffing her entreaties, he reconsidered his position and said that he would consult with experts in aberrant psychology and get back to her.
After a time, Mr. Ferman contacted my employer to say that he had concluded his consultations, had made cuts in accordance with his experts’ opinions and recommendations, and was willing to meet with us to discuss what had to be done in order to get our video certification. The day of the meeting, as we made the short walk from our office to the BBFC’s HQ in Soho Square, my boss fixed me with a stern look and told me, in no uncertain terms, that regardless of what we were told was required of us to release the film, I was to accept it unquestioningly and not raise ANY objections.
Once ensconced in Mr. Ferman’s office, we made polite small talk while his assistant fetched us tea and biscuits (I recall the tea I drank in his office always being served in traditional china cups & saucers) until, niceties over with, we got down to the business at hand. The trims and cuts that needed to be made to some of the more graphic shots and acts of violence were outlined in detail, before we moved on to the piece de resistance, the changes that had been made to one of the key sequences in the film. This sequence begins with Henry and his murderous partner parking in a quiet suburban neighbourhood to select a home to invade. The scene cuts to a shot of Otis molesting a terrified woman while Henry, off camera, offers Otis encouragement, until Otis finally ends the torment by snapping her neck with a sickening crunch. After a few more moments of murderous depravity with the family, the scene cuts to a tracking shot of a seated Henry and Otis, which reveals to the viewer that he has not been watching the murders in real time through the viewfinder of Henry’s video camera, but with (as it were) Henry and Otis as they watch the tape of their heinous crime. It is a brilliant bit of manipulation on the part of director McNaughton; the viewer is voyeuristically implicated in the perverse pleasure that the killers are taking in reliving their actions, and by extension in the pleasure that many viewers generally derive from watching the stylised actions of killers on screen.
After some explanation that this was the most troublesome sequence in the film for him and for his experts, Mr. Ferman cued up the scene on his monitor and we sat back to watch. Although it was many years ago, I am sure I was unable to completely hide my shock at what I saw; the power of the scene had been greatly diminished as part of the shot of the two killers on the couch had been inserted much earlier in the scene, thus alerting the viewer that he was watching a video playback. I remained speechless as instructed, but I felt then, and still do, that it was a betrayal of the director and the weakening of a pivotal moment in the film.
Those who don’t understand Henry fail to grasp that the film is a serious statement about the status and presentation of serial killers in popular culture, particularly in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Hannibal ‘the Cannibal’ Lecter was portrayed as an evil genius with a great line in quips, who sashays off in the last shot of The Silence of the Lambs in pursuit of his next victim after delivering a neat final bon mot on the phone to Clarice Starling. Henry ends on a shot of a suitcase on the side of a road, which the viewer is aware contains the body of his latest victim. There is no comeuppance for Henry and Otis, and the random nature of the killings means that they easily elude detection; thus there is not even a cop in pursuit of Henry to provide the viewer with a neat moral anchor.
The squalid ugliness of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and its refusal to pander to narrative conventions and viewer expectations are what makes it the minor masterpiece that it is, and the film has many esteemed admirers, including Martin Scorsese. However, as is often the case with transgressive art, many are initially appalled and fearful, or uncertain how to react, so the default reaction is rejection of the work as dangerous or morally unacceptable. This is precisely why Henry fell foul of the BBFC.
I can’t recall exactly how I felt leaving the BBFC building that day, but dismay and frustration were certainly in the mix. I completely understood then and now that our company needed to get the film cleared for a video release, and that it would make money (as with almost all smaller independent distributors that are not well capitalised, cash flow is King, and the profits from one release fund another’s acquisition, and so on), but it stuck in my craw that we were beholden to people who labeled this film as a piece of gruesome exploitation that needed to be neutered in order to ‘protect the public.’
Standards change over time, as do the people dictating them. The film is now available completely uncut (as I’m led to believe, although I will be watching it this coming weekend) on Blu-ray in the UK from StudioCanal, and as far as I’m aware, it hasn’t caused any damage to unsuspecting viewers, nor inspired any copycat killers. From my quick scan of the list of special features included on the Blu-ray, it seems that John McNaughton did eventually learn what had befallen his masterwork at the hands of the UK’s censors, although we did our best to keep that from him at the time.
A year or so later, I was working for a company that held the UK LaserDisc rights for Reservoir Dogs, a substantial UK theatrical success which had developed a devoted following that couldn’t wait for it to be released on video. Mr. Ferman, mindful as always of recent criticism the BBFC had received for certain decisions, was sitting on his hands when it came to giving Reservoir Dogs a video certificate. Once again, the person I answered to was keen to get a hot title released as it was going to sell well, and knowing that I had dealt amicably with Mr. Ferman before, asked if I could try and speak with him to get a sense of whether or not he was likely to give it a video certificate at any point in the near future.
I made an appointment to meet with him and duly trotted along to Soho Square on the appointed date. After settling in with the requisite tea and biccies, we had a short chat about the film’s prognosis for certification, and in the short to medium term, it wasn’t good. Although I am hazy on the details now, I do have an abiding memory of the realisation that I came to while we were chatting: that Mr. Ferman was a skilful politician who worked very hard to appease all the parties in the mix. From the Mary Whitehouse-type hardliners who want to stop us from watching anything that doesn’t promote good Christian values, to distributors whose main concern is profitability, and liberals who want nothing more than a classification system in place, Mr. Ferman strove to appease as many people as he could as much of the time as possible. (When he felt threatened though, he could be a hardliner himself. Notoriously, he quashed a rebellion amongst his film examiners, who were seeking a degree of liberalisation in the reviewing standards, by making them all redundant (they were employed part time) and inviting them to reapply for one of a reduced number of full time positions).
When he passed away in 2002, James Ferman was largely eulogised as the sort of political animal that I had figured him out to be, although he was still felt to have been too soft by the censorious conservative right, and too censorious by the liberal left. Standards have relaxed considerably in the years since Mr. Ferman was at the BBFC’s helm, although there are still films that are so harsh that they do not pass through the portals on Soho Squre and emerge unscathed (examples of late being A Serbian Film and Human Centipede 2). I suppose distance has given me an appreciation for the difficulty of the juggling act Mr. Ferman tried to accomplish, if not for his actual actions and decisions.