We recently published an article looking at the British Board of Film Classification, and their changing role as the bastions of morality in the UK.

As a follow up to this, we put some questions to Craig Lapper, a Senior Examiner with the BBFC about their way the organisation works, the process they go through when deciding on a rating for a film, and how the board, and their stance on certain issues, has changed over the last decade or so.

How many people are involved in classification of any particular film?

In general, cinema films are viewed by two examiners, whereas works submitted for DVD or Blu-ray release are viewed by a solo examiner. However, if a work sits on the borderline between two categories, the initial examiner(s) might suggest a further viewing by additional examiners, Senior Examiners and the Director. If a work raises particularly difficult or unusual policy issues it may also be seen by the Head of Policy, and in the most difficult cases by the Presidents.


Presumably classification begins with the viewing of a film. What are the steps after this? 

Examiners make detailed notes as they view a film. After this they will write a report, listing all the key moments and analysing the film in terms of our published classification Guidelines, which are based on large-scale consultation with the public. That report will then be read by a Senior Examiner, who will decide whether the work can be classified straight away or whether any sections might benefit from further consideration, either by means of a full further viewing or by the Senior Examiners and/or the Director looking at certain sections. If cuts are proposed, the Senior Examiners will check these before they are issued. Furthermore, if any assurances are required – for example regarding the age of participants or on the manner in which animals have been treated – the Senior Examiners will contact the company to obtain those before making a classification decision.


What happens if there is disagreement among board members?

If examiners cannot agree over the most suitable classification, it will normally be seen again by further examiners, Senior Examiners and the Director.


Who is an ‘average’ BBFC board member? 

BBFC examiners come from a wide variety of backgrounds. They tend to be graduates but this is not always the case. It’s important that they should have experience of a working environment and a broad knowledge of film, as well as the ability to analyse various issues and to set those down in detailed reports. The current examining team includes educationalists, academics, lawyers, journalists, and several people who have worked in film and television.


Do you think the makeup of the board, and the members who view a particular film, has an impact on its classification?

Not really, no. Although there is always some room for different views in the most borderline cases, all examiners work according to the same set of classification Guidelines and the same set of internal policies. They have to explain and justify all their decisions according to those Guidelines and policies in their reports.


Is context enough to allow otherwise objectionable content through at a lower classification? 

 Context is extremely important to us, particularly in deciding borderline cases. However, we certainly wouldn’t permit something at a lower category that was specifically prohibited by our Guidelines. For example, we would never allow the use of strong language at ‘PG’.


How important is social context to decisions made by the board? We are already aware that there is a tough stance against the use of knives due to knife crime in the UK, but if the film La Haine – that depicts youths rioting in the streets – came out this year, do you believe that it would still receive a 15 rating, or is the social context of recent rioting in the UK enough to justify a higher classification?

It would all depend upon how the violence was presented and the overall message of the film. A film suggesting rioting is cool and glamorous would be far more of a problem than a film showing the consequences of such violence in a balanced and responsible manner. Just because a film depicts anti-social behaviour, that doesn’t mean the film is endorsing it.


It seems that there was a noticeable policy change between the leadership of James Ferman and Robin Duval – a relaxing of restrictions that has continued with the presidency of David Cooke. Was this due to the personality of the management of the organisation, or was it a policy shift that was going to happen anyway, that was simply implemented at a suitable time?

James Ferman had been in charge of the BBFC for 24 years and it was perhaps inevitable that his successor would decide to take a fresh look at some of his long established policies. However, the changes seen after 1999 actually had more to do with shifts in public attitudes and the wider media environment. The public consultation exercises we started in 1999, and which have continued since then, revealed that the public had become more relaxed about sexual matters than was previously the case. They also revealed an increasing feeling that adults should be free to choose their own entertainment, provided the material was neither illegal nor harmful. The guiding principle for both Robin Duval and David Cooke has been to take fair, consistent decisions in line with broad public opinion and the Guidelines.


Given your current stance on knives and imitable violence, do you believe that The Dark Knight received too low a classification? Do you agree that you have now set a precedent that may be impossible to turn around?

We don’t think we broke any new ground with that film and it fitted squarely within the terms of the ’12A’ Guidelines. When we consulted the public about the film, 69% of people felt we’d got the classification right. I think what upset some people was the unexpectedly dark tone rather than specific visual elements. We still have a strict policy on the use of knives in films, particularly at the lower categories, but it all depends on how the knives are used, who they are being used by, and the context within which the knife use occurs. A glamorised portrayal of knife use by a hero character, especially if that character is recognisably ‘human’ or in a recognisably contemporary urban environment, is more likely to be a problem that the use of a knife by a bad guy, or the use of a knife within a fantastical context.