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Arts: Visions of redemption

Nigel Wingrove, a Soho-based dealer in `sleaze epics', is taking on British film censors - and the blasphemy laws. By Tom Dewe Mathews
Nigel Wingrove is an unlikely champion of civil liberties. By trade a video distributor of Seventies schlock horror and sexploitation films, by inclination Wingrove is an admirer of "fanged-up SS Frauleins" and the "darker side of things". Yet this determined, chubby-faced distributor is the most effective fighter of film censorship since the British Board of Film Classification was set up in 1912. And now Wingrove is taking on the Government; and, what's more, it looks as though the dealer in "tits and fang" films is going to win.

Today, the European Court of Human Rights will decide whether the British censor - in the guise of the BBFC - "infringed" Wingrove's "freedom of expression" when they banned his film Visions of Ecstasy in 1989. Normally, if a film-maker won in a case like this, the film would simply be un-banned. But here the implications are much greater, since Wingrove's homage to St Theresa of Avila's reveries of ecstatic ravishment was rejected by the censor on the grounds of blasphemy. So the Court will also be deciding on the validity of Britain's blasphemy laws - a matter that will be of some concern to Eurosceptical MPs, as well as fundamentalist tambourine- bashers, not to mention Salman Rushdie.

Wingrove has good reason to be optimistic about his chances today. Two years ago, the European Commission of Human Rights took the initial step of declaring that the British government had a case to answer - a procedure which usually means that the appellant will win at the higher European Court. But even though he is dogged opponent of censorship, who brings street-smart skills to his battles with the BBFC, the 38-year-o1d Wingrove is a reluctant rebel. "I never wanted to be on the barricades waving a red flag. My primary aim," he says, "is to get my film released and I just hope that the Government realises where this problem started. It's not coming from me. It's coming from the people who created the situation in the first place: the BBFC."

Back in 1989, when the BBFC rejected Visions of Ecstasy, the board probably thought that the unknown Wingrove would disappear along with his unknown 20-minute film. Yes, he had gone to the Video Appeals Committee in a surprising attempt to overturn the censor's rejection, but in its five-year history the VAC had, with almost no exceptions, supported the Board's original decisions.

At the outset of the VAC hearing, the chairman, Peter Barnes, stressed that the committee did not object to Visions's erotic content - which includes a lesbian scene between St Theresa and her "psyche" - or even to Wingrove's notion of the 16th-century Carmelite nun clambering aboard a prone crucified figure to lick wounds and straddle hips before a final French kiss and fadeout. Indeed, the ex-Director of Public Prosections "made it clear" that his committee "would have granted an 18 category certificate if the male figure had been anyone other than Christ." But the BBFC stated that Wingrove had manifested "contempt towards the divinity of Christ by presenting him as living man and not as a symbol" - or as a "statue", as one VAC member later put it. "In other words," Wingrove comments, "if I had cast a piece of wood instead of an actor I would have got my certificate." (Aside from a non-marmoreal Christ, what Wingrove most remembers about the hearing was the chairman's repeated inquiry as to whether the actress playing St Theresa "wore any underwear".)

Refusing a video appeal "on the grounds of blasphemy", however, was the easy part. For the VAC now had to justify its decision in actual law. That they could not do, since the Video Appeals Committee is not a courtroom. Therefore, according to the VAC, the BBFC's original banning was justified because "in all probability publication could constitute a criminal offence" and that "a reasonable and properly directed jury would be likely to convict". But this use of an alleged or potential blasphemy to ban a film has opened up both the BBFC and the VAC to the accusation that they are pre-empting the jurisdiction of the courts - an accusation that could be verified by the European Court. "In effect," says Wingrove's lawyer, Paul Chinnery of Stephens Innocent, "the BBFC and the VAC are second guessing the courts. They are acting as judge and jury in this case."

Of course, none of these legal niceties helped Nigel Wingrove when Visions of Ecstasy was brought to ground by the VAC in 1989. The film's pounds 25,000 budget could not be recouped. Also, Wingrove was saddled with a pounds 40,000 legal bill. And there was worse to come. Within a year his flat was repossessed and by then all he could claim to his name was a couple of plastic bags containing his clothes. "I got so low," he remembers, "I could only fight my way back up."

He began by realising his skills as a distributor. "I thought, `I can't raise the money to make another film - because it might be banned - but I do know how to buy one. I know you can buy the rights to a film for x amount and repackage it and sell it for y." With that simple piece of economy in mind, Wingrove gradually unearthed the rights to such Seventies celluloid curios as I Am Curious Yellow, Cool it Carol, Succubus and The Living Dead Girl. But he didn't just dump his gore-fest fantasies on the video stores. Instead, he used his predirectorial skills as a magazine lay-out designer to repackage the videos in arty, post-Modern black-and- white photo-sleeves. Then he watched 200,000 units disappear off the shelves.

Now Wingrove's Redemption video label is expanding into Europe, Japan and - through a tie-up to a major distributor - "big-time" in America. Nevertheless, the problem remains that if you try to distribute films like I Spit On Your Grave or Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS in Britain you will arouse the attention of the censor. So isn't Wingrove afraid of becoming a BBFC target - especially if he forces the Board to unban Visions of Ecstasy? "Well," he replies, "the BBFC only banned three films last year - Sadomania, Demoniac and Bare Behind Bars - all of which were ours." But once again the Board had got it wrong because this determined distributor came back fighting.

Last year - in the only known joke that the BBFC has made on record - the Board notified the Redemption label that its Brazilian prison film, Bare Behind Bars, was "irredeemable". Most producers or distributors would have accepted the decision and not have bothered to defend a film with such a title. But, backed by his lawyers at Stephens Innocent, Wingrove spotted some vital, over-looked flaws in the BBFC's censorship of his "stripped-down psychodrama". Firstly, the Board anticipated the criteria for videos in the forthcoming 1995 Criminal Justice Bill, but still went ahead and applied them to the film. Then, even more problematically, the Board declared that it worked "by precedent" but still refused to give Stephens Innocent any BBFC films so that they could study the censorship of comparable films. In a censorship system that refuses to tell the public what has been censored from films, the BBFC's refusal was not surprising. Nevertheless, Wingrove realised that once again the BBFC had laid itself open to legal attack.

He immediately sought a Judicial Review of the censorship process. At the beginning of the year the High Court announced, "Redemption Films have been granted leave by Mr Justice Latham for a Judicial Review of procedures at the British Board of Film Classification and the Video Appeals Committee". Where film-makers from DW Griffith, Eisenstein and Fritz Lang through to Godard and Martin Scorcese had been regularly defeated by covert decisions within the BBFC, a Soho-based dealer in "sleaze epics" is about to rip that secrecy apart.

Because this summer, when the Review panel convenes, Britain's film censorship will be exposed to court scutiny for the first time in its 84-year history. Film files will have to be opened, as will the minutes of Board meetings, and any record of relevant discussions between the BBFC and compliant distributors or between the BBFC and Home Office officials will also have to be laid before the court and, therefore, before the public.

"Hopefully," Wingrove remarks, "people will ask, `Where does all this stem from?' And they'll demand an overhaul of the BBFC. Because, for good or bad, I want the public to judge my work. I don't see why I should have to go cap-in-hand to the BBFC and humble myself before some civil servant and say, `Oh, I'm terribly sorry, I didn't mean to do that. I promise, I won't do it again. I'll reshoot that scene, I'll cut this dialogue. I'll even change the title if you give me a certificate.' Why should I? If writers or any other sort of creative person had to do that, we would scream, `This isn't Stalin's Russia.' So I'll go on fighting."

With Wingrove's success rate it only seems fair to warn the censor of the distributor's parting words: "I'm now forming a low-budget production company to put out a mixture of horror and sleazy sex films. The company will be called Salvation." Then he laughs: "Through redemption you find salvation."

n Tom Dewe Mathews's `Censored: The Story of Film Censorship in Britain' is published by Chatto & Windus