Cut it out

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As BBC2 this evening shows the second part of a documentary history of British film censorship, several former British Board of Film Classification examiners have broken their silence on years of acrimonious disagreement within the BBFC between the majority of the examiners and the senior management.

Disagreements that focused, according to one former examiner, on BBFC director James Ferman's "autocratic" management style, his "idiosyncratic" decision- making, his habit of effectively banning films by putting decisions on them on hold and his "panic" reactions to press hysteria over violence.

Proof of this discontent, according to Geoffrey Wood, a lecturer in politics who was an examiner from 1983 to 1994, came when the BBFC was restructured in 1994. Ten out of the 13 existing examiners chose not to apply for the new jobs.

Jeremy O'Grady, nine years an examiner, feels internal disagreements affected the way films, and especially videos, were classified. "Jim (Ferman) never really resolved the tension between wanting a bright bunch of people working for him and wanting his own views to prevail."

The press furore about the video Child's Play at the time of the James Bulger case caused the last major bust-up. Another examiner with many years' experience, who prefers to remain anonymous, says: "Jim defended the certificate that we had given to Child's Play, but then ignored our procedures to make autocratic, draconian decisions about similar films that came along." Among these was, surprisingly, a Macauley Culkin film. "Giving a classification to The Good Son with a script by Ian McEwan about a child murderer was put on hold for so long it vanished without trace when it was released."

As the media debate about violence in films heated up, the BBFC put a number of other titles on hold for video classification, including Dirty Weekend, True Romance and Reservoir Dogs. David Blewitt, another former examiner, calls this approach "cowardly and self-serving. The BBFC prefers to keep its head down and merely to react to public pressures."

Geoffrey Wood thinks it is time for Ferman, who is 65, to go. "Of course Ferman did a tremendous amount for the BBFC in its early years. He achieved a great deal then. But he has said that examiners shouldn't do the job for more than 10 years because of the kind of job it is. He's been doing it for 20."