Film: Disgusted, of Channel 4

David Aukin, C4's head of film, has a complaint. It's not Ken Loach's cinematic realism, he says, that goes `beyond acceptable boundaries', but the behaviour of the BSC. By David Lister
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The film posters in David Aukin's office at Channel 4 bear eloquent testimony to his success as the channel's head of film. Four Weddings and a Funeral, Secrets and Lies, Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, Brassed Off, The Madness of King George: Midas touch is an overworked cliche, but it's fair to say that, when Channel 4 lured him away from being executive director at the National Theatre in 1990, they helped him, themselves and the health of British cinema. A special award at BAFTA paid tribute to Aukin's flair. And on Tuesday night he was the guest of the Chancellor of the Exchequer at a Downing Street reception for the leading lights of the British film industry. He went in a foul mood.

He had learnt that the Broadcasting Standards Commission was to demand that Channel 4 broadcast its censure of their screening of Ken Loach's Ladybird, Ladybird for violence and language that went "beyond acceptable boundaries." Channel 4 are legally obliged to comply with that demand - the most severe chastening the BSC can give.

"But we will repeat the film at the earliest opportunity," pledged Aukin when I met him in his office just before he went off to Downing Street - it was, he claimed, a matter of principle. It was, he claimed, of crucial importance to both the film and television industries. And it should, he claimed, be the beginning of the end for the BSC.

Certainly, it brings into focus not just the very British curiosity of a great-and-the-good quango censuring the channel for showing a film already licensed for cinema and video distribution and approved by its regulatory body, the Independent Television Commission. But, most important for Aukin, it highlights another, more culturally significant, anomaly - that social realism in the work of highly respected British film-makers can bring censure, while a diet of carnage in Hollywood movies does not raise an eyebrow.

First, though, Aukin deals with the substance of the BSC ruling, namely that, following a single viewer's complaint over a scene portraying violent abuse suffered by a mother at the hands of her former boyfriend, the Commission found that the brutality of the violence and the strength and menace of the language were "beyond acceptable boundaries".

Aukin points out that the film was broadcast after 10pm, was preceded by two warnings, and that the scene was crucial to explaining the mother's character and the problems she faced in keeping custody of her children. "Clearly Loach is depicting a scene which we believe to be a true representation of an event that does happen in our society today when social workers try to protect children at risk. Artistically, he uses as much violence and bad language as is necessary to show us the true horror and ghastliness of the situation. Of course it's an uncomfortable scene."

The time has come, says Aukin, to look at the validity of the BSC: "There is regulatory confusion. We are meant to be answerable to the ITC, which had no problem with the transmission of this film after 10pm. But the BSC upholds one complaint. So who are we answerable to?" It is not just the confusion of two regulatory bodies in disagreement with each other. Aukin is rather more worried that the BSC, chaired by Lady Howe (wife of the former Tory Foreign Secretary) and acting on just one complaint, may not be speaking for the majority of the population, let alone the majority of Channel 4 viewers.

"It's an issue of censorship," he insists. "Lady Howe has always said, `Everyone is frightened that we're going to create a climate of moral censorship and that's nonsense'. But now the BSC are trying to impose the views of a small section of society on the rest of us.

"It's interesting that they don't pick on the mass of American films on television, with their designer violence, but pick an example of violence that is real violence - the truth - not the escapist violence, the violence that is an aphrodisiac to entertain us. It disturbs me very much that they are attacking the serious artists who have something serious to say about the society we are in."

This seems to be at the heart of Aukin's anger. It is an increasingly familiar complaint. David Cronenberg, when challenged about his film Crash, said that there was infinitely more violence in Braveheart, and that questions on violence in films would better be directed at Mel Gibson instead. Aukin draws an even more bewildering parallel.

"Take Independence Day. The president's wife is killed - or, rather, you think she's been. It blasts people's sensibilities. But that never gets attacked. Are films to be the real thing rather than the trash Hollywood churns out?"

There is a touch of disingenuousness here. One does not come out of Independence Dayfeeling that the sanctity of the First Lady's right to live a happy old age is somehow lessened. But one does squirm at a policeman's ear being cut off in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, which Aukin also screened. "Ah," Aukin smiles, "you never actually see the ear being cut off. Even Tarantino turns away the camera at that." Yet, despite his disingenuousness, Aukin does have a point here: it is the real artists in the cinema who get attacked and not Hollywood, which helps to immune us to violence not only by its quantity but by its glamour. As the film-maker in David Hare's new play, Amy's View, so memorably says in his own defence: "We don't call it violence any more, we call it action."

Could it just be, I wondered, that Loach'spublicly political stance - he campaigned for the Socialist Labour Party during the last election - had some bearing on the BSC's decision. Aukin thinks it more than possible: "Yes, finally you do think, is it because Loach is known as a left-wing film-maker?"

Does it matter? C4 are hardly likely to stop commissioning Ken Loach. Indeed, they've commissioned his new film, My Name Is Joe. Aukin thinks that this week's BSC ruling does matter and that it may have an insidious effect even on an outfit like Channel 4, which boasts that it will never censor its films for television.

Aukin muses: "With a less robust chief executive than Michael Jackson, this ruling could have induced a belief that the channel might have to be a bit more cautious about what films it allows. We have always believed that, if a film has been passed for public viewing, it can be shown on terrestrial television. I fear that the BSC ruling will create a climate where people will, say, show it on Sky or pay-per-view instead.

"The worst enemy in all of this is self-censorship. And the climate may be being subtly changed even as we sit here talking"n

Comments