FILM / The kindest cuts of all: Britain's film censors are as busy as ever, though the challenges they face are changing. Sheila Johnston reports

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The Independent Culture
THE SECRETS of 'tickler' films, the double ear-clap and the butterfly knife, an iguana smoking a cigarette, the Macauley Culkin children's weepie that had to carry an Aids warning, the true identity of Red Hot Dutch, a Japanese cartoon featuring 'the terrorising of sexy, helpless females by monsters with tentacles which penetrate their orifices' . . . Amazing what you can find in the pages of annual reports these days. But then the British Board of Film Classification, which published its year's memoirs this week, often has to deal with odder matters arising, along with the sedate business of balance sheets and statistics.

The BBFC and its director, James Ferman, have not had a particularly easy year of it so far. It began with the murder of Jamie Bulger which put the age-old debate about the brutalising effect of films and television right back at the top of the agenda (the fact that key evidence of the crime consisted of fuzzy images captured on a video surveillance camera seemed, like the Rodney King beating, somehow to underline the connection between crime and the visual media).

Then Michael Medved's overhyped opus Hollywood vs Civilisation appeared, almost simultaneously with a broadside of movies like Man Bites Dog, Romper Stomper and Reservoir Dogs. Together, they fuelled one of our periodic moral crusades against violence in the cinema (even John Major eventually got in on the act). Most recently, there has been a bit of muttering about the board's decision to rate the decidedly scary Jurassic Park a PG (open to all kids, with parental guidance). An annus horribilis, then? Not quite.

From one thing, the belief, held so dearly only months ago, that Hollywood was drawing the entire world into an inexorable slide towards barbarism, seems to have quietly faded from view. For Ferman, 'It was very much a case of a journalist suddenly finding he was onto a winner,' although he also concedes that, 'The case Medved makes against violence is very hard to dispute. We seem to go through a wave of moral panics in Britain, but there's always something at the heart of it. I'd have hated my children to see some of the video nasties of the Eighties.'

For another thing, the board's mailbag has shrunk since its last major cause celebre, The Last Temptation of Christ, which netted 1,870 letters, all from people who hadn't seen it, and earned Ferman his fave headline ever, 'Censor savages bishop'. He admits to 31 letters so far about the Jurassic Park affair, but adds, 'Interestingly, only four of them were from adults who went to see it with children and were frightened by it themselves. They're very different letters from those we had on Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, which was the biggest clanger we've dropped since I've been here' (the film was rated PG, with cuts, but Ferman was persuaded by the feedback that further excisions were needed for video).

On the whole, however, the letters of complaint have become surprisingly rare - the BBFC hasn't been besieged in a serious way by the political correctness police although the Anti-Nazi League campaigned against the Australian skinhead film Romper Stomper and, a few years back, feminists succeeded in getting 9 1/2 Weeks banned in Brighton. Even Mary Whitehouse hasn't been reporting for duty.

Ferman reckons that it's better to avoid giving dubious films the 'oxygen of publicity'. 'I remember that Caligula was advertised as 'the most controversial film of the Eighties' - it was only released in 1981. Some directors like to get cuts; it makes their film seem more exciting.' And he has first-hand experience to confirm it.

'I was a television director for 18 years and one series I worked on in 1961 / 2 was called Four Freedoms. My programme was called Freedom to Worship and began in Belfast, showing religious intolerance and sectarian hatred, on both sides. Lo and behold, we ran into trouble - the programme had to be cut for Ulster Television and quite a few more changes were imposed by the Broadcasting Authority. It made the whole of page 2 of the Daily Mail. It was a worthy series that went out on Sunday afternoons and, on paper, the most boring programme was mine. But the publicity boosted our ratings.'

Only three videos have been refused a certificate this year - an Italian women's prison flick and two of the famous tickler films (there have been about 20, including The Tickler of the Opera; Andrew Lloyd Webber please note) in which women are tickled to death - 'you must see that this is metaphoric sexual abuse'. Mostly the rejects make no bones about their business, which may be fairly guessed at from titles like SS Love Camp 27 and The Gestapo's Last Orgy.

The board's activities were originally confined to film, but now video accounts for a vast chunk of its time: 411 foreign-language releases, mainly for Britian's ethnic communities (depressingly for the local film industry, the number of imported Asian films alone submitted for classification was three times the number of new British productions).

And now its empire is expanding again, to take in video games, which can occasionally fall subject to scrutiny under the Video Recording Act. 'We've seen one called Strip Poker, which you play with a girl of your choice (no men yet). In the States there are a number of these hardcore games; we don't have any here yet, but they're coming.'

Far more games are suspect on the violence rap, although, Ferman says, he's not overly concerned with Sonic's bodycount. 'Until video discs came along, the characters in computer games were cartoon figures; the resolution was very poor. Night Trap is the first one we've seen with live actors. It's quite crude - there are only 16 frames per second, but soon there will be games at 24 fps (the standard speed for film projection) and wonderful image quality.'

Night Trap, the Sega game that has been one of the first to pass through the portals of the BBFC (it was given a 15 rating three months ago, amid some controversy), could well be the first sign of a new phenomenon of the Nineties, the computer game nasty. 'Very soon video games will be a big section in our annual report,' Ferman says. 'I suspect that, even a year from now, they will be very different from what they are now.'

But he is more concerned by other forms of new technology, and the access they afford. 'We know of a large international network of paedophiles sending computer porn on modems down the phone lines. And of course the biggest thing that's coming is digitalised cable and satellite, which children will be able to watch in their bedrooms. They won't be using video at all. So it will be extremely difficult to intervene on that scale.

'It may be that we're at the end of an era of comfortably regulated media. In a sense, Dickens and Lord Shaftesbury created the idea of childhood as a social construct in the 19th century.

'I think that in the next century new media technology is going to erode that protected world and we're going to have to educate children to survive.'

(Photograph omitted)

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