'And I'd also like to thank the censors'

Visions of Ecstasy is the only film to have been banned in Britain on the grounds of blasphemy. Its director, Nigel Wingrove, is now back in the industry, and flourishing. Has he beaten the BBFC?
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Nigel Wingrove is an unlikely champion of liberal causes. By trade a video distributor of Seventies schlock horror and sexploitation films, by inclination an admirer of "fanged-up SS Frauleins" and "the darker side" of life; yet, by conviction, this determined, chubby-faced distributor has been the most effective fighter of film censorship in Britain since the British Board of Film Classification was set up in 1912. But no more. Wingrove has decided to put his civil liberties battles behind him and dedicate himself to the creation of a studio devoted to horror and sexploitation which "will rival the glory days of Hammer Films".

He's already well on his way. Shot in eight days on digital video cameras, Wingrove's Sacred Flesh, which he directed himself, has secured a two-week run at London's ABC Picadilly and has been sold to most of Europe, the US and Japan. Not bad for a first feature which received no state or Lottery funding, and when you add in the fact that two out of three British films fail to reach the big screen and that Wingrove's next film is already in pre-production with a promise of theatrical release, then his accomplishment is even more impressive.

So how did he succeed where so many other aspiring film-makers fail? The obvious answer is that Sacred Flesh - a film with almost no redeeming features - is, as Wingrove's blurb puts it, "a depiction of suppressed sexuality set in a convent" - where lots of nubile nuns get their habits off. But the actual, and more ironical, reason why Wingrove is almost at a point where he can revive Britain's sex film industry has come to us courtesy of the film censors at the BBFC.

"I don't know what I would be doing if it wasn't for the BBFC," says Wingrove. "My plan has always been to make movies, but the censors put a stop to that. So I had to find something else to do." What the BBFC put a stop to was Wingrove's 40-minute film, Visions of Ecstasy, a homage to St Theresa of Avila's reveries of ravishment by Christ, the only film to have been banned in Britain on the grounds of blasphemy. At the time, in 1989, the BBFC said Wingrove "manifested contempt for the divinity of Christ by presenting him as a living man and not as a symbol" or as "a statue", as one censor later put it. "In other words," Wingrove now points out, "if I had cast a piece of wood instead of an actor I would have got my certificate."

Wingrove fought this decision all the way to the European Court of Human Rights where he eventually lost almost exactly four years ago to a government team of four Treasury barristers, the Solicitor General, and a special plea to the Court from the Lord Chancellor. Unlike anybody else in the British film industry, he had stood up to what he called "an unaccountable, state-influenced censorship system". But it cost him dear, because in 1989 he was brought to ground along with his film. Vision's budget couldn't be recouped. He was also saddled with a £40,000 legal fee. 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 recalls, "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 and sell it for more." 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 and The Living Dead Girl. But he didn't just dump his gore-fest fantasies on the video stores. Instead, he used his pre-directorial skills as a magazine layout designer to repackage the videos in arty, po-mo black-and-white photo-sleeves. "Not only did his Redemption label draw in the the fans of those films," says the sexploitation writer, David Flint, "his design tapped into the male-collector mentality with neat sets that look good on a shelf." So far, to fill up those shelves, Wingrove has sold nearly half a million videos in the UK alone. And that, in turn, is why his first feature film has won a theatrical release.

"What Nigel brings to the table," explains Mick Southworth, a director of the distribution company, Feature Film, "is his own audience. With him it's not just a case of saying, 'Let's make a film and see if anybody out there wants to see it'. Because," he adds, "if you ask people what kind of films they like, they'll say, 'Romantic comedies, horror, etc,' but many British films don't fall into any of those categories so they're becoming almost impossible to market because the audience has no reference point. But with Nigel," he laughs, " his Redemption audience knows what they'll get - a dark project with sex and striking imagery."

Sitting in a stark, book-lined Soho office that contains volumes ranging from bizarre erotic art to Billy Bunter annuals, Wingrove acknowleges the roundabout help that he has received from the censor in reversing the usual equation of film-product and then its distribution. "I learnt that you have to create an area in the market that isn't saturated, that appeals to a niche audience. Then you have a chance."

But despite the fact that over a third of his Redemption titles have been subject to BBFC cuts, he also thinks that the censorship situation has now been altered - for the good. "Since they changed over the censors last year, there has been a fresh approach. They have fresh eyes and, to be fair to them, they seem to be running things more efficiently and fairly." As an example he points out that old "video nasty" titles such as Driller Killer and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are available at Selfridges. "You can buy The Exorcist at Tesco's now," he says, barely restraining the shock.

He also thinks that it's time to move on. "Going up against the establishment is a no-win situation. Also," he says, "you don't get any thanks. The bottom line is that most people don't give a damn about censorship. Nobody cares whether you went to court, spending 25 grand trying to fight for a film like Bare Behind Bars. I haven't changed my views and I've spent a lot of time an money over the last few years fighting the censors and I don't regret that, but at the moment I feel that the world is bigger than that. It's time for me to start making movies again."

Taking his cue, Wingove strides around his office, pulling out portfolios, rushing through details about his upcoming Channel 4 series Wanton, Wicked & Wasted ("covering the bizarre in music, films and fashion"), an upcoming novel, Dum Dum, inspired by Melinda Messenger - ("it's about a Page 3 serial killer"). Then there's his production plans for five more films which he'll direct himself, but before he can pull another folder down I remind him that he's back where he started from, just after he made Visions. "Yes, I'm aware of that," he says with a mock grimace, "but I don't want history to repeat itself."