Warning! Penguins in peril

Cinema regulators' curious words of advice have confused audiences. James Graham's report contains mild bemusement
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The Independent Culture

If you ever find yourself in a spot of "mild peril" it might help with later decisions at the cinema. Personal experience of this unusual state will surely make for a clearer understanding of the British Board of Film Classification's (BBFC) curious consumer advice. This short statement on film posters was initially designed to help parents make an informed choice about children's films. The practice has since spread so all cinema-goers now benefit from a range of intriguing advice from the specific "contains one use of strong language", to the unequivocal "contains strong, bloody violence". But it's "mild peril" that has caused bemusement in cinema queues. What exactly is mild peril? And has anyone ever used those two words together before? Surely it's an oxymoron. Aliens of the Deep 3D even carries the warning, "very mild peril", while King Kong has "frequent peril".

Aside from the strange, archaic use of language, it's the context of these warnings that often seems surprising. The most apparently harmless films, the animated Polar Express and the wildlife documentary March of the Penguins, are both said to "contain mild peril". And even where you might expect a bit of peril, say in King Kong, the warning seems unnecessary. "We concede that it has caused amusement and it's not necessarily the best phrase," says Sue Clark, the BBFC's spokeswoman. "We're trying to convey to parents that there may be some moments their children find distressing. It means suspense and danger - you're not going to see anything really horrible. But it's difficult to give an indication without spoiling the plot."

She cites March of the Penguins as an example. It attracted the "peril" tag because one scene shows a baby penguin being attacked by a seagull.

The BBFC has been offering this advice since 1998, but it became more prominent in 2002 when the 12A rating was introduced, allowing entry to children under 12 if accompanied by an adult. The board struck a deal with the film industry that the publicity for these films would carry advice on "matters likely to be of concern" like violence, sex, language and drugs.

Its team of 25 examiners write the short statement when they're classifying a film. Although some phrases are frequently used there's no script or style-guide, and examiners have the independence to make up what they think is suitable. "Sometimes they have to go off-piste because of what's is in the film," says Clark. That would explain Team America: World Police carrying a "puppet sex" warning and posters for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets warning punters it has "fantasy spiders".

The BBFC recently consulted focus groups on its consumer advice. "Mild peril" was unpopular mainly because respondents felt it didn't mean much, so perhaps its days are numbered. Another disliked phrase was "moderate sex", which currently adorns publicity for Woody Allen's film Match Point. It looks like a slur on Allen.

In some cases the advice is straightforward. After being banned for years, the uncut version of Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodomwas cleared by the BBFC. It carries this warning: "Contains strong violence, sexual violence and scenes of torture and degradation". But with de Sade as the inspiration and a title like that, the average viewer is probably going to expect more than mild peril.