For their eyes only: Inside the world of the film censor

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Human Centipede II has become the latest movie to be banned by the British Board of Film Classification. But what was so bad about it – and who chooses what we can and can't watch?

Scenes of unrelenting degradation, torture and sexual humiliation? All in a day's work for the film censors tasked with deciding which of the 14,000 films, videos and computer games submitted each year are unacceptable for British audiences.

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) this week took the rare step of refusing outright to classify a new film for release. The Human Centipede II was rejected for DVD with a warning that the horror movie could inflict psychological harm upon viewers.

Normally the team of 16 examiners employed at the Soho Square headquarters of the BBFC, which was established as a body independent of the film industry in 1912, will only suggest cuts to even the most troubling films so that they can be passed with an 18 rating. But examiners found that the film, a sequel to last year's 18-rated Human Centipede, about a mad scientist who grafts three kidnap victims together, failed the so-called "Blackpool rock test".

They said the sequel, which deals with a man who becomes "sexually obsessed" with a DVD of the original film and wants to put the idea into practice, was "rotten" all the way through.

In an email to Empire magazine's website, Tom Six, the film's writer and director, said the rejection was an outrageous act of censorship. "Apparently I made an horrific horror film, but shouldn't a good horror film be horrific? It is all fictional. Not real. It is all make-belief. It is art. Give people their own choice to watch it or not. If people can't handle or don't like my movies they just don't watch them," he wrote.

The ban, reflecting a fear that the film may breach the Obscene Publications Act, is a drastic step from a body that admits it has been moving in a more liberal direction since the "video nasties" scare of the 1980s.

Last year the BBFC cut just 1.4 per cent of films and 2.5 per cent of videos. When a film is singled out for particular concern, the body adopts a strict "refer upwards" policy.

Normally, every film is watched by a pair of examiners. The Human Centipede II was flagged for concern and sent straight to the senior examiners. It was then sent to David Cooke, the BBFC's director, to assess, and with a ban favoured, referred up to the "presidential team", led by Sir Quentin Thomas, whose pre-credits signature of approval is familiar to every cinema-goer.

Despite the popular view of the film censor wading through hours of pornography in a dank Soho basement, the examiners' see much more than the extremities of human behaviour. "We don't have particular experts in sexual violence or torture scenes. Everyone watches a balanced diet," said a BBFC spokesman. "An examiner can become complacent or lose concentration if they see too much of one thing."

Vacancies are rare and examiners have to demonstrate some "experience of life" before joining. There is no mandatory retirement age for the team, who are currently aged between their late twenties and early fifties.

The examiners watch up to 20 hours of material but there is no formal counselling for any traumatic scenes they might encounter. "There's a weekly Wednesday meeting where issues are raised but they mainly talk about things they've seen informally over a coffee in the office," said one insider.

The censors bear "public concerns" about sex and violence in mind, but their judgments must be guided purely by the body's own classification guidelines and the boundaries of obscenity law.

Scenes of non-consensual sexual humiliation and imitable acts of violence raise particular concerns. But the body also banned a 2005 DVD titled High-Yield Hydroponic System for presenting "clear and detailed guidance on the cultivation of cannabis".

Distributors increasingly send rough cuts of the biggest blockbusters to examiners in the hope of avoiding an age rating of 15 or over, which has a negative effect on takings at the box office. Examiners enjoy the peculiar but privileged position of watching the latest Bond film before any digital special effects or music soundtrack has been added.

The Da Vinci Code was sent back to Sony in 2006 with a request to tone down the "crunching" sound of broken bones if producers wanted to secure the 12A rating they desired.

In another wing of the BBFC, computer games experts analyse the latest violent titles. One skilled player handles the controls whilst another keeps a close eye on the screen's visual backdrop while they seek to award the age ratings for games.

As the BBFC's centenary approaches, the body accepts that there is little it can do to stop Tom Six and other directors simply uploading films on to the internet. But it has set up a voluntary online ratings system to which it hopes filmmakers will sign up.

Examiners do sometimes admit to feeling shellshocked at the weekly gathering. "It's not the hardcore pornography and violence," said the insider. "It's children's DVDs – having to watch five hours of Ivor The Engine."

The BBFC has defended its ban of The Human Centipede II. "There is little attempt to portray any of the victims in the film as anything other than objects to be brutalised, degraded and mutilated for the amusement and arousal of the central character, as well as for the pleasure of the audience," it said.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam