Media: The censor goes public

The film censors kept us in the dark for years over decisions on the films we were allowed to see. Rhys Williams talks to the man who switched on the usher's torch

THE OFFICE of the British Board of Film Classification at 3 Soho Square, London W1, is the mandatory staging post for every film and video en route to a screen in Britain. In the board's darkened rooms, examiners sift through the good, the bad and the indifferent to decide whether the material the film industry wishes to visit upon the viewing public is fit for human consumption.

This is a task that requires interesting choices. One examiner had to decide whether the particular portion of Sylvester Stallone's anatomy on show in an early film constituted a "Sid soft", which is OK within the board's interpretation of the obscenity laws, or a "Harry hard", which demands instant removal. (In other spheres of media regulation, this is known as the Mull of Kintyre test, an exercise in the permissible that requires a map of the west coast of Scotland.)

For anyone interested in film, working at the BBFC is a great job. But Robin Duval, installed as the BBFC's director in January, finds it an impossible job, or rather, impossible to do to the universal satisfaction of the polarised constituency he serves, the public. As Britain's "chief censor" ("chief classifier would be more accurate," he says, "but it's not as sexy"), he and the BBFC will be accused of not doing enough to stem "this tide of depravity and filth" and, at the same time, of stifling freedom of expression.

"Sometimes I think the best you can hope for is parity of abuse," says Mr Duval, in his first-floor office overlooking the north-west corner of Soho Square. "We just about manage to disappoint both lobbies."

When Mr Duval took over, his predecessor James Ferman urged him to invest in a flak jacket. This advice was born of Mr Ferman's 24 years' experience of ferocious onslaughts, mostly involving the decision to sanction the release of one morally reprehensible film or another, be it Natural Born Killers, Crash or Lolita. Occasionally, the flak flew because of Mr Ferman's refusal to grant a certificate, a course which, for example, blocked the video release of The Exorcist for more than a decade. At other times, the lack of a decision vexed. "The bane of the Ferman years was prevarication," says Mark Kermode, the respected film critic and writer.

The problem for BBFC detractors was not just its rulings, but the decision- making process that led to them, which appeared at best opaque, at worst unfathomable and otherwise bound by the idiosyncracies, preferences and prejudices of one man, James Ferman. Criticism of the BBFC was often wrapped in criticism of Mr Ferman, described by a former colleague as "autocratic", "obsessive" and "indecisive". The BBFC was seen as a secretive, unaccountable, personal fiefdom (Mr Duval dismisses this as "journalistic myth").

The founding editor of The Independent, Andreas Whittam-Smith, took over as chairman of the board last year, chiefly to explain, to expose, as it were, the dark aisles of the board's thinking to the beam of the usher's torch, hoping to reveal more than spilt popcorn and scrunched cartons of Kia-Ora. He has now been joined by Mr Duval, with 13 years' experience at the Independent Television Commission, where he was deputy head of programmes.

Results have been as spectacular as things can get in the world of statutory regulation. There has been an outbreak of decisiveness, with longstanding issues speedily resolved. The Exorcist has been granted its video certificate uncut, as has the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Driller Killer (though with cuts). The board passed an uncut cinema version of Lars Von Trier's The Idiots, a Danish film in about young people who pretend to be mentally handicapped, with an "albeit fleeting" scene of penetrative sex, rare outside the world of hardcore porn.

But hopes (or fears) that the new regime has enshrined liberalism in its new ethos were dispelled last week when Sam Peckinpah's early 1970s classic Straw Dogs was refused a video certificate.

These decisions were taken with speed and apparent openness. Like the board's guidelines, they are published with a full explanation, on hard copy and on its website ( Mr Duval says: "Anyone coming in six months ago clearly saw the highest priority item for the BBFC was to come out. Rather unfairly, a view developed that the BBFC was secretive, the implication being it had something to hide, like an irrational decision- making process or even a decision it was not confident in. I don't think that was true, but the board had not found a way of communicating this widely. But the process of decision-making and explaining it go hand in hand. Any statutory body which has a public function has no validity unless it can carry the public with its decisions."

Hence the BBFC website, the forthcoming appointment of its first head of press and publicity, and public consultation through which it will update its classification guidelines. "This approach is going to make the difference between us being seen as an organisation whose rationale the public understand and sympathise with rather than as an imposition," says Mr Duval. "The expectations journalists and the public have about the delivery of information, access and transparency are greater now than 20 years ago when James Ferman was first director. We have tried to move as fast as we can; that's frankly a response to the sense I had of the board's reputation. Whether it's fair or not, the best way to deal with a reputation is to attack it.

"Putting out information on the website, in press releases, by making ourselves available to talk creates an impression of transparency, but it's also an efficient way of limiting the potential of the debate to run away from us. It's rather like the British Lions in South Africa, you get your retaliation in first."

The last reference dates to the Lions' legendary, all-conquering tour of South Africa, when the team captain Willie John McBride devised a none too subtle, but highly successful strategy for dealing with expected trouble from the Springboks. At the first sign of any rough stuff, McBride would shout "99", the cue for his entire side to weigh fist first into the opposition.

This is not a business style you would associate with Mr Duval, whose passion is classical music and playing the piano, or Mr Whittam-Smith, the son of a cleric. But the days when the BBFC was resigned to being whipping boy for Outraged of Tunbridge Wells are over.

Mr Whittam-Smith is delighted by the arrival of Mr Duval, and the distributors, now adding the significant burden of DVD to the board's classification duties, are said to be impressed with the efficiency. "To be honest, we couldn't ask for much more at the moment," says a senior executive for one leading distributor.

Even those who found the board's very existence anathema (a view emboldened by the failure to grant Straw Dogs a certificate) see the fimprovement. "They're certainly better at telling you what they have done," says Mr Kermode. "Now I know why certain decisions are made, so I suppose we're over the first hurdle. But I wonder whether it could signal the end. The more open they are, the more people will realise they are angels dancing on pin-heads."

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