Just what the censor ordered: Elastoplast

This is television schedulers new maxim: if it's a bank holiday, it must be theme night. And, true to form, BBC2 served up Forbidden Weekend promising 48 hours of rudery, Sellotaped together from the cutting-room floor. Sadly for those of us sitting on the edge of our expectation in a darkened room wearing the dirty mac only just returned to the wardrobe after Channel 4's Red Light Zone, the opening spurt of the weekend turned out be a sore disappointment. Empire of the Censors (BBC2, Sunday), a history of British film snippery, was as thorough, serious and thought- provoking a piece of documentary-making as you could wish to find. Worse, the nipple count barely reached double figures. And several of those were covered in Elastoplast.

The film began with Roman Polanski - a man whose face would blend easily into the back row of a Soho cinema club - suggesting what we have all long suspected: "Censors always looked kinky to me, I always imagined them gathering the bits they had cut from films and running them together for their own pleasure at home." These censors, they certainly have a bit of front, telling us what we can or can't watch but only after they have watched it themselves.

The first British film to fall under the snippers did so for commercial reasons. A scientific piece called Cheese Mites, showing microscopic creepies blown up to the size of labradors crawling all over the cheddar, was leant on by the British cheese-making lobby as early as 1911. But after the British Board of Film Censorship was created in 1913, the censorship became more pervasive: according to the critic Philip French, censoring was done by the middle class on behalf of the working class and reflected fears of working class sexuality and violence. Indeed the consensus among the glittering array of directors interviewed was that what the censors were really protecting the public from was art.

Not that all of them were philistines. John Trevelyan, the most high- profile censor of the Sixties - physiologically equipped for the role, with his penile nose and anarchistic eyebrows - emerged almost as the programme's hero: a watch-dog who defended film-making against a more general, Whitehousian, prurience. He made it his business to befriend directors, to discover their motives. "You got the feeling that if Trevelyan appreciated you as an artist," said Roman Polanski, "he would be more lenient." Which didn't explain why he was so kind to Ken Russell.

We should be careful, as the programme admirably pointed out, however, not to laugh too loud at the censors making Lesley Caron put Elastoplast on her nipples during Room at the Top or Trevelyan, in a nice piece of double-edged syntax, telling Donald Cammell, apropos of the sex scene in Performance, that "you can cut that out". The point about censorship is that it always looks ridiculous in retrospect. What appears now to be little more than silly snobbery delivered in cut-glass Pathe news accents was, in the Fifties and Sixties, in a different moral climate, defining that moral climate as it went along. As Richard E Grant, the narrator, hinted at the end of this first part - when he trailed tonight's second part as taking up the story in 1974, the year of The Exorcist, A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs - the world of the censor begins to look somewhat more complex the closer it gets to your own time and sensibilities. For the fear that "Rock Around the Clock" might inflame Teddy boys read terror that gangsta rappers might turn young black boys into police killers; for worries that the working classes couldn't cope with visions of the nether regions of British society in Performance, read widespread belief that horror videos are turning our children into monsters. And then try suggesting that censorship is merely anti-art.