Welcome to the legion of the banned

The banning of Ray Brady's horror movie reveals important clues about how censorship works in Britain. By Tom Dewe Matthews
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Contrary to popular belief, not many films are officially banned in Britain. What actually happens when newspapers scream for a celluloid sacrifice is that a film's release into the cinema or onto video is quietly postponed by the censor. This was the case with Reservoir Dogs, Natural Born Killers and The Bad Lieutenant - some of the most controversial films of recent times - all of which were cast into video limbo before being given a certificate when the fuss had died down. Usually, this is achieved without much commotion by common consent between film distributors and the British Board of Film Classification.

Last month, Boy Meets Girl, a feature-length anatomy of violence by British director Ray Brady, was officially refused a video certificate by the BBFC. Nothing so unusual about that: it joins the BBFC's current list of 36 films that have applied for video certificates since 1984 and have been refused classification. But what makes the video banning of Boy Meets Girl unusual is that, despites its violent content, it is a serious feature film that now must take its place on a list dominated by sleazy sex titles like Bare Behind Bars, Head Girls at St Winnifred's and Tied and Tickled Number 4.

What is even more rare is that Brady has received a two-page letter from the head censor detailing the reasons for his film's refusal. Not only does this provide a unique insight into the normally secretive workings of the BBFC, but, because the Board is a government-delegated body, this letter reveals something of the state's attitude towards screen violence.

The plot of Boy Meets Girl is stark. An American woman picks up a man in a bar, dopes him, ties him up to a dentist's chair and tortures him. A masked woman who is filming his reactions on video then reveals that she has killed the American woman because "she was enjoying it [the violence] too much". His supposed liberator does not release him, however. Instead, she taunts and tortures and even performs surgery on him. With his death, the camera reveals a neat row of skulls, and that he was merely the latest in a long line of victims. Finally, another tied-up victim - a woman - appears, and the process restarts.

Ray Brady knew Boy Meets Girl would provoke the BBFC. Part of his intention when making the film was to "attack the BBFC's censorship of screen violence". But he didn't want - and nor could he afford - to make a film which sensationalised violence. His movie, by contrast, would be aimed at just the sort of film that "cuts off consequence from action by breaking violence down to its barest components and then blowing it all up with hot stylised air". So he would "show a build-up to violence, the violence itself and then the aftermath, the consequences, the psychosis, the trauma". The first-time director, however, was releasing his pounds 50,000 film in the wake of the Bulger moral panic. In fact, the film had already suffered from the effects of that news-paper scare.

Back in November 1994, the BBFC had been shown a rough cut of Boy Meets Girl by its distributors, Metro Tartan. The Board immediately told the distributors that the film "would never receive a video certificate in this country". Although this was informal advice, Metro Tartan informed Brady that no video equals no deal. Now in sole possession of a film nobody could see, Brady realised his only hope lay in a direct approach to the head censor, James Ferman.

Last spring, at the BBFC's offices overlooking Soho Square, the head censor expressed surprise that anyone should want to depict violence that wasn't entertaining. Receiving no reply from Brady, he went on to ask a question that should have given the ingenue director pause for thought since it was an indication of what was to come. "Why can't you end the film," Ferman asked, "with the police breaking in?" Again, Brady was nonplussed.

Then, presumably in an attempt to find a less surgical solution, the 67-year-old American-born censor proposed a deal to the third-year film student. He would grant him an uncut "18" film certificate and, depending on audience reaction in the cinema, he might grant a video classification. (This is a traditional BBFC formula for dealing with controversial films when the Board isn't sure of the public's response.) But when Brady did secure two London cinema showings for his film, nobody from the BBFC turned up. Apparently, Ferman now felt that it should be his decision rather than a general audience's. Then Brady got the letter.

It began with a reminder to the young film-maker of the current law on video classification, and, as he read, Brady must have realised that his cause was already lost. "As you know," Ferman writes, "the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 laid down an additional test..." That test used to be "the likelihood of a video work being viewed in the home". But from now on, it would also contain the clause "the likelihood of underage viewers" coming into contact with a "potentially harmful" video. "This video," writes Ferman, "focuses unrelentingly on the process of torture, mental as well as physical, including mutilation, sexual violation and evisceration, all in full view of the camera."

However, Ferman's judgement has been questioned by some of his own censors on the Board. David Blewitt, who saw the film shortly after he left the BBFC at the end of last year, holds the opposite view. "The torture cannot be described as unrelenting," says the ex-examiner, "since Brady never allows the viewer to become involved. He constantly employs distancing devices - such as looking through a video camera or breaking up the scenes with title cards - you get a caption describing the violence in the next scene rather than being shown it." Blewitt concludes that the film is almost like a slide show.

Blewitt also believes that Ferman's account of the film's violence is false. "Nearly all the more extreme forms of torture take place off-camera," he says. "What you actually see is nothing compared to a run-of-the mill action adventure movie. Part of that has to do with Brady's budget. But mostly it's because the gore simply isn't there."

The head censor now has to make a case against the film's violence. In other words, he has to become a film critic. At this point, Ferman could, by way of criticism, have asked why the serial killer is female when this sort of murderer is so rare in real life as to be almost non-existent. Instead, he attacks the film's treatment of its protagonists. "The black comedy tone," he notes, "prevents our empathising with the characters or identifying with their human failings; but nor is there that compensating sense of dread at the realisation of our own vulnerability which the best horror films provide."

But Ray Brady did not wish the audience to empathise or feel safely vulnerable. Far from pulling the audience along on a victim's fantastic, never-ending flight from pyrotechnical violence, Brady's hero is caught, and ultimately killed. There is no escape. The villain is not apprehended. There is no retribution. This might sound closer to reality than the usual stalk 'n' slash cycle of vid-fodder; none the less, Ferman moves on to inform Brady of the BBFC's preferred moral order. "With a subject like rape or torture, the validity of the treatment has normally depended on the extent to which the film adopts a humane and compassionate viewpoint that aligns itself with the victim rather than the aggressor."

Leaving aside the question of whether a film should be from somebody's - or nobody's - point of view, Ferman seems to infer that Brady does not make up the audience's mind for them. Brady says: "For the BBFC, 'mindless violence' has to have a mind." But, according to the censor, screen violence must do even more than that since it must lead the audience to the right moral conclusion through sympathy for the victim and his/ her plight. Brady flouts that unwritten rule -"for most of the film, the male victim is unsympathetic". Even worse, the director seems to show an initial sympathy for the female villain. "The validity of the film," says Ferman, "rests on the supposition that one is watching a feminist piece in which torture is merely a narrative device for exploring unacceptable behaviour."

Here, unwittingly or not, Brady has transgressed one of modern censorship's main reasons for being. For the head censor has not only famously declared himself to be "a feminist before women were", but also, according to the ex-examiner, Rosemary Stark, "a better feminist than women are". Gratuitous use of male violence towards women can, therefore, be a reason for refusing a film. In his first full year as head of the Board, in 1976, Ferman banned nearly 40 films for "unwarranted depiction" of rape and violence against women.

In Boy Meets Girl, though, the use of female violence against men might be acceptable Ferman says, as "an extreme form of righting a wrong". But this theme, according to the head censor, "is a red herring [in the film]. So, too, is the idea that the torturer might be motivated by a desire to turn the table on society's victimisers."

Having failed to demonstrate a suitable motivation for his characters - which would then induce the right response from the audience - Brady has therefore opened himself up to the censor's accusation that his film might provoke the wrong response. "We are confronted with the obscene consequences of violence on the assumption that such violence will not be experienced as pleasurable." Once again, however, David Blewitt's view of the film is at odds with Ferman's reading. "As a censor, you ask yourself, 'Is this violence justified?' I, along with three of my ex- colleagues, do not believe that Boy Meets Girl sets out to present violence to the audience as pleasurable."

Ferman's letter, however, continues to construct a chain of cinematic circumstance around Ray Brady. The film-maker has refused to provide "a coherent moral justification or context", therefore there is "the risk of confirming sadistic tastes or reinforcing sadistic impulses", and this, says Ferman in a reference to the Criminal Justice Act, "is crucial to any consideration of harm to potential viewers or, through their behaviour to society."

Despite endless debate, any proof that violent behaviour can be triggered by the screen has yet to be discovered by psychologists, social researchers or censors. Legislators either avoid this inconvenient truth, or as the Home Office minister Lord Ferrers attempted when introducing the Criminal Justice Bill, they fudge the issue. "Although there may be no evidence," the peer then told the House of Lords, "that videos cause crimes, of course they affect people." And Ferman concludes that Boy Meets Girl "carries the very real risk that it could have a corrosive effect on the values and/ or behaviour of certain potential viewers".

The belief that "a minority" of any screen audience is incapable of making a moral choice is the bedrock upon which Britain's film censorship exists. The BBFC only has to suggest - not even necessarily on paper - that a film contains the sort of violence that could be imitated for it to be either officially rejected or for its release to be "postponed".

But if any film can be so easily banned, why was Boy Meets Girl selected for the total exclusion zone? Even Michael Winner's film Dirty Weekend, which deals with the same subject as Boy Meets Girl, has never won that distinction. Also, a blood spatter-less, small-budgeted film like Ray Brady's was unlikely to have gained a large video horror audience. It will now gain no audience at all: despite being granted an 18 certificate for theatrical release, this is the kind of film whose success entirely depends on video sales.

When the fuss dies down, as indeed it will, nobody is going to remember Ray Brady. As one ex-censor asks: "Who's ever heard of Ray Brady? He's a nobody. He's not mega-bucks. He's not even cult movie bucks. Nobody is going to fight for him. He doesn't have a distributor or a production company behind him. So he's easy for Ferman to push over."

And if the BBFC wanted a scapegoat, then Ray Brady fits the bill rather well. The banning of his film is a message to other independent, young film-makers. The message is, don't make a film in which the audience can identify with the killer as well as his/ her victim. Don't attempt to implicate the audience in its desire for violence, or ask, "Why are you watching this?" If you do, your film will fall outside the state's sanction. Or as James Ferman puts it at the end of his letter, "On those grounds, your video certificate is refused." As for Ray Brady, he got the message. He's now working in television.

Tom Dewe Mathews's 'Censored: The Story of Film Censorship in Britain' is published by Chatto & Windus