Britain's new censor in at the deep end

ROBIN DUVAL took over as chief censor at the British Board of Film Classification yesterday and is already having to face up to a series of thorny problems, not least of which is what to do with the proposed video release of The Exorcist.

To many, the post of BBFC chief censor may sound like one of the most desirable jobs in Britain but Mr Duval has the burden of following his idiosyncratic predecessor, James Ferman, while getting on with the long- term task of ensuring the board still has a task to perform in the new media age.

After 13 years with the Independent Television Commission, Mr Duval has a first-class pedigree in broadcasting regulation. As deputy head of programming, his responsibility covered not only taste and decency, but also the quality and diversity of programmes on ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5.

And now he moves on to his job as chief censor, the joys of which were summed up in a picture of a naked couple frolicking together that used to hang in the film theatre at the BBFC. Its caption read: "We'd better see it again before we ban it."

Mr Ferman, the outgoing director, believes his successor is the perfect all-rounder. "Robin is a sensitive regulator steeped in the best traditions of public service," he said.

Although Mr Duval, 57, may struggle to match Mr Ferman's flair for grabbing headlines, the new director is expected to bring some administrative steel to an organisation that is making conspicuous efforts to be more accessible and visible.

"He is ideal for what we need at the moment," said a senior member of the BBFC.

"He is a very meticulous planner. Sometimes you need inspirational thinkers which we have had for 25 years. Sometimes you need a good planner, which is where we are now."

A former colleague of Mr Duval also believes that he is a good choice: "Robin is very aware of how the ITC approached the whole issue of transparency and accountability. He understands that if you make decisions, you need to explain them publicly. That is perhaps the major criticism of the BBFC under Ferman in the last few years - they made a ruling and the public were left wondering `who are they?' and `why are they doing it?' Robin firmly believes that if a decision is good enough to take, it's good enough to explain."

On a personal level, Mr Duval is described as "equable" with a wide range of cultural interests that include singing, playing the piano and attending recitals. He is also considered a strong family man - he is married and has four daughters.

Mr Duval's principal concerns are understood to centre on the portrayal of violence, particularly sexual violence, and in that respect, he reflects the board's current priorities.

"He will bring a mature and sophisticated sense of judgement on content and has a lot of knowledge of and sensitivity to public feeling," the former colleague said, adding: "I suspect he will find himself exposed, particularly on the video side to a lot more dross than he was used to at the ITC.

"I think he will be uncomfortable to start with."

As the board's director, Mr Duval is steeling himself for criticism both from libertarians, who find any censorship anathema and conservatives desperate to arrest a tide of what they see as filth and depravation. The Daily Mail has already branded him a "Channel 4 liberal", while Mr Ferman urged him to buy a flak jacket.

Mr Duval is not believed to be considering any changes to the current system of film classification. However, a BBFC source says he is keen to tighten the guidelines under which the board's staff operate.

Duval's In-tray

The Internet

Perhaps the biggest long-term challenge facing Robin Duval at the BBFC is the one posed by new technology. His predecessor, James Ferman, doubts if even the Government will be able to stop uncensored material from pouring into Britain via satellite and the Internet.

`The Exorcist'

The board is currently considering whether to grant "the most frightening film ever made" a video release.

Relaxation of the pornography laws

One of Mr Ferman's latter acts was to suggest that since a growing number of people lived "vicarious" sex lives, the laws on pornography should be relaxed. "We have been too strict in this country," Mr Ferman said.

The mission to explain

After 13 years at the ITC, Mr Duval is well versed in the art of explanation in the pursuit of public consent.

Sex and violence

Mr Duval is hot on violence. Like his fellow board members, he sees the clampdown on sexual violence on film and video as the board's most pressing task.