Film's liberal: a lot of bruises, but not many cuts

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The Independent Online
NEW YORK-BORN James Ferman once said that he was inspired to move to England because we have "a nice comfortable culture here and we should protect that". In the minds of many, the outgoing director of the British Board of Film Classification has done no such thing.

Critics have rubbished 67-year-old Mr Ferman for being nothing but a drowning-wet liberal. Both Lolita, which deals with a man's relationship with an underage girl, and Natural Born Killers, a cinematic murder spree, were given the green light under his regime. And Crash, David Cronenberg's film in which people are shown getting sexual pleasure from car crashes, was passed uncut with an 18 certificate. One critic described Crash as "beyond depravity", but Mr Ferman managed to extract a positive message, which was: "not to have promiscuous sex".

While always maintaining that children are influenced by what they see on the screen, Mr Ferman felt justified in passing a film called Kids featuring adolescent and pre-pubescent sex. Proof that the actors involved in simulated sex scenes were over 16 years seemed to satisfy his censor's eye.

But the mild-mannered Mr Ferman is unapologetic about his cuts - or lack of them. "They (his critics) seem to think that we are the pioneers of the permissive society, but we are in fact the strictest film censors in Europe," he says.

Last year, after 22 years in the job, he came to blows with the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, over his move to relax censorship of pornographic videos. He accused Mr Straw of "pandering to the puritanical vote".

Mr Ferman was born in New York to a film director father and a mother who was a teacher. His interest in film dates back to his boyhood, when he learnt the old-fashioned skills of splicing and trimming from his father, who had worked with the great DW Grifiths.

In the Fifties he took an English degree at King's College, Cambridge, where he met his wife Monica. He was playing Benedick to her Beatrice in a production of Much Ado About Nothing. They now have two children and live in Hampstead, north London, and prefer a good night out at the theatre to a trip to the flicks. Among his other pastimes at Cambridge was, ironically, writing for Varsity under the editorship of Michael Winner.

His professional life began in television, with a traineeship on ATV's Armchair Theatre. He went on to become a staff director at ATV before moving to freelance work, notably with the BBC. His television documentary Drugs and Schoolchildren was used as a training film for teachers in the Seventies and Eighties and led to him gaining a lectureship in community studies at Central London Polytechnic.

He is involved in a drug rehabilitation centre called Cure and is chairman of the Standing Conference on Drug Addiction.

In 1975 he became secretary of the British Board of Film Censors, which then became the British Board of Film Classification. On arrival at his offices in Soho Square, he was shown a college campus film in which a pretty student was seen getting into the shower, "the camera enjoying her body", as he puts it, "and suddenly you saw the distorted face of a man through the glass and a knife slashed across her breasts and I leapt up out of my seat and screamed. My fellow examiners, male and female, said: 'Sorry, we see these all the time. They're called slasher movies'."

Although he sees more violence in a week than most of us experience in a lifetime, he still finds himself "appalled" by the hatred for women he finds in the cinema. In his first full year, 1976, he saw 402 films, 58 of which included rape.

Four Films that Made the Censor Wobble

Natural Born Killers

Oliver Stone's film was so violent that Quentin Tarantino was unhappy with his credit for the screenplay in the film's title. However, his tale of Mickey and Mallory Knox blazing a trail across America, killing more than 50 people, was released uncut after a three-month delay and even went out on video with an 18 certificate, to the horror of the then home secretary, Michael Howard. The BBFC rejected press claims that the film had inspired 10 "copycat" killings.

The Exorcist

The 1973 tale of satanic possession was withdrawn from video stores when the BBFC took over video classification in 1984 and refused it a domestic licence. The film's demonic themes and vision of a sexually explicit 12-year-old have proved too much in subsequent applications, thanks, in part, to scares about Satanic abuse. James Ferman was particularly worried about its effect on young women. It is being looked at again by the BBFC's new president, Andreas Whittam Smith.

Child's Play

Along with other classics of the splatter-fest genre like Driller Killer and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Child's Play was described as a "video nasty". The 1984 Video Recordings Act was a direct response to a tabloid campaign against them. The campaign in turn was a reaction to the fact that the VHS revolution allowed obscure underground horror films to find their way on to the shelves of suburban video stores.


This was David Cronenberg's film version of JG Ballard's novel about a couple who get an erotic thrill from car crashes. The book could be treated as a highbrow look at society's enslavement to the car and a reaction to the death of Ballard's wife in a car crash. The film, however, was described in terms of weird, individual sex acts and a newspaper campaign was whipped up against it. The film was released uncut after the film censor decided that it was neither illegal nor harmful.