Last picture show for film censor who outraged Middle England

Click to follow
The Independent Online
JAMES FERMAN has been called many things by the self-appointed protectors of Middle England, most of them unpleasant. Aptly, his announcement yesterday of retirement as film censor after 23 years came in a week when the Daily Mail was again frothing at the mouth, this time about the licensing of Lolita.

Mr Ferman believes he is leaving censorship in the UK heading in the right direction. His successor, who takes over at the end of the year, will find a British Board of Film Classification which has clamped down on violence, especially of a sexual nature, brought videos into the regulatory framework, and allowed adults as much choice as possible on what they watch on their cinema screens.

His critics would disagree. The "American-born" Mr Ferman, they say, was out of step with what the people of this country really want. Earlier this week the Mail accused him of "Gross betrayal of public interest" for agreeing to release Lolita (to an adult audience).

This was in line with previous attacks. He had apparently been "pushing for porn" because he wanted to license and regulate explicit videos, and "fighting for an open door to Euro porn" for proposing harmonisation of film censorship categories in the European Union. The decision to grant a licence to the film Crash sent the Mail into apoplexy: "Time to sack this feeble censor".

Mr Ferman reflected yesterday: "I certainly could not object to criticism; if one is in a public post then one must expect it. Our critics have as much right to free speech as the film-makers. It would have been nice if some of the criticism had been more fair and intelligent. But then again it would be unfair to demand intelligence from all critics.

"Perhaps the problem is that those who claim to defend the values of Middle England may well be out of touch with Middle England and rather patronising towards the people of Middle England. I think Middle England is far more tolerant and understanding and less shocked on matters of sex than people like the Mail insist we must think.

"There was, of course, a lot of fuss over Crash. But only two countries are believed to have banned it - Singapore and Malaysia - because of the sexual content. So we are hardly out of touch with prevailing international opinion".

A colleague of Mr Ferman added: "The Mail may not represent Middle England, but it certainly represents Middle Malaysia and Middle Singapore".

Mr Ferman, an award- winning television producer and director, was appointed in l975. Over lunch in Soho the then president of the Board, Lord Harlech, told him it was a job in which it would be impossible to keep everyone happy. Since then he has had plenty of opportunity to find out for himself. Because rules governing certification of explicit videos were too tight, many distributors were bypassing the system for a lucrative and uncontrolled black market where almost anything went.

The BBFC proposed bringing videos back into the regulatory system by granting 18 certificates, but with the strict stipulation that sex in the films must be consenting, non-violent and legal.

For this the director and the BBFC was accused of "pushing for porn", and "provoking outrage". Mr Ferman said: "The fact was we had a situation where there was no effective control on these video nasties. What we were trying to do was to try and stop as much as possible these violent videos, some of which showed rape as entertainment. I would have thought that would meet with approval, instead of criticism. Don't these people want the videos regulated?"

Advertisements for Mr Ferman's successor begin tomorrow, and a shortlist will be prepared by a firm of headhunters. The final choice will be made by the new president of the BBFC, Andreas Whittam Smith, and senior executives. Mr Ferman's advice to his successor: "Get a flak jacket".