After 87 years of cuts behind closed doors, the censor finally asks film-goers what they think

Britain's film censors are to launch an unprecedented public consultation to find out how much sex, violence and swearing the nation thinks should be allowed in films released in the United Kingdom. New guidelines, setting out clearly for the first time exactly how the censors will classify cinema and video releases, is to be published as part of the consultation. The British Board of Film Classification is responsible for certifying films under categories like U, A, PG or 18.

Britain's film censors are to launch an unprecedented public consultation to find out how much sex, violence and swearing the nation thinks should be allowed in films released in the United Kingdom. New guidelines, setting out clearly for the first time exactly how the censors will classify cinema and video releases, is to be published as part of the consultation. The British Board of Film Classification is responsible for certifying films under categories like U, A, PG or 18.

The move is part of the biggest shake up of cinema and video censorship rules since the birth of the BBFC in 1912. The Board's recently appointed director Robin Duval and president Andreas Whittam Smith have advocated a new policy of openness and decisiveness for the always controversial organisation. Under the last director James Ferman (censor 1975-98) the BBFC had developed something of a reputation for secrecy and procrastination.

Director Robin Duval has already said the highest priority for the BBFC is "to come out". "The public is entitled to know what we are doing on their behalf... and there maybe criteria that the public is concerned about."

While Mr Duval said he believed that the Board had got classification system "about right" he said that there was "insufficient research" for him to hold this view in complete confidence. He expected the consultation exercise to greatly add to what was known about how the public regarded film censorship.

Film censorship in the United Kingdom has been dogged by controversy ever since the first classification was introduced before yhe First World War which simply offered the public a choice between "U" and "A." The list of films that have created a storm is vast and includes: Monty Python's Life of Brian (blasphemy), Last Tango in Paris (buggery), Exorcist (terrifying), Reservoir Dogs (gratuitous violence), and Crash (sex with car crash victims).

The BBFC is inevitably accused of corrupting the nation's morals if it releases controversial films and censorship if it doesn't. "Sometimes I think the best you can hope for is a parity of abuse," Mr Duval has said. Until now the processes at the BBFC have not always been clear and it was not always clear why a film was given a particular certificate or one film's scenes cut and another's allowed to remain.

The Board employs a team of censors at its Soho Square headquarters who sit and watch all films for general release. They have to decide what certificate to award each film. They have to make tricky decisions like whether male actors are revealing a "Sid soft" which is OK within the board's current guidelines or a "Harry hard", which requires instant removal. Sexually explicit films are often cut before going on general release. The board tend to be tougher on videos as these can more easily be seen by youngsters.

Last month outrage followed the BBFC's decision to grant a general release 18 certificate for the French film "Romance" starring hard-porn legend Rocco Siffredi. At the time MP Gerald Howarth, chairman of the Lords and Commons Family and Child Protection Group, said it was "small wonder that 12-year-old girls were becoming pregnant when obscene films were common currency." Yet equally there is growing support for a more relaxed approach to hard core porn film classification.

Under the shake-up BBFC will issue draft guidelines for all its certificates from U right up to the Restricted 18 category for soft-core pornography films. Mr Duval said the new guidelines will clarify exactly what is and what is not permitted in a film which has been passed with one of the Board's classifications. He said, "If there was, much to our surprise, strong evidence that we had got it wrong in some respect, either too relaxed or too restricted, then we would respond," confirmed Mr Duval.

Mr Duval said no change would be made if the BBFC considered the change would be harmful and would not consider any change in the rules relating to films which portrayed drug taking. "We have so much evidence that drugs have a harmful influence on adults that we would not respond to that call," said Mr Duval. He said the same kind of argument applied to any material that might harm children.

Mr Duval said that under the new guidelines in the Restricted 18 category, the constraint on masturbation had been redefined as the "the manipulation of the genitals at the point at which it becomes masturbation." The old guidelines simply referred to a prohibition on "a clear sight of masturbation."

Mr Duval was appointed as director in January after 13 years working at the Independent Television Commission where he was deputy head of programmes. Andreas Whittam Smith took over as chairman of the board last year. He was a founding editor of The Independent. They have already certified a batch of films that had been held up under the previous director.

The British film censors' position is made that much more difficult by the fact the BBFC has no legal status in film censorship or classification. The local authority is statutory censor and has the final say on what cinemas operating in its locality can and can not screen. In the vast majority of cases the authority is happy to defer to the BBFC. But three years ago, in a controversial move, Westminster City Council banned David Cronenberg's film Crash, which includes scenes of sex with car crash victims, before the BBFC had even had a chance to look at it.

The new guidelines will be sent to all those involved in the film industry, groups which represent the film-going public and organisations which have an interest in film and video censorship. He said he also hoped the new rules, to be finalised in the Spring, would be more "robust" and help people to have a better understanding of each of the classifications.

The consultation follows the BBFC's decision to seek judicial review of a recent decision by the Video Appeal Committee (VAC) overturn the Board's refusal to grant Restricted 18 certificates for seven sex videos. The VAC rejected the Board's argument that a Restricted 18 classification should be refused just because the material might be harmful to children if it "fell in to their hands." Mr Duval said the Board believed the VAC had wrongly interpreted the definition of harm. Nevertheless, Mr Duval conceded that if the courts found in favour of the VAC it the BBFC would have to consider amending this classification. The Board only grants classifications to between 30 and 40 R18 videos a year.

Mr Duval said that one of the reasons the Board had decided to revise its rules and consult the public was the threat of legal challenges in the UK courts when the Human Rights Act comes into force next year. Under the European Convention of Human Rights restrictions on freedom of speech, which include the BBFC's classification must be set out clearly.

The codes of classification from 'U' to 'X'

To ensure that film censorship was consistent throughout the country the film industry set up the British Board of Film Censors in 1912.

The following year the "U" and "A" gave the public the choice between watching a film suitable for a child or an adult. In 1932 the "H" certificate indicated a horror film but was only advisory.

1951 saw the birth of the first "X" certificate which restricted admission to those of 16 or over. At the time the BBFC insisted that the new category was not merely "for sordid films dealing with unpleasant subjects, but films which, while not being suitable for children, are good adult entertainment and films which might appeal to an intelligent public."

In 1970 the first attempt to introduce a broader classification of films was made. These were:

"U" Universal.

"A" Admits children of five years of age whether accompanied by an adult or not and may contain some material that some parents may prefer their children under 14 not to see.

"AA" Admits children over 14.

"X" Only 18-year-olds and over are allowed to watch these films.

In 1982 the Parental Guidance (PG) and Restricted 18 Classification, for sex films, were added while "AA" became "15" and "X" was changed to "18."

Moments of sex and violence that became classic controversies

Straw Dogs, 1971 Sam Peckinpah's portrayal of rape caused outrage. It is still banned from video release in the UK.

Last Tango in Paris, 1973 Released with cuts as the first mainstream film with male/female buggery.

Monty Python's Life of Brian, 1979

This comic take on the life of Jesus resulted in blasphemy complaints.

Reservoir Dogs, 1992

Tarantino's piece of gratuitous violence was released uncut with an 18 certificate but banned on video.

Natural Born Killers, 1994

Oliver Stone's unappetising film of two psychotics killing large numbers of fellow Americans. Release delayed by media furore.

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