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Censorship chief plays new part in familiar plot

JAMES FERMAN, 64 yesterday, marked his birthday by playing an unfamiliar role in a familiar controversy, writes Michael Leapman. As chairman since 1975 of the British Board of Film Classification (now, with video added, the BBFVC), he has often been attacked by film-makers for what they see as his repressive views.

Occasionally he has clashed with members of his board for the same reason. Yet now he is cast as a principal opponent of David Alton's Commons amendment that seeks to prevent ultra-violent videos going into British homes.

One of the arguments he made at the weekend - that 70 per cent of British households do not contain children - was one he argued against in an interview in the Times just a year ago, when he pointed out that those most receptive to violent videos were unemployed youths in their later teens. 'I would there was no age between 16 and 23,' he said then, quoting from A Winter's Tale.

Holding the balance between the censorious on one hand, and the 'anything goes' film-makers on the other, is a skill Mr Ferman has perfected in his 19 years in office. His views have been treated with respect by the industry, in part because he used to work in it. A drama director with the ITV company ATV from 1959-65 and the BBC from 1965-75, he was responsible for the ITV series Armchair Theatre and the BBC serial Emergency Ward 10. He has also lectured on community mental health care and drug abuse.

Mr Ferman is a New Yorker who settled in England after a period of post-graduate study at Cambridge, where he met his wife, Monica. His most famous achievement as Britain's chief censor was when he made a flying visit to his native city to persuade the redoubtable Stephen Spielberg to make 24 cuts of violent scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The director agreed.

He has never been an easy man to work with, according to some members of the board, who accuse him of being dictatorial. Their differences came to a head two months ago when he told all 13 part-time examiners that their contracts would not be renewed because they were being replaced by 10 full-time members. Leaked memos revealed that two years ago the board passed a motion of no confidence in the pounds 78,000-a- year chairman, because of his allegedly secretive working methods and because they found his views on sex and violence restrictive and old-fashioned.

(Photograph omitted)