Stanley Kubrick's film remains outlawed in Britain despite the growing immunity of cinema audiences to blood and gore. Yesterday the debate was rekindled when the programme manager of a London repertory cinema went on trial for screening the film.
Jane Giles, 29, of Islington, north London, denies knowingly breaching copyright when she obtained a print of A Clockwork Orange and showed it at the Scala, in King's Cross, in April last year. It was billed in listings magazines as 'a surprise film'.
The film, withdrawn from distribution in the United Kingdom in 1974 by Warner Brothers at Kubrick's behest, occupies a unique position in the history of British film censorship.
Kubrick was alarmed by a succession of rapes and murders which received lurid publicity in contemporary newspaper reports and appeared to be inspired by the teenage violence depicted in the film.
A Clockwork Orange, which is based on Anthony Burgess's futuristic tale, continues to be screened in America and Europe, where it attracts big audiences.
Yesterday's case was brought by the Federation Against Copyright Theft (Fact) on behalf of Warner Brothers, which owns the copyright and distribution rights. Linda Strudwick, counsel for Fact, told Wells Street magistrates' court in central London that Ms Giles - who has since left the Scala - must have known that she was infringing copyright when she screened the film. 'It was common knowledge in the film world that it has not been in distribution since 1974,' she said.
When interviewed by Fact, Ms Giles said that she thought that no one owned the rights to A Clockwork Orange, Ms Strudwick said. She told them that she obtained the print through a man called Jean Marc Brenez, whom she had never met but who telephoned her and offered it free of charge. 'It is rather analagous to buying stolen goods from the mythical unnamed man in the pub,' Ms Strudwick told the stipendiary magistrate, Ian Baker.
Jeremy Cusans, a former projectionist at the Scala, who now works for Warner Brothers, told the court that the Scala had shown the film at least twice before, in the mid-1980s and in 1989.
He said that Ms Giles had talked to him about the legal pitfalls before exhibiting it last year. 'We discussed the implications of screening it and the fact that Kubrick's people might be around . . . everyone knows that Kubrick has spies all over the place who keep an eye out for his copyright.
'We all knew it was not supposed to be shown; anyone who worked in the film business knew that. Nevertheless we made a conscious decision to screen it . . . we knew what we were doing.'
Mr Cusans, who left the Scala a few days after the film was shown, said that the print was supplied by a private collector who had left it in the cinema storeroom in 1989. 'It was hard not to notice it there, especially as it was such a hot property,' he said.
When he told Ms Giles that he was leaving to work for Warner Brothers, he said, she told him that she hoped the screening would not affect his new job.
A Clockwork Orange, released in 1971, had run for 61 weeks in London when it was withdrawn by Kubrick.
But it was not only the director who feared the inflammatory force of its ambivalent morality. Time and again in the early 1970s, as a succession of horrific rapes and murders reached the courts, judges and police officers blamed the influence of the film on teenage minds.
Certainly, a number of contemporary crimes, including gang rapes of young women and murders of tramps, carried chilling echoes of those committed by the fictional gang led by Alex, the amoral 15-year-old with a taste for classical music. Some of the young criminals dressed the part, wearing the white overalls and black combat boots seen in the film.
The case was adjourned until 23 March.
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