Britain's new film censor: Why I read, watched, listened - and then passed Lolita for cinemas

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I COULD have wished for an easier task as the new president of the British Board of Film Classification than having to make a decision about Lolita, an adaptation of Nabokov's novel in which Jeremy Irons plays Humbert, the schoolgirl's middle-aged lover.

But I started at the beginning - by re-reading the novel. It is more shocking today than it was when first published in 1959, because the widespread incidence of paedophilia was then unknown. Nobody could forget the theme, if only because the word, "Lolita" has entered the language; the Oxford Dictionary defines a "Lolita" as a "sexually precocious schoolgirl".

Yet, during the 30 years that had passed since I first read it, my memory had become blurred. I had forgotten the famous opening line which Irons speaks so well in the film: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin. My soul." Nor did I remember Nabokov's careful, if lyrical definition of a nymphet, the sole object of Humbert's sexual desires: "Between the age limits of nine and 14 there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travellers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature, which is not human but nymphic (that is, demoniac)."

In fact, those two passages, taken from the opening pages of the novel, encapsulate the main issues for classification. "Fire of my loins" is the first indication of the erotic charge that runs powerfully through the novel and the film. But note that the phrase is immediately followed by the reference to sin.

In innumerable ways, the doomed, mutually destructive, criminal nature of the liaison is repeatedly marked. The age of Lolita is important, too. In the novel, she is 12 and a half. In Stanley Kubrick's earlier version with James Mason as Humbert, Lolita looked 16 to 17 years old. And finally, there is the description of paedophiles as "bewitched travellers" and the parenthesis "demoniac".

Here Humbert is pleading that Lolita was literally irresistible and such self-justification is also a feature of the book and the film - and of paedophiles in general, who rarely blame themselves for the crimes they commit.

The film sticks pretty closely to the novel, except in one important respect. Adrian Lyne, the director, has raised the age of Lolita to 14 ( played by a 15-year-old actress with a 19-year-old body double used where necessary). This can have a dangerous, ratchet effect. The closer Lolita appears to approach full sexual development, the more natural Humbert's infatuation is likely to seem. Added to which, the film is full of seductive delights. Irons is perfect as the sophisticated, sardonic, self-aware Humbert; the atmosphere of late 1940s America is wonderfully recreated and the music is suitably romantic.

So, how did we deal with all that? When I took up my part-time appointment at the beginning of the year, the Board's examiners had already evaluated the film. It's a painstaking process. The examiners work in teams of two. If there is disagreement at the first viewing, or uncertainty, then a second team has a look. In important cases such as Lolita, every examiner, of whom there are 15 or so, will be asked to prepare an analysis.

What, then, is the role of the president? Cinema classification is done in the names of the president and of the director - our signatures flash up briefly as the certificate is displayed on the screen. As "responsible authorities" in law, we are in a similar position to a newspaper editor. You are legally responsible but you cannot see everything.

Over the years, the Board has developed principles of classification, but the starting point is always the same: why should this film for the cinema or video work not have a "U" or universal certificate? Each successive restriction, "parental guidance", "suitable for persons of 12 years and over" and so on, or no certificate at all - in effect a ban - has to be justified.

Restrictions depend on the notion of harm - harm to children and young people, harm to society generally. On Lolita, we were grappling with problems such as: had the film's pleasures been set up in too powerful a way? In other words, did we empathise with Humbert or take the story for the cautionary tale it seems to be? Is the critical comment on Humbert's behaviour strong enough to be heard above the overt messages that there is a "paradise" in a child's sexuality?

All the time, the central problem loomed over us: was the risk that paedophile behaviour would be encouraged by Lolita so great that the film should be banned? On that, apart from the experience and informed common sense of the examiners, we needed specialist help.

I watched Lolita for a second time in the company of two psychiatrists who work with children - and one had also done quite a lot of work with paedophiles. I also met police officers who deal with child-abuse cases. And we got legal advice from the leading counsel in the field. My role was to test this array of opinion and advice and then to come to a conclusion.

I asked the examiners what would have made them unanimous that the film should be banned. Then, I asked the opposite question - seeing that we witness such relatively restrained sexual relations on the screen, why should the film not be granted a "15" or even a "12" certificate? I tried, courteously, to bully the two psychiatrists into saying that the film was likely to cause harm. But they, with equal politeness, refused to be budged from their opinion that it would not do so. The police told me that paedophiles sexualise images of all kinds, some of which may appear more or less harmless to the rest of us, such as pictures taken from sales catalogues.

Finally, the decision: pass at "18". Put out a press release. "Unlikely to encourage paedophile behaviour or put children at risk... the film, like the book, abounds with indications that the breaching of what is a necessary social taboo is wrong... the new Lolita is a challenging and compassionate treatment of an established literary classic which adult cinema goers have a right to judge for themselves." Wait for the media storm to break. And wait for the film to open and see whether people think we were right.