Bad language, bad judgement and good sitcoms

American producers often add four-letter words to gain films a higher age certificate
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The Independent Online

The most gripping film I have seen for a very long time is Touching the Void. The docu-drama about the two British mountain climbers who face disaster was so affecting that I decided I'd like to see it again, and this time take my 13-year-old daughter. To my great surprise I discovered this would be illegal. The film had a 15 certificate. Mountain climbing contains much bravery, much risk and very low temperatures, but not much in the way of sex and violence. So I contacted the§ British Board of Film Classification to find out why a film so ideal for young people, as it is both riveting and indeed educational, was out of their reach.

To its credit, the BBFC is utterly open about its reasons for giving a film a certain certificate, and I will give you their answer in full (though readers of a very nervous disposition might like to skip to the next item).

The board said that the reason for the 15 was very strong language - specifically the use of the c-word. "Under normal circumstances," it said, "that word is restricted to 18, but in this context it was considered justifiable because of the context - fear and frustration and not used aggressively towards a specific person. It would also have been unlikely to get a U because of the level of tension and peril."

The board went on to recount how it required one use of the word to be removed from Bridget Jones's Diary (in fact it was dubbed over) and refused to drop Sweet Sixteen to a 15 because of the aggressive use of the word, around 15 times, aimed at women and children.

"It is," says the board, "a source of irritation to the more liberal members of the UK population that we still make a fuss about bad language 'when you can hear as bad if not worse in any school playground', but we have take account the majority view that they do not want to hear strong language [specifically the c-word apparently] in films available to children. We are going to test whether this attitude still holds true with the consultation on the Guidelines which has just got under way."

Well, you can't say fairer than that. And as it happens, it's not the board I blame on this one. I'm with the ''majority" rather than with those "more liberal members of the UK population". There's way too much bad language in films; and it's no great mystery why. Producers, and American producers in particular, often insist on the addition of a four-letter word, however inappropriate to the storyline, to ensure a higher age certificate and thus more street cred with teenage film-goers. I hope the BBFC does not rush to change its rules after the current public consultation.

The guilty parties in the case of Touching the Void are the film's creators, presumably among them the unbelievably brave climber Joe Simpson, whose story it is, and the brilliant director Kevin MacDonald. Would the story really have been much diminished if Simpson's mentions of the c-word had been cut? Wouldn't that small loss have been worth it to allow the film to be shown to young people, a film that would tell them about endurance, comradeship, having to take life and death decisions, and, come to that, the techniques of climbing?

Film-makers have a desire and, some might argue, a duty, to tell the truth. That, they would say, is why they must be realistic in their use of language. But realism is modified in other ways. We are not shown the difficulties Joe Simpson must have faced in performing his bodily functions while injured, cold and in intense pain on a mountainside. We are rightly spared that little insight into reality. We can be spared other realities occasionally too, if it means bringing a marvellous film to a young audience.

¿ The debate over whether or not to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece resurfaced this week, as it seems to every few weeks. I wish only to add to it an anecdote told to me by a British Museum official. It is about an incident which occurred when the Greek minister of culture was Melina Mercouri, the sensual Sixties actress turned politician. When she visited the BM, she decided in her typically passionate style to fling herself on the floor and kiss the ancient treasures. As a curator helped her up, he informed her sotto voce that she had bestowed her tender embrace upon some very fine objects, though not actually the Elgin Marbles, which were in another room.

¿ The best sitcoms ever, according to the votes for the BBC contest, include in the top 10 The Vicar of Dibley and Open All Hours. Outside the top 10 situation comedies are such classics as Steptoe and Son, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, the mould-breaking Till Death Us Do Part and even Hancock, which just makes it to number 30. Explain. Somebody. Please.

d.lister@independent.co.uk

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