Miles Kington: Curious tale of the bureaucrat and the bonfire display

We appear to have broken more than 40 health and safety regulations, even down to selling untested home-made popcorn
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The Independent Online

I have received a distressed letter from a reader in Dorset, asking for help, and as I am no good at solving my own problems, let alone other people's, I propose to print his letter in full to see if my readers have any ideas. Here it is.

Dear Mr Kington,

I am the secretary of a large golf club in Dorset, and one of my tasks is to organise the 5 November bonfire and fireworks, which the golf club has traditionally organised every year for members' families.

Last year we very nearly did not have a firework display at all, as the cost of insurance against damage and personal injury was almost more than the cost of the event itself.

This year the insurance premiums have gone up so much that we decided we would either be forced to cancel the show or stage it in a very different form.

By a stroke of good fortune, we found that one of our members, a talented cameraman called Trevor Wilkins, had made an impressive 15-minute film of last year's display, and we decided to show that on a big screen outside the golf club, complete with special effects and recorded noises and even a bit of the "1812 Overture".

The film was a great success, especially as Trevor Wilkins had cleverly edited it and intercut it with funny moments from the club year and bits of interviews with the most popular characters in the club. So although fireworks on a screen are never quite as good as the real thing, we thought the evening went very well and had been a big hit. And because we had charged a small entry fee, and sold refreshments, we did not even make a loss. We felt very pleased with ourselves.

That was before we received a visit the next day from the local council officer who looks after health and safety, and similar regulations.

"I hear you had a bonfire night at the club last night which contravenes public safety regulations," he said.

We explained that the fireworks had been on film and could therefore not be a hazard.

"That is my precise point," he said. "You were, in effect, presenting a film show. You were running an outdoor cinema, to which you charged entry. There are many conditions attached to putting on a cinematographical exhibition. You are required to provide decent toilet facilities, to have disabled access, to have emergency exits in case of fire, to have fixed seating, to have fireproofed projection equipment..."

I won't go on; suffice it to say that in our attempt not to burn anything or anyone to death, we appear to have broken more than 40 safety regulations, even down to selling unlicensed and untested home-made popcorn.

And that was not all.

"I take it," said this odious official before leaving, "that the firework film was licensed for public display? I mean, it had been submitted to the British Board of Film Classification to be awarded the correct certificate?"

Well, of course it hadn't. Who submits their home-made movies to the censors? But it turned out that by charging for entry, we had automatically become cinema exhibitors and therefore subject to censorship. It may be hard to imagine a film of fireworks which could deprave and corrupt, but the man said he had no choice but to prosecute us for unlawful cinema exhibition.

"I shall also have to investigate the question of money passing hands in the making of the film," he said.

"There wasn't any!" I said. "The people in it appeared for free! The filming was done for free."

"Use of unpaid film extras," said the bureaucrat, writing all this down. "Uncopyrighted use of a public firework display..."

"Oh, for heaven's sake!" I said, losing my temper. "This is political correctness gone mad!"

"We don't use the word 'mad' any more, sir," said the official, making more notes, his eyes glinting strangely. "I think you will regret having said that."

And that is how the matter stands. These prosecutions may well ruin the club. Do you have any suggestions as to how we should proceed?

Over to you, readers...

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