James Ferman

Film censor with a liberal outlook

Friday 03 January 2003 01:00
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James Alan Ferman, film censor: born New York 11 April 1930; Director, British Board of Film Classification 1975-99; married 1956 Monica Robinson (one son, one daughter); died London 24 December 2002.

During his 24-year tenure as President of the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC), James Ferman was responsible for some far-reaching changes in the Board's attitude towards film censorship. Significantly, the Board's name underwent a change during his tenure, the word "Censors" being replaced by "Classification", a gratifying move for those who felt that adults should have a right to choose what they care to watch and that guidance is all that is required.

Ferman's job was never going to be an easy one – censorship is a volatile subject, opinions ranging from total freedom of choice to the banning of anything that rates a classification stronger than PG. Ferman frequently came under fire from both sides, but overall he was a liberal man whose arguments for his decisions were invariably intelligent and well thought-through, even if one did not agree with them. He realised that with the increasing accessibility to material, caused through the rapid spread of the internet and multi-region DVD players, it would be retrogressive for the UK to maintain its long-held position as the most censorious country in the European hemisphere. Ferman gradually created the atmosphere which saw the recent relaxing of the ban of several former "video nasties" and such films as A Clockwork Orange and The Straw Dogs.

When Ferman joined the Board in 1975, 40 per cent of films were being cut or banned. In 1998 it had fallen to 4 per cent. Ferman's own controversial decisions included the passing of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, David Cronenberg's Crash, the cinema-verité style account of a vicious gang of rapists and murders, Man Bites Dog, and the explicit remake of Nabokov's Lolita. In 1994 the Board's powers extended to the classification of videos, and a cross-party group of over 200 MPs declared that they were "appalled" and called for Ferman's resignation when he passed Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1997). On the other hand, mindful of the powerful effect that screen images might have on children, he insisted on 24 cuts to Raiders of the Lost Ark before it could be granted a PG certificate.

When he first assumed his job with the Board, he had been surprised to find that he was the only member with children, and ensured that henceforth several of the viewers should be parents. His last years with the Board also saw a notable relaxation towards licensed pornography, which Ferman felt would be a healthier option than allowing the unlicensed flow of violent sexual material imported and sold on the black market. "I am a strict person," he said, "but I am not a prude."

James Alan Ferman was born in New York in 1930. His mother was a teacher and his father an editor of medical films who had once worked with the great silent director D.W. Griffith. After attending the Great Neck High School in New York and Cornell University, Ferman continued his education at King's College, Cambridge, where he read English. Active in the university's theatrical activities as both writer and actor, he met his future wife there when he played Benedick to her Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing. His student production of Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson attracted such favourable comment that it was staged in the West End, where it enjoyed a healthy run. Ferman also wrote for the university magazine Varsity under the editorship of Michael Winner, with whom he would clash many years later when taking his scissors to Winner's film about rape and violent revenge, Death Wish.

After a spell as an actor and writer, Ferman joined Associated Television as a trainee director. ATV's most prestigious series was the live drama anthology Armchair Theatre, and Ferman directed three productions, a bank-robbery thriller The Criminals (1958) starring Stanley Baker and Raymond Huntley, a domestic drama Till Death Us Do Part (1959) starring Gwen Watford, and Jacques Duval's French stage comedy The Model Marriage (1959), adapted by Wolf Mankowitz and starring Mai Zetterling, Alec McCowen and Paul Rogers.

As a freelance television director, Ferman's work included episodes of the long-running medical series Emergency Ward 10, and a drama series about the aviation industry, The Plane Makers. The latter won a Bafta award as the best dramatic series of 1963 (it later evolved into an even more successful show, The Power Game). For a series of 13 tales by the Maigret writer Georges Simenon titled Thirteen Against Fate, Ferman directed the first play The Lodger (Le Locataire, 1966), scripted by Hugh Leonard, and he won another Bafta award for his production of Somerset Maugham's Before the Party in 1969.

When he produced a television documentary in 1969 about a drug rehabilitation centre in Chelsea, it started his lifelong concern with the evils of heroin addiction and when he later heard that two of the youngsters in his film had since died, he determined to do something positive to help. The result was a set of five films called Drugs and Schoolchildren that were made available to teachers, doctors and social workers. The Polytechnic of Central London then asked him to organise a 13-week course on drugs. From 1973 to 1976 he lectured regularly on the subject, and he was made vice-president of the Association for the Prevention of Drug Abuse.

He became secretary (later retitled president) of the BBFC in 1975, starting what he later described as "the most interesting and challenging years of my career". Ferman was the first professional film-maker to be appointed as secretary to the organisation, which had been created in 1912. One of the first films he had to classify was Jaws. Concerned about allowing children to see sharks eating humans, which would surely cause nightmares, he consulted a psychiatrist who assured him, "What's so bad about nightmares? It's just kids working through their problems." Ferman gave the film a mild PG rating, sparking the first of many controversies.

Another of his early decisions, to pass the erotic Emmanuelle (1974), indicated that he had a basically liberal outlook, and though he never ceased to come under fire from the anti-censorship lobby, he will be remembered more for his liberal stance than his prohibitive one. He did, though, maintain a consistent disdain for sexual violence and had a singular abhorrence of the Kung Fu weapon called a chainstick. He cut four minutes from Winner's Death Wish (1974), mainly from the violent rape scene, but years later passed Cronenberg's Crash (1996), in which two lovers are stimulated by the violence of car accidents.

Ferman never made controversial decisions lightly. Before passing Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) he had 28 members of the clergy check the film for blasphemy. He also introduced the practice of regularly consulting psychiatrists, but later years found him more and more at odds with the tabloids and the more conservative establishment. When he passed Adrian Lyne's Lolita (1998), the Daily Mail called it a "gross betrayal of public interest", to which Ferman responded, "Perhaps the problem is that those who claim to defend the values of Middle England may well be out of touch with Middle England."

Films like Reservoir Dogs (1992), with its sadistic torture scene, Cliffhanger (1993), in which a man's head is used as a football, and Kids (1995), passed by Ferman with just one minute cut only after he was assured that its scenes of simulated pre-pubescent sex were in fact enacted by players over the age of 16, all provoked critical headlines. Ferman continued to cut what he considered gratuitous sadism (a man's neck being broken in a refrigerator door in the Arnold Schwarzenneger vehicle Eraser (1996)) and he stressed that the underlying moral message of a movie and the context of its sexual or violent content was always a prime consideration. Explaining his attitude towards Crash, he stated, "It starts out with three sex scenes in a row and they are very sexy, but as soon as the crashes happen it is very disturbing. And by the time it becomes disturbing, it is no longer sexy." Passing Steven Spielberg's gruesomely realistic war story Saving Private Ryan (1998) with a 15 rating, he stated, "We felt that it told the truth about war and we didn't want war glamorised for teenagers."

When Ferman decided in 1997 to give pornographic videos a special classification which would make them available in certain outlets, he neglected to tell the Home Office, provoking a public reprimand from Jack Straw. The following year Ferman resigned, shortly after stating that he welcomed criticism. "I knew what this job would be from the first day," he said,

and I rather enjoy the crossfire, actually. I find it quite stimulating. Frankly, the job has such power that we need to be shot at. Someone with a powerful position in the media needs to be questioned by the public.

He was succeeded at the BBFC by Robin Duval, whom he advised to "get a flak jacket". Duval said, "He saw the board through a very significant period in its history. The current success of the board and its standing within the film industry is due in no small part to James Ferman's contribution."

Tom Vallance

Additional obituary note by Mike Bor

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