Lucy Brett is the Head of Education at the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), the organisation responsible for rating films, DVDs and trailers released within the United Kingdom. In 2012, this encompassed 851 films, 9454 DVDs, 60 games and 1609 trailers/ads for cinema using the universally recognised ratings of U, PG, 12A, 12, 15 and 18. Originating in 1912, the BBFC is presently under the directorship of David Cook. A former film critic herself, Lucy meets with groups and individuals across the country, explaining the work of the Board, how they make their decisions and recommendations, and answering questions on her work.
The current BBFC certificates
Geek Chocolate – Your duties include watching a great many films and evaluating them based on the established guidelines of the BBFC, and key to those guidelines is the belief that individuals can be affected, disturbed, even influenced by images and representations. How much scientific evidence do we have to support this?
Lucy Brett – The BBFC takes into account relevant research and expert opinion in the area of media affects. However, such research and expert opinion is often lacking, imperfect, disputed, inconclusive or contradictory. Therefore, in many cases, we must rely on our collective experience and expertise in rating and watching films to make a judgement as to the suitability of a work for classification, and any risk of harm.
GC – When the same film is viewed by people from different backgrounds, with different experiences, of different ages, they will have their own unique experience. Could some individuals could be more susceptible to a film, and would you then have to set your default level of governance to protect them?
LB – The BBFC accept that films can only be classified for the broad public and we base classification decisions on Guidelines that are derived from large scale public consultations, involving around 10,000 members of the public. However, the Guidelines do make allowance for whether a film, either on its own, or in combination with other content of a similar nature, may cause any harm at the age category it’s given. This includes not only harm that may result from the behaviour of potential viewers, but also any ‘moral harm’ that may be caused by, for example, desensitising a potential viewer to the effects of violence, or encouraging a dehumanised view of others.
Especially with regard to children, harm may also include delaying/restricting social and moral development, distorting a viewer’s sense of right and wrong, and limiting their capacity for compassion. This harm test is a high one though, and compulsory harm cuts are rare – the huge majority of cuts to films these days are what we call category cuts, which are cuts made by filmmakers/distributors to secure a lower category.
The adult ‘A’ rating has now given way to a less restrictive ’12’ certificate
GC – Films are revisited from time to time, anniversary rereleases or simply remastered, with Jaws back in the cinema last summer and many classic Hammer horrors recently released on bluray and so on, and their certification is reviewed and most often lowered. Is it that society has changed so certain things are more permissible, or are audiences more sophisticated now and just see rubber fish and fake blood?
LB – It isn’t unusual for an older film to be given a lower age rating since over time some films do lose their edge, be it through out-dated special effects or changes in audience attitudes, which are tracked at each review of the BBFC Classification Guidelines. However, a film can also receive a higher classification when it is re-submitted, if for example, if it contains outmoded language that is discriminatory, or likely to cause of offence to modern audiences at a given rating.
The fashions of 1974 aren’t the only things still able to shock
GC – Conversely, are there any films that have retained their original certificates, or even increased?
LB – It is not unusual for some films to retain their original age rating and for others to increase. Some Video Nasties for example have lost their edge, while others, such as Deathwish, are still rated 18, though some of these works have had earlier cuts reinstated. In other cases a film may have been classified before the introduction of the 12 certificate for films in 1989 and there was only a choice of PG and 15. For example, Ghostbusters was originally classified PG uncut for cinema release in 1984 and PG for video release in 1985. However, the film has now been classified 12A for moderate sex references under the current BBFC Guidelines.
The tagline ‘From the corrupt minds that brought you American Psycho’ should have been a clue
GC – With nobody checking tickets and IDs at home, video is inherently less controllable than cinema. Do you pay closer attention to a disc release than theatrical?
LB – Under the Video Recordings Act 1984 the BBFC is obliged to have special regard to the likelihood of works being viewed in the home, and to any harm that may be caused to potential viewers or, through their behaviour, to society by the manner in which the work deals with: criminal behaviour, illegal drugs, violent behaviour or incidents, horrific behaviour, or human sexual activity. In considering these issues the BBFC must keep in mind the possible effect not only on children but also on other vulnerable people. In practice there have been a number of cases where a work is passed uncut at 18 for cinema release but passed 18 with cuts for video because of a risk of underage viewing.
This was true of the film Rules Of Attraction. The film was passed 18 uncut for cinema release but compulsory cuts were made to a scene where a girl uses a highly effective suicide technique before the video could be rated 18. The cuts were made because the films’ star James Van Der Beek was famous for his role in Dawson’s Creek a show hugely popular amongst teenage girls at the time the film was released and made the film attractive for a younger audience therefore increasing the risk of younger teenagers obtaining the video once inside the home and possibly attempting the suicide technique shown. In this case the BBFC also sought advice from the Samaritans.
It may share a leading man with Harry Potter, but it’s not a cosy fantasy
GC – Much is said in the media about illegal filesharing and downloading, but it’s always about copyright and revenue, never that the content itself is uncontrolled and may be inappropriate. Is that a concern?
LB – It is a concern, so much so that in 2008 the BBFC and the Home Entertainment Industry launched a voluntary service for streamed and downloaded content. The service provides trusted BBFC classifications, category symbols and BBFCInsight to set-top box, video-on-demand and other online content providers even though it’s not a legal requirement. Independent research carried out for the BBFC last year, showed 85% of the public and 90% of parents with children under 16 think it’s important to have consistent BBFC classifications available for VOD content. It’s a useful guide for parents to use when they’re navigating the vast amounts of content on the internet.
Studios and VOD platforms using the BBFC digital service include Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment Europe, Warner Bros., Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Universal, BT Vision, Tesco/Blinkbox, TalkTalk, Picturebox and Netflix.
They protect us, but do we need protected from them?
GC – When you spoke in Edinburgh, you mentioned the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, that with the concern about personal weaponry at the time of release, nunchucks were an automatic cut, leading to a scene where a link of sausages used as a sight gag being cut. What’s the most ridiculous cut you’ve heard of or have had to make yourself?
LB – This year was our centenary year, and I’ve done lots of research into cuts from the past. It is a bit unfair to judge previous examiners as there is often only limited paperwork to explain the full context of cuts but I did read about a cut to a film called Kiss The Bride Goodbye in 1944 where rude noises emanating from a hippo were removed.
The sausages cut was a case of taking a blanket concern too far, though underlying it was a harm concern and some cuts that seem strange are actually based on something quite serious – we had to cut a child character hiding in a washing machine from a famous Disney movie, for example.
Those sunglasses conceal a future starship captain
GC – Maybe it’s just that I grew up in the era of the video nasty purges and outraged letters from Mary Whitehouse to Points of View about Doctor Who and Blake’s 7 telling me that my favourite shows were inappropriate viewing, but although intellectually I’m aware that you’re the British Board of Film Classification, my mind always supplies “censorship.” Was that impression ever true?
LB – In 1984 Parliament passed the Video Recordings Act which stated that, subject to certain exemptions, video recordings offered for sale or hire in the UK must be classified by the BBFC. The following year the Board’s title was changed to the British Board of Film Classification (rather than ‘Censorship’) to reflect the fact that classification plays a far larger part in the Board’s work than censorship.
Was this cosy afternoon matinee really so terrifying as to once be branded ‘X’?
Prior to this and especially in the very early years, the BBFC did not work to published Guidelines or research and this meant that the BBFC had to gauge what they thought public opinion was about issues such as sex, nudity and violence for example. The age ratings were also fewer and both these circumstances meant that far more films were cut in order to be passed at a certain category or banned all together.
GC – You had implied that in borderline cases, the ages of the performers was a factor, that if the scene featured adults in an “adult situation” it was easier to justify than minors, and here I’m thinking of Chloë Moretz in Hit Girl’s first scene in Kick-Ass. With so much focus on the teen demographic, the Harry Potter films, Hunger Games, Twilight, there must be some quite challenging calls.
LB – There are sometimes cases where the risk of imitability of dangerous or violent behaviour is increased when it is seen being carried out by a younger character, particularly if they are perceived as a role model to children, however the BBFC must always take the context of certain behaviour into account. If the film condones the activity and makes it unattractive to the audience, it might be that the film can be classified at the lower age rating. These decisions tend only to come into play when a film sits on the border between two age ratings. More seriously, legislation relating to the protection of children does mean we have to be very mindful of the ages of performers in sex scenes or similar.
Galloping towards trouble on their coconut shells
GC – Different versions of films in different regions must be a problem, particularly with rare prints brought over from abroad for festivals and retrospectives. A couple of years ago at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Joe Dante brought his personal copy of the early Roger Corman film The Intruder, starring an unfeasibly young William Shatner inciting racial violence in a Southern town, and when the Edinburgh Filmhouse screened my all-time favourite horror last year, Robert Wise’s The Haunting, it was an American print with a different narrator for the opening monologue and two additional scenes I didn’t know existed. How do you go about monitoring that?
LB – The BBFC don’t have an enforcement role for the exhibition of films, this lies with Local Authorities who grant the license for cinemas or film festivals to show films. It is an unusual occurrence today but Local Authorities can still override BBFC decisions if they feel a film should be given a lower or higher age rating for cinema release in their area. So in the case you describe the film festival would have had to seek permission from the Local Authority to screen this version of the film.
Gathering a storm from the outset, this film is still banned in some countries
GC – The 1975 storm over Monty Python and the Holy Grail is legendary and Inverness council issued a ban on The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, swiftly overturned but too late to arrange screenings on original release, but blasphemy is no longer recognised as an offense. That’s a major change in attitude over a very short timescale in terms of human history, less so in terms of film history, but do depictions of religion still cause problems?
LB – The BBFC Guidelines must take into account the law including The Public Order Act 1986 which states that it is illegal to distribute, show or play to the public a recording of visual images or sounds which are threatening, abusive or insulting if the intention is to stir up racial hatred or hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation, or if racial hatred or hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation is likely to be stirred up. So religion can still be in an issue if there is an aggravating context.
Beyond the legal aspect the Guidelines themselves take into account discrimination as a key classification issue. Potentially offensive content, relating to such matters as race, gender, religion, disability or sexuality, may arise in a wide range of works, and the classification decision will take account of the strength or impact of its inclusion.
This may not be what you expect of a trip to the ballet…
GC – There were complaints about demonic lesbian sex in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, yet I don’t recall any fuss over an identical scene when Kaboom! was released almost simultaneously. I’ve no doubt the expectations of an audience of a drama set in the world of ballet differ from that of followers of angry auteur Greg Araki, but how does that affect your role?
LB – The BBFC aims to provide as much content information as possible since there are cases where films confound audience expectation. This could have been the cause for some of the complaints relating to the sex scene in Black Swan for which some complaints reflected a lack of knowledge about what the film Black Swan is really about, while others seemed confused by the linking of horror imagery and strong sexual imagery in the same scene.
To try to combat this the BBFC publishes detailed information about why a film got the classification it did, normally available ten days before the release date, to allow the public to make an informed decision about what they’re going to see. This information is available via the BBFC website and free BBFC apps.
Keeping the streets clean can be a messy job
GC – You’ll see films days, even weeks ahead of release. This past year we’ve had Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus, Skyfall and The Hobbit, all of them big films with a lot of excitement and expectation. Is there ever competition for which of the team will assess a big release, or are you all terribly detached and professional?
LB – The teams have no control over what they examine on a day to day basis since each examiner programme is assigned by a dedicated department separate from the examining teams! One of the real joys of the job is the opportunity to see films you may never choose to see at the cinema, or may never get around to watching. I’ve found my tastes and interests have broadened loads since joining the BBFC.
GC – Do you ever find it ironic that you act as guardians for the moral health of the nation’s young and impressionable, and your headquarters is based in the once notorious Soho, or does it just help keep things in perspective?
LB – It is useful to be based in Soho since it means we are close to the offices of many film studios, additional screening rooms if we’re very busy and there is a great sense of film history in the area. The BBFC office also houses most of our well established archive of files in a bespoke and fireproof storage unit, which might be rather difficult to move! That being said the BBFC is a mostly digital organisation, we no longer accepts paperwork based submissions and some films are even sent digitally rather than on disc or even 35mm film.
Many thanks to Lucy and her colleagues at the BBFC for their time and insight