Twenty Years Ago Today: Trouble at the BBFC

BBFC_18Twenty years ago today, The Guardian published an article reporting that James Ferman, the director of the British Board of Film Classification, was in the process of dismissing 13 part-time film examiners after they criticised him for refusing to liberalise the standards for film censorship in the UK. He didn't see it like that; he said they were perfectly welcome to reapply for their old jobs on a full time basis (although there were rather less positions than before). He could have been trying to keep the population of examiners turning over to prevent them from 'getting stale', as he claimed; or (and this is the theory his critics subscribed to), he could have been trying to extend his control over the work done by the examiners. In the view of the examiners, Ferman was failing to liberalise the classification standards fast enough to keep up with public taste. There had for several years been daily arguments between them and Ferman over both individual films and general policy, leading to strict and absurd rules on, for example, exactly how much of the labia could be seen in an 18 certificate film. The arguments grew even more heated after Ferman failed to pass on a fax addressed to one of the examiners in 1992. The arguments grew positively volcanic after Ferman reversed an examiner's decision in the case of a film called Mikey, which had overtones of the James Bulger murder.

The day after the Guardian article appeared (so that's twenty years ago tomorrow), Ferman hauled the offending examiners into the office, one by one, to invite them to disassociate themselves from the report. Only one of them was willing to do so; he, of course, was hoping to apply for one of the full-time positions. And that was pretty much that. Ferman was in charge, and the examiners had no one but The Guardian to appeal to - which changed nothing.

Ferman survived the controversy, and continued in his post until 1999. And as much as he sounds rather monstrous, we must remember that he'd been walking a tightrope ever since he was appointed back in 1975, between those who wanted nothing but squeaky clean depictions of christian morality, and those who wanted buckets of blood over everything those who wanted the freedom to make their own decisions about what to watch (which may have included buckets of blood). Sure, he denied The Exorcist a video certificate throughout his tenure; but he was also instrumental in speaking out against a parliamentary motion to ban 'video nasties' in April 1994. This would, in his opinion, have led to an effective ban on many hundreds of films with 12, 15 and 18 certificates - just because some people were terrified that any video showing a fictional murder might fall into the hands of children and inspire the killing of thousands more James Bulgers.

(his approach to industrial relations, on the other hand, clearly left much to be desired...)

When the BBC showed Ken Russell's The Devils in 1995, Ferman contributed an introduction which may help illuminate how much he was trying to please all sides - on the one hand, he praises Russell's work and laments how much the American studio cut from the film (much more than the BBFC). But on the other hand, he loftily comments that Russell might perhaps not have put quite so much nudity in the film if he'd thought about it a little more. Spin forward to 2:34 to start with Alex Cox's introduction, which sets the scene for Ferman's contribution.

And here's his obituary from 2002.