Nudity and politics in a century of film censorship

film censorship

film censorship - Credit: Archant

The classification board’s archives unearth some surprising facts

In the old days, they used to be called The Censors, the men and women with the scissors who snipped the films clean, re-editing them with edgy jumps mid-scene and hiccups on the soundtrack. Those of us under-agers who had sneaked into the “no children four to 16” flicks hoping to see something smutty or carnal, felt deeply cheated on witnessing the pruned down, sanitised versions done to keep the public’s morals in line.

But times have changed. It’s been a hundred years since the classification of films started and the Soho Square-based British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is happily marking the anniversary.

Thanks to them, we know, from the doubly-signed certificate that appears on screen before every film, what age the audience must legally be before they can see the film, the video, the DVD. The law says that every film must be classified and the board, a non-profit-making body funded by the fees they charge to classify, handle around 100 major suppliers who submit material for classification throughout the year.

When the board began its work, films had to be censored if, for example, officers in British regiments were shown in a disgraceful light, men and women were in bed together, scenes of marital infidelity and collusive divorce were shown, along with semi-nude dancing, sympathetic criminals and painful insistence on realism in death-bed scenes.

Fire hazard

I met the BBFC’s senior examiner Craig Lapper to find out what had transpired since the greatest fear of going to the cinema was that the film, being the inflammable nitrate film stock, would burst into flames and burn the place down.

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“The BBFC was founded with two basic rules – there should be no nudity on screen and no materialisation of Christ,’ he told me. “It wasn’t long before the BBFC realised these rules were going to be insufficient and a list of grounds for deletion was created, explaining what types of material might lead to a film being cut, or even refused a certificate.

“The list varied with time and included elements that are still reflected in contemporary BBFC practice, for example, restrictions on cruelty to animals and the ‘modus operandi’ of criminals. However, other examples appear quaint and ridiculous today.”

The censors’ original 43 “grounds for deletion” list from 1916 included several amusingly old-fashioned points, including scenes of “vitriol throwing”, “scenes laid in disorderly houses”, “vulgar accessories in the staging”, “indecorous dancing” and scenes likely to “bring into disrepute British prestige in the Empire”. Probably the most controversial aspect of the board’s early grounds for deletion is the clear element of political censorship (for example, scenes depicting “relations of capital and labour” were prohibited, as were films containing “Bolshevist propaganda”).

There came later, with sound, particularly sound horror films like Dracula and Frankenstein, that they weren’t suitable for children and some people felt there should be an H for Horrific and D for Disgusting. The X was initiated.

Of course, massive liberalisation has occurred in terms of the type of X content permitted on British screens. The first approved showing of a penis was in Pasolini’s Theorem in 1968 (it did not belong to the film’s star, Terence Stamp) and the first flash of female pubic hair allowed was in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966). Foreign film-makers could, of course, and still do, get away with a lot more in their films.

The examiners are a group of around a dozen professionals – the age range of the current group is 30 to 50 years of age. They are fathers and mothers, singles and singles in partnerships.

Nowadays, their guidelines are kept in line with public opinion through large public consultation exercises and are somewhat more lenient. The BBFC’s criteria is perfectly clear – adults should be free to choose what they see providing that it remains within the law and is not potentially harmful to society, and guidance is given through seven classifications.

“We don’t cut the films ourselves. Rather, we provide a detailed list of the material that needs to be removed, often to obtain the company’s preferred classification, using precise time codes if necessary,” explains Lapper. “Time codes mean you can be precise to a 25th of a second. The distributor is entitled to introduce substituted footage to replace the material we’ve removed and sometimes the cut version has been longer! It’s quite tough work but it’s always challenging.

“It was probably somewhat easier when the grounds for censorship were things like workhouse officials shown in an offensive light and themes that were likely to wound the just susceptibilities of our Allies!”

n Their guidelines are available for all to see on their website ( A book charting the history of the BBFC – Behind The Scenes At The BBFC: Film Classification From The Silver Screen To The Digital Age – is published by BFI Publishing and priced £16.99.