CENSORED – The Story of Film Censorship in Britain by Tom Dewe Mathews (Chatto & Windus, first published 1994)

In a recent essay topic for my advanced English language students, I asked whether the amount of violence in movies and on TV has a negative impact on young people and society as a whole. Almost to a man (and woman!) they responded in the affirmative, going on to advocate strict parental supervision and recommend greater censorship.

I found the tone of their answers quite depressing. They were unanimous in the view that rigorous controls had to be in place to protect impressionable citizens from disturbing images. They seemed oblivious to the fact that this would also severely restrict what adults would be able to watch.

It is one thing to argue that impressionable adolescents need to be shielded from extreme violence or explicit sex but why should consenting adults be subject to the same safeguards?

Tom Dewe Mathews’ thorough, if at times dry, account of what he calls “the murky processes and opaque aims of Britain’s film censorship” is peppered with such ethical dilemmas.

Mathews states in the introduction that he is opposed to censorship on the grounds that “films should find their audience in the market-place without intervention, and subject only to the laws of the land. While these laws may not be to everyone’s liking, at least they are open to public debate”.

I would go further and say that it is one of the duties of cinema (and any art form for that matter) to challenge values rather than merely sustain them. The fact that murder is illegal doesn’t mean that acts of homicide cannot be shown. Paedophilia, rape and torture are all deplorable but ignoring such heinous crimes won’t make them go away.

Marlon Brando – too wild for British censors.

Mathews’ book reveals that what British censors took exception to was not just strong images or controversial dialogue but the moral or ideological position adopted by the filmmaker. Thus The Wild One (1953) was banned for 15 years not because there was extreme violence but because Marlon Brando made rebellion look sexy. Similarly, Battleship Potemkin (1926) was banned for 28 years because of fears it might provoke a working class insurrection.

What Mathews’ study shows is that it is often not brutal or pornographic images that get cut or cause whole films to be banned. censorship was often driven more by a political agenda than prompted by arguments of morality.

What provoked, and continues to provoke, alarm are ideas and points of view that run counter to conservative ethics and ‘traditional’ values. Thus, films from other countries were heavily cut or banned of they depicted “native customs in foreign lands abhorrent to British ideas”.

Sex has always been a sensitive issue. Movies from the 1960s that presented homosexuality as normal were seen as inflammatory. Dirk Bogarde in Victim (1961) was the first openly gay character; many other movies could only have gays in lead roles  if they were shown in negative terms.

Jean Harlow – too hot for British censors.

Female sexuality was viewed as immoral per se. The British Board of Film Censor’s (BBFC) objected to the way in which Jean Harlow “flaunts her body, enjoys the reaction and embraces the consequences”. Even as late as 1992 the board adopted the ILOOLI code was widely adopted towards female nudity : “inner labia is out but outer labia can be in”.

Mathews lets such blinkered thinking speak for itself although cannot resist drawing comparisons to religious intolerance referring to “the arcane priesthood in which the censor envelopes himself” and calling censors “ravenous God-botherers”.

The argument that censors are protecting vulnerable citizens from harm is just a smokescreen. The truth is that BBFC are little more than brain police who operate behind closed doors with the aim control the free circulation of ideas and images.

Censorship has no place in a free and open society. Discuss.