“Whilst respondents had very mixed ideas about film classification they agreed with two key principles; that films should continue to be classified and that there should be no censorship of film in a free and democratic society. In short, there was a great deal of support for the premise that adults should be free to choose their own entertainment, providing it is legal.”
(BBFC Guidelines, last updated June 2010, p. 38)
“After careful consideration, it was judged that to issue a certificate to THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2 (FULL SEQUENCE), even if statutorily confined to adults, would involve risk of harm within the terms of the VRA [Video Recordings Act, 1984], would be inconsistent with our Guidelines, would be unacceptable to the public and could be in potential breach of UK law.”
(BBFC Statement regarding the denial of certification for The Human Centipede 2, last updated June 2011).
Spot the difference? The self-same (independent, non government-affiliated) organisation whose own consumer research supported anti-censorship in film intended for over-18s has…just effectively banned a film intended for over-18s. The only inconsistency with BBFC Guidelines I’m seeing here is coming from within the organisation. Within the space of one year, the BBFC has performed an about-face, and – as anyone following the debacle surrounding A Serbian Film will be aware – it’s starting to look worryingly as if they’re trying to flex their muscles again.
Not only has the BBFC disregarded its own research, but its own Mission Statement too: that is, its responsibility for “classification of the moving image into advisory and age-related categories” and to “give the public information that empowers them to make appropriate viewing decisions for themselves.” When it comes to horror cinema or cinema otherwise tailored towards an adult audience, the BBFC self-declare that one of their key aims is to “respond to changing social attitudes”.
Responding to changing social attitudes? Fat chance, even when popular opinion seems to be largely against their decisions to maul or reject films. A mere handful of complaints from residents in the London borough of Westminster prior to the FrightFest showing of A Serbian Film notwithstanding (complaints from people who themselves couldn’t have seen the film and didn’t have to go and see the film, lest we forget), people plain do not wish to have their viewing choices prescribed for them. As some of the respondents in their Guidelines say, we do not live in a ‘Nanny state’ and in any case, the potential to access material online makes such action seem redundant anyway.
So why do it? A cynic might suggest that so close to the centenary of the organisation, the BBFC are just as vulnerable to attention-seeking as the HC2 director Tom Six is alleged to be. After the glory days of their influence post-Video Recordings Act in 1984, and their gradual reconsiderations on practically all the films they once deemed to be ‘harmful’, they have, by and large and for some years, stuck to their Mission Statement: detailing the content of films and allotting an age-relevant advisory certificate. Now things are changing, and the reasoning behind this is, by being so nebulous, very difficult to dissect.
The justification given in their statement about the ban on HC2 gives a vague nod to the film being ‘in potential breach of UK law’ (emphasis mine). Why aren’t they certain, since this colours their decision-making in such a concrete way? Quite simply, it’s because the law they have in mind – the only law they could have in mind, according to their website – is itself vague. The Obscene Publications Act, originally instituted during the Victorian era to destroy a burgeoning printed pornography industry, was last updated in the 1960s, and hangs on in there, the last resort of any public figure or body with enough clout (and imagination) to implement it. It concerns itself with banning anything deemed “obscene”. If that word in itself wasn’t woolly enough, it, ahem, clarifies that by explaining that ‘obscene’ relates to anything which could “deprave or corrupt”, and this in turn means whatever could ‘make morally bad’ a “significant proportion” of those who came into contact with whatever-it-was. The novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover fell foul of this Act – you can now pick it up in any bookshop in the country and wonder at what the hell all the fuss was about.
Let’s break it down, then. A film has been banned because it might potentially be in breach of a law which deals in debatable abstractions, but ultimately only holds fast if it can be shown that a “significant proportion” of the audience (i.e. consenting adults) could be “morally worsened” by their experience? Basically the BBFC, if they chose to do so, could pass this film with an 18 certificate because there is no way on earth that such a hazy, outdated law with its foundations so firmly built on sand could ever stand up to scrutiny. It could as easily be applied to other horror films – as an example, the Saw franchise which the BBFC dealt with in a sensible manner – but it was not. And after all, the BBFC has no responsibilty for the guardianship of the morals of adults: they said so themselves. Not even the outraged babblings of the Daily Mail could make it so.
Ultimately, if an adult is influenced by something as simple as a film to re-enact what they see on screen, then their problems already exist, and go far beyond the remit of the BBFC. The rest of us know that horror films will contain horror, and although I think we would all support the BBFC’s work in certificating a film which reserves it for adults, beyond that lies only interference and what-ifs. If the BBFC begins to belie its own aims in order to ban or heavily censor material, perhaps to remind us all that they can, then they ought to remember that these are not the days of the Video Nasties. Films will be driven online, uncertificated, and their wish to provide age-appropriate guidelines to the viewing public will be steadily undermined. I would strongly advise the BBFC to stick more readily to its own current principles and the consensus of its respondents, before fretting over the impractical application of an anachronistic law.
Let’s remember, though, that the BBFC cannot stop films being shown if local councils decide to ignore them. Even the local councils and the BBFC combined cannot stop free showings of films by invitation, either, as happened with A Serbian Film at Riverdance. Perhaps Human Centipede 2 could be shown at festivals by invite for a small donation? Either way, the viewing public must not allow a regression to the spectacular BBFC mismanagements of the 1980s. We’ve moved on.