Time Shift: Dear Censor ‘unbridled hooliganism and reckless driving’

Calm down dear, it's only Michael Winner with a large boom in his pocket

I love BBC4, I stumble across such delights there, and the Time Shift series is a gift that keeps giving. This week it was about the British Board of Film Classification and the way they have navigated over the decades the difficult path of classification vs censorship with taboo-challenging films. Some of these were far more serious than others of course, and the less appealing sections included a gleeful Michael Winner talking about the soft porn drivel he produced under the guise of representing ‘naturism’, in the form of Some Like it Cool (1961).

Other discussions included the problems of ‘unbridled hooliganism and reckless driving’ in A Rebel Without a Cause, and the Board’s concern about the ‘ridiculous and ineffective parenting’ in The Wild Ones that ‘children should not be exposed to’. God knows what they’d have said about far worse crimes committed in every wretched episode of Outnumbered.

The Board only release correspondence twenty-five years after it is received, so Quentin Tarantino et al never make it into this programme. But there are plenty of genuinely disturbing clips in this, including the kicking to death of a homeless man in A Clockwork Orange (which was never banned in the UK by the BBFC, despite rumours to the contrary – it was Stanley Kubrick who insisted it be withdrawn after threats to his family). Also, the gruesome rape scenes in Straw Dogs.

Not an easy job for the Board, deciding what was and wasn’t ok to pass, and how high a certificate to give a film. They were damned by Mary Whitehouse & co on the one hand, and liberals on the other. But the social mores of any given era, as well as the political mood and current events, came into it too, which is why Rambo III got an 18 certificate. It came out just after the Hungerford shootings, and the Board was anxious about the possible connection between screen violence and insane individuals with firearms.

My favourite part by far was the exploration of the fascinating relationship between the Board and Ken Russell over Women in Love and The Devils. The Board clearly wanted to pass Women in Love because it was DH Lawrence and literary and not just willy waving for the sake of it (not that I’m knocking that you understand). But the line-by-line negotiations that went on about the infamous fireside naked wrestling between Oliver ‘bit of fluffing before every take’ Reed (who had a bit of the look of a chubbier Freddie Mercury about him in this) and the rather lovelier (in my view) Alan Bates is nothing short of corking. This is only a few short years after homosexual acts between men became legal, and this fight is perhaps the most homoerotic film scene ever, to this point (if I’ve missed some, do let me know, for research purposes you understand). The agreement included not many full frontal shots of the men standing still (because you can freezeframe and focus on their bits too easily. I’m told) and that the section of footage had to be darkened, for the nudity to be more flickery/firelight and shadowy.

Then Russell went on to make The Devils, with the notorious satanic orgy scene with multiple naked nuns defiling a statue of Christ and getting up to all sorts on the altar. Russell said it was all about exposing the horrors of blasphemy, rather than celebrating it, but the Board struggled with this one. Much of the orgy scene was removed, including ‘shit from the altar’, and again, the correspondence between Russell and the board is remarkable.

The programme featured lots of smart commentators on all these decisions and events, and it all was extremely insightful. You can catch it on iPlayer if you’re quick.

Posted by Inkface

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