Raising The Bar

Film still for Raising The Bar

Under New Labour Britain's film-classification body has gained a more permissive reputation. But how deserved is it? BBFC director Robin Duval talks to Julian Petley

Robin Duval was appointed director of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) in January 1999 following a seven-year stint as deputy director of programmes at the Independent Television Commission (ITC). One early problem he had to face was the board's apparent inability to relax the guidelines for 'R18' videos (which can be sold only in licensed sex shops) in the face of intransigence from the Home Office and Customs and Excise. This resulted in two distributors going before the Video Appeals Committee (VAC) in July 1999 to contest the board's refusal to grant 'R18' certificates, without cuts, to seven videos including 'Horny Catbabe' and 'Nympho Nurse Nancy'. The following month the VAC ruled on the side of the distributors. The Home Office thundered, and the BBFC sought leave for a judicial review of the VAC's decision. But in May 2000 the High Court upheld the VAC's ruling and the BBFC decided not to appeal any further.

In the meantime Duval had continued his predecessor James Ferman's policy of holding 'roadshows' up and down the country in order to gauge public opinion of the board's standards and in early 2000 had organised 'citizens' juries' in Birmingham and Portsmouth to gain the fullest picture yet of public attitudes to film and video classification. As a result in September 2000 the BBFC published new guidelines explaining in considerable detail the rationale behind its various classification categories. It announced: 'The public has told the BBFC that the board's guidelines should be more relaxed in the '18' category, but the board should be tougher on violence, drug portrayal and bad language at the lower classification levels.' However, the most notable, and least noticed of all the changes was the considerable liberalisation of the 'R18' category which effectively marked the legalisation of hardcore pornography in Britain.

Julian Petley: How do you take Christopher Tookey in the Daily Mail describing you as 'less notorious but no less permissive' than your predecessor James Ferman?

Robin Duval: I don't particularly enjoy being referred to as notorious and I don't particularly like being described as permissive, but I've no special objection to liberal and I don't mind at all being characterised as a director of the BBFC who has moved things on into the 21st century. That inevitably involves a degree of liberalisation because that's the way the British community as a whole has moved.

You've certainly introduced much greater transparency into the board's operations.

Because it wasn't fashionable for much of the board's history to be up-front about decision-making criteria, it left space for newspapers and others to fill in their own interpretations. So transparency isn't just a duty but is also advantageous in making sure that the starting point for any public argument is factually accurate.

You've also speeded up the classification process, which makes it more difficult for the press to agitate while controversial movies await certification.

I came to the board with certain priorities, one of which was to make its processes as efficient as I could. Another was to engage with the public in such a way that I could be confident that the basis for the board's decisions would reflect what the public found acceptable. But overall I derive my policy from the same fundamentals as my predecessor, namely the law, the concept of harm and what is likely to be acceptable to the public. If there's a difference between us, it's that I inherited his mantle with a background of experience at the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) and the ITC, where the emphasis was on collecting evidence of what the public expects.

The BBFC Annual Report 1999 states: 'Whatever the outcome of any particular case, harm will remain the abiding and central concern of the BBFC.' But what difference can cutting little bits of violence from films possibly make - as in the four seconds of changes to David Fincher's 'Fight Club' required for its video release?

I come from a film-making background so I'm sensitive to the effect small elements of a film may have on the whole. I don't know any director who would accept that taking 10 seconds out of a movie makes no difference; that moment may seal the effect he or she is seeking to create. Looking back on Fight Club, I'm not sure the cuts made as much difference as we believed at the time. But on the other hand I'm absolutely clear that the 10 seconds we removed from Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi's recent Baise-moi remove the erotic/ pornographic element from the rape scene. What you're left with is still extraordinarily powerful, but the message it conveys is slightly different. It's now entirely to do with the pain and horror the women suffer; you no longer have the erotic element that confuses the viewer's response - or, depending on your point of view, that adds another important layer, but it's not a layer we felt we could accept.

Certain horror titles still seem to be presenting problems on video. For instance, Stuart Gordon's 1985 'Re-animator', which remains cut, and Lucio Fulci's 1990 'Nightmare Concert', which is banned.

These are works about which decisions were taken in the early months after my arrival at the BBFC. I'm not sure that quite the same decisions would be taken now. First, my views aren't necessarily the same as they were at the beginning. We spent the first 18 months of my time here researching with the public the suitability of our guidelines and there have also been legal developments that have changed the environment in which we operate. So these factors could mean, though I'm not saying would mean, that were these titles to be resubmitted, we might take a different view.

Doesn't the 1984 Video Recordings Act (VRA) simply mistake offensiveness for harmfulness? The board certainly found it extremely difficult to 'prove' that pornography was harmful to children when it appeared before the Video Appeals Committee in 1999 to defend its refusal of 'R18' certificates to seven videos, as it frankly admits in its Annual Report 2000.

The elements the 2000 amendment to the VRA lists as those to which the BBFC should have special regard, including the matter of harm, were not novelties grasped out of the air for the purpose of amending the act. They had featured as criteria in the way the BBFC had been operating for a long time, and if you look at the IBA programme guidelines, which were then superseded by the ITC code, you would find the same kind of categories.

Far be it from me to argue with you over the ITC code since you drafted it! However, it's surely significant that Section 1 of the code is entitled 'Family Viewing Policy, Offence to Good Taste and Decency...'

Perhaps we can come to a compromise here. Because the code has to respond to paragraph 6:1a of the Broadcasting Act, which concerns offence to taste and decency, I acknowledge that there is throughout a responsiveness to that. But I think you will find if you look that a great deal of Section 1 is couched in terms of concern about harm. The entire violence code of Section 1:7, for instance, is to do with an analysis of different kinds of potential harm.

OK, we'll compromise. But at the Video Appeals Committee your witness Dr Milavic had such a hard time trying to convince the other side's counsel of the harm pornography could do to children I almost felt sorry for her.

She knew her facts and she spoke as someone who is one of the leading experts in child harm. The problem was that she recognised, from a lifetime's experience of dealing with children, that if material of that kind was presented to the kinds of children who are most likely to be her patients, then they were going to be harmed. But she had only one recent case to which she could point a finger, and in that case the pornography to which the child had been exposed was not an 'R18' video, which is what the appeal was about. So you might reasonably argue that we were a little unfair to put her up. But she was happy to appear and I thought she did bloody well.

What's the position concerning the rerelease of videos originally on the 'nasty' list drawn up by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP)?

Over the last two years we've tried to develop a flexible common-sense policy in this area. If a title was on the DPP's list then we need to know why, in particular if it received any prosecutions under Section 2 or Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act (OPA). Properly speaking, it shouldn't make any difference to our view whether it was tried under Section 2 before a jury or simply forfeited by a magistrate under Section 3, because if the police achieve a result in either respect it still marks that title as unacceptable. But time does pass, and if we look at a film now and we're clear that we would not ourselves have a problem with it if it didn't have an OPA record, and if we also discover that no jury has found it obscene for, let's say, 10 years or more, then that's the point at which we can move towards a more liberal position, although very cautiously and carefully because we don't want to put up a challenge to the law. In general terms, the only way to deal with films fairly is to start from first principles in terms of the way things are now.

According to the Annual Report 1999, 1973's 'The Exorcist' was passed on video because 'the Board decided that the passage of time since its first release had done much to date its special effects and generate familiarity with the film's contents.' For 1974's 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' it was decided that 'the film's horrors were unlikely to be taken too seriously.' But surely the whole point of horror films is that they are horrific and disturbing for their viewers?

Since BBFC president Andreas Whittam Smith and I have been here, the board has taken a fairly relaxed view on horror films because we recognise that going to horror movies is a roller-coaster experience. However, just as there are certain people, for instance those below a certain height, who are not allowed on certain roller-coasters, so we say that people below certain ages can't legally have this roller-coaster horror experience. If you start making decisions such as passing The Exorcist or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which you know will appear to parts of the outside world as being a sea-change, you have to explain why, in their terms, they shouldn't be anxious about this. But I don't think that now we'd use the kind of expressions which you've just quoted, or at least I hope not.

The Annual Report 1999 also states: 'Whether or not something is acceptable still depends ultimately upon how it is treated i.e. its context.' Doesn't this offer ammunition to those who accuse the board of being softer on arthouse than on commercial movies?

It was difficult to combat this argument as long as all the films that posed a challenge to our guidelines were non-English-language movies and therefore almost by definition arthouse - until Patrice Chéreau's Intimacy turned up earlier this year. Of course we applied exactly the same criteria to Intimacy as we would to anything else, and lo and behold we passed uncut an English-speaking movie with the same kind of content which people thought had been reserved for such arthouse work as Ai No Corrida, Romance and The Idiots. But now we're told that Intimacy is a British arthouse movie. You can't win - but nor do we expect to. So we're sitting waiting for a popular movie that sets identical challenges, and we will treat that exactly the same. If it's a movie which within its own internal context justifies something unprecedented, then it's possible we'd take a liberal view of that.

Then why does the board defend 'Baise-moi' as a film with 'a serious cultural purpose' which 'offers an important perspective'? Isn't it simply Roger Corman in French and with real sex - and none the worse for that, of course?

I don't think that what you've quoted is a defence of Baise-moi, it's a defence of the position we have taken on the film. However you or I may respond to Baise-moi, it has a serious purpose - it is about women reacting to the violence and humiliation habitually visited on them by men. When I first saw the film I wasn't particularly sympathetic to it, but by the time I'd seen it three or four times I'd come not only to enjoy it more but to begin to understand that it does seriously express a very interesting female viewpoint, although not necessarily a feminist one.

In the matter of DVDs, the Annual Report 1999 states that the board has 'established a policy of only permitting different versions of the same work providing they can be accommodated in the same classification category.' Doesn't this result in unnecessary cuts and further encourage people to buy Region 1 DVDs?

When a distributor first issues a film on video they naturally want to reach the largest target audience possible. So we might offer a '15' uncut, but they might then ask us to tell them what cuts to make so it can be issued as a '12'. Now, especially given the advent of DVD, the distributor might come back later and say they want to issue the film again, this time at '15' with the cuts restored. We've decided not to allow this because it would put us in the position of endorsing a release which is immediately going to be gobbled up by all the kids who were deprived of the cut sequences the first time around. And how can local regulators such as the Trading Standards Officers deal with differently rated versions of the same film and the confusion of local shopkeepers trying to enforce the VRA?

Does the 'gentlemen's agreement' still exist whereby the DPP will not prosecute a film passed by the BBFC?

I strongly suspect the 'gentlemen's agreement' has been as comprehensively forgotten by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) as it had been by me until you mentioned it. It's hardly necessary these days. The bottom line is that if we're clear that something submitted to us could be prosecuted successfully under Section 2 of the Obscene Publications Act, then I'm afraid that we cannot pass it, at least not without cuts.

Are you relieved that what is permissible within an 'R18' certificate has to some extent been clarified by the High Court and that the board has been able to liberalise its guidelines in this area?

I need to pick my words carefully here, but let me just say that the 'R18' issue had long been a running sore for the BBFC and was probably the biggest difficulty my predecessor had to deal with. I may not have liked the outcome of the judicial review which brought the matter to a close, but there was a clarity to it, particularly in the acceptance of the fresh guidelines that followed. One of the main things still to be achieved was to get agreement, although not consensus, between all the affected parties such as the Home Office, the CPS, the police, customs and so on which all had to agree that the guidelines we were proposing would not create any difficulty for them, or rather that they were content to make any necessary amendments to their own policies. Having said that, we still cut more 'R18' submissions than any other category, because there's still a lot of material coming in which is probably in breach of the CPS' OPA guidelines and is certainly in breach of our own 'R18' guidelines.

Scenes of urolagnia, otherwise known as 'golden showers', still seem highly likely to be cut at 'R18'. Since these are now a staple of so much hardcore pornography, what's the problem?

The local police, or rather the local police on CPS advice, are still from time to time looking for convictions under Section 2 of the OPA for urolagnia, and they're getting them. And as long as juries take that view, that has to be our benchmark.

Similarly though the board tries for parity between the representation of homosexual and heterosexual acts, there are legal problems regarding the representation of homosexual acts involving more than two people.

Yes, if the films were shot in Britain, because the acts themselves are illegal here. Similarly the common-law offence of indecency in public places can pose problems for videos featuring sex in public - again, if they were made in the UK.

The board has told the distributors of 'Baise-moi' that it will consider the film's video release only after it has been able to judge the public reaction to its cinema release. Why is this?

The decision to classify the film for cinema release with just one cut was a difficult one. So it seems sensible to acquaint ourselves with public reaction to this benchmark decision. We've moved the goalposts and we need to know if people feel we've moved them too far. We may undertake formal public-opinion research or we may rely on the evidence we'll cull from the debate in the media and the responses we receive from people who contact the office. But the key consideration is public, not journalistic, reaction. The days when the BBFC was influenced by the personal, perhaps too personal, views of a single journalist or critic are - I hope - long gone.

What factors led recently to Ray Brady's 1994 'Boy Meets Girl' being passed on video?

The video was rejected by the board in 1995 because it found its depictions of torture sadistic and unrelenting. Interestingly, the film had previously been given an '18' certificate, uncut, for cinema release. Six years later, after a thoroughgoing review of public opinion from which it emerged that the public is rather more robust than we had thought, we felt able to take a more relaxed view. It was not in breach of our new, publicly tested guidelines.

Since the board has passed Uli Edel's 1981 'Christiane F' uncut on video, will it now allow the reinstatement of the cuts in Abel Ferrara's 1992 'The Bad Lieutenant'?

The Bad Lieutenant hasn't as yet been submitted for reclassification, and until it has been, my mind remains open. I would say only that sexual violence and instructive detail of drug use are still issues for us even today at '18'. On the other hand, you are probably aware that the board passed the film uncut in 1992 for the cinema.

How do you see the future?

My personal ambition is that we move progressively towards a better-informed public. And at the end of that very long road, which we certainly won't reach while I'm still at the BBFC, the mandatory ratings system will give way to something more advisory. I think the industry as well as the board has a fundamental duty to provide more information about why a film has a particular classification. Cinemagoers and video/DVD viewers will not take uncritically our ratings for ever - they need to know enough about the ingredients in the package to make their own judgements. Is it '12' for bad language, or for sex, or for violence? It makes a difference as to whether people expect to enjoy the film or not. We are already testing this proposition in Norwich with an experimental advisory 'PG-12' that offers the public an opportunity to decide for themselves whether a particular '12'-rated film is right for their 10- or 11-year-old child. But the crucial ingredient is the consumer advice provided to assist them to make that decision. I think it may well work at '12' because there are no real harm-related issues. An advisory '12' (or thereabouts) is pretty much the norm in continental Europe and North America. I would be much less confident about making '15' or '18' advisory - I think there are serious difficulties there. But whatever happens, the decision will be a public one - not the BBFC's, and certainly not mine.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012