Graham Young meets a heavy metal loving, ex-diplomat from the Midlands now helping the century-old British Board of Film Classification advise parents better than ever.
When it was founded 100 years ago, the British Board of Film Censors was as concerned with reducing the potential for cinemas to burn down as to manage fears about the content of films.
The fire risk is comparatively minimal today.
But the re-branded British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) now has a bulging archive of 60,000 decisions made since January 1, 1913.
And, in an underground former wartime HQ, there are 200,000 items kept in a storage facility that’s shared with the NHS beneath the Eisenhower Centre in London’s Warren Street.
As the board’s centenary approaches, its purpose is undergoing another evolution driven by technology and ever-changing public taste.
While more than a quarter of films were being ‘cut’ in the 1970s, for example, that figure was down to just one per cent in 2011.
The rewards for running an institution with a recent average of just 73 employees are high.
Accounts show that with a salary of £198,000, the BBFC’s highest paid director earned 25 per cent more than the Prime Minister last year.
The board’s main job now is to classify cinema films as well as to meet the terms of the Video Recordings Act 1984. Its revenue comes principally from fees charged to distributors for the classification of their product.
The BBFC’s president is Sir Quentin Thomas, its director David Cooke.
Then there’s David Austin OBE, the board’s assistant director, policy and public affairs.
He is a Midlander whose idea of relaxing is to listen to albums by Iron Maiden, Metallica, Motorhead or, ‘from the hard end’, Sylosis.
Originally from near Colne in Lancashire, David’s family moved to Dudley when he was seven.
As a pupil at King Edwards School in Edgbaston, he was unwittingly following in the future film-giant footsteps of Lord of the Rings’ author JRR Tolkien.
Like most people at all levels of the BBFC, film classification is David’s ‘second career’.
A decade of work as a diplomat in the Balkans almost cost him his life.
“I was driving down a mountain and I was being shot at, but not shot,” he recalls.
“It was not pleasant and when we were in helicopters we were told to sit on our bullet-proof vests.
“Being a diplomat was all right when I was single and even when I was married.
“But once we had children, it was time to find a new career.”
Walking unscathed away from conflict with an OBE in his pocket left David with a cool-headed ability to make sense of modern visceral films that might never have been classified at all as recently as 40 years ago – and the media frenzy that can surround them.
“Adults should be free to watch whatever they want as long as it is not illegal,” is his view in a nutshell.
Having joined the BBFC as an examiner, he moved up to his present job more than two years ago when the board was half way into its current four-year cycle.
Next year’s challenge facing David is to work out how it can move with the times while reflecting public taste back to those seeking detailed information.
Some 10,000 people will be asked to help redefine the board’s guidelines within the existing certification system of U, PG, 12A, 15 and 18.
Films and videos will be watched by families and individuals as part of the qualitative and quantitative research.
In 2009, there were 26 focus groups, this time there will be 32 to complement one-to-one interviews with how other individuals are thinking.
With 1.5 million unique users already making the BBFC’s website one of the country’s busiest, there should be no shortage of interest.
Work is already underway to make its revamped site for 2013 an even more essential industry tool while becoming much more consumer oriented – easier, more intuitive search facilities will even offer suggestions. Trailers will be added, but none of them will be rated above 15, even if they relate to 18-certificate movies.
There will be extra details, too, helping parents in particular to make more informed choices about what their children see than ever before.
“Our more detailed content in future might include ‘spoilers’,” warns David.
“But that means we’ll even be saying things like whether or not a film contains a divorce or a dog dying, in case parents think that kind of scene might affect their child.
“Our new site, which will also improve our smart phone app, will be a one-stop shop for parents going to the cinema with their children.
“And a safe search function will removes the adult content and pornographic titles.”
In terms of satisfying distributor expectations for certain certificates, wouldn’t the BBFC’s job be easier if there was greater parity between our own 12A and the PG-13 rating in the US?
“That’s just not going to happen because America is a very different society to ours,” says David.
“Our job is to reflect the views of the British public, hence our new set of guidelines for 2013.
“We can’t make such claims for American films. We are more cautious towards violence. In the US, they can be less tolerant of consenting sex between two adults. If a film gets a NC-17 rating (meaning ‘patently adult, children are not admitted’), multiplexes won’t show it, which is a massive restriction on the potential audience.
“That is not the case for an 18 in the UK where we tend to be more conservative than most countries and are very similar to Germany.
“In France, 95 per cent of films get a U, except for horror. We all have different standards. If any film has involved animal cruelty, we cut it.”
The BBFC’s booklet emphasises how a strict policy on sexual violence and rape is applied.
Content which might eroticise or endorse sexual violence may require cuts at any classification level – ‘which is more likely with video works than film because of the potential for replaying scenes out of context’.
During its centenary year, the BBFC has regularly been posting historic judgements online.
These reveal that Indiana Jones had to be cut to receive a PG certificate, prompting a letter from director Steven Spielberg.
“Our library is a fantastic resource, the biggest of its kind in the UK,” says David.
“We keep records for legal purposes because sometimes uncut versions of films are released.”
Each film is assessed by at least two examiners who are usually restricted to 360 minutes of viewing per day in the board’s 30-seater cinema.
Films are watched without representatives of the distributors present, there are no breaks and anything contentious can be viewed repeatedly.
Decisions can be referred to more senior examiners and even require director approval.
The title of each film, the director and the main stars are all carefully noted so that this ‘metadata’ can be used by other industries.
Since July 2007 (and video games after September, 2007), the BBFC website has also carried Extended Classified Information (ECI) which might be of wider interest to viewers.
Future decisions about each film will depend on the new public survey. “On the basis of what people tell us, we will either change the guidelines or not change them,” says David.
Does the fact the BBFC is often criticised from two extremes suggests that, on the whole, it gets most things right?
“Some people think we are not liberal enough, others think we are too liberal,” David smiles.
“People will always disagree, so for every piece of research which says that films influence behaviour, there’s another which says they don’t.
“We don’t want to teach criminals how to commit crimes. With children, you ask whether something is likely to cause harm and we are never able to do the research because it would be impractical.
“One of the questions we ask the public is whether they think something has the potential to cause harm.
“The public is a proxy, with experience in real life rather than in lab conditions.
“We just try to look at what people think. Today they are more concerned about bullying and drug use and less concerned with consensual sex.
“So, in some ways we’ve become more liberal and in other ways less tolerant.
“The Woman in Black (12A) was seen by 3.5 million people and we had more than 100 complaints.
“With The Dark Knight (2008), we had 364 complaints, so that’s one of the films we tested on the public the last time. We found that 69 per cent of people supported it being a 12A – the lowest ever.
“Thirty per cent thought it should have been a 15, but one per cent said PG!
“It was such a big film that 8,700 people were asked the question. The film’s tone was dark, so it had a strong impact about how it makes us feel.”
One particularly surprising factor about the BBFC’s work is that they also take into account something that cinema-goers cannot actually see – the sound effects.
“They can be a confrontation issue and push a film from 12A to 15,” David explains.
“The sound in The Da Vinci Code was reduced to get a 12A. In the BBFC’s cinema, you can sometimes hear noises through the floor!”
Two of the most controversial films in recent years have featured the violence of The Killer Inside Me and the sex of 9 Songs. Both were directed by Michael Winterbottom, who was at school with me in our home town of Blackburn.
David says: “I liked The Killer Inside Me.
“9 Songs had some great concert footage... but I’m not so sure about the rest of it.
“Was it pornographic because it featured real sex? We concluded that it wasn’t.”
The scariest film David remembers seeing is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, because of the child snatcher.
As an adult, it was the year-2007 Spanish thriller [REC] – a chiller which left his wife Emma, a special needs learning support assistant at a comprehensive school, disturbed in the night.
“She was trying to wrench open the door to escape from the creatures!”
That was an 18 certificate film – restricted to people who might already have been married for two years.
“You’re allowed to join the Army at 16 and kill someone,” muses David.
“But issues like that are for Parliament.”
Current UK film classifications
U – Universal – Suitable for all.
PG – Parental Guidance – General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children. Unaccompanied children of any age may watch. A ‘PG’ film should not disturb a child aged around eight or older.
12A – Suitable for 12 years and older. No-one younger than 12 may see a ‘12A’ film in a cinema unless accompanied by an adult. The ‘12’ category exists only for video works. Noone younger than 12 may rent or buy a ‘12’ rated video work.
15 – Suitable only for 15 years and over. No-one younger than 15 may see a ‘15’ film in a cinema.
18 – Suitable only for adults. No-one younger than 18 may see an ‘18’ film in a cinema.
R18 – To be shown only in specially licensed cinemas, or supplied only in licensed sex shops, and to adults of not less than 18 years. May not be supplied by mail order.
BBFC – legal considerations
Human Rights Act 1998
The Licensing Act 2003
The Obscene Publications Act 1959 & 1964
Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008
The Protection of Children Act 1978
The Sexual Offences Act 2003
The Public Order Act 19086
The Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937
The Animal Welfare Act 2006
The Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act 2002
* Website: www.bbfc.co.uk
* Parents website: www.pbbfc.co.uk