Sunday, 27 March 2011

History of the BBFC: How Has it Changed?

  • 'Censorship' has now become 'classification' in the Board's title, reflecting the more lenient approach to challenging material in films and the move away from such guidelines as the '43 Grounds for Deletion'.
  • The categories of film classification have changed a lot over the years, as 'A' and 'X' were replaced with '15', '18', '12', 'PG', 'R18', 'U', Uc', and most recently '12A'.
  • Constantly shifting public views and the resulting ammendments to laws have also greatly affected how the current BBFC is shaped, and on what values its classification process is based.
  • The BBFC has seen several leaders and directors, and each one tried to make the process less strict to allow films to be more expressive forms of artwork.
  • The introduction of multi-platform media and home cinema has given the BBFC a bigger workload due to so many titles coming out not only in cinemas, but on DVD and Blu-Ray, Video Games and Trailers - all requiring classification.

History of the BBFC: 1912-49

1916 - T. P. O’CONNOR 

When T. P. O’Connor was appointed President of the BBFC, one of his first tasks was to give evidence to the Cinema Commission of Inquiry, set up by the National Council of Public Morals in 1916. He listed forty-three grounds for deletion as guidance for the examiners. This list was drawn from the Board’s annual reports for 1913-1915. The list shows the strictness felt necessary if the Board was to earn the trust of the public and relevant bodies:
1. Indecorous, ambiguous and irreverent titles and subtitles
2. Cruelty to animals
3. The irreverent treatment of sacred subjects
4. Drunken scenes carried to excess
5. Vulgar accessories in the staging
6. The modus operandi of criminals
7. Cruelty to young infants and excessive cruelty and torture to adults, especially women
8. Unnecessary exhibition of under-clothing
9. The exhibition of profuse bleeding
10. Nude figures
11. Offensive vulgarity, and impropriety in conduct and dress
12. Indecorous dancing
13. Excessively passionate love scenes
14. Bathing scenes passing the limits of propriety
15. References to controversial politics
16. Relations of capital and labour
17. Scenes tending to disparage public characters and institutions
18. Realistic horrors of warfare
19. Scenes and incidents calculated to afford information to the enemy
20. Incidents having a tendency to disparage our Allies
21. Scenes holding up the King’s uniform to contempt or ridicule
22. Subjects dealing with India, in which British Officers are seen in an odious light, and otherwise attempting to suggest the disloyalty of British Officers, Native States or bringing into disrepute British prestige in the Empire
23. The exploitation of tragic incidents of the war
24. Gruesome murders and strangulation scenes
25. Executions
26. The effects of vitriol throwing
27. The drug habit. e.g. opium, morphia, cocaine, etc
28. Subjects dealing with White Slave traffic
29. Subjects dealing with premeditated seduction of girls
30. 'First Night' scenes
31. Scenes suggestive of immorality
32. Indelicate sexual situations
33. Situations accentuating delicate marital relations
34. Men and women in bed together
35. Illicit relationships
36. Prostitution and procuration
37. Incidents indicating the actual perpetration of criminal assaults on women
38. Scenes depicting the effect of venereal disease, inherited or acquired
39. Incidents suggestive of incestuous relations
40. Themes and references relative to 'race suicide'
41. Confinements
42. Scenes laid in disorderly houses
43. Materialization of the conventional figure of Christ


During this period the kind of material that caused concern included horror and gangster films, as well as those that dealt with aspects of sexuality. Some councils were beginning to bar children from films classified 'A', even when they had been cut by the BBFC to achieve a certificate. For example, the London County Council (LCC) and Manchester City Council (MCC) banned children from 
Frankenstein (1931), although a sequence in which the monster drowns a small girl had already been cut. In response to such material, the advisory category 'H' (for horror) was agreed in 1932, to indicate the potential unsuitability for children of the horror theme. 


Arthur Watkins was appointed Secretary to the Board in 1948, under the Presidency of Sir Sidney Harris. Many film-makers sought the Board's advice on scripts before films went into production. Watkins and Harris formulated new terms of reference for the Board based on three principles:

• was the story, incident or dialogue likely to impair the moral standards of the public by extenuating vice or crime or depreciating moral standards?
• Was it likely to give offence to reasonably minded cinema audiences?
• What effect would it have on children?

effect on children was of major importance since, apart from the advisory 'H' category, from which some councils already chose to bar children, there was no category that excluded children. An 'adults only' category was increasingly seen as desirable, not only to protect children, but as an extension of the freedom of film-makers to treat adult subjects in an adult fashion.

History of the BBFC: 2000s

New Guidelines:

In 1999, the Board embarked on an extensive consultation process to gauge public opinion before the compilation of new Classification Guidelines. The major outcomes were:

  • that the depiction of drugs and drugs use was the cause of greatest concern to parents
  • the issue of violence in the lower classification categories was similarly concerning
  • use of bad language on screen provoked a range of responses, reflecting varying tolerances in the general public.
  • Portrayal of sexual activity, however caused less concern than previously.

The DCMS and Ofcom: 

In June 2001, governmental responsibility for film and video classification moved from the Home Office to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Ofcom is the new regulator for television, radio, telecommunications and wireless communications services. The regulation of films, videos and DVDs does not fall under Ofcom's remit and remains the responsibility of the BBFC. The BBFC is still the only regulator which regulates material before it is seen by the public.

The '12A' rating

In 2002, the new '12A' category replaced the '12' category for film only, and allows children under 12 to see a '12A' film, provided that they are accompanied throughout by an adult. The decision to introduce this new category was taken after a pilot scheme and research had been conducted to assess public reaction. The new category was also conditional on the provision and publication of Consumer Advice for '12A' films.  The Board considers '12A' films to be suitable for audiences OVER the age of 12, but acknowledges that parents know best whether their children younger than 12 can cope with a particular film.  The first '12A' film was The Bourne Identity. Consumer Advice:

The BBFC lauched website pages such as:

  • Parent BBFC
  • Children's BBFC
  • Consumer Advice
This made the classification system a lot more transparent to the public, helpful for the parents, and educational for children and teenagers.

History of the BBFC: 1990s

Despite the statutory regulation of video since 1984, public concern about the influence of videos has continued and there have been periodic calls for stricter standards, most notably following the Jamie Bulger case. The trial judge linked this murder of a two year-old by two ten year-old boys to the viewing of violent videos, with the media singling out the horror video Child's Play 3 (1991). Though subsequent enquiries refuted this connection, public opinion rallied behind calls for stricter regulation. Parliament supported an amendment to the Video Recordings Act, contained in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which requires the Board to consider specific issues, and the potential for harm, when making video classification decisions. 

The Board has always been stricter on video than on film. This is partly because younger people are more likely to gain access to videos with restrictive categories than such films at the cinema (where admissions can be screened).  But it is also because, on video, scenes can be taken out of context, and particular moments can be replayed.

In 1997 the BBFC's President, Lord Harewood, stepped down after 12 years in the job.  His replacement, Andreas Whittam Smith, announced his intention to steer the BBFC towards a greater 'openness and accountability'.  This included the publication of the BBFC's first set of classification guidelines in 1998, following a series of public 'roadshows' in which public views were canvassed and the launching of a BBFC website.
Digital Media

The 1990s also saw rapid developments in the world of computer games, which seemed to become more realistic and sophisticated with each passing year.  Although the majority of video games were automatically exempt from classification, those that featured realistic violence against humans or animals, or human sexual activity, did come under the scope of the Video Recordings Act.  From 1994 the BBFC started to receive some of the stronger video games for formal classification, which necessitated a different way of examining (because it was impossible to see everything that might happen in a game). 

History of the BBFC: 1980s

Review of the category system: 

In 1982 'A' was changed to 'PG', 'AA' was changed to '15' and 'X' became '18'. A new category 'R18' was introduced which permitted more explicit sex films to be shown in members-only  clubs.  Previously, such clubs had shown material unclassified by the BBFC, but a change in the law closed this loophole.  Since the mid 1980s most 'R18' material is released on video, only available from a limited number of sex shops which must be specially licensed by local authorities. 

In 1985, at the request of the industry, the 'Uc' was introduced for video only, to identify works specifically suitable for very young children to watch alone.

In 1989 the BBFC introduced the '12' certificate on film, to bridge the huge gap between 'PG' and '15'. This was extended to video in 1994. The first film to be given a '12' rating was Batman.

The first of the Rambo series, First Blood, was passed '15' uncut in 1982, and the second, George Pan Cosmatos' Rambo - First Blood Part II was passed '15' uncut in 1985.  However, Rambo III was cut in 1988 to obtain an '18' certificate.  In addition to a horse-fall removed under the terms of the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937, the violence was reduced by the excision of spatter shots, and cuts were made to counteract the glamorisation of weapons which constituted a significant classification issue.  

Development of Home Cinema:

The development of the video recorder created new anxieties about the home viewing of feature films. Legally, there was no requirement that videos should be classified, which meant that films that had not been approved by the BBFC or which were suitable for adults only, were falling into the hands of children.

In particular the tabloid press led a campaign against so called 
'video nasties'. This term was not always clearly defined, but there were 70 titles that had either been prosecuted by the DPP under the Obscene Publications Act, or were awaiting prosecution. Some of these were horror films that had never been submitted to the BBFC. Others had been cut for their cinema release, and the video versions sometimes included restored cuts.

The outcome of this concern was new legislation, introduced as a private member’s Bill by Conservative MP, Graham Bright. 
The Video Recordings Act 1984, makes it an offence for a video work to be supplied if it has not been classified, or to supply a classified work to a person under the age specified in the certificate.

The Board was designated as the authority with responsibility for classification in 1985, with a consequent increase in staff to deal with a massively increased workload consisting of a backlog of titles already on the market and all new titles.

History of the BBFC: 1970s


  • The introduction of the 'AA' was finally approved by local authorities and the industry in 1970.
  • Raising of the minimum age for 'X' certificate films from 16 to 18. 
  • The old 'A' (advisory) category was split to create a new advisory 'A' which permitted the admission of children of five years or over whether accompanied or not, but which warned parents that a film in this category would contain some material that parents might prefer their children under fourteen not to see, and a new 'AA' certificate which allowed the admission of those over 14, but not under 14, whether accompanied or not.
The idea was that this would protect adolescents from material of a specifically adult nature and would permit more adult films to be passed uncut for an older, more mature audience.  It recognised the earlier maturity of many teenagers by giving them access to certain films at the age of 14, without being accompanied by an adult.

It also indicated to parents the difference between films wholly suitable for children of all ages, which would continue to be classified 'U', and those which might contain some material which some parents might prefer their children not to see.
New System in the US:

A new ratings system in the United States included an uncensored 'X' category, left to the sole control of the criminal law. John Trevelyan, the Secretary at the time, was concerned by this: “We are afraid that this will have the effect of giving certain film-makers the opportunity of going much further than they have done in scenes of sex and sexual perversion, since with the protection of an 'X' category, they can shed personal responsibility”.

The seventies did indeed see the release of a number of provocative films, in particular those that linked sex and violence, for example 
Straw Dogs (1971), and A Clockwork Orange (1971), both of which contained controversial rape scenes.

History of the BBFC: 1960s

Challenges to the Obscene Publications Act (1959), suggested a strong shift in public opinion. John Trevelyan, as Secretary to the Board, responded to the new spirit of liberalism by stating:
"The British Board of Film Censors cannot assume responsibility for the guardianship of public morality. It cannot refuse for exhibition to adults films that show behaviour that contravenes the accepted moral code, and it does not demand that ‘the wicked’ should also be punished. It cannot legitimately refuse to pass films which criticise ‘the Establishment’ and films which express minority opinions".

However, the decade began with a challenge in the form of Michael Powell's 
Peeping Tom, which had been seen by the Board at the script stage and provoked a remark from Trevelyan about its 'morbid concentration on fear'. Various cuts had been suggested at script stage, and the film was passed 'X' in 1960 with cuts. Critics greeted the film with a torrent of abuse and it failed to please the public, damaging Powell's reputation. The video remained an '18' work until 2007 when it was reclassified and passed '15'.

As public tolerance increased in the sweeping social change of the sixties, films became more explicit, but in practice the Board still requested cuts, usually to verbal and visual 'indecency'.
One of the most commercially successful series of films of the decade began in 1962 with Terence Young's Dr No, the first of the long running James Bond movies. Passed 'A' with cuts, this set a pattern for what followed, with From Russia With Love passed 'A' with cuts to sexual innuendo in 1963, Goldfinger passed 'A' in 1964 with cuts to nudity and violence, and Thunderball passed 'A' in 1965 with a cut to a sexy massage scene.