Film censors are there to protect the public, right? Wrong. They are there to protect the film industry FROM the public. Let us travel back to the beginning (picture shimmers and fades)…
As early as the “silent” era, there were already rumblings from government that this new film industry needed moderating – by THEM.
And in those days, it was illegal to display naughty things to the public.
This gave the industry two problems.
The first was the threat of government censorship. The industry knew that politicians would not stop at suppressing sex and violence – they would suppress anything THEY did not like. Totalitarianism.
The second was threat of action being taken against exhibitors of their products. Self-appointed guardians of public morality bringing prosecutions against individual cinema managers.
Something had to be done – and quickly. Thus it was that the industry decided to SELF-regulate before the matter was taken out of their hands.
Enter the official, INDEPENDENT film censor.
These bodies were set up BY the industry – and paid for by them, too.
When a studio wanted a film exhibited in a major theatre chain, they had to submit it to the censor – pay them a fee – then wait and hope.
The censors had a singular role. They were NOT self-appointed guardians of public morality. Rather, a collection of people whose job was to judge what the mainstream public would find acceptable – and be able to ADAPT to changes in that standard.
Furthermore, censorship was about WAY more than mere sex and violence.
Its main concern was MORALITY. Like, no-one could ever be seen to BENEFIT from – or even get away with – a crime. Even COMEDY crooks had to get nabbed. And this extended to MORAL crimes, too. If someone was naughty – they had to SUFFER.
And these rules existed – on both sides of The Pond – right up to 1969. At which point, it was decided the public had “matured” – and thus it was time to undo a few buttons.
By this time, people knew criminals often DID get away with it. People did bad things WITHOUT getting their comeuppance. And a glimpse of a pair of tits would NOT cause audiences to run off and commit atrocities in the nearest public park.
However, despite the relaxation of the rules, there was still one area of filmed story-telling which gave the censors nightmares – IMITATION.
While acknowledging that most of the excesses portrayed in movies are unlikely to be aped (few people are going to watch an Arnie movie, then go out and invade a small country) there are still some activities that give people IDEAS.
Like, Brando’s “The Wild One” was not particularly graphic – after all, it was made in 1953.
But with Britain just coming out of a war, cars were expensive and fuel was still rationed. Thus motorbikes were a popular mode of travel – and biker gangs were becoming an issue.
And while The Wild One was not ABOUT a motorcycle gang taking over a small town – the censors worried that some might get the IDEA from the movie.
Imagine a bunch of bikers riding into a small village, having cut the phone wires (no mobiles in those days) – then raping the more attractive villagers and taking what they wanted… you can see the problem.
It was not shown in the UK in ANY cut, until the late Sixties – by which time, biker gangs had had their day.
Peter Collinson is most famous for directing “The Italian Job” – a film made JUST before the easing of censorship – in which the protagonists ALMOST get away with the loot. But a year earlier, he had made a film called “The Penthouse”.
Now back in the Sixties, Britain’s censor was John Trevelyan – a man who LOOKED like a censor (small, wiry, besuited – with old-fashioned glasses) – but was actually pretty groovy.
He was the first guy to invite directors to DISCUSS films with him. So if a British filmmaker knew a project was likely to give them censorship problems – they could go and show John the script, before wasting money filming something that would likely end up in the DUMPER.
Of course, a certain amount of fencing would take place. And like a golf ball never gets FURTHER from the hole after being marked – when John and a director agreed how a scene could be filmed without being cut, BOTH sides knew the scene would end up being just a LITTLE more graphic than what had been agreed on.
Thus, doubtless The Penthouse ended up being a tad stronger than it would have been, had Collinson simply shot it – then waited to see what the censor DID to it.
But he went to see John – and it was decided that the plot (a man and his secretary have an assignation in an empty apartment building [there was already a film called “The Apartment” – hence the title, The Penthouse – even though the apartment was clearly NOT on the top floor] and get raped and abused by a trio who know the two cannot go to the cops – the man being MARRIED) was RIPE for imitation.
Therefore, it was agreed the script would be re-written, with the attackers portrayed as LOONYS, whom no-one would identify with. The whole piece then became surreal.
The Sixties was a strange time, for the British censor.
Hammer turned out a Mummy movie that initially received an “A” certificate – instead of the usual “X”. Hammer were MORTIFIED. They knew no-one would go and see it.
But John pointed out to them that it was really not all that SCARY. So they went away and added a couple of more graphic scenes to EARN their “X” certificate.
Another film got an “A” certificate, but the trailer – which only contained material from the film – got an “X” (trailers were certified separately from the films they trailed).
Huh? The censor explained that the ninety-minute film had only a few minutes of graphic scenes which, in the context of the movie (there was motivation and redemption) were acceptable for an “A” audience.
However, the trailer consisted exclusively of clips from those graphic scenes – two solid minutes of GORE – which, cut out of context, were far more objectionable.
Then there was “The Beast”. This was a 1975 French sex-comedy, involving a pig-like monster, which roamed the countryside, ravishing young women.
By ’75, Trevellyn had retired and thus it fell to the New Guy, Jimmy Ferman, who just did not GET the film – and BANNED it TOTALLY. It remained that way until 2001.
However, in London – there were alternatives. A number of “Art House” cinemas showed films that were not classified. There were “clubs” that could be joined.
And the Greater London Council had their own half-arsed censorship board, which would approve films for London only – the thinking being that city audiences were more “sophisticated” than those in the sticks.
But on the day The Beast was viewed by this body, one of its number was off sick – leaving just two members of the board to look it over.
The first decided it was hilarious. The second, like Ferman, did not get it either. But he was persuaded – against his better judgement – to vote it through, by the first.
However, when the third member finally saw it – AFTER it had been passed – he stated if HE had been there, he would definitely NOT have approved it.
Which meant that had he NOT been off sick, the second guy would likely have sided with HIM and the film would have FAILED to get past them, two to one.
I SAW the film – and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Of course, the papers became engorged with righteous indignation and – completely missing the point – declared the GLC censors had passed a film whose subject was BESTIALITY. It was NOT – but the GLC film censorship board was disbanded soon after.
Now however, film censorship is barely necessary – only classification (the euphemism used for censorship, for decades). The reason being, few films today are MADE for “X” (or in America, “R”) certification.
And the reason for THAT – is MONEY.
The dreaded “PG-13” rating is now sought for virtually ALL films, since this ensures that – even if they are totally UNSUITABLE for minors – the film is effectively AVAILABLE to ALL.
Children may get into the movies for half-price – but productions often only go into profit thanks to THEIR financial input.
Thus, movies for ADULTS have nearly become a thing of the PAST.
But at least those which are – RARELY get cut anymore.
The World has GROWN UP.