- British Board of Film Classification
British Board of Film Classification Formation 1912 Type NGO Purpose/focus Film and video game classification Headquarters London, United Kingdom Region served United Kingdom President Quentin Thomas Director David Cooke Website www.bbfc.co.uk
The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), originally British Board of Film Censors, is a non-governmental organisation, funded by the film industry and responsible for the national classification of films within the United Kingdom. It has a statutory requirement to classify videos, DVDs and some video games under the Video Recordings Act 2010.
Responsibility and power
The BBFC rates theatrically released films, and rated videos and video games that forfeited exemption from the Video Recordings Act 1984, which was discovered in August 2009 to be unenforceable until the act was re-enacted by the Video Recordings Act 2010. Legally, local authorities have the power to decide under what circumstances films are shown in cinemas, but they nearly always choose to follow the advice of the BBFC.
The Video Recordings Act requires that video releases not exempt (music, documentary, non-fiction, video games, etc.) under the Act had to be classified, making it illegal to supply any recording that had not been certified. Certificates could restrict release to any age of 18 or under, or to only licensed sex-shops. The government currently designate the BBFC as the authority for certifying video releases. As the law requires the certificate to be displayed on the packaging and media labels of the video recording, in practice only UK releases can be legally sold or hired in the UK, even if a foreign release had identical content.
Video games with specific themes or content (such as the Grand Theft Auto series) must also be submitted to the BBFC to receive a legally binding rating (contrast with the advisory PEGI ratings) in the same way as videos, however, under the Digital Economy Act 2010, responsibility for rating games that include violence or encourage criminal activity will pass from the BBFC to the Video Standards Council. Other video games may be submitted at the publisher's discretion.
All films and video games rated by the BBFC receive a certificate, along with "consumer advice" detailing references to sex, violence and coarse language. If a certificate specifies that a film or video game is only suitable for someone over a certain age, then only those over that age may buy it.
The BBFC can also advise cuts for a less-restrictive rating. This generally occurs in borderline cases where distributors have requested a certificate and the BBFC has rated the work at a more-restrictive level; however, some cuts are compulsory, such as scenes that violate the Protection of Children Act 1978 or Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937. The final certificate then depends on the distributor's decision on whether or not to make the suggested cuts. Some works are even rejected if the distributor refuses the cut.
Both examiners and the directors of the BBFC are hired on a permanent basis. Examiners are required to watch 5 hours 20 mins of media, to a maximum of 35 hours a week. Turnover is low and vacancies, when available, appear on their London job vacancies website.
The BBFC currently issues the following certificates. The category logos were introduced in December 2002, replacing the previous ones that had been in place since 1982.
Symbol Name Definition/Notes Universal All ages admitted, there is nothing unsuitable for children over 4. Parental Guidance All ages admitted, but certain scenes may be unsuitable for children under 8. 12A Cinema only. Introduced in 2002.
Films under this category are considered to be unsuitable for very young people. Those aged under 12 years are only admitted if accompanied by an adult, aged at least 18 years, at all times during the motion picture. However, it is generally not recommended that children under 12 years should watch the film. Films under this category can contain mature themes, discrimination, soft drugs, commonly used milder swear words, and moderate violence/sex references.
12 Home media only since 2002. 12A-rated films are usually given a 12 certificate for the VHS/DVD version unless extra material has been added that requires a higher rating.
Nobody younger than 12 can rent or buy a 12-rated VHS, DVD, Blu-ray Disc, UMD or game. Films in this category may include infrequent drugs, infrequent use of strong language, brief nudity, discreet sexual activity, and moderate violence.
15 Only those over 15 years are admitted.
Nobody younger than 15 can rent or buy a 15-rated VHS, DVD, Blu-ray Disc, UMD or game, or watch a film in the cinema with this rating. Films under this category can contain adult themes, hard drugs, strong language, moderate-strong violence/sex references, and mild non-detailed sex activity.
18 Only adults are admitted.
Nobody younger than 18 can rent or buy an 18-rated VHS, DVD, Blu-ray Disc, UMD or game, or watch a film in the cinema with this rating. Films under this category do not have limitation on the bad language that is used. Hard drugs are generally allowed, and strong violence/sex references along with strong sexual activity is also allowed. Scenes of strong real sex may be permitted if justified by the context.
Can only be shown at licensed cinemas or sold at licensed retailers or sex shops, and only to adults, those aged 18 or over. Films under this category have material the BBFC does not allow for its "18" rating, thus the violence and sex activity will be stronger in R18-rated VHSs, DVDs and films than those rated "18," however, there is still a range of material that is often cut from the R18 rating. More cuts are demanded in this category than any other category.
Material that is exempt from classification sometimes uses symbols similar to BBFC certificates, for example an E "certificate". There is no legal obligation, nor a particular scheme, for labelling material that is exempt from classification. On the BBFC's online classification database, material that has been refused a classification uses a red serif R in place of a rating symbol.
History and overview
The BBFC was established in 1912 as the British Board of Film Censors by the film industry (who would rather manage their own censorship than have national or local government do it for them). Its legal basis was the Cinematograph Act 1909, which required cinemas to have licenses from local authorities. The Act was introduced for safety reasons after a number of nitrate film fires in unsuitable venues (fairgrounds and shops that had been hastily converted into cinemas), but the following year a court ruling (LCC v. Bermondsey Bioscope Co.) determined that the criteria for granting or refusing a licence did not have to be restricted to issues of health and safety. Given that the law now allowed councils to grant or refuse licenses to cinemas according to the content of the films they showed, the 1909 Act therefore enabled the introduction of censorship. The film industry, fearing the economic consequences of a largely unregulated censorship infrastructure, therefore formed the BBFC in order to take the process 'in house' and establish its own system of self-regulation. Some decisions from the early years are now subjected to derision. In 1928, the Board's examiners report famously claimed that Germaine Dulac's surrealist film The Seashell and the Clergyman was "Apparently meaningless" but "If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable".
Informal links, to varying degrees of closeness, have been maintained between the BBFC and the Government throughout the Board's existence. In the period before World War II, an extensive but unofficial system of political censorship was implemented by the BBFC for the Home Office. As the cinema became a socially powerful mass-medium, governments feared the effect of its use by others for propaganda and as happened in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany discouraged any expression of controversial political views in British films. This trend reached its climax during the 1930s. Following protests from the German Embassy after the release of a film depicting the execution of Edith Cavell (Dawn, 1928, dir. Herbert Wilcox), intense political pressure was brought to bear on the BBFC by the Home Office. A system of script vetting was introduced, whereby British studios were invited to submit screenplays to the BBFC before shooting started. Interestingly, imported Hollywood films were not treated as strictly as British films, as the BBFC believed that audiences would recognise American cinema as representing a foreign culture and therefore would not apply any political messages therein to their own lives. So while the Warners gangster films and other 1930s Hollywood films that dealt explicitly with crime and the effects of the Great Depression were released in the UK largely uncut, these subjects were strictly off-limits for British film-makers.
During World War II, the BBFC's political censorship function effectively passed to the Films Division of the Ministry of Information, and the BBFC never regained this to the same extent as before the war. The increasing climate of post-war liberalism ensured that from the 1950s onwards, controversies involving the BBFC centred more on depictions of sex and violence than on political expression. There were some notable exceptions: Yield to the Night (UK, 1956, dir. J. Lee Thompson), which opposed capital punishment; Room at the Top (UK, 1959, dir. Jack Clayton), which dealt with class divisions; Victim (UK, 1961, dir. Basil Dearden), which implicitly argued for the legalisation of homosexuality, all involved the BBFC in controversy.
In 1984 the organisation changed its name to "reflect the fact that classification plays a far larger part in the Board's work than censorship". At that time it was given responsibility for classifying videos for hire or purchase to view in the home as well as films shown in cinemas. Home video and cinema versions of a film usually receive the same certificate, although occasionally a film may receive a more restrictive certificate for the home video market (sometimes due to the bonus features), as it is easier for children to watch a home video than to be admitted into a cinema.
The Board is an independent, non-governmental organisation. Its business affairs are controlled by a council of management selected from leading figures in the manufacturing and servicing sectors of the film industry. This council appoints the President, who has statutory responsibility for the classification of videos and the Director who has executive responsibility and formulates policy. The Board, which is based in Soho Square, London, is financed from the fees it charges for classifying films and videos and is run on a not-for-profit basis.
In the case of films shown in cinemas, local authorities have the final legal authorisation over who can view a particular film. The majority of the time, local authorities accept the Board's recommendation for a certificate for a film. There have been some notable exceptions – particularly in the 1970s when the Board allowed films such as Last Tango in Paris and The Exorcist to be released with an X certificate (essentially the same as today's "18") – but many local authorities chose to ban the films regardless.
Conversely, in 2002, a few local authorities, apparently under pressure from distributors and cinema chains, ignored the BBFC's ruling that Spider-Man receive a 12 rating, and allowed children younger than 12 to see the film. However, the BBFC were already in the process of replacing the 12 rating with a new 12A, which allowed under-12s to see the film if accompanied by an adult, so shortly afterwards, Spider-Man was reclassified as 12A. The first 12A certificate awarded was for The Bourne Identity.
Local authorities do not have such power for video recordings. Under the Video Recording Act 1984, all non-exempt recordings must be classified by an authority chosen by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. This classification is legally binding, in that supply of material contrary to its certificate (recordings that have been refused a certificate, or supplying to someone younger than the certified age) is a criminal offence. However, possession is not an offence in itself, other than in the case of "possession with intent to supply". Since the introduction of the Act, the BBFC has been the chosen authority. In theory this authority could be revoked, but in practice such a revocation has never been suggested, since most local authorities simply don't have the supplies needed to do such things as remove cuts, pass films that the BBFC rejected and vice versa, put in place new cuts, etc., regularly.
The BBFC has also rated some video games. Normally these are exempt from classification, unless they depict human sexual activity, human genital organs or gross acts of violence, in which case the publishers should submit the game for classification. A publisher may opt to submit a game for classication even if they are not obliged to. In December 1986, the first computer game to receive a 15 certificate from the BBFC was an illustrated text adventure called Dracula, based on the Bram Stoker novel, published by CRL. The first computer game to receive an 18 certificate, on 11 December 1987, was another illustrated text adventure called Jack The Ripper, also by CRL, which dealt with the infamous real life murders in Victorian London. The horror in both games came through largely in their detailed prose. Had the game publishers reprinted the games' text in book form, it would not have carried a certificate, as the BBFC has no oversight over print media. Both games had numerous certificate stickers all over their covers to emphasise to parents and retailers that they were not intended for children, as computer games carrying BBFC certificates were previously unheard of.
The first game to be refused classification by the BBFC was Carmageddon in 1997, however a modified version of the game was later awarded an 18 certificate. In June 2007, Manhunt 2 was refused classification in both its PlayStation 2 and Wii versions, meaning that the game was illegal to sell or supply. A modified version was made that was accepted by the ESRB but was still refused classification from the BBFC. The decision was later overturned by the Video Appeals Committee (an independent body set up by legislation); the BBFC then asked the High Court for a judicial review of the VAC decision. The High Court ruled that the VAC had made errors in law and instructed it to reconsider its decision, the VAC subsequently ruled that the game should receive an 18 certificate, which the BBFC accepted.
Several films rated 'PG-13' in the US by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) have received the more restrictive '15' classification in the UK. Recent examples include W., Couples Retreat, Easy A and Devil. Also, several films rated 'PG-13' in the US have received the less restrictive 'PG' classification in the UK. These include When in Rome, Whale Rider, Princess Mononoke, Tales from Earthsea and School of Rock.
In 2009, the Japanese horror film Grotesque was refused classification, making it illegal to sell or supply on a physical medium in the UK. The 2011 horror film The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) was also denied classification.
On 16 June 2009, the UK's Department of Culture, Media and Sport ruled in favour of the PEGI system to be the sole classification system for videogames and software in the UK. This decision will also, unlike beforehand, allow PEGI ratings to be legally enforced much like the BBFC ratings. The legislation is expected to take effect from 1 April 2011.
A religious musical documentary entitled 'The I-Heart Revolution' received a PG certificate in 2010, despite it containing references to sexual abuse and real images of violence and dead bodies, which would usually have cost the film a 15 certificate if it was not for the strong contextual justification. W. was passed 15 due the similar content not being justified by the context.
Attitudes to censorship
Historically the Board has faced strong criticism for an over-zealous attitude in censoring film. Prior to the liberalising decade of the 1960s, films were routinely and extensively censored as a means of social control. For example, Rebel Without a Cause was cut to reduce the "possibility of teenage rebellion". Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night was cut to remove "overtly sexual or provocative" language.
The BBFC's attitude became more liberal during the 1960s, and they concentrated on censoring films that featured graphic sex and violence. However, some Board decisions caused controversy in the 1970s when it banned a series of films that were released uncut and were popular in other countries (such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Last House on the Left), or released other controversial films, such as Straw Dogs and A Clockwork Orange. However, under recent President Andreas Whittam Smith and current incumbent Sir Quentin Thomas, guidelines have been relaxed again, allowing the release, usually uncut, of these previously banned films on video and in cinemas. Some films from the 1970s remain unreleased, but many of these titles remain banned primarily because their distributors have not chosen to re-submit the films to the BBFC, almost certainly for commercial reasons. If they were, they would be likely to receive a more sympathetic hearing than 30 years ago – only two films from the 1970s, Love Camp 7 (rejected in 2002) and Women in Cellblock 9 (rejected in 2004), both of which contain substantial scenes of sexual violence, have remained completely banned following a re-submission since 2000.
In general, attitudes to what material is suitable for viewing by minors have changed over the years, and this is reflected by the reclassification of older films being re-released on video. A 1913 film given the former A rating could very probably be rated U today. An extreme example of this is the rating of the horror film Revenge of the Zombies, with a U certificate upon its video release in the late 1990s, whereas, when it was first examined as a film in 1951, it was given one of the first X ratings. In some cases, it does not change, as was the cases of the 1931 film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which was passed A with cuts for its original release, and the 2008 limited re-release was given a 12A certificate, and Ghost, which was given a 12 certificate when it was originally released, but it was recently re-examined on film and given a 12A certificate. In other cases, the certificate is only lowered down by one. This was the case for the 1981 film An American Werewolf in London, which was given an X certificate when first released, and subsequent 18 certificates on video, but when examined for a limited re-release in 2009, the rating was finally lowered by one certificate to a 15.
The BBFC are also known to cut the words 'spaz', 'moron' and 'retard' from U and PG cert films and videos on the grounds of discrimination. One example of this is when Marmaduke was passed U after the word 'spaz' was removed; they offered an uncut 12A rating. They also award higher ratings to films that contain potentially imitable and dangerous behaviour; this includes all three Jackass films being passed 18, and Fred: The Movie being passed 12A. They are also very serious about suicide themes, references, or attempts, and will either cut them or award a higher rating. An example of this was in 2010, when the Board cut the Hindi film Anjaana Anjaani by two minutes and thirty-one seconds for a cinema 12A certificate in order to remove references to and sight of someone attempting suicide by asphyxiation. The cut footage was put back into the film for its video release, which was passed 18.
There has been considerable relaxation since 1999 onwards. The relaxation of guidelines has also made hardcore pornography widely available to adult audiences through the R18 rating. Films with this rating are only legally available from licensed sex shops, of which there are about 300 in the UK. They may also be seen in specially licensed cinemas.
Recent examples include the passing of Irreversible, Romance, Antichrist, and numerous other films uncut for cinema and video viewing. Despite this trend towards liberalisation, anti-censorship campaigners are still critical of the BBFC. It has attracted criticism from conservative press, in particular the Daily Mail, on the grounds that the release of sexually explicit and violent films was corrupting the nation. The newspaper's most famous clash with the BBFC came in 1997 when the Board released the David Cronenberg film Crash without cuts. The following day (19 March 1997) the Mail led with the banner headline "CENSOR'S YES TO DEPRAVED SEX FILM" Westminster City Council imposed its own ban on the film after the decision.
The BBFC's current guidelines identify a number of specific areas considered when awarding certificates or requiring cuts. These are discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or mental or physical disability, adult themes, language (i.e., profanity), nudity, sex, violence, sexual violence, all visual and verbal references to suicide, dangerous actions that can easily be imitated (certain combat moves [ear-claps and neck-breaking in particular] and stunts considered criminal acts or likely to end up in injury or death fall under this category), horror, and drug use being condoned or glamorised. The BBFC also continues to demand cuts of any material it believes breaches the provisions of the Obscene Publications Act or any other legislation (most notably the Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937 [which forbids the depiction of animals being abused or in distress] and the Protection of Children Act 1978 [which, as amended, forbids the depiction of minors engaged in sex or in sexually suggestive poses or situations]). In 2009, 2% of cinema films had material cut, and 3.6% of videos. Most cuts actually occur in videos rated for 18 or R18, rather than videos intended for viewing by under-18s. In 2009, 16.8% of 18 videos, and 27.3% of R18 videos, had material cut.
There is no theme or subject-matter that is considered inherently unsuitable for classification at any level, although more controversial topics might require a restricted certificate. This is in keeping with current practice in most liberal democracies, but in sharp contrast to the early days of the BBFC when such themes as prostitution, incest and the relations of capital and labour were unacceptable in any circumstances.
'Bad' or 'strong' language can earn a film a more restrictive certificate, though BBFC policy states that there are no constraints on language use in films awarded an 18 certificate. It is difficult to compare the BBFC's policies in this area with those in other countries as there are different taboos regarding profanity in other languages and indeed in other English-speaking countries. For example, the use of 'strong' language has little effect on a film's classification in France. The BBFC's policy proved particularly controversial in the case of Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen in 2002, which was passed uncut only at 18 certificate, even though its main characters were teenagers who frequently used profanities that the director argued were typical of the social group his film depicted. The film received similar certificates in Ireland (also an 18 certificate) and the United States, but in Australia it was awarded the less restrictive MA15+ certificate. Shane Meadows' film This Is England was also passed uncut only at 18 due to its repeated use of racist terms, and the climatic scene where Combo becomes irate and pummels his friend Milky while insulting him. Many local authorities objected to the 18 certificate given to the film (in particular, the town where the film's young star Thomas Turgoose grew up) and they awarded it a less restrictive 15 certificate.
There are minimal restrictions of the depiction of non-sexual nudity, which is allowed in even U and PG certificate films (for example, The Simpsons Movie-- which was given a PG-13 rating in the U.S. – was given a PG certificate in the UK, leaving the sequence where Bart skateboards naked through town and his genitals are shown through an open space in a hedge unedited), but scenes of (simulated) sexual activity are limited to more restricted certificates. With regard to material that is intended primarily as pornographic the Board's policy, as stated on its website is "Material which appears to be simulated is generally passed ‘18’, while images of real sex are confined to the ‘R18’ category." However, for some years depictions of real sex have been allowed in 18 certificate videos intended as educational, and in recent years a number of works such as Catherine Breillat's Romance, Patrice Chéreau's Intimacy and Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs, which feature apparently unsimulated sex have been passed uncut for theatrical release.
Violence remains one of the most problematic areas for censorship in the UK, especially when it's in conjunction with sex or likely to sway more impressionable viewers into thinking the violence depicted is "glamorous" or "fun" and "risk-free." However, the Board takes into account issues of context and whether it considers scenes of sexual violence to "eroticise" or "endorse" sexual assault. In 2002, the board passed Gaspar Noé's Irréversible uncut, but less than a month later cut Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer by three and a quarter minutes to remove scenes of sexual violence. A Serbian Film suffered from forty-nine individual cuts by the BBFC, which totalled to four minutes and eleven seconds of cuts. The cuts were made to remove "portrayals of children in a sexualised or abusive context and images of sexual and sexualised violence which have a tendency to eroticise or endorse the behaviour" as the Board's website states. Criminal acts that can be easily imitated, as well as scenes condoning, glamorising, or showing clear instruction of how to abuse drugs have also been the subject of UK editing. The issue of imitable techniques is one that does not seem to figure especially highly in the censorship systems of most other countries (though the U.S. has done this on occasion, often due to public backlash, as seen on MTV's Beavis and Butthead). In the UK, numerous minor cuts have been made, primarily to films whose distributors want a PG or 12A certificate, to scenes of characters performing acts that would be considered dangerous, criminal, or harmful if done in real life. For example, in 2006 issues involving suicide by hanging became problematic; the Ren and Stimpy Series 1 DVD set (classified PG) was edited to remove the song "The Lord Loves a Hangin'" because the song implied that hanging is "comedic, fun, and risk-free". Paranoia Agent Volume 3 DVD set (classified 18) was also cut to remove the depiction of a child nearly hanging himself for the same reason.
The requirement to have films classified and censored can cost film producers up to thousands of pounds. The North West New Wave, a blanket term recently used by both film makers and local press to describe independent filmmakers in the Northwest of England, is currently campaigning for the introduction of a Voluntary 'Unrated 18' Certificate in the UK.
On 6 June 2011, the BBFC refused a classification for the horror film The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence). The previous movie in the series was passed uncut at 18, but due to a shift in context and focus, the BBFC judged that the sequel could fall foul of the Obscene Publications Act.  The film was eventually passed 18 after cuts were made.
Presidents of the BBFC
- George A. Redford (1 January 1913 – 12 November 1916)
- T.P. O'Connor (11 December 1916 – 18 November 1929)
- Edward Shortt (21 November 1929 – 10 November 1935)
- William Tyrrell, 1st Baron Tyrrell (25 November 1935 – 22 March 1948)
- Sir Sidney Harris (31 March 1948 – June 1960)
- Herbert Morrison, Baron Morrison of Lambeth (June 1960-6 March 1965)
- William Ormsby-Gore, 5th Baron Harlech (21 July 1965 – 26 January 1985)
- George Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood (June 1985-18 December 1997)
- Andreas Whittam Smith (18 December 1997 – 1 August 2002)
- Sir Quentin Thomas (1 August 2002–present)
Directors of the BBFC
During James Ferman's time, the title of the chief executive officer at the BBFC changed from "Secretary of the Board" to the current "Director". At the same time, the title card displaying a film's certificate, which opens all theatrically screened films in the United Kingdom, stopped carrying the chief executive's signature. The President's signature is now used instead.
- Joseph Brooke Wilkinson (1 January 1913 – 15 July 1948) (died in office)
- A.T.L. Watkins (26 July 1948 – 23 January 1957)
- John Nicholls (23 January 1957 – 30 April 1958)
- John Trevelyan (22 May 1958 – 1 July 1971)
- Stephen Murphy (1 July 1971 – 18 June 1975)
- James Ferman (18 June 1975 – 10 January 1999)
- Robin Duval (11 January 1999 – 19 September 2004)
- David Cooke (20 September 2004–present;)
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- 18 certificate
- R18 certificate
- Obscene Publications Act
- Censorship in the United Kingdom
- Motion picture rating system
- History of British film certificates
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- Baron, Saskia (writer & director), Empire of the Censors – two-part TV documentary, pc. Barraclough Carey, prod. Paul Kerr, BBC2, tx. 28 & 29 May 1995.
- BBFC parents website
- BBFC homepage
- BBFC students website
- The Melon Farmers: a site critical of the BBFC
- Talking Pictures website: Article by Nigel Watson about film censorship issues accompanied by classroom activities for students
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