Red Face, Blue Pencil

Marvelous Mary brought me back a present from her travels: a 1949 Penguin Film Review. This series, edited by Roger Manvell, was a bit like John Boorman’s late lamented Projections — it looks like a paperback book but behaves like a magazine. It provided a smart look at the film industry from a practitioner rather than a critical viewpoint, and probably helped prepare a lot of future filmmakers for getting into the studios before they started closing down…

This one has, besides writing from the obnoxious Harry Watt and the lovely Eric Ambler, an interesting piece by one A.T.L. Watkins, secretary of the BBFC (then the British Board of Film Censors, now Classification, though they still censor a bit). It’s very readable and cogent, a useful primer, and ably expresses a lot of the horrible assumptions underlying censorship in Britain.

Censorship is only news when it makes a mistake. The fact that the British Board of Film Censors has been viewing films at the rate of 3,000 a year for many years is a matter of indifference to the majority of cinema-goers. And rightly so. The effect of a good censorship should not be noticed. The result of its work lies on the cutting-room floor of the studios, and though the trade may be all too aware of this, the cinema public, which sees only the completed and apparently untouched film, is happily ignorant. Indeed, they might reasonably be pardoned for wondering why censorship is needed. They well might ask, “Who is this censor? Why should he take upon himself the duty of saying what I should and should not see? What does he mean by “should not”? Because I may suffer harm? Well, if I am in that danger, isn’t he in his examining theatre? What is there in his mental equipment that enables him to emerge unscathed from seeing things I’m not allowed to? Surely intelligent adults may be allowed to look after themselves in these matters?”

You see? Already we’ve had beautiful phrases like “examining theatre” (do/did such places really exist? With a sign on the door? I am thrilled to hope so) and “mental equipment.” A.T.L. goes on ~

The answer is that intelligent adults could be. But the world is not made up of intelligent adults, any more than it is made up of morally balanced individuals. The cinema public in particular represents all ages and all stages of mental and moral development. And while an intelligent adult audience might be relied upon to reject bad taste and to remain undisturbed by immoral influences, he would be an optimist who would expect such qualities of resistance in the average patrons of the local Odeon or Granada. Bearing in mind the mixed audience which attends the ordinary cinema, imagine what would be the result if no obstacle were placed in the way of films which misrepresent moral values, condone cruelty, debase marriage and the home or mock at religion. Does anyone believe that such films would have no ill-effect, particularly on the young people who represent such a large percentage of the thirty million weekly cinema-goers?

Now we’re getting somewhere. (Plus, I never thought of “Granada” as an archetypal cinema name, but apparently it was.)

British censorship has always been about class (“Is Lady Chatterley’s Lover a book you would be happy for your wife or servants to read?”), fear of the underprivileged, and fear of the young. The specific traits we fear they may acquire from movies has evolved over the years, but that’s where the anxiety was located. Nice middle-class viewers could watch anything that was out there, and the censors DID, with no apparent ill effects, but you couldn’t trust the hoi polloi. (Or those outside London: in 1950, Ophuls’ LA RONDE was passed for the metropolis but barred from the provinces.) Books were always far less censored than films, because it was assumed readers were a bit more educated than movie audiences.

Note that at this time, all films released in Britain were open to all ages. Certification was merely advisory. I know at one point there was an “H” certificate for horror films, but it didn’t last, and I don’t know if kids could still go. I know they DID…

A.T.L.’s assumptions about what qualities his readership will be united in condemning are hilarious: “misrepresent moral values” assumes an absolute set of immovable laws, “debase marriage and the home” is something I have a hard job visualising any film doing; “mock at religion” is something I’d certainly commend as a valuable service, tracing its honourable history back to Voltaire, and of course by “religion” A.T.L. means Christianity. “Condone cruelty” does seem like a pernicious one, but certain forms of cruelty have always been staples of entertainment, especially in comedy. But maybe that’s merely exploiting rather than condoning. And, interestingly, cinema at it’s most uncensored has rarely gone in for condoning serious cruelty. The vilest Italian concentration camp movie of the ’70s still makes a show of being on the side of the victims. This only seems hypocritical because they exploit their suffering so blatantly.

But, it may be said, no director would make such films. The answer is that, even with a censorship, he occasionally tries to. And if the Censor so much as nods in his direction, a storm breaks. Angry members of the public reach for their pens. Responsible public bodies demand an inquiry into the methods of censorship. The Board has no right or desire to resent criticism when a mistake is made, but from the letters which from time to time reach the office, it might be inferred that some of the critics never visit a cinema and have little or no knowledge of how censorship works. Though the best censorship may be the one that works with due reticence, not seeking advertisement or expecting commendation, it must rely for its success on public support and co-operation. For this reason it may be useful in this short article to clear up one or two of the commoner misconceptions.

And he goes on to attempt to do so… Let me know if you’d like to hear more from this stuffy fellow with the quaint prose style, and I can type up the rest of his essay, with my own notes.


6 Responses to “Red Face, Blue Pencil”

  1. If it’s as interesting as what you’ve presented here, yes, please.

  2. Good man! Coming soon!

  3. This is brilliant. Absolutely!

  4. Your wishbone is my commando…

  5. Daniel Reifferscheid Says:

    Yes, it would make for fascinating reading! I’m also very intrigued by the Ambler essay, though I know that wasn’t put on offer…

  6. Posted the rest of Watkins’ piece. And I might scan the Ambler for greater ease…

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