Blue nose, blue pencil


Here’s part 2 of BBFC secretary/gentle maniac A.T.L. Watkins’ 1949 article on the British Board of Film Censors. Part 1 is here. Now read on ~

The board is an unofficial organisation which was set up in 1912 by the cinema trade to ensure an acceptable standard in the films it produces. From the fact that the trade set up its own censorship critics have hastily deduced a sinister liaison between the Board and the trade. Nothing could be further from the truth. The trade, through a representative committee, appoints the President of the Board, but there its association with censorship ends. The President, once appointed, is completely independent, and has a free hand to appoint his examiners and staff. There is a clear understanding that no one who has any connection whatever with the trade may serve on the Board. The idea that, in practice, the Board is influenced in its decisions by its obligation to the trade would cause some surprise in Wardour Street, where its impartial decisions have given too many painful headaches.

“Sinister liaison” is good. The Wardour Street reference is nostalgic. The entire British film industry was once clustered around Wardour Street — when I first went to Soho to mix the sound for my first film, this was still somewhat true. It’s more advertising now, I think. PEEPING TOM was really the only film which addressed the proximity of the film and sex trades in London.

The Censor is not an arbiter of taste. It is not his function to improve the quality of films or the public taste in films. The public will in the long run get the films it desires or deserves, and nothing the Censor can do will alter this. How much pleasanter indeed would be his task if his work were conducted on aesthetic principles — if he could reject what he did not like and allow what pleased his artistic taste. But such an approach would be far from his proper function. Dismal trash must be passed, if it does not offend; and conversely, even a film of artistic merit may require the blue pencil where the handling of its theme would be objectionable for a mixed cinema audience. The Censor’s function, then, is strictly limited, to take out of films what is likely to offend or likely to do harm. The quality of what remains the public must judge, and on their ultimate verdict must depend the artistic development of the cinema.

“Nobody has the right not to be offended.” ~ John Cleese. Being offended doesn’t actually do you any harm. It may actually be good for you, I’m not sure. I don’t mind having a system of classification, even though it’ll get things wrong a lot of the time. Some guidance for parents is useful. But seeing a film which presents a point of view you find obnoxious won’t harm you: it may broaden your mind.

The Board has no written Code, no neatly docketed list of things which are allowed and things which are not. It has been suggested that such a Code would help producers. The Board thinks it would have the reverse effect. The absence of a Code enables it to treat each picture, each incident, each line of dialogue on its merits. No two pictures are alike, everything depends on the treatment and the context. If the Board worked to a Code, it would have to stick to the Code. Films would be dealt with on the basis of hard-and-fast rules, no discretion would be exercised — and producers and public alike would be the losers. 

Interesting that this non-existent Code still merits a capital C. I’m going to have to get my hands on Tom Dewey’s Censored: The Story of Film Censorship in Britain to see if A.T.L. is really telling the truth here…

In part three, A.T.L. will describe the three main questions to be considered when censoring a film — tune in next time!

2 Responses to “Blue nose, blue pencil”

  1. Top Google Result for “Sinister Liason”: “Chronic discharging ear and multiple cranial nerve pareses: A sinister liaison.”

  2. That does sound sinister!

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