Tuesday, 29 March 2011


  • In the past, the BBFC did not have any written rules or code of practice.
  • Policy evolved along practical lines, whilst seeking to reflect public attitudes. Since 2000, the BBFC has operated under a series of published Guidelines, available on the BBFC's websites. These Guidelines are flexible and stress the importance of taking into consideration the context of each individual work. They are reviewed on a regular basis, which entails a period of extensive public consultation, the most recent of which took place in 2008.
  • Standards have evolved throughout the Board’s ninety seven year history. 
  • The shifts in standards are linked to external changes - new legislation, developments in technology, the social and historical climate of the period, and the accompanying changes in social attitudes. This evolution must therefore be examined in the wider cultural and historical context. Here are some key stages in the Board’s early history.
 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 summarised the Board's Policy by listing forty-three grounds for deletion laid down for the guidance of examiners.
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

 The Years Between the Wars
  •  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 and Manchester City Council 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.
 1948m Arthur Watkins
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?

The 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.


  • The Fifties saw the end of rationing and a gradual increase in prosperity.
  • One development that stemmed from this apparent affluence was the emergence of 'youth' as a group with a defined identity and as a target for consumer goods, as young people with disposable income became an attractive proposition for those selling records, clothes and all the trappings of the teenager.
  • Controversial subjects on film were accommodated in the UK under the new 'X' category, introduced in 1951and incorporating the former advisory 'H' category given to horror films. As the growth of television ownership eroded the adult/family cinema audience, films like Rock Around The Clock(1956) drew teenage audiences. Cut for U, this film caused rioting in cinemas and fuelled increasing concern about teenage criminality, although there was in fact no evidence of a teenage crime wave as suggested by the popular Press. 
  • The new 'X' category excluded children under 16.
  • The Board did not allow anti-social behaviour and teen violence, and also had a long-standing policy against screen nudity, partly on the grounds that if they encouraged more nudity on screen, they would be inviting sexual exploitation. This nudity policy was overturned in 1958.
  • The topic of drugs exercised the BBFC to a considerable degree during the decade. The Code was amended in 1956 to allow for the treatment of narcotics as a theme. Devil's Weed was rejected in 1951, because the Board felt that the moral lessons about the evils of drugs use were not made sufficiently clear.


  • Challenges to the Obscene Publications Act, in cases such as the successful defence in 1960 of the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, suggested a strong shift in public opinion, when a jury acquitted this work.
  • 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'.
  • New realism took hold in British films
  • 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'. Ingmar Bergman's 1964 The Silence created a stir because of its treatment of sexual matters . After extensive consultation with the distributor and the director, Trevelyan passed the film 'X' with 35 seconds of cuts to sex scenes.  


Changes in the Category System
  • During the sixties it was recognised that teenagers had specific concerns of their own which ought to be reflected in the category system.
  • The introduction of the 'AA' was finally approved by local authorities and the industry in 1970.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.
Sexual Violence and Other Controversies
  • A new ratings system in the United States included an uncensored 'X' category, left to the sole control of the criminal law.
  • The seventies therefore saw the release of a number of provocative films, in particular those that linked sex and violence, for example A Clockwork Orange (1971), which contained controversial rape scenes. In the case of this film the decision of the BBFC to award an 'X' was overturned by a number of local authorities. 
  • Stephen Murphy, who became Secretary of the Board in July 1971, resigned in 1975 and was succeeded by James Ferman. In an early interview, Ferman remarked that it wasn't sex that worried him but violence and, in particular sexual violence.  During his time at the BBFC, Ferman permitted increasingly explicit sexual material whilst clamping down on sadistic and sexual violence. One of the first films Ferman looked at was The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which his predecessor had already refused to classify shortly before his departure.  Ferman agreed with Murphy that the violence and terrorisation in the film (directed largely towards a woman over a sustained period) was unacceptable.
  • Ferman's attitudes and policies reflected a more general shift of public concern during the 1970s, away from arguments about the explicitness of screen representations towards a consideration of any possible corrupting influence. 
  • Prior to 1977 the Obscene Publications Act did not apply to cinema films and films were judged on the basis of whether any individual scene might be considered 'indecent', regardless of context. The extension of the OPA to films in 1977 gave the BBFC more latitude when considering depictions of sex in films since they now had to be considered 'as a whole'. 
  • The OPA also required that the Board consider whether a scene might deprave and corrupt its likely audience.


Home Viewing

  • 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,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.  
  • One example is The House On The Edge Of The Park. It was rejected by the Board in 1981 for serious violations of the sexual violence standards. It was formally submitted on video for the first time in 2001 and cut for '18'.  Most of the cuts were made for sexual violence under the BBFC's Guidelines.
  • When former 'video nasties' like those above are submitted to the Board, they are examined under current Guidelines, and their legal history considered.  It is usually possible to make cuts to ensure a modern release, although many of them continue to test the Guidelines for sexual violence.

 1982 - 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 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act
  • The 1990s saw public concern about the influence of videos over aspects such as violence increasing, most notable following the Jamie Bulger case, which the media claimed was linked to the film Child's Play 3.
  • Subsequent enquires refuted this connection, but public opinion rallied behind calls for stricter regulation. This was supported in Parliament with a new act (the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994)introduced to the Video Recordings Act. It requires the Board to consider specific issues, and the potential for harm, when making video classification decisions. 
  • At the time that the new legislation was being discussed and implemented, the BBFC was being asked to look at a number of extremely violent and drug-filled films, which further fuelled the debate about media effects. 
  • While the Board waited to see what form the Criminal Justice Act would take, decisions on the video releases of a number of films were held up, although all five films were eventually classified, in some cases with additional cuts, reflecting the requirements of the new tests.
  • Perhaps the film that provoked the most controversy at the time was Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, whose video release was held up by its own distributor (despite having been classified by the BBFC) until 2001. 
 Other controversies

  • 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). 
  • In 1997, for the first time, the BBFC refused a certificate to the game Carmageddon, on the grounds that it encouraged anti-social behaviour.  This decision was later overturned on appeal, subject to the provison that the game must be fitted with a parental lock to prevent it being accessed by children.

 1999, Robin Duval

Robin Duval became the Director on the retirement of James Ferman who had held the position since 1975.

  • Standards continued to evolve, with due consideration of recent relevant research, shifts in public attitudes, and the developments in comparable media such as terrestrial, satellite and cable television and the internet.  
  • 1999 also saw the removal of the BBFC's controversial policy on oriental weaponry (most notably chainsticks), originally implemented by Stephen Murphy in the early 1970s but continued zealously by James Ferman. Whilst the refusal to allow sight of exotic - and potentially easily manufactured - weaponry had been a reaction to real concerns back in the 1970s a total prohibition on sight of such weapons was no longer considered necessary or particularly constructive.  Such weapons were less prevalent than they had been in the past and information on them was in any case widely available in books, magazines and on the internet.
  • Emphasis was accordingly changed from removing all evidence of unusual weapons towards a policy of being concerned about the glamorisation of any weapons (but especially knives), particularly at the junior categories. 


New Guidelines 2000 

New Guidelines were introduced in 2000, following extensive public consultation in 1999. The process involved a series of public presentations across the UK, 2 cititzens' juries surveys and questionnaires as well as contributions from the film and video industry. Major outcome was that drugs/drug use was parents' greatest cause of concern, as well as violence in lower classification categories. Portrayal of sexual activity however caused less concern than previously.

In 1999 the BBFC received three European films that challenged the Board's standards on sex.  All three films contained scenes of unsimultated sex that would not normally have been be acceptable at '18'.  However, as the Board moved into the new millennium it soon became clear that these were not to be isolated examples.  A whole generation of European film makers seemed determined to push the boundaries of what was sexually acceptable on the screen. Fortunately, the 1999-2000 consultation exercise had revealed a general desire on the part of the public that the BBFC should relax its attitudes to sex at '15' and '18'.  Accordingly the new guidelines stated that real sex may be permitted at '18' in the future, provided that the images were exceptionally justified by context (ie not purely there for titillation).

However, once sexual violence entered the equation, things became more complicated. One example was Baise-moi which included not only scenes of explicit sex but also a horrifying rape scene, which incorporated explicit detail.

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 was introduced, allowing children under 12 to see a '12A' film, provided that they are accompanied throughout by an adult. This decision to 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. 

Consumer Advice

While the BBFC has been producing Consumer Advice for films which appeared on the website, it was the introduction of the '12A' category which saw its appearance on film posters, TV advertisements and in cinema listings for '12A' films.  A single line of information about the film's content indicates what viewers can expect to encounter in the film and therefore why it was given its rating.  This is particularly helpful for parents deciding what films are suitable for their children, and in particular whether to take children younger than 12 to a '12A' film.  In 2004, the majority of film distributors agreed to include the Consumer Advice in publicity for all films.

New Guidelines 2005

On 9 February 2005, the BBFC published a new set of Guidelines based on an even more extensive research programme than the one which resulted in the 2000 Guidelines.  Over 11,000 people contributed their views on the BBFC's Guidelines, Public support for the BBFC went up from 59% in 2000 to 63% in 2004.

Important 2006 Decisions

In 2006, landmark ‘18’ certificates were awarded to two high-profile films containing explicit images of real sex. The Observer’s Philip French stated that ‘The award of 18 certificates by the BBFC to Shortbus and Destricted has brought close the abolition of censorship, but not of classification.’


2007 saw the introduction of Parents’ BBFC, a website designed to help parents and guardians make what they consider to be sensible choices for their children’s viewing. The website provides up -to -date information about films and video games in the junior categories, offering a brief plot summary and details of why the film or game received its U, PG or 12A/12. The purpose of the website is to take the guesswork out of making an informed decision about what is suitable viewing for any particular child, a decision best made by a parent or guardian.

New Guidelines 2009

On 23 June 2009, the BBFC published its most recent set of Guidelines based on another detailed public consultation exercise conducted in 2008-2009.  Over 8,700 people contributed their views on the BBFC's Guidelines, in the form of lengthy questionnaires and focus groups.  82% of the general public felt that the BBFC was ‘effective’, which is around the same figure as that produced by the 2004 research.