What’s sauce for one may not be for another

Via Mad Musings Of Me, here’s an interesting article from The Times (subscription may be required for some) discussing on the differing ratings films get across Europe and how what can be seen as controversial in one country can be completely ignored just over the border.

The report stems from Robin Duval, the outgoing director of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), dismissing proposals for European-wide film classification. The article points out several examples of where standards differ:

Britons take a stronger stance than most countries against sex, violence, swearing and drug use. Use of Anglo-Saxon oaths is especially frowned on in Englishspeaking countries, causing anomalies with films such as Billy Elliot, which contained no sex, drugs or violence but an estimated 50 swearwords.

In Britain it was rated 15, but in France and Spain it received the equivalent of a universal certificate. America demanded cuts to allow it to be rated PG-13, in which parents are cautioned not to let younger children watch. Germany and Sweden allowed children of seven into screenings.

France has the most relaxed attitude to film censorship, especially over sex. The most extreme example is American Beauty, rated 18 in Britain but given a universal certificate in France. The Exorcist, Gangs of New York, Hannibal, Pulp Fiction and Secretary were all given an 18 certificate in Britain but a 12 in France.

Of course, there are some stereotypes that no journalist can resist:

Scandinavian countries are very liberal on sex and drug use, but take a hard line on violence. The first The Lord of the Rings film, which was passed at PG in Britain because violence was inflicted on fantasy beasts rather than human beings, was restricted to 11 and over in Sweden and Norway. Despite Britain?s relatively high tolerance for violence, it can occasionally be outstripped by Italy. The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson?s film in which James Caviezel is whipped for 25 minutes, was rated 18 in Britain but awarded a universal certificate in Italy.

I’d have to agree with Duval that European-wide classification isn’t going to possible in most cases, but it’s interesting to note that in Britain, while the BBFC has the general power to classify films, local authorities also have powers in this area. Michael Brooke has discussed this issue in the past.

As a final point, I’ve noticed that DVDs released onto the British market are often now (presumably to save costs) labelled with the Irish certification as well as the British (interestingly, Ireland still has a Film Censor’s office, whereas Britain’s, of course, is just a classifier – no censorship here folks, oh no) – in most cases they’re the same rating, though I have noticed a couple of DVDs (the names escape me now) where they have a lower certificate in Ireland than in Britain.

13 thoughts on “What’s sauce for one may not be for another

  1. Does the BBFC still ban depicting the use of nunchaku? I can understand general limits on the depiction of violence, but why on earth has the BBFC singled out the nunchaku? The ban seems so arbitrary and out-of-left-field.

  2. Is there any difference if the film was British-made, or at least nominally British?

    I wondered if that meant LOTR and others get a lower rating?

  3. British censors have long been concerned about our sexual well-being. I can recall when the movie of Tennessee Williams’ stage play: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, was banned from distribution.

    Outcomes from all that concern is that according to the 2003 edition of Social Trends No 33 (chp.2), Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in western Europe by far (Figure 2.16) and about 40 per cent of live births in Britain occur outside marriage: http://www.statistics.gov.uk/statbase/Product.asp?vlnk=5748&More=N

    I hestitate to imagine how things would be without the censorship.

  4. Much though it might appear so, New Zealand isn’t actually part of Britain. LoTR is about as British as West Side Story…

    In general, it’s untrue to say that Brit-films get a lower classification for national pride reasons; it is probably true to say that arty films get a lower classification than mainstream nonsense [1] and that proportionally more Brit films are arty raher than mainstream.

    [1] I think the logic is that if we can con teenage boys into sitting through hours of high culture in order to get a look at some muff, it might do them some good…

  5. wow, i think it’s neat that in this day and age a film like LOTR could be made and not have it depict any violence against humans at all, but only against fantasy beasts.

  6. Things have changed dramatically at the BBFC over the past three-and-a-half years or so – in 2000, following both a court case concerning a handful of hardcore porn videos (which they lost) and extensive public consultation that revealed that the British were very concerned with protecting children but also favoured letting adults watch what they wanted, the upshot was a liberalisation of the 18 certificate to encompass almost anything – the only significant exceptions being extreme sexual violence (though context and artistic merit were taken into account – ‘Irreversible’ was passed uncut) and anything illegal, which in terms of UK law generally means unsimulated animal cruelty and sexual activity involving children (cleverly-edited fakery is acceptable: both ‘Amores Perros’ and the Adrian Lyne ‘Lolita’ got through unscathed after the producers were able to demonstrate how they’d achieved each contentious effect).

    The ban on nunchakas was largely a personal bugbear of the late James Ferman, who stepped down as BBFC Director in 1998 – his successor Robin Duval didn’t seem to have the same problem, and the ban was lifted shortly afterwards (which is why Bruce Lee films are now available uncut).

    And, contrary to rumour (perpetuated above), the BBFC has generally been pretty liberal on matters sexual, especially in the last twenty years or so – Ferman in particular was very keen on trying to push back the barriers, passing the likes of ‘In the Realm of the Senses’ with a plain vanilla 18 certificate and authorising hardcore “sex education” videos in the early 1990s. I interviewed him once, and he said he’d have gone a lot further but for Britain’s archaic sex laws – he never felt that sex was as big a problem as graphic violence.

    But he was finally “retired” (in the sense that Chileans under Pinochet were “disappeared”) after passing a load of flat-out hardcore videos with no artistic or educational merit without telling Customs or the Home Office – this was just after Labour got in in 1997 and he was presumably trying to test the water, finding it rather hotter than he’d anticipated!

  7. Don’t ask me why, but we have two copies of Memento on DVD in the room here; the Irish copy is rated 18, the British 15.

    Reservoir Dogs, Natural Born Killers and From Dusk Til Dawn initially failed to get general theatrical releases in Ireland, ostensibly because of the graphic violence. That didn’t stop the Film Censor’s Board from giving Saving Private Ryan, and Michael Collins (quite brutal in places) a 12’s certificate and The Passion a 15PG cert…they’re all about the public interest here 🙂

  8. “Don’t ask me why, but we have two copies of Memento on DVD in the room here; the Irish copy is rated 18, the British 15.”

    Ireland has long had a tradition of oppressive and often mindless censorship. Edna O’Brien’s County Girls, published in 1960, was a marvellous first novel, which quickly became an international best seller, except in Ireland, the land of the author’s birth and residence, where it was banned. As a result, Edna O’Brien moved to London where she became part of the literary scene.

  9. It’s worth noting that ‘Michael Collins’ was a special case in Ireland – the censor acknowledged at the time that it was unusually foul-mouthed and violent for the category that it ended up with, but he also thought that it was such an important film (not least for Irish schoolchildren) that he was prepared to make an exception. The film went on to become one of the biggest Irish box-office hits ever.

  10. “Reservoir Dogs” did get theatrical release from the start – I saw it in the Savoy and the Square – but it was certainly held back on video. A small quibble, I admit.

    I think the technical title of the Irish Censor’s office is ‘Examiner of Films’. At least, that’s how the Irish title translates into English.

  11. Reservoir Dogs was delayed on video for two years by the BBFC, paradoxically because James Ferman didn’t want to cut it (and in any case it’s hard to see how it could be effectively censored given the virtual absence of onscreen violence) – but the theatrical release had sparked one of these perennial tabloid storms about video violence (being released mere weeks before James Bulger’s murder didn’t help), so Ferman decided to adopt one of the delaying strategies he became notorious for.

    The idea was a bit like an invertion of Jo Moore’s “bury bad news” tactic, whereby Ferman would wait for the fuss to die down and then quietly pass the film, hoping that no-one would notice. Unfortunately for him, he did this once too often, and the non-release of the Reservoir Dogs video became a story in itself.

    Tellingly, one of Robin Duval’s first statements on taking over was to guarantee that decisions would be reached within days rather than months, and on the whole he’s lived up to that promise.

  12. The Nunchaka thing goes back to the 1970s. Every five or so a new horror menacing our youth is discovered by the authorities and banned. Decades afterwards everyone wonders what the fuss was about. Flick knifes and horror comics in the 1950s, nunchakas and clackers in the 1970s and ninja turtles in the 1980s.

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