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The stupid cuts at the BBFC

Film classifiers have told Ken Loach to cut c-words from his new movie, in case the ‘wrong’ people hear them.

Graham Barnfield

Topics Culture

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By the time this year’s Cannes Film Festival dust-up had settled down, two things had become clear. First, The Angels’ Share director Ken Loach had scored a moral victory over his antagonists at the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). Second, the BBFC had managed to make itself look ridiculous once again.

The row was over the changes demanded by the BBFC in order to give Loach’s film a ’15’ certificate rather than an ’18’ certificate. These included cuts to dialogue, such as multiple uses of the word ‘cunt’. In order to justify its stance, the board cited surviving examples of ‘very strong language’. However, rather than winning the board any brownie points, this attempt to explain away its position only provoked snorts of mirth. As the veteran director found with his earlier reworking of Romeo and Juliet, Ae Fond Kiss… (2004), the BBFC had created an anomaly where his young cast members could learn, improvise and deliver their sweary lines for the screen, but not legally see and hear themselves in a cinema.

Little wonder that there’s a minor meme on social networks for repurposing the board’s initials. Such absurdity echoes the logic-dumping antics of the video-nasties panic of 1984-5. At a quarter century’s safe distance, BBFC representatives routinely treat the whole affair as the fault of MPs, Mary Whitehouse, Scotland Yard and the director of public prosecutions. With the BBFC now rushing to cover our allegedly over-sensitive ears, lest we should be exposed to coarse Glaswegian dialogue, one could be forgiven for thinking that Whitehouse had risen from the grave. (Note to self: register the copyright on that for a film title.)

In truth, the paternalistic thread runs rich through the history of Britain’s film censors, from TP O’Connor’s 1916 list of 43 grounds for deletion, via issues of sex (‘obscenity’), violence and now cursing. The BBFC, however, discloses this account of the situation regarding Loach’s film: ‘This work was cut. The cut(s) were made at the request of the distributor to achieve a particular category. Cuts were made by substitution.’ At the time of writing, the Extended Classification Information (ECI) for The Angels’ Share is not available, still unpublished a week after the optimum deadline announced by the board.

An official description of the circumstances surrounding the ‘cuts made by substitution’ states that Loach’s production company ‘chose to reduce the number of uses of very strong language in order to obtain a “15” classification. Cuts made in accordance with BBFC guidelines and policy. An uncut “18” classification was available.’

On the surface, this seems like a commercially safe decision, but this illusion of ‘company choice’ doesn’t explain why the director is so annoyed or his executive producer, Rebecca O’Brien, so gobsmacked. Indeed, O’Brien received the BBFC’s ‘list of aggressive and non-aggressive c***s’ so that the production company would know which uses of the word were acceptable and which were not. Sixteen Films was told that they could have ‘a maximum of seven c***s’. Little wonder Loach told a Cannes press conference about him entering ‘the realms of surrealism’. This is not censorship, the BBFC would say; but given the choice between complying and missing out on audience share and box-office revenue, the Sixteen Films business plan is a significant influence.

Recurring vernacular use of the word ‘cunt’ is not always easy on the ears, since applying a name given to female genitalia to your worst enemy smacks of misogyny. Yet the everyday use of the term – presumably in what the BBFC would call a ‘non-aggressive context’ – lessens its impact. In my second job (in light engineering) and in more than one flatshare, I’ve had ‘Oi! Cunt!’ used to get my attention, which was a marked improvement on workmates throwing nuts and bolts. If I was self-indulgent enough to incorporate these mundane experiences into, say, my hypothetical screenplay for Whitehouse has Risen from the Grave, BBFC guidelines would then strip some of the verité from the film’s factory scenes.

The artistic issue is whether the term works in its context; bringing Chaucer on board, whose Wife of Bath promised her ‘olde dotard … queynte right enough at eve’, doesn’t get us much beyond sniggering through English Literature ‘O’ Level. But excluding the c-word sometimes cuts the other way, as the head writer of Deadwood found when adding historical profanity to his early scripts. Without modern effing and blinding, ‘they’d all wind up sounding like Yosemite Sam’, noted David Milch.

As spiked editor Brendan O’Neill has argued, this hostility to allegedly plebian vocabularies – what Trotsky called ‘the language of slaves’ – is more often than not about hostility to actual plebs. For instance, Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) pays off with a well-placed c-word and the (less successful) Australian bloodlust romp, Primal (2010), tries to do the same. The violence in both films would have pushed up the age certification, meaning that their specific dialogue was not a big issue for UK censors, but the idea of aggressive and non-aggressive c-words is a by-product of the ‘arthouse good, multiplex bad’ attitude which has long bedeviled the BBFC. The BBFC has a track record as an institution which prevents the ‘wrong kind of audience’ from seeing particular films, and not just on age grounds. Twenty years ago, when the ‘New Brutalism’ was just starting out, there was interminable wrangling over a VHS release of Reservoir Dogs but not its Belgian soulmate, Man Bites Dog. Could it be that British proles were less likely to follow the antics of a French-speaking serial killer?

Despite his best efforts, Loach’s films spend more time on the arthouse circuit than he would like, but the BBFC has adopted a ‘safety first’ approach in case impressionable minds hear a bit of what was once quaintly called ‘industrial language’. Lacking direct statutory powers, the BBFC has never insisted on a list of potential undesirables to vet before a screening, as Westminster Council did with the uncut Raindance festival screening of A Serbian Film in 2010. But the sentiment – that the ‘wrong’ sort of people should be kept away from films the board judges to have strong content – is there for all to see.

From the convoluted warnings accompanying film certificates (‘contains scenes of moderate emotional intensity’ being a personal favourite) to the recent efforts to differentiate between different types of ‘cunt’, the BBFC’s adventures in metaphysics could be scrapped without any harmful effects on society. The myth of an informed choice – ‘helping you to make the right choice’, as it once promised – is harder to sustain once this venerable institution becomes increasingly subjective in its judgment.

Graham Barnfield blogs at The Loneliest Jukebox. He is the author of ‘A Hostel Environment: Sanitised Terror and the “Torture Porn” Cycle’ in Screens of Terror: Representations of War and Terrorism in Film and Television since 9/11, edited by Philip Hammond, and published by abramis. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

Watch the trailer for The Angels’ Share:

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