From St Andrews Film Studies postgraduate researcher, Milo Farragher-Hanks, a playlist about censorship and moral panic, prompted by Censor (Prano Bailey-Bond, UK, 2019), which is streaming on BFIPlayer.
Censors and Sensibility: Cinema and Moral Panic in British Culture
In Censor (Prano Bailey-Bond, UK, 2019) grey, underlit city streets and anonymous, dark green offices give way to a basement lit in sticky, tenebrous red, a stygian underworld filled with objects which, according to those who oversee them, contain great evil. And what are these objects? Why, horror films, of course. The room in question is the basement of the BBFC’s Soho offices, where compliance officer Enid (Niamh Algar) spends her days meticulously pouring over releases, many of them horror films of the low-budget and grotty variety. That might sound like a smart, self-reflexive joke—a horror film about classifying horror films—but Censor, currently playing in British cinemas, is deeper and darker than that. It’s a film about the fear of frightening or taboo images, and its cultural roots.
The film takes place against the backdrop of the moral panic over so-called ‘video nasties’ that gripped Britain in the early-to-mid-1980s. ‘Video nasties’ was a term coined by conservative activist Mary Whitehouse to refer to ultra-violent horror films, often foreign and low-budget, which were freely available on video, then not subject to the BBFC’s ratings. Following the beginning of Whitehouse’s campaign against these films, The Sunday Times brought wider attention to the issue, and particularly to the possibility of children acquiring or seeing the ‘nasties’, with an article on ‘How High Street Horror is Invading the Home’. Panic over these videos and their potential detrimental effect of their violent content on the psychology of impressionable viewers soon swept the nation, to the point that the Director of Public Prosecutions drew up an ever-shifting list of titles which could be confiscated by police or even serve as grounds for their owner to be fined or prosecuted. Ultimately, the controversy lead to the passing of the Video Recordings Act 1984, which gave the BBFC authority over all home video releases and also made it a criminal offence to supply an unclassified video to anyone or to supply a 15 or 18 certificate video to anyone below those ages.
This is the world in which Censor takes place, and these are the films Enid spends much of her time watching, meticulously combing over their bloodiest moments to suggest cuts. Unlike some of her colleagues, Enid approaches her job with an exacting moral seriousness and a sincere belief in its importance; “It’s not entertainment”, she exasperatedly explains to her parents—“I do it to protect people”. Enid’s life soon spirals out of control, as a film she passed is blamed for a murder, and she believes she sees her sister (missing since Enid was a child) in a new horror film, beginning a descent into film industry sleaze and vivid delusions.
It is perhaps curious that, in 2021, someone would make a film about a subject as, on the face of it, quintessentially 80s as the video nasty scare. But the film locates in its moment something eternal—some underlying truths about the personal and cultural roots of the censorious mindset. The film’s ironic, dreamlike climax locates Enid’s desire to scrub the horrific and disturbing from fiction in her inability to confront or control the horrific and disturbing aspects of her own life. Moreover, the film places the controversy in the context of the Thatcher years, suggesting that the government’s war on the Grand Guignol violence of horror films was a method of denying or distracting from the rather more mundane violence of an indifferent, uncaring, and authoritarian state. “If it’s the nation’s sanity they’re worried about”, gripes one of Enid’s colleagues, “what about the cuts to social services?”. A cut from the BBFC’s offices to images on television of the police beating striking miners makes a similar point; it will always be easier to eradicate the bad things from our fiction than to confront the more complex or systemic evils of the real world. With plot points referencing missing children and repressed memories, Censor calls ahead to moral panics of the future, seeming to tap into something deep-seated in British society; a rich vein of paternalism, denial, and scapegoating, a desire to find easy targets to stand in for more complicated problems, to control the public under the guise of protecting them.
This playlist hopes to expand on these ideas, providing a brief (although by no means exhaustive) overview of moral panics around film in Britain. The five films listed below were all the subject of widespread cries for censorship in the United Kingdom, and in some cases cut, pulled, or otherwise suppressed. Each film is accompanied by notes on the controversy around its British release, and an analysis of the social problems for which I believe it was made a scapegoat. In so doing, I hope this playlist can expand upon Censor’s analysis of the censorious impulse in British society, and provide a further exploration of Britain’s often fraught relationship to the morality of art.
Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, UK, 1959)
Considered a precursor to the modern slasher film, this psychological horror stars Carl Boehm as Mark Lewis, a cameraman who feeds his voyeurism by filming the dying expressions of women he murders. Upon its release in the UK in 1960, Peeping Tom’s violent imagery and treatment of the subject of sexual paraphilia and serial murder earned immediate and thorough condemnation from the press. The Evening Standard deemed it ‘corrupt and empty’, the Daily Worker ‘perverted nonsense’, and perhaps most dramatically, The Observer’s film critic Caroline Lejeune walked out of a press screening while proclaiming herself ‘sickened’. The film was taken not simply as distasteful or frightening, but as an affront, possibly even a threat, to taste and decency. So great was the scandal over Peeping Tom’s graphic violence in its native land that it all but ended the career of Michael Powell, once one of the country’s most beloved filmmakers. More than the film’s violence, however, it is its exploration and evocation of the psychology of sexual repression and obsession, and its location of such within a decidedly normal vision of British life, that disturbs—and which may have lain at the heart of the controversy. The film’s depiction of perversity and evil lurking in an ordinary middle-class neighbourhood, of London’s streets as hotbeds of exploitation and sleaze, were perhaps taken as an offence against Britishness itself. Certainly, many of the film’s opponents felt compelled to cast it as something foreign or Other; a review in the BFI’s Monthly Film Bulletin compared Powell to the Marquis de Sade, while Len Mosley of the Daily Express condemned the film in the language of imperialism, calling it ‘more nauseating and depressing than the leper colonies of East Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay, and the gutters of Calcutta’. The outrage over Peeping Tom seems to have been motivated as much by a desire to protect a certain vision of British identity as any moral qualms over its transgressive content.
The Devils (Ken Russell, UK, 1970)
Director Ken Russell was hardly a stranger to controversy; however, none of his films attracted quite so much outrage in his native Britain as this chronicle of alleged demonic possessions and subsequent persecutions in a convent in seventeenth-century France. The film’s placement of graphic sex and violence alongside Catholic imagery, as well as its depiction of religious authorities as tyrannical and cruel, immediately drew opprobrium from the UK’s most prominent Christian advocacy groups, including self-proclaimed opponents of ‘permissive society’, the Festival of Light. These organisations campaigned for the film not to be passed by the BBFC, who already found the films association of sex, violence, and organised religion challenging. The filmmakers’ ultimately made cuts to some particularly explicit sequences to secure an ‘X’ rating, and the film was released in the UK in July 1971. The irony of the case is that in protesting for a film to be banned due to its depiction of religious authorities as oppressive zealots, groups such as the Festival of Light only confirmed that image. Where repression is supreme virtue, it seems, it is taboo even to speak that repression’s name. The uncut version of The Devils wouldn’t be seen until 2002, when film critic and noted Russell fan Mark Kermode found the missing footage in the Warner Bros. vaults. The full version was publicly screened for the first time in London that November. However, possibly due to residual controversy, Warner Bros. are yet to give The Devils a commercial release in its uncut form—although, bizarrely, they were willing to allow one of its nuns to appear as a background character in Space Jam: A New Legacy (Malcolm D. Lee, USA, 2019).
The Devils is available to stream on Shudder. The documentary Hell on Earth: The Desecration and Resurrection Of The Devils, which features details on the controversy around and cuts made to the film, is available to watch on YouTube.
A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA, 1970)
There must have been something in the air in the Britain of the 1970s, for the same year as the furore over The Devils, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel provoked the controversy by which all other film-related controversies (particularly in the UK) are judged—whenever the subjects of media violence, censorship, or copycat crimes are discussed, its name will surely be invoked. Set in a future, totalitarian Britain, the film deals with the state’s attempt to reform remorseless teenaged sadist Alex (Malcolm McDowell) through an experimental brainwashing technique. As with its source material, the film was immediately controversial for its treatment of the subject of youth criminality, and its graphic scenes of violence which identify the viewer with the perpetrator Alex. The BBFC voiced particular concern over its two scenes of sexual violence. Despite this, however, the Board ultimately (unlike the censors of many other countries) passed A Clockwork Orange uncut, and it enjoyed commercial success in British cinemas upon its release at the end of 1971, playing for more than a year at London’s Warner West End cinema. However, with this exposure came increased scrutiny, and across 1972 the film was linked to numerous cases of youth violence in the UK. Prosecutors in the case of a fourteen-year-old who accidentally killed a schoolmate noted resonances between his crime and the film, while a sixteen-year-old boy who murdered a homeless man in Bletchley claimed to have been inspired by friends telling him of a similar scene in the film, with his defence lawyer affirming the role of A Clockwork Orange and ‘sensational literature’ in the crime. Originally contentious for playing on fears of juvenile delinquency and urban lawlessness, the film now became an avatar of these problems—no mere reflection, but the source from which they emanated. In 1973, amidst escalating fear and uproar around A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick himself requested that Warner Bros. withdraw the film in the United Kingdom, a request with which they complied. Kubrick never offically spoke on his reasons for doing so, and indeed had earlier contested claims that the film could drive viewers to violence, although his widow Christiane Kubrick later claimed he did so in order to end the stress the controversy had put on his family, who had endured protests outside their home and anonymous death threats. The film would not be legally shown again in the UK (Warner Bros. successfully sued the Scala Cinema Club over an unauthorised screening in 1993) until after Kubrick’s death in 1999.
A Clockwork Orange is available to rent or buy from YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime Video or Apple TV. The 1993 documentary Forbidden Fruit, about the controversy around the film and its withdrawal, is available to watch in two parts on YouTube
Scum (Alan Clarke, UK, 1977)
The BBC’s Play for Today series of original television plays was meant to inspire debate and discussion, but writer Ray Minton and director Alan Clarke’s chronicle of life in a borstal proved too provocative even by those standards. Producers were appalled by Scum’s depiction of an uncaring and abusive penal system and its unflinching portrayals of rape and suicide, with Play for Today’s overseer Margaret Matheson expressing concerns that the teleplay’s realism might lead viewers to mistake it for a documentary. BBC One’s new controller Bill Cotton was vehemently opposed to the film (which had been commissioned prior to his installation), and while the filmmakers’ reluctantly made some cuts to try and avoid a ban, Scum’s originally scheduled transmission in 1977 was cancelled—although not before the film had been screened for the press, allowing word of its controversial content to circulate. Minton and Clarke were adamant that the brutality they depicted simply reflected the horrific reality of the borstal system, and that in pulling Scum the BBC were essentially denying and suppressing these truths. Determined to tell the story, Clarke, Minton and much of the original cast remade Scum as a feature film of the same name, which was released in British cinemas in 1979, then shown on Channel 4 in 1983, finally returning to its originally-intended televisual home. Crucially, the Channel 4 airing occurred two years after the abolition of the borstal system, when the world depicted was now ostensibly consigned to the past, and so could safely be allowed into the nation’s living rooms. The original television play was finally aired, on BBC2, in March of 1991.
The original 1977 Scum is unfortunately unavailable to stream. However, the 1979 version is available to watch on YouTube
Blue Story (Rapman, UK, 2019)
The feature directorial debut of musician, actor, writer and filmmaker Rapman, real name Andrew Onwubolu, follows best friends Timmy (Stephen Odubola) and Marco (Michael Ward) as they find themselves on opposite sides of a gang war in south London. Drawing on Onwubolu’s own experiences of witnessing friends become drawn into violent gangs while growing up, the film should have been a watershed moment in British cinema—offering a nuanced and urgent portrayal of the often neglected or sensationalised issue of postcode wars and gang culture, and providing a showcase for Black British talent and experiences in front of and behind the camera. However, its release in November 2019 was overshadowed by reports of violent incidents at screenings, most prominently a fight at a cinema in Birmingham wherein both cinemagoers and responding police officers were attacked with machetes. In the days after this incident, the Vue and Showcase cinema chains both pulled Blue Story from their cinemas, with the former reporting that within 24 hours of the film’s opening, 25 violent incidents had been reported across 16 separate branches. The chains’ decision was met with swift backlash from online commentators, who criticised the measures as draconian and racist, and from Onwubolu himself, who disputed the connection between Blue Story and the violent incident and suggested there were more insidious agendas than public safety at play. “Is there hidden reasons there?”, he asked in an interview with the BBC; “What’s the owner like? Has he got an issue with young urban youth? Is he prejudiced? Does he believe that the film brings a certain type? Is there a colour thing?”. Blue Story was meant to combat the invisibility of experiences of gang violence and the demonization of Black British youth; instead, the response to it exemplified those cultural trends. Even when Vue reversed their decision and reinstated the film only days after pulling it, they employed increased security around screenings due to the perceived likelihood of unrest or violence. The old assumption of an audience needing protection from itself, and the wider public needing protection from that audience—one that in this case carries an additional racial charge—sadly remains alive and well.
Blue Story is available to stream on Now TV or Virgin TV Go and to rent or buy from Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play and Apple TV. Rapman’s earlier work Shiro’s Story, which deals with similar themes, is available to watch in three parts on YouTube.
Milo Farragher-Hanks is a PhD student in Film Studies at the University Of St Andrews. His thesis, entitled ‘Screens, Sins, and Censors: A History of Moral Panic In And Around The Cinema’, investigates the underlying causes of moral panics around cinema throughout history, analyzing patterns in both the films which attract such controversy, and their opponents’ rhetoric.