I Went to Extraordinary Lengths to Sidestep Britain's Film Censors
I contacted 356 UK councils over six months to try to screen one film without a BBFC rating.
Last year I took a minor stand against the British Board of Film Classification, the UK's de facto film censor and leading publisher of extraordinarily detailed porn tech specs. In protest of a government mandate that requires film distributors to pay the BBFC to view their titles before release, I considered the flipside of that mandate – that the board's examiners are required to sit through anything we pay them to watch – and submitted a 607-minute film consisting of an unbroken shot of white paint drying on a brick wall.
On the 25th of January, 2016, the board's Soho screening room played host to its second-longest session ever (after Jacques Rivette's 13-hour opus Out 1) as a team of examiners, working in two-person shifts, waded through Paint Drying in its entirety. At the same time, the organisation's press office was besieged by enquiries about the project, most stemming from a Reddit AMA I hosted in tandem with the screening. Perhaps keen to put the matter to bed once and for all, the board forwent its normal grace period and quietly delivered the film's rating the following afternoon...
As I wrote for VICE at the time, the project was not intended to torture the BBFC's employees, but to question the immense power the board wields over British film culture. The organisation has done much to reposition itself in recent years as a liberal agency – far from the crusading moral police force it was for most of the 20th century – but in reality, the BBFC's function has changed little since it was founded in 1912, back when the "C" still stood for "Censors" (it was changed, newspeak-style, to "Classification" in 1984 of all years).
Today, alongside its classification work, the BBFC continues to ban films outright, on grounds as vague as a potential to "cause harm to public morals" or as specific as the depiction of female ejaculation, face-sitting and other acts associated with female sexual pleasure. In making Paint Drying, I hoped to resurrect a long-dormant debate surrounding the board's powers and encourage people to ask why, in a society that long ago wrote off the censorship of literature and theatre as symptomatic of a less enlightened age, we're happy to hand control of the seventh art over to a state-mandated NGO?
Naturally, much of the ensuing debate involved calling me on my bullshit. Back when VICE still had comments on its articles, one reader shrewdly observed that film censorship is less harsh in the UK than it is in Iran, which is true in much the same way that having your tooth pulled is less painful than losing a leg. Meanwhile, an anonymous Reddit shitposter, apparently authorised to speak on behalf of the entire UK film community, wrote that "the rest of the British film industry think Charles Lyne [sic] is a snotty little git", before going on to contend that – far from a source of frustration – most filmmakers consider the censor board a "valued collaborator".
More persuasive were those who pointed out that the BBFC is merely the public face of film censorship, and that I should really be taking up my complaint with the UK government and, specifically, the Cinematograph Act 1909. This century-old ruling gave the UK's local authorities control over the cinemas within their bounds, and though it was originally designed to ensure health and safety standards, it soon became the inadvertent legal basis for British film censorship.
As a result, early film distributors were forced to negotiate with literally hundreds of regional censors. This process came with some considerable roadblocks, as some local authorities strived to crack down on the burgeoning art form while others embraced its progressive possibilities. In 1912, desperate for consensus, the film industry itself established the BBFC, persuading councils to defer to its authority by promising to limit such perceived indiscretions as "the unnecessary exhibition of under-clothing" and "subjects dealing with India, in which British Officers are seen in an odious light".
This arrangement lives on today, meaning local authorities are technically free to overrule the BBFC whenever they like. Such instances are rare, however, and usually the result of public outcry. In 2002, more than 20 local authorities chose to disregard Spider-man's 12 certificate, after parents complained that their young children should be able to see the film. On the other end of the spectrum, Westminster City Council caved to public pressure in 1996 and banned David Cronenberg's 18-rated Crash, after the Daily Mail ran the front-page headline "Ban This Car Crash Sex Film".
"Many councils seemed desperate to wriggle free of their responsibility to classify the film, and set about finding reasons why my request could not be fulfilled."
As the paint dried on my protest, many commentators were quick to tell me that such examples illustrate the limits of the board's power, and make clear that the BBFC is less a state censor than a harmless advisory service. The board itself said as much in a statement, pointing out that "filmmakers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located". This suggestion became a frequent refrain, though no one could point to a single instance in which a film had been commercially released in this way. Eventually, I figured I'd put the theory to the test myself.
I began work on a spreadsheet, and in the first column compiled a list of Britain's 391 local authorities. Next, I sought out postal addresses for them – a task easier said than done, as there exists no central database of council headquarters, and each of the dozen standardised website templates favoured by Britain's local authorities employs its own crafty method of obscuring the council's physical location.
After a week of maddening data entry, the task was complete, and I began establishing which of the 391 councils actually had cinemas within their jurisdiction, figuring that securing permission from each of these would be the closest thing I could get to a DIY BBFC certificate. Two more weeks of tedious admin followed, during which I grew more familiar with the intricacies of Britain's land map than I ever dreamed possible.
Given the regularity with which we're told that Amazon, Netflix et al. are killing cinema, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the vast majority of the UK's local authorities do preside over at least one venue licensed to screen films. Of course, that won't be much consolation to residents of the 35 that don't, namely Knowsley, Rotherham, Adur, Ashfield, Babergh, Blaby, Bolsover, Broadland, Broxtowe, Castle Point, Cotswold, Daventry, East Northamptonshire, Forest Heath, Gosport, Hart, Lichfield, North Dorset, North East Derbyshire, North Kesteven, North Warwickshire, Oadby and Winston, Rochford, Rather, Runnymede, Rushcliffe, South Norfolk, South Northamptonshire, South Staffordshire, Torridge, West Lancashire, Clackmannanshire, East Dunbartonshire, North Ayrshire and the Isles of Scilly.
Having scratched those councils' names from the list, I penned a letter to the first of the remaining local authorities, Aberdeen, asking for permission to screen a film I made a couple of years ago – never classified by the BBFC – at the city's Belmont Filmhouse. I provided a URL at which to view the film online, and said I could send a DVD if necessary. Not keen to repeat the process 356 times, I then orchestrated a slick Microsoft Word mail merge and sent a full ream of A4 tumbling from the printer.
Another week was soon lost to folding letters, licking envelopes and painstakingly writing out addresses, not to mention purchasing 355 stamps at an eye-watering £191.70. Eagle-eyed readers will notice that adds up to one fewer stamp than letters, and for that I can only express my deepest gratitude to Leeds City Council, the only local authority in the UK with a freepost address.
Finally, my missives were ready to send, and on Tuesday the 23rd of February I dutifully dropped all 356 of them into a local postbox, feeding them through the slot ten at a time so as not to clog the opening.
I held my breath that evening, wondering what kind of response – if any – I'd receive the following day. I'd used second class stamps, which are supposed to take two days to reach their destination, but in my experience are handled in roughly the same manner as first class mail (making them something of a "life hack", if you're into that sort of thing). Still, I suspected it would be a little while before I'd hear anything, so was surprised when my phone rang at 8AM sharp the next morning.
A mildly confused representative from Dacorum Borough Council introduced herself and asked for some more details about the film, before requesting a DVD and promising to investigate the council's policy on uncertificated film screenings. No sooner had I put the phone down than it rang again, and again, and again, for the best part of six months.
My grasp of the process grew scarcely more thorough in that time, as I partook in literally hundreds of phone exchanges, email threads and letter chains, each based on a slightly different understanding of the rules and regulations surrounding my request. Many of the council representatives I spoke to pointed me confidently in the direction of their licensing department, but just as many confessed they'd never dealt with a request like mine before and were uncertain how best to proceed.
One licensing manager from the South West told me he could recall receiving a similar application in the early 1990s, but could not remember its outcome. Another stayed on the phone for a full hour, regaling me with amusing stories from his years in local licensing, including the time a sex shop was raided and he was tasked with reviewing each of the seized tapes. Several told me they would be putting together official council policies on film classification in light of this, their first request.
A very small number of local authorities granted permission straight away, while a similarly small contingent immediately declined my request. The vast majority instead invited further dialogue, or initiated lengthy licensing procedures – which often required as many as 12 individuals to watch the film. Though most councils offered this service for free, several requested payments ranging anywhere from £21 to £450 (I declined these requests).
Many more seemed desperate to wriggle free of their responsibility to classify the film, and set about finding reasons why my request could not be fulfilled. One council worker told me with some confidence that she was unable to help me because "only newsreel footage can be shown without a BBFC certificate", while another said the procedure was open only to "foreign art films". At least two-dozen insisted they couldn't grant permission until a cinema under their jurisdiction committed to showing the film, though as cinemas are unlikely to program movies they may never be able to show, this presented something of a catch-22.
On the 2nd of March I received a rash of responses (including some from individuals who'd already agreed to classify the film), declaring in almost identical wording that it would be "more appropriate" for me to seek a BBFC certificate if I intended to show the film nationwide. Most were careful to phrase this as a suggestion rather than a firm ruling, and all refused to specify the number of councils I might reasonably seek permission from before a BBFC certificate became "more appropriate". After I probed one licensing manager to explain the sudden onslaught of rejections, he let slip the existence of an online message board, frequented by Britain's top licensing bods, on which I'm told I have something of a reputation.
All in all, my correspondence with Britain's local authorities continued for a little under half a year, resulting in exhaustion, a thoroughly cluttered email inbox and the slightest tinge of melancholy when summer rolled around and the letters, emails and phone calls finally dried up. Most of those I spoke with, it should be said, were patient, efficient and generous with their time.
In total, 131 out of 356 councils never responded to my enquiries, or just over a third. Of the 225 that did get back to me, just 59 gave permission for my film to be screened, meaning I gained the ability to hold screenings in less than a fifth of Britain's cinema-containing localities – including less than a tenth of those in London.
Armed with these responses, I approached cinemas in each of these 59 local authorities and proposed screening the film, legally, without a BBFC certificate. A handful of screenings have since taken place, each one imbued with the kind of transcendental closure that can only be found after six months of mind-numbing admin work. But, by any stretch of the imagination, the exercise demonstrated that this is not a practical manner in which to distribute a film in Britain.
Of course, the BBFC's supporters would point out that this merely reaffirms the conclusion reached by the British film industry in 1912: that local authorities are ill equipped to police the nation's cinema-going, and that a centralised body is better suited to the task. That may be the case, but more than a hundred years on from the creation of the BBFC, it's worth asking whether we still want cinema policed at all. Sure, the board may have rolled with the times, but at what point do the times move beyond an organisation whose own official history notes that it was created in part to stop "controversial films playing to working-class audiences"?
Today, perhaps a better solution to the inability of Britain's local authorities to decide which works of art should and should not be made available for public consumption is not to defer that power, but to take it back.