Contains scenes of mild self-indulgence, moderate impertinence and some strong whimsicality
Recently my Grandma celebrated her 100th birthday. Though increasingly commonplace thanks to improved living standards, medical advancement and the somnifacient magic of daytime television, it is still a remarkable demonstration of sheer, bloody-minded staying power.
For well over 36,000 days (imagine!) Grandma has fought off wave after wave of bacterial assault and avoided numerous genetic tripwires, all the while maintaining a stately pace through a world of ever quickening transformation. And until recently she still had her own teeth.
Now, it just so happens I have the pleasure of acquaintance with another venerable centenarian, and one no less admirable. Between 1998 and 2001 I was a Film and Video Examiner at the British Board of Film Classification. A few years later I sat on the Board's Advisory Panel on Children's Viewing.
Fittingly, the Board's centenary has not gone unmarked, with a season of once proscribed films at BFI Southbank (including a talk on silent era censorship), a blog by influential critic Mark Kermode and a BBC radio feature fronted by Laurie Taylor. But what of the job itself?
Let me start by noting one curious feature of any film censor’s professional life: the co-existence of everyday, workplace banality on the one hand, and the soul-juddering spectacle of extremes of human experience on the other; the former often serving as a necessary defence against the latter.
For five hours a day, three and a half days a week, we valiant few sat in darkened rooms and watched, noted, deliberated, discussed and decided; tasks that in themselves soon palled with repetition, as in any work situation.
Yet the strange and ridiculous were never too far away, residing not just in the (occasionally comic) juxtaposition of material paraded before our eyes in any given day, but also in the very work itself. How many jobs positively require inter-office memos to contain words like troilism or coprophagia (whatever you do, don’t Google that last one)? Or involve meetings where hours could be lost in debate about the merits of cutting a few seconds from a work likely only to be seen by a handful of viewers? In my experience the job wasn't nearly as exciting as popularly imagined, but was certainly more challenging than any outsider could ever guess.
But just remember this: in the face of wave after wave of critical assault from across the political spectrum, nimbly avoiding numerous moralistic tripwires while maintaining a stately pace through a world of ever quickening transformation, the BBFC’s longevity is no less remarkable than Grandma's. And it still has teeth.
In humble tribute, here are 20 things I learned from my time at the Board:
1. It takes uncommon stamina to be a plumber/ pool boy/ cable guy/ deliver pizzas in the US.
2. It’s possible to run out of ink when attempting to record all the naughty words in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999). Within the first 15 minutes, in fact.
3. Requiring sentient adults to watch back-to-back episodes of Barney the Dinosaur is a cruel and unusual punishment, almost certainly in breach of Human Rights legislation.
4. Fast forward is your friend; rewind is for wimps.
5. The moral fabric of the Universe was not rent asunder when retailers began stocking copies of The Exorcist (1973)*/ Crash (1997)*/ Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)*/ Ai No Corrida (1976)* etc. (*delete as applicable).
6. Anilingus is not a lewd act performed on, or by, curly haired orphans.
7. Whatever you think of workplace inductions, nothing quite beats the filmed spectacle of live monkey trepanning for unsettling the nerves.
8. Rumours of the existence of the Mull of Kintyre test and the ILOOLI standard (‘Inner Labia Out, Outer Labia In’) are most likely true. Probably.
9. Passing is preferable to cutting; cutting is preferable to banning. Unless the film in question stars Adam Sandler.
10. ‘Angle of Dangle’ indicators were employed in WWII gliders, alerting pilots to the position of the towing aircraft. When classifying porn films, the term ‘Angle of Dangle’ was used to describe the acceptability of different states of male tumescence. So much for the solemnity of war.
11. Trying to determine the Angle of Dangle in gay porn scenes shot underwater is the very definition of an exercise in extreme futility.
12. No filmmaker or distributor ever lost money publicly remonstrating against a BBFC decision.
13. It’s easy to mishear an entirely innocuous reference to Funk and Wagnalls (a US publisher of dictionaries and encyclopaedias) and demand a dialogue cut for a ‘U’ rating.
14. Bollywood is not a byword for cinematic restraint.
15. You’re never too old to labour under the misapprehension you know what’s best for young people.
16. The size of the media effects literature is in inverse proportion to its coherence.
17. The only serious injuries to result from copying Bruce Lee’s use of chainsticks are likely to be self-inflicted.
18. Silicon implants offer no discernible boon to acting ability.
19. An auteur is someone whose work can include extreme images of sex or violence with relative impunity.
20. The Daily Mail doesn’t know the half of it. And if it ever found out, the truth would blow its nanoscopic mind.