Censorship and the BBFC: A Young Person's View of the UK's Censors

By Annie Mae Rorke

spiderman-mockingbird-dont-sing-poster.jpgPosters for Spiderman, 2002 and Mockingbird Don't Sing, 2001

At the Cambridge Film Festival this year there was an event to debate the current censorship guidelines. Students from local schools came to take part, from a broad age range of 11 to 17. John Dyer from the British Board of Film Censorship explained the key issues – theme, language, nudity, sex, violence, imitable techniques, horror and drugs – that the examiners take into consideration when viewing films for classification.

This country has some of the strictest controls based on the idea of protecting young/innocent people from inappropriate material, and has had them since 1912 when TP O’Connor established his “43 grounds for deletion” including “men and women in bed together”, “references to controversial politics”, “scenes laid in disorderly houses” and “the drug habit”.

As a follow-up to the debate I interviewed several children and spoke to a class of primary school children in Year 6 (aged between 10 and 11) to take the ideas from the Cambridge event further and to get a broader picture of how censorship is seen.

However, it is difficult to put an age and a level of innocence together as it varies so much as children and young adults are affected so much by the environment they are brought up in. Much of the way films are reacted to will be done to whether parents care if their children view films before the certified age.

Something that keeps coming up during censorship issue is ‘How do you -- and why should you -- stop 16 and 17 year olds from watching ‘18’’s?’ When you reach 16, 17 at least, you will have left school and, in most cases, are classed as a young adult. You can join the Armed Forces and be sent onto the frontline at 16; you are legally allowed to drive a tractor or a moped; you can get married with your parents' consent; and 16 is the legal age for people to be having sex. Does it not seem a little odd then, when it’s legal for you to do so many things involving risk, that you’re still restricted from viewing films which contain explicit sexual images, strong violence/language or imitable techniques?

A lot of children and young adults feel that the current classification laws are making pointless restrictions. Many of them had seen 12s, 15s, even 18s that didn’t bother them. By protecting the most innocent and sensitive people in society with strict censorship rules, we could, at the same time, be restricting others from seeing material that they may even benefit from. At the debate one young man complained that, at college, they were studying an ‘18’ rated film but, as he was 17, he was not allowed to buy the dvd to study at home. The current regulations of classification clearly contain inconsistencies.

Both Spiderman and Mockingbird Don’t Sing are classified certificate ‘12’ films. Spiderman was intended to be a ‘PG’ or ‘U’, however, due to [clearly fictional] scenes of violence, it was made a ‘12A’ – no one under the age of 12 is permitted to view this movie without the accompaniment of an adult. Spiderman was designed as entertainment for children but this immediately changed when the BBFC made it a 12A. Other than a few scenes of gentle violence and mild horror, the film seems suitable for children of most ages, provided very young children aren’t exposed to any scenes which might frighten them. However, a PG should ensure that, as PG is recommended as not suitable for children under the age of 8. In Spiderman, the violence or horror is presented in a relatively innocent context. The horror factor is generally quite clearly fictional, and a PG certificate might be a more appropriate certificate for the film.

Mockingbird Don’t Sing (also 12A) on the other hand, contains a few horrific scenes. The theme is about a girl who is imprisoned in her own home, until age 12, by her parents. She is brutalised and cannot properly communicate, living her life tied to a chair in a dark room and spoon-fed. She is sick into the food and she is beaten regularly. Some scenes in this film are quite horrific and yet it has the same certificate as Spiderman. Mockingbird Don’t Sing is based on a true story, and therefore potentially more shocking to viewers. With such inconsistency it’s hard to know what to expect from a film despite its certificate, which makes it hard for parents/guardians to decide what they let children watch.

It was often noted at the debate that the certificates are ‘just guidelines’. I don’t think that censorship should be abolished altogether, but many people said they believed that certificates are too high on too many films. Perhaps the system could stay in place with a more relaxed approach to them: that parents/guardians don’t allow their children to view films certificated higher than the child’s age, but leave the decision to the individuals/families.


Annie Mae Rorke is a year ten pupil studying in the South West at Cape Cornwall School who hopes to study English literature and plans to become a journalist.

To find out more on the work of the BBFC please see http://www.bbfc.co.uk