CHAPTER TWO – The British Board of Film Classification

Rebecca Hoad

This chapter will be looking at the BBFC to show the dilemmas they have with setting effective guidelines.  The Government has their policies and laws, but there are vague definitions on areas of sex and pornography, so the BBFC must proceed and draw up guidelines they deem as acceptable.  Of course not every individual agrees with these judgements, but someone has to lay down a set of guidelines, so they can be followed.  Problems that crop up in this topic, is how far and how much a censor can let sexual images be displayed on screen.  Also controversy is caused over whether sex is deviant or a natural activity, and is it likely to deprave or corrupt consumers?  These questions are difficult to measure, so the BBFC lists what is and what is not acceptable, according to theme content and age category, which appears on each classification they make.  The basis of their list is debatable and controversial.

The BBFC, ‘is an independent, non-governmental body, which has exercised responsibilities over cinema since 1913 and over video since 1985.’  (BBFC: 25 August 2001 -- see references).  They became established because local authorities were imposing their own restrictions, so censorship guidelines were varying immensely.  The board was bringing back an order of ‘uniformity’  (25 August 2001) and even though local authorities still had the final say, by the 1920s it became practice for local authorities to allow the board to take responsibility.  The BBFC set up their own guidelines for classifications stating they reflect public opinion and running inline within the law.  These include the O.PA, V.R.A and the Children Protection Act.  This is good, but it is not mentioned how the BBFC established public opinion prior to their national survey.  Assumptions may have been made of what the board thought the public wanted.

In 1951 the category ’X’ was introduced, excluding children under sixteen.  This category involved adult entertainment, but still the BBFC felt ‘moral standards of the public needed to be protected especially with nudity and sexual displays.’  (BBFC: 25 August 2001).  However by the 1920s public opinion had changed; public tolerance had increased with more acceptance towards portrayals of sex.  The BBFC revised their guidelines according to this shift of opinion.  This is one of the many changes the BBFC has made into adapting and improving guidelines and classifications, to move with societal trends and opinion.  The BBFC now has a completely revised ratings system, consisting of seven classifications, from ‘universal’ which is advisory only, up to ‘Restricted 18’ that is licensed only for adults.

When the BBFC classify films they take into consideration, expectations of the public, intentions of the filmmaker, and the context of the film.  (BBFC: 25 August 2001).  These are examples of when some works that lie between two categories.  Classifications are sometimes stricter on video, as there is a possibility of under-age viewing, which was recognised by the V.R.A.  Despite all this, the BBFC still suffer criticism from the media and the general public, as it would be difficult to account for everybody’s opinion.  The BBFC strive to combat this problem by giving people the opportunities to voice their opinions, for example when they hold their national surveys.

Some critics’ felt the BBFC’s censorship guidelines had, ‘adopted a more tolerant approach to classification,’  (Conrich 1998) especially with sex scenes.  Yet it was not until 1982, when the new ‘R18’ category was implemented that the board, ‘allowed more realistic images of…sex to reach screens.’  (Conrich 1998).  The president of the BBFC in the press conference in 2000, for the revised guidelines also defends the point of guidelines becoming more relaxed.  ‘We have the toughest guidelines in the world,’ (Smith 2000) within the film industry.  Smith refers to the Board regulating up until eighteen and the requiring of cuts to films that contribute to these tough guidelines.  It has also been suggested the BBFC, unlike most countries withhold important information on films.  One critic states it is, ‘almost impossible to find out what has been censored from films.’  (Matthews 1995).  That is until the annual report is published.  But as mentioned earlier England is one of the few countries to have the authority to cut and censor films, so most other countries do not even have this information to broadcast.  At the present day the BBFC have their own website dedicated to the responsibilities and cuts made by the board.  See figure 1 below, accessed from the BBFC web site.  This table displays there is a minimal number of cuts made by the board compared to the total number of films classified.


Categorised statistics for Film works processed in 2001



Number cut

% cut in category


























Figure 1

In 2000 the board undertook the, ‘most comprehensive public research and consultation exercise that any regulator had engaged in.’  (Duval 2000).  This consisted of a national survey, including 3000 people from all-demographic groups, citizen juries and public presentations, held in February and March 2000.  The public was asked to study the old guidelines, then was asked to voice their opinions; on whether they agreed with these guidelines or it they wanted more or less censorship. The feedback produced the revised guidelines for the BBFC 2000.  The Board understands there is always going to be a shift of opinions, so the board will continue to work to these changes. 

The most significant finding recorded was, ‘unless material is illegal or harmful, adults should be able to make their own viewing choices.’  (BBFC 2000).  46% of the national sample agreed with this latter statement.  Sex had the highest proportion in judging that the guidelines for the portrayal of sex to be too strict, with 12% votes.  The other categories included violence, drug abuse and bad language.  ‘Public opinion have the decisive say,’  (BBFC 2000) so the board revised the guidelines within this area.  Guidelines were drawn up for what was to be permitted at each age category.  The major differences were at the ‘15’ and above categories.  The public felt that at the ‘15’ category, guidelines could become more relaxed.  The board acknowledged this and suggested, as long as the context of the sex scenes is in, ‘a loving and developing relationship,’ it would be suitable for this category.  (BBFC 2000). This still is very moralistic in defining the context of the relationship.

 The differences between ’18,’ (formally known as the ‘X’ category), and ‘R18’ categories, is sex scenes ‘which do not feature explicit images of real sex are generally passed eighteen.’  (BBFC 2000).  So ‘18’s contain ‘simulated’ sex mostly.  This is a very debatable category here.  Real sex means actual sexual intercourse, but what is masturbation categorised as?  ‘R18’ videos ‘may be supplied only in licensed sex shops,’  (BBFC 2000) which in the UK total to ninety shops.  In this category sex scenes are usually more graphic, but this category must only portray consenting sex between adults, like the ‘18’ category.  The board also will not accept, ‘activities which is degrading or dehumanising, …the infliction of pain…[and] material that is likely to encourage an interest in abusive sexual activity’.  (BBFC 2000).  The problematic issues within these is measuring to what extent is degrading, and determining when material reaches a point of causing unsociable attitudes on consumers.  This latter statement is very difficult to address especially because people will react differently when consuming this material and people’s behaviors cannot be compared, as they are so diverse.  The BBFC have to draw this line, and keep material within this boundary, yet even their guidelines do not distinguish what is and what is not pornographic.

 The public was still concerned with the portrayal of violence and harm, but the BBFC have strict policies on rape and sexual violence.  ‘Where the portrayal eroticises or endorses sexual assault the Board is likely to require cuts at any classification level.’  (BBFC 2000).  Another main concern was if this material would have potential harm towards children.  Little evidence was found, but it was believed still to be harmful.  This is another reason why guidelines may be stricter on video than film.  Again there is no real evidence, yet the board have still decided to censor.

During the press conference held for the revised guidelines in 2000, an issue was broached, that has caused dispute and received a lot of media attention in the past.  The argument that was covered was that the liberalising of the guidelines for sex could be contributing to the high rates of teenage pregnancies in the U.K.  In liberalising sex at lower classifications it is argued that this material will influence consumers.  The BBFC stated, ‘we have the strictest censorship, by far – possibly in the world…and we have the highest level of teenage pregnancies in the U.K.  I think we have to be very careful before we assume a relationship between the two.’  (Smith 2000).  However, maybe by being over cautious and strict, this could be contributing to a sense of shame, and therefore a silence on the topic, as it is being suggested it is a sensitive issue.  This could contribute to the effects of pregnancy rates in the U.K.  Regulating portrayals of sex here has proven it effects outside issues, and not just age classifications within the film and video industry. 

By studying the findings from the national sample they could in fact be biased.  The results from the BBFC annual report, displays a distinctive large proportion of the respondents were male.  The males responded mostly by the Internet with 89%, and by postal votes with 60%.  This leaves a small percentage for females.  Also a large proportion apparent in the report were young people under thirty-five years. These statistics displayed 73% replied via the Internet, and 38% by post.  Therefore, females and older people may be under-represented and this could affect the data.  Where females did comment they, ‘were consistently more likely than men to condemn guidelines as not strict enough.’  (BBFC 2000).  Though their reasons were not highlighted.  When the BBFC claim the nation want, ‘to be more flexible and open at 18 level,’  (Duval 2000) this may not be representing the females views as an example. In Chapter Four, an analysis is made on the primary research to attain male and female attitudes on similar topics to those made by the BBFC in this national survey.

 It is difficult to determine whether females feel this strongly on the guidelines about sex, when there is not a representative sample of opinions for them.  It could be argued the rules are being liberalised because young people made the majority of the votes, so this is only what they want.  Younger people today are being made more exposed to these areas, because of the media as one example, so they may find portrayals of sex more acceptable or more pleasurable, or interesting.  They are not so worried about the social effects.  This age group took up the majority of the Internet sample, mainly because they have more access and are familiar with this new technology.  However the traditional postal survey was also used, which favored the younger generation less.  All these results were merged together in the findings.

There are going to be flaws in conducting all surveys, and some have been acknowledged here.  The BBFC are obviously trying to respond to any changes in attitudes, but they are facing difficulties, since these might be frequent.  The BBFC rely on the public's honest opinions and will be continuing to strive to work in line with these views, but they also have legal obligations and cannot just do what the public want immediately.  The public cannot be relied upon to have an accurate view of long-term effects or wider social implications.  This industry is innovative, and as a result the BBFC are always going to look as if they are out of touch and behind the times. 

Chapter 3