British Board of Film Classification

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The 1990s

Despite the statutory regulation of video since 1984, public concern about the influence of videos continued and there were periodic calls for stricter standards, most notably following the Jamie Bulger case. The trial judge linked this murder of a two year old by two ten year old boys to the viewing of violent videos, with the media singling out the horror video Child's Play 3 (1991).

Woody Harrelson as Mickey Knox and Juliette Lewis as Mallory Knox, Natural Born Killers 1994

Though subsequent enquiries refuted this connection, public opinion rallied behind calls for stricter regulation. Parliament supported an amendment to the Video Recordings Act, contained in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which required the BBFC to consider specific issues and the potential for harm when making video age ratings decisions. The BBFC has always been stricter on video and subsequently DVD than on film. This is partly because younger people are more likely to gain access to videos and DVDs with restrictive ratings than such films at the cinema (where admission can be screened).  But it is also because, on video and DVD, scenes can be taken out of context, and particular moments can be replayed.

At the time that the new legislation was being discussed and implemented, the BBFC was being asked to look at a number of extremely violent and drug-filled films, which further fuelled the debate about media effects.  While the BBFC waited to see what form the Criminal Justice Act would take, decisions on the video releases of Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Bad Lieutenant, Dirty Weekend and Menace II Society were held up, although all five films were eventually rated, in some cases with additional cuts, reflecting the requirements of the new tests.

Perhaps the film that provoked the most controversy at the time was Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, the video release of which was held up by its own distributor (despite having been rated by the BBFC) until 2001.

Other controversies

In 1995 further controversy erupted over Larry Clark's film Kids, which some critics described as 'child pornography'.  The BBFC considered the film very carefully and, after seeking proof of age for all the actors concerned (the main performers were in fact all over 18), minor cuts were made to two scenes featuring younger performers in situtations that might be considered 'indecent' under the Protection of Children Act. 

DVD cover of Crash 1996

Not long after the release of Kids in 1996, there were calls for the banning of David Cronenberg's film, Crash. Once again, the BBFC considered the film very carefully - including screening the film for lawyers and for a group of disabled people - but found that there was no case to answer.  The film was rated 18 uncut.

In 1997 BBFC President Lord Harewood stepped down after 12 years in the job.  His replacement Andreas Whittam Smith announced his intention to steer the BBFC towards a greater 'openness and accountability'.  This included the publication of the BBFC's first set of classification Guidelines in 1998, following a series of public 'roadshows' in which public views were canvassed and the launching of a BBFC website.

Digital Media

The 1990s also saw rapid developments in the world of video games, which seemed to become more realistic and sophisticated with each passing year.  Although the majority of video games were automatically exempt from the age ratings process, those that featured realistic violence against humans or animals, or human sexual activity, did fall under the scope of the Video Recordings Act.  From 1994 the BBFC started to receive some of the stronger video games for formal age rating, which necessitated a different way of examining (because it was impossible to see everything that might happen in a game).  In 1997, for the first time, the BBFC refused a certificate to the game Carmageddon, on the grounds that it encouraged anti-social behaviour.  This decision was later overturned on appeal, subject to the condition that the game must be fitted with a parental lock to prevent it being accessed by children.

1999 – Robin Duval

Robin Duval became the Director of the BBFC on the retirement of James Ferman, who had held the position since 1975.

Standards continued to evolve, with due consideration of recent relevant research, shifts in public attitudes, and the developments in comparable media such as terrestrial, satellite and cable television and the internet. For example, The Exorcist (1973) was given an X rating for cinema release in 1974. The video was available in the early 1980s before the Video Recordings Act made video age ratings statutory, but in the wake of concerns about the disturbing effect that the film apparently had on a small minority of impressionable young people, it was decided that a video rating would not be possible under the terms of the 1984 Act. 

Priest next to the bed of young girl, The Exorcist 1973

In 1999, the BBFC re-examined the issues, in particular the perceived harm that under-age viewing might cause. It was decided that in view of changing public attitudes and the increased media sophistication of young viewers, the video was unlikely to prove harmful to the majority of the likely audience and it was accordingly rated 18 uncut.

1999 also saw the removal of the BBFC's controversial policy on Far Eastern weaponry (most notably chainsticks), originally implemented by Stephen Murphy in the early 1970s but continued zealously by James Ferman.  Whilst the refusal to allow sight of exotic - and potentially easily manufactured - weaponry had been a reaction to real concerns back in the 1970s (when Kung Fu films and martial arts shops had been at their height of their popularity), a total prohibition on the sight of such weapons was no longer considered necessary or particularly constructive.  Such weapons were less prevalent than they had been in the past (largely as a result of changing fashions) and information on them was in any case widely available in books, magazines and on the internet.  Furthermore, the skill required to handle chainsticks effectively was likely to require more time and practice than most potential offenders would be prepared to invest (it was much easier to use a knife), especially for such a 'dated' and unfashionable weapon.  Emphasis was accordingly changed from removing all evidence of unusual weapons towards a policy of being concerned about the glamorisation of any weapons (but especially knives), particularly at the junior age ratings.  This paved the way for the eagerly anticipated (by his fans) release of the uncut versions of all Bruce Lee's films in the 2000s.

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